The first story by the Houston Chronicle on sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches and entities is horrific to read. The information that the authors compiled into a database was gathered primarily from public sources. The power of having all of that data from the last twenty years in one place is that the breadth and depth of the problem becomes undeniable.
The stories are tragic and the victims who have suffered at the hands of church leaders and volunteers deserve our sympathy, prayers and support. Seven-hundred victims and over two-hundred victimizers were discovered in the initial research of the reporters. Those numbers will undoubtedly swell since the article contains within it an invitation to provide confidential information about “sexual misconduct in Southern Baptist churches.”
Responses to the story have been appropriate, as far as they go. Al Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, addressed the issues of minister ordination and associational accountability in his assessment. Denny Burk, Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, is “Grieved Beyond Words and Resolved.” This article from the Chronicle, and the ones to follow, will no doubt inform the work of the SBC’s “Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group,” which was appointed by President JD Greear last year.
As painful as it is to read, I am grateful that Southern Baptists are acknowledging the serious problem of sexual abuse within their ranks. I am sorry that they were in many respects forced into admitting it by the Houston Chronicle. However, given the way that many Southern Baptist churches operate, we shouldn’t be surprised at the revelation that abuse takes place within them.
A More Serious Problem
An honest examination of Southern Baptist churches reveals a much deeper problem than even sexual abuse. The real problem is spiritual before it is moral. That is, Southern Baptists have a problem with God. They trumpet their affirmation of the inerrancy of Scripture and unhesitatingly call it the written Word of God. Yet, at the same time the overwhelming majority of their churches blatantly defy the God of that Word.
Yes, I said, “blatantly defy.” The kind defiance displayed by the teenager who smiles politely and says, “Yes sir; yes ma’am,” to his parents when they tell him to be home at 10PM when he has no intention of doing so. He drags in at 1AM or 3AM, depending on how he feels. The next day he will again let “Yes sir” and “Yes ma’am” roll off his tongue with a pleasant smile on his face, knowing full well that he will comply with their instructions only so far as they fit in with his own ideas of what is best.
That is the kind of defiance of God that is found in most of the key positions in the SBC today. By “key positions” I do not mean denominational posts (though the same could be said of many who fill them, as well), but local church pastorates. How else can we explain the loud trumpeting of Southern Baptists’ commitment to inerrancy while at the same time blatantly refusing to do what the inerrant Scriptures say to do?
Regenerate Church Membership
By way of illustration let me limit myself to two, interconnected teachings of Scripture which, when neglected, provide a breeding ground for church members to be abused in many ways. First is the biblical directive that churches should have only Christians as members (Acts 2:41; the use of “brothers” to address churches; etc.). Baptists have long contended for this principle of regenerate church membership. In order to be a genuine Baptist, you must be a genuine Christian. Baptism can only be properly administered to those who have a credible profession of faith in Christ. Only baptized believers are to be members in a Baptist church.
Yet, by even the most basic of metrics—the assumption that real Christians attend church regularly—it seems evident that most SBC churches are largely comprised of unregenerate members. That is, most SBC churches have nearly three-times as many members as they do people (including visitors and small children, at least some of whom, presumably are not members) in attendance on any given Sunday. As the late evangelist Vance Havner used to say, “We Southern Baptists may be many, but we ain’t much.”
Let me break this down for you. If you are in a church that has 600 members but only averages 200-300 in attendance (which would be an average-to-above-average percentage for most Southern Baptist churches), apart from some extenuating circumstance, you are in an unhealthy church. Such a church denies not only its Baptist identity but also the very inerrant Word of God on which that identity is based.
The second teaching is what we commonly call “church discipline.” The inerrant Word of God says (even in red letters!) that if a brother sins, then his fellow church members are to try to help him to repent. If he does not, then his sin is to be told to the whole church so that they might speak to him collectively. If he refuses to repent even when the whole church calls him to it, then he is to be removed from the membership of the church (Matthew 18:5-18). Paul makes the same argument for church purity in 1 Corinthians 5, though he tells us to go directly to the step of excommunication in the case of scandalous, public sin.
Those two passages (and others that teach the same thing) are inerrant, aren’t they? Then why do so many inerrantists disobey them? Are they theoretical inerrantists? Inerrantists with their fingers crossed? Cowardly inerrantists? Man-fearing inerrantists? Maybe there is some other explanation, but one thing is certain—Baptist churches that do not practice regenerate church membership and church discipline are blatantly defying the God who has given us the inerrant Word! And honestly, all of their boasts about believing in biblical authority are empty bluster. Furthermore, their neglect is rebellion against God and spiritual abuse of those members who remain on their rolls but receive no practical love and care.
I have read more stories by abuse victims that have come out in the aftermath of the Chronicle’s article. In my 40 years of pastoring, I have also dealt with more cases of sexual abuse & immorality than I ever wanted to know about. I have counseled, pled with, rebuked, warned and reported other pastors and congregations who were determined to sweep abuse cases under the rug. Churches must take practical steps to protect their members from abusers and sexual predators. They must be extra-vigilant when it comes to the most vulnerable among them.
As I have reflected on the recent stories and reports, my heart, like that of everyone who has any compassion at all, has grieved at what I have read. But I have also been provoked to think of the even greater spiritual abuse that is taking place in Southern Baptist churches week-by-week. This abuse has been going on not merely for the last 20 years but at least for the last 70 years and, as I’ve already said, is the breeding ground for all other kinds of abuse—including sexual abuse.
Here is the reality: If Southern Baptist pastors don’t care enough about their members’ souls to watch over them, how can we expect them to care about their sexual safety? If a pastor is satisfied to neglect clear biblical commands and allow members to go to hell unhindered, it should not surprise us if he looks the other way when they suffer hell on earth at the hands of abusers.
I wonder what would happen if we could somehow get the pictures and testimonies of the millions of Southern Baptists who have gone to hell with their names on a church membership roll. Would there be the same kind of visceral response that we are seeing with the revelation of tragic abuse cases within SBC churches? Would the SBC President appoint a special task force to look into what can be done to encourage churches to quit defying God so blatantly? Would there be any sustained lament, brokenness and repentance over the spiritual abuse that such lax shepherding promotes? Would there be calls for the removal of churches who practice such spiritual abuse—the kind that not only wounds emotionally but damns eternally?
Perhaps. But, sadly, I have my doubts. Why? Because anyone who really believes the inerrant Word of God and is not a mere hearer of it (no matter how loudly he may boast about it) doesn’t need pictures and testimonies of the damned to pursue obedience to the Lord. Such a person already takes God at His Word and, out of devotion to Jesus Christ who has redeemed him, is willing to believe what it teaches and follow where it leads. As for others? Well, as Jesus put it in Luke 16:19-31, if they will not believe the written Scriptures, then neither will they be convinced even if someone comes back from hell to testify to them.
In other words, if you refuse to submit to God’s written Word when it clearly speaks, then you will not be convinced to do what is right even by the testimony of a resident of hell.
Yes, churches need to take action to protect members from sexual abuse. However, if a church will not commit to guarding its membership and lovingly practicing discipline the Bible commands, then whatever steps it takes and however loudly it laments are little more than moral signaling and posturing. What we need is deep repentance and thorough reformation that puts off spiritual apathy and returns to a humble, honest submission to Jesus Christ as Lord.