Back to Ruminations

My Two Cents Worth on the SBC Sex-Abuse “Crisis”

June 2, 2022

The Southern Baptist Convention is a lot like the United Way. But its “Funded Partners [recipients]” are the state conventions, the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, and six seminaries, instead of 4-H, the YMCA, Goodwill, and Special Olympics. The 40,000+ independently-incorporated SBC churches, whether mega, midi, or mini, are the “Corporate Partners [donors],” counterparts to those that make up the United Way of Greater Nashville, which include such hefty donors as HCA Healthcare, Dollar General, and Genesco, as well as hundreds of smaller givers, such as the Refuge Center for Counseling and Electrical Workers Local 429. 

When I served on the SBC Executive Committee staff in the early 1990s, my boss made me the United Way guy for the building (which housed several denominational agencies), so I distributed the literature and flyers and held a promo/Q&A gathering. A big sticking point was Planned Parenthood’s status as a “Funded Partner.” When we objected, the campaign office assured us we could designate toward or away from certain entities, but it struck me that undesignated dollars were fungible, and it was no problem for them to shift money to make sure the abortionists got their good slice of the pie.

A decade later, I found myself planting a church in Evanston, Illinois, and doing student ministry on the Northwestern University campus. That city’s United Way did us grumpy Southern Baptists one better. They threw the Boy Scouts out of their family of beneficiaries since, in those days, BSA drew the line against homosexual scoutmasters. So, at different levels, Nashvillians and Evanstonians found fault with some of the folks getting their United Way funding.

Southern Baptists have done the same sort of thing, most notably during the Conservative Resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s. Dismayed and angered that some of the contributions to the Cooperative Program (the SBC ‘s “United Way”) were passed along to, for example, seminary professors who said the Bible had errors; to ethics agency staff who applauded Roe v. Wade; and to a mission board supporting liberal theologians in Europe. Denominational populists rose up and “threw the rascals out.” But they did more than this: They turned on some “Corporate Partners.” With a bylaw-change, the Convention said to a couple of North Carolina churches, “We no longer recognize formal association with you.” These two congregations had affirmed homosexuality—one through licensing a gay man to preach, the other by performing a gay marriage.

So far as I know, the United Way does no such thing. Perhaps, if a local KKK or anarchist group sent them a check, they would return the money with public expressions of indignation. Maybe so. Maybe not. Either way, the problem would be with what the group affirmed. This was the SBC approach to those NC churches, one perfectly consistent with welcoming gays to attend our services.

But what if the United Way were pressed to investigate rumors or charges of financial mismanagement, misleading advertising, or relational toxicity in a certain office on somebody’s third floor before allowing Nashville-based Genesco or Aladdin Industries to join the ranks of “Corporate Partners”? I’m not asking what UWGN would do if Genesco or Aladdin affirmed or celebrated a commitment to financial mismanagement, misleading advertising, or relational toxicity. Rather, the question is what UWGN would do if these problems cropped up unwelcomed in the corporations. Would the non-profit United Way ceremoniously strike them from the roster of acceptable donors? I think not. For one thing, where would you find a business provably without fault from the get-go? For another, how in the world would UWGN deploy an investigative force sufficient to the task? And for yet another, is it really their prerogative to monitor the top-to-bottom rectitude of their donors, when these entities are not their subordinates and are already answerable to a panoply of boards, shareholders, auditors, federal, state, and municipal regulators, prosecutors, and cops? 

The proximate cause of my writing this piece is the furor over sexual-abuse-and-cover-up incidents in SBC churches. The issue gained prominence through a series of articles by the Houston Chronicle (published ecstatically, not brokenheartedly), a big gotcha to shame those pious Baptists. Photos of malefactors were splayed out across the pages in multiple issues, and it’s my conviction that some of those pictured should probably be shot. But when all was said and done, the numbers were underwhelming. By my calculation, there were 28,000,000 Southern Baptists in the churches over the 20-year period they surveyed, a fair count since it extended beyond church employees to volunteers (which could include any member taking a service role, whether choir membership, VBS handicraft supervision, or van driving). According to the report, 220 were convicted of abuse crimes, amounting to one certified felon for every 125,000 of us. Yes, there were surely others not reported or not deemed worthy of litigation, but when you start with an incidence .00000786, it’s hard to say there’s a crisis. (Multiply the confirmed abusers by a factor of ten—to allow for those not caught and prosecuted—and you still have .0000786 of the denomination; or by 100, leaving you with .000786.)

But it doesn’t take much to gin up hysteria in this connection. The anecdotes are horrifying, and the tenderness of Christians is unmistakable. But we’ve let crusaders (some innocent and well meaning; some deceptive; some manipulative) drive us to unwarranted and imprudent measures. In our stampede to show “the watching world” our decency and to assure ourselves and others of goodness, we’re trampling, indeed stomping, on folks who might raise some hold-on-a-minute questions. 

 I’ve just observed an Executive Committee Zoom meeting, where the lawyer advised (indeed, insisted upon, lest the members show themselves to be daft or morally challenged) full-speed-ahead activation of a denominational hotline with accompanying commitment to corroborate abuse claims and then tie them to a church’s dereliction. (Never mind that this would entail enormous liability if we got things wrong, whether exonerating an abuser or defaming a non-abuser.) It’s not clear that the FBI could handle this job, much less a coterie of denominational staffers, committee volunteers, and consultants. (And the attorney assured the committee that they were just getting started, raising the possibility that they might want to strip a former EC staffer of his pension.) 

You know who could handle it, albeit with strong urging from our “United Way” office? The local church (the Matthew 18:15-20 folks) and local authorities. Anything other and more than this slides into reprehensible folly. 

The other day, I was reading an article by Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies. This paragraph from his “Mickey Mouse: Social Justice Warrior” struck me as pertinent to our denominational self-assessment:

Twenty years ago, the Stanford University intellectual René Girard, who was a world-renowned expert on the scapegoat mechanism, observed that the West’s concern for victims, a fruit of its Christian culture, was changing into something monstrous. He prophetically warned: “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition.”

As we’ve seen in this inquisitional age, the psycho-social cancellation drama is playing in theaters across the land, with hair-on-fire hysterics bringing down statues of Washington and Lincoln and with the spectacle of churches self-destructing in an effort to appease the member crying, “I don’t care if it has been a year, if just one member dies from COVID because we opened early, we’d be an eternal stain on the Kingdom.” In this time of “rhetorical overkill” leading to “totalitarian command,” we surrender our good sense to censorious purveyors of horror.

But if you want to man the controls of a perpetual conveyor belt bringing a string of appalling grievances to the “denominational headquarters” for publication and adjudication, why stop at matters of sexual abuse? The Bible doesn’t. Let’s open the hotline for forty million people to go straight to the “top” with complaints over lack of church discipline for members fornicationally co-habiting without benefit of marriage; pastors performing weddings for those not biblically suited for marriage, whether unequally-yoked or engaged in “serial monogamy” on the model of channel surfing till you get the program you want; accommodating a Sunday School teacher pushing universalism on a high school class; a pastor who, in the absence of due preparation, preaches other people’s sermons without attribution; financial negligence, allowing designated giving to go where not designated; failure to vet a new staffer who has a dark or checkered past; neglect to warn another church of grave misdeeds by a former staffer, now under consideration for employment; blithe indifference to a church-bylaws violation in a power grab; acceptance of the unscriptural baptisms of those joining from other denominations; unchecked slander or cruel humiliation within the body; congenial entanglements with groups hostile to the clear teaching of scripture.  And so on.

Former SBC president, Herschel Hobbs (lead author of the 1963 BF&M), once told of a man heard whistling nervously as he walked through the graveyard at night. An observer asked him, “What? Are you afraid the dead will hurt you?” To which he answered, “No, I’m afraid they’ll make me hurt myself.” Similarly, the church shouldn’t be afraid to deal with (those/us) sinners; but we need to take care that we don’t let them/us make us lose our sense of balance and stymie our ability to reason.