There is no question that the Southern Baptist Convention is facing a moment of reckoning. The SBC is a free association of churches, and trust is its connective tissue. The release of the Guidepost Solutions report on the Executive Committee’s response to Sexual Abuse Allegations has revealed horrifying accounts of broken trust. It is clear that our local churches and some of our SBC leaders have at times failed by mishandling or even covering up abuse allegations involving their friends.
My heart breaks for those who have suffered abuse, which was made all the worse because it came from the hands of those they should be able to trust the most: their own pastors and convention leaders. I have sought to weep with those who weep, as we are instructed to do in Romans 12:15. I pray that justice — true justice — will be done in each and every instance of abuse accounted for in the report and for any that have gone unreported. There is no question that trust has been broken.
The question, then, is how should the SBC respond?
Southern Baptist leaders, the entities they serve, and the trustees who oversee them are supposed to function as stewards. They are entrusted with significant resources by local churches and, ultimately, by God.
More importantly, they are stewards of the gospel and of the spiritual well-being of those they represent. Trust and transparency are essential qualities of a steward. If there is no trust, then how can we expect resources, both material and spiritual, to be entrusted? And if there is no transparency — no thorough accounting given — how can there be trust?
Events in recent years have called into question the trustworthiness and transparency of many SBC entities. As a result, a growing number of Southern Baptist churches and pastors are finding it harder and harder to trust those in positions of leadership. To restore trust and transparency, we will need to prayerfully seek both spiritual renewal and structural renovation.
We must begin by admitting that many of the issues within the SBC are ultimately traceable to a lack of the fear of God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding” (Psalm 111:10). People who genuinely fear God will hold themselves and their leaders to the highest standards of ethical behavior and will not cover up for abuse, plagiarism, or quid pro quo behavior.
If we have churches with pastors who are not meaningfully accountable to their own congregation, and we do not expect our members to grow in holiness, how can we expect our convention leaders to change their behavior when they take the reins of convention leadership?
The repentance that we need must begin in the pulpits and the pews of our local churches. The biblical practices of regenerate church membership, diligent discipleship, and when necessary, corrective church discipline are the bedrock on which a culture of accountability must be built that would then flow down through the SBC and its entities as a necessary consequence.
Indeed, as I wrote back in 2019 when the Houston Chronicle first broke its story regarding abuse cases within the SBC, the presence of sexual abuse in our churches is a disturbing symptom of the underlying condition: our lackadaisical attitude toward God’s blueprint for the church reveals that we do not fear Him.
While genuine repentance and faithful ecclesiology are of paramount importance, we should also prayerfully consider how we can implement biblically informed structural renovations that will encourage trust and transparency in the SBC. In general, what we need to do is make structural changes to create a culture of accountability, rather than bureaucratizing the SBC.
Abuse is covered up because there are incentives to look the other way when problems arise. So, the necessary structural renovations will address sex abuse and many of the other problems we’ve seen in the SBC recently. Too often, entity leaders disregard the will of the messengers and the churches they represent. They do not act in a transparent manner, even withholding information from boards of trustees who cannot provide accountability without information.
Among the many alarming revelations contained in the recent Sex Abuse Task Force (SATF) report is one glaring organizational problem that exacerbates all the rest. I am speaking of the complete failure of the trustee-staff relationship on the Executive Committee (EC). The report makes clear that the staff hid vital information from the EC trustees, even deceiving them at points, which is in clear violation of bylaws.
That’s not how it is supposed to work. The trustees of all of our entities need to receive better training to understand their fiduciary responsibility to hold the entities accountable to the churches that make them possible. We desperately need to implement structural board reforms so boards provide meaningful oversight to their entities, as stewards, and get all the information they need to do the job.
We should strictly require that conflicts of interest be disclosed and that trustees recuse themselves from voting on matters where they are conflicted. Perhaps it would be appropriate to limit (or prohibit) employees of SBC entities from serving on the boards of other entities. We should also implement a schedule of periodic forensic audits to encourage entities to act with the utmost integrity with the funds with which they’ve been entrusted.
To return to the pressing issue of sex abuse, these structural renovations will help us get to the heart of the cultural rot evidenced in the SATF report and will give us the information and processes necessary to hold individuals accountable for abuse (or covering for abuse). Boards of SBC entities need to be proactive, asking hard questions and having outside investigations performed if necessary. In these matters, we need to be able to look sex abuse squarely in the eye and call it a grievous sin and heinous crime which should have no place in our churches or our convention.
At the same time, we can do so in a fashion that’s more effective, biblical, and consistent with our longstanding Baptist polity. The tools I mentioned above are surgical – they will help us to create a culture of accountability among SBC leaders without fundamentally transforming the SBC’s longstanding polity.
We may want to consider some other specific methods by which the SBC could serve its member churches. For example, it may be prudent and helpful for the SBC to facilitate access to background checks, training materials, and model policies that local churches could implement on a voluntary basis while still respecting their autonomy.
Yet, even while we consider biblically informed structural renovations, we should be cautious about some of the SATF report’s more sweeping recommendations that could broadly transform the polity of the SBC on the basis of a report that focuses solely on the behavior of the executive committee and its staff. To be sure, it may seem tempting (and easier) to propose sweeping changes to SBC governance, but doing so creates diffuse responsibility for current leaders; failures can be blamed on the “system” rather than on individuals. We should also be concerned about how the SATF report recommends the creation of an offender list that, as others have pointed out, does not appear to provide due process to the people who would potentially be listed.
The scriptures give us the right framework for addressing abuse in our midst. Without question, sexual abuse should be reported to civil authorities immediately by anyone who becomes aware of such abuse, as those authorities rightfully wield the sword to punish evil-doers. Individuals in leadership (whether in local churches or convention entities), if proven to have engaged in sex abuse, are fully and permanently disqualified from being leaders in the church under biblical criteria.
Yet, in our zeal to ban the disqualified, we must not violate the biblically informed due process provisions embedded in American law (see 2 Corinthians 13:1, in which the Apostle Paul subjects himself to evidentiary standards when dealing with sin in the Corinthian church). As people of the Book, we must not disregard scripture’s wisdom by casting aside concern for due process in our quest for justice.
In close, though some will squander the moment by rushing to adopt recommendations informed by the logic of the world, those who fear God must humbly seek the path of righteousness. What is needed is a repentant return to biblical ecclesiology and a courageous and relentless rooting out of the bureaucratic rot that has too often prevented the heeding of scripture’s wisdom.
We have a Book, but it seems like it’s been collecting dust in recent years. If Southern Baptists continue to ignore that Book in favor of concocting our own plans, we will not restore trust and transparency but will instead lead the SBC down a path of destruction.