Those who oppose the Lord will be broken. The Most High will thunder from heaven; the Lord will judge the ends of the earth –1 Sam. 2:9-10
I am unashamedly Southern Baptist. It was in a Southern Baptist church that I was raised and became a pastor. I attended two Southern Baptist seminaries and have been an employee of one for the last seven years. I participate annually in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and this year will serve as vice-chair on the resolution committee. My closest friends are either employed by a Southern Baptist entity or pastors in a Southern Baptist church. This is my family.
The past twelve months have been a heart-rending season, with a handful of dismissals surrounding sexual misconduct and one for the mishandling of cases of sexual misconduct. Now another shoe has dropped: The Houston Chronicle published three articles—“Abuse of Faith,” “Offend, Then Repeat,” and “Preying on Teens”—on more than 700 abuse cases that occurred in Southern Baptist churches over the past 20 years. The banner graphic is a chilling mosaic of mug shots of Southern Baptists who were convicted or pleaded guilty to sexual abuse, faces that represent only a portion of the 220 known perpetrators since 1998.
It is devastating to realize that many of these accounts have been known for years. These survivors and many others have attempted to tell their stories, but their voices have been silenced. At times, their pleas have been ignored. In other instances, the accusations have been handled “in house” to protect the reputations of churches and leaders. Some survivors were even encouraged to “forgive and forget” those who victimized them. These responses are unacceptable, reflect complicity in the abuse of the vulnerable, and provide a place for predators.
As Southern Baptists, we have to come to face reality: These reports show a systemic problem spanning decades of neglect in handling abuse cases in our local churches and through our cooperative structures. While some of these same issues may be present in churches outside the SBC, this is the moment the Lord has appointed for us to deal with them in our cooperative family of churches. The SBC faces a moral crisis as big (if not bigger) than the theological crisis we faced over the “battle for the Bible” in the 1970s–1980s. The theological crisis called us to protect the faith; this challenge calls us to live it.
I believe there are five key systemic reasons for our negligence that allowed for the disturbing scope of the abuses outlined in the Chronicle's report. First, we have lived in denial of the problem. Wittingly or unwittingly, for some the denial served to protect our reputation as a body of churches with a storied theological resurgence. Others lived in denial because they could not envision a way to stop it, and the difficulty of facing the reality was too great. Still others insist there’s not a major problem because the percentage of offenders is a relatively small number of Southern Baptist members. Yet this issue is not primarily about math, but about neglect in how cases were handled. Regardless of the reasons, denial creates a safe haven for abusers and silenced for decades what could have been a loud and unified voice of churches defending the weak and vulnerable.
Second, we’ve failed to understand the power dynamics of abuse and have often viewed these instances through the lens of sexual sin. This led to abusers being superficially reprimanded and penalized, while the survivors were simultaneously overlooked and/or treated as complicit. Such a reductionist understanding gave rise to unrighteous sympathy that sought to protect the future of the perpetrator at the expense of justice and protection of the victim. Then, when survivors would not let the injustice go, they were characterized as troublemakers—unwilling to “forgive” their abusers.
A deficient doctrine of humanity is also to blame. We have neither appreciated nor affirmed the profound, lasting psychosomatic pain and damage caused by abuse. The human person is not a bifurcated soul and body, but an integrated whole. Sexual abuse violates not merely the body; it violates a whole person. Theological distortions failed to generate both the profound empathy required to fittingly address abuse accusations and the righteous grief over the trauma-filled future that survivors face.
We’ve also acted arrogantly in thinking these situations can be effectively handled solely within the context of a local church. This protocol seems to have protected the reputations of the churches and their leaders, while effectively permitting the cycle of abuse to continue. This fails to give abuse survivors what they deserve: protection and an advocate for justice. We need to involve the proper professional authorities in every step of the process—reporting to the police, counseling the victims, training church staff to recognize instances of abuse, etc.
Finally, we’ve hidden behind false fronts and convenient excuses. Appeals to the autonomy of Southern Baptist churches have derailed various proposals, like creating a Southern Baptist offenders' registry. While our polity may render some proposals nearly impossible to carry out, the appeal to autonomy doesn't justify inaction. Rather, we must use our autonomy to covenant with one another, “to stir one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:31). Our family of churches must find a meaningful and culture-shaping mechanism that leads us to commit to best practices as we strive to prevent abuse in our churches and entities.
Southern Baptists are proud of our “Conservative Resurgence” of 1979, when we reaffirmed that we believed the words of Scripture were the Words of God and should be the authoritative basis for truth. But now Southern Baptists require a “Moral Resurgence” to drive us to apply the teachings of the inerrant Word of God regarding who we are as human beings. This resurgence must include the exorcism of the idols of self and the social demons that have swirled around us, including the “pure evil” of misogyny, to borrow the characterization of our convention president. The test of our faithfulness before us right now is whether we will live by these Words of the Just One, who is near to the broken-hearted (Ps. 34:18), who instructs us to act with justice and righteousness and to deliver those who have been attacked (Jer. 22:3), and who warns against causing little ones to forsake the faith (Matt. 18:6).
Our battle is for the soul of our family. The choices we make as the SBC in the days and weeks to come will either lead our convention of churches into the light of repentance or cause us to cry “Ichabod” in the wake of continued destruction.
Keith Whitfield is associate professor of theology, dean of graduate studies, and vice president for academic administration at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.