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Southern Baptists Shouldn’t Write Blank Checks For SBC Leaders On Sexual Abuse

Southern Baptist messengers should not give any blank-check authority to solve the fundamental issue of sexual allegations away from churches in a back room.

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Next week, the Southern Baptist Convention meets in Anaheim. Delegates (called “messengers”) will face two proposals relating to sex abuse. All evangelicals interested in healthy ministries should take note of what’s going on in the SBC.

As things stand today, the proposals ask for blank checks, secured only by leaders’ promises of a blue sky. But Southern Baptists should not vote for anything they don’t understand, and should not accept legal responsibility for a half-baked “process” that is not yet just and not yet complete.

How We Got to This Point

Last year, messengers to the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention authorized an internal investigation of the convention’s Executive Committee (EC). The motion the convention adopted created a task force and directed the president to name sex abuse experts who would hire and oversee an outside, independent expert to investigate “any allegations of abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, a pattern of intimidation of victims or advocates, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives” by members of the EC staff or board of trustees, going back to 2000. It also authorized them to recommend best practices.

The report and recommendations come to the task force, which would prepare and submit a final report and recommendations before the 2022 annual meeting. The president appointed his task force of Baptists (and some non-Baptists), called the SBC Sex Abuse Task Force (SATF), which contracted with Guidepost Solutions.

Two weeks ago, Guidepost’s report and recommendations were released. The report described a deeply dysfunctional organization. It presented the SBC’s lawyers as paralyzed by litigation risk, refusing to meaningfully engage information brought to them by abuse victims and advocates.

The report also presents the EC trustees as never asking hard questions, preferring for staff to solve any problems quietly and out of public view. The report also included a bombshell sexual assault allegation against a prominent pastor who was a former SBC president, and (until the report) a high official at the SBC’s domestic missionary entity, the North American Missions Board (NAMB).

Except for the bombshell about the NAMB leader, most of the incidents and individuals had been previously disclosed online or in print. Some people welcomed Guidepost’s recommendations, and others praised the narrower, and materially different, recommendations of the SATF issued on June 1.

But there was also widespread criticism of the recommendations as not biblical, not Baptist, and not just. Guidepost proposed that the SBC should maintain an “offender information system,” a public list of those “credibly accused” of sexual abuse and those who “aided and abetted” them. As Matthew Schmitz noted in the Wall Street Journal, this standard “trample[s] the rights of the accused.” In the American Reformer, one of us compared the process to federal Title IX tribunals imposed by the Obama administration on colleges, another “process” that was famously criticized by legal experts for lacking adequate fairness.

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Then, just after the report’s release, Guidepost kicked off a public celebration of LGBT Pride Month, announcing on Twitter that it was an ally of progress and equality, directly opposed to the declaration of the SBC’s “Baptist Faith & Message” that homosexuality and same-sex marriage is sin. Guidepost’s CEO is a graduate of Baylor University, a historically Baptist school, and it had purportedly hired a number of “Baptist subject matter experts,” but Guidepost evidently declined to reverse course.

Clearly, the Task Force has been caught off-guard, first by the Guidepost recommendations, then by its flagrant opposition to the convention’s theology of sex, marriage, and what constitutes an abuse of sexuality. Once touted as experts that understood Baptists, Guidepost is now excused as a mere private investigator.

Also, rather than forward Guidepost’s recommendations, the task force claims they were always tasked with reproducing recommendations to suit the SBC, even though only a few days separate the report’s release and the SBC’s annual meeting. Even the SATF’s recommendations appear tentative; the initial recommendations were published on June 1. A week later, the task force substantially revised them and deleted prior drafts from their blog.

So it is concerning that the task force is resorting to the same dysfunctional habits that Guidepost criticized in the old guard. The task force is letting legal risk aversion limit the experts’ recommendations. And it is trying to get carte blanche authority from messengers to do the sausage-making for them, out of public view.

Messengers should not give their SATF friends a blank check, any more than the EC trustees should have given their lawyer friends a blank check. Even good people with good intentions are poorly served by unaccountable systems.

An Extrajudicial Process for Judging Accusations

Enter Matthew Martens, a Washington, D.C., lawyer for death row inmates and a former clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Martens is a gifted advocate, but, by his own description, not an SBC insider nor a messenger to any prior convention, so perhaps he is not as familiar with the culture of dysfunctional SBC experts asking to be trusted to do the right thing in the back room.

Writing for the SBC’s in-house news service, Martens says SBC messengers should approve the SATF’s Recommendation II, including blanket authority to “create a ministry check website.” This appears to be a much-reduced version of the “offender information system” recommended by Guidepost.

The “MinistryCheck” site proposes to keep a permanent record of pastors, denominational workers, ministry employees, and volunteers who have been “credibly accused” (a minimal standard that the accusation is more likely than not true) of sex acts that violate local laws. If a judge or jury has not decided the question, the SATF proposes that outside lawyers could be hired, in some cases by the SBC, to write opinion letters after an investigation.

Martens approves of the new authority because he has questioned “those involved in crafting the Task Force’s recommendation,” and those unnamed persons have made undisclosed representations to him. They “have assured [him] that in conformity with scripture, any process implemented as a result of the Task Force’s recommendation would not allow for a finding that an allegation is more likely than not true if based only on the testimony of a single, uncorroborated witness.” Yet good intentions could pave the road to the lawyers’ den, or worse.

Martens also says the same, unnamed people “should” add safeguards. “[T]he process established should include a validation…” He says it should require impartial decision-makers, meaningful opportunities to be heard, and exclude single-uncorroborated witness claims. It “should also include a method for removing a name.” “Under those conditions,” the SATF could make recommendations about a database that “would conform to the biblical standard of justice…”

Messengers Need to Know What They’re Voting On

This is doubly troubling. First, it admits that the proposal Baptists will vote on is not yet just. Rather, it will take work to make it biblically just, and someone related to the task force tells Martens that could still happen after the convention votes.

But this is the dysfunctional pattern shown in the Guidepost report, and the SBC should reverse it. Baptists should demand, before any vote is cast, to see a biblically just process on paper, in advance, that solves a meaningful problem.

We agree with many of Martens’ ideas about due process and the burden of proof, yet we have our doubts about the fairness and practicality of the investigation protocol. Prominent victim advocates say MinistryCheck doesn’t meet their minimum standards. But all the close observers seem to agree the SATF’s skeleton proposal must be fleshed out before we know whether it will satisfy standards of biblical justice. The call for a vote on a work-in-process is itself unjust.

We Want Evidence, Not Hearsay

Second, Martens should know better than to present the promises of unnamed others as true. He is using his legal and theological credentials to vouch for, or bolster, the good faith of “those involved in crafting” the recommendations. Not only is it hearsay, it asks us to substitute Martens’ personal or professional judgment for the real evidence.

Instead of judging the actual proposal or persons doing the work, we are dared to doubt the predictive abilities of this lawyer from a powerful DC law firm who is a member in a powerful DC church and a former board member in a popular evangelical organization. Now the argument is not about the motion, but a call to trust Martens because he’s a lawyer and more.

This is a flawed argument in any debate, but especially in a debate this important. Messengers are facing a motion that Martens admits does not yet display biblical justice. But he says it could be made just. And Martens vouches that the people in charge are the people who bring forth such justice.

But vouching is an unreliable shortcut and should not serve as the basis for this vote. Martens wouldn’t let a prosecutor abuse his death-row clients with this kind of argument in a trial. In front of a jury, it could be grounds for a mistrial. We trust he agrees it shouldn’t even be used for a MinistryCheck report. Using this kind of argument to get Baptists to write a blank check at the SBC’s once-a-year business meeting is unfair, too.

The truth is, no one can rely on the questions Martens asked, nor his recollected answers of “those involved” for the Task Force. The SBC will be bound by the words of any motion it passes, not a BP op-ed.

This Is Too Important to Let Unknowns Decide

Indeed, the task force’s actual proposal gives authority to another committee, the “ARTIF” and the SBCEC, who will turn over implementation to yet another group. There is no assurance that “those involved” that Martens spoke to will be able to deliver on their promise of making a spuriously just process comport with standards of biblical justice.

Further, the words of the actual motion, good intentions notwithstanding, say the website “will be established and maintained through an independent firm, selected by the Credentials Committee.” Once the outside firm is selected, it will be given the written instructions from the convention, and by design, the SBC will lose the power to change the process of an independent administrator.

If the back room produces something unjust, something that injures other people, who will judges and juries hold responsible? It will not be Martens. It will not be the unnamed person or persons “involved in the crafting” of the process. No, this is an action of the SBC. It is not even an act of a legally distinct entity. If injustice occurs, the SBC will be likely held responsible for, yet again, giving SBC operators carte blanche authority under emotional and spiritual pressure.

The Guidepost and SATF recommendations deserve more than three weeks of consideration by Bible-believing Baptists. Getting secular recommendations dumped on messengers at the last minute isn’t a process that leads to justice or more faithful churches.

Of course, Baptists try to appoint committees of faithful people. But those committees are supposed to bring us final processes for approval, not proposals and promises of future fidelity.

Would anyone vote to give a committee the power to amend the Baptist Faith & Message without a convention vote on the final product? The SATF recommendation is at least as important to the future of the SBC as an amendment to the BF&M. Getting it wrong may imperil the convention’s existence.

Why Not Due Process for the Accused?

Aside from the narrow set of issues we’ve raised here, other important questions linger that deserve reasoned deliberation. For example, the discussion of “autonomy” has probably been oversimplified and straw-manned. “Autonomy,” like “consent,” is a richer idea than “a choice was available.”

For another, given that the goal is to say whether conduct violates local laws, and the impact that being listed on MinistryCheck would have before a trial, can any third-party investigative entity provide sufficient due process to either side? If testimony under oath, mandatory discovery, and cross-examination aren’t available until court, should a person insisting on those rights be put on the list before a full trial?

Why would a victim risk an underpowered investigation that might conclude their allegations don’t violate the law? And what lawyers (for, in almost every state, advising people about laws and rights is limited to licensed attorneys) will be willing to undertake the heightened responsibility of making predictions about local juries? The messengers need to be careful not to confuse the godly authority of the courthouse and the church house.

None of this is a call to ignore the sin uncovered in Guidepost’s report. Romans 1 says worldly minds may “have no understanding,” but Baptists see the sins, and tremble at the prospect of God’s discipline. Yet that does not mean acting with haste.

The EC and any ARITF will be bringing more recommendations to messengers next year. There is no reason they cannot bring us a robust, reasoned, biblically just MinistryCheck process, too. In the interim, SBC churches can be guided to the currently available abuse lists and websites, including the one just released from the EC’s files.

The proposal before us should be just, but it is not yet just. And messengers should not give the old guard, or the new guard, blank-check authority to solve that fundamental issue for the churches in a back room. Closed doors, back rooms, and empty promises got the SBC into these problems. The way forward is, by God’s grace, transparent and wise dealings that accord with standards of biblical justice and historic Baptist principles.

We recommend that the SATF withdraw Recommendation Two, or that the SBC messengers vote against it.