First Notes from Brent McDougal:
Sometimes people ask me why I have remained a Baptist all of these years.
My grandfather was a Baptist pastor. Both sides of my family have a history with Baptists. The churches I have served have all been historically Baptist. One church is exclusively Southern Baptist in its affiliation and another is exclusively with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but the other churches have been dually aligned with both denominations.
I have never felt the need to leave the Baptist family, because I always have felt that there was room for a Baptist like me. I have supported women in all roles in the church ever since I can remember. The churches I have served have been generous in their orthodoxy and open to dialogue about areas where good people can disagree.
But today is a hard day to be a Baptist.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is facing a reckoning that has been a long time coming. It concerns sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and the way that convention leaders have denied, deflected, and ignored reports of sexual abuse over the years.
This past weekend, a three-hundred page, third-party investigative report was released that offers details about how allegations of sexual abuse and even evidence of convicted sex offenders still serving in churches were routinely dismissed. Almost always, the internal focus was on how to protect the SBC from legal liability, rather than caring for survivors or creating a plan to prevent future sexual abuse in SBC churches.
The cover for such egregious obfuscation is the autonomy of the local church: each Southern Baptist church is independent and can make its own rules and processes regarding governance, the hiring of clergy, and discipline for bad or even abusive behavior. Therefore, the logic goes, the Southern Baptist Convention is not responsible to investigate or respond when the “local” church had a “local” claim of abuse, whether at the hands of a clergy person or other leader.
The impact of such washing of the hands has been the repeated pattern of: 1) pastors and other leaders being credibly accused in local churches of sexual abuse, 2) the avoidance of responsibility for their actions beyond being removed from leadership or volunteering (sometimes not even that), and 3) those persons moving on to another church to do the same thing.
Two details were especially shocking to me. One was the way that an abuse survivor was treated by members of the Executive Committee of the SBC as they altered her story to make it seem more like a consensual “affair.” The second was a secret file that has been maintained for years with over 700 reports of sexual violence and assault. Nothing was done to stop predators on the list from hurting others.
SBC leaders rationalized their behavior by considering such reports as a “distraction” from the main mission of evangelism and making disciples. It’s not a far step to also conclude that SBC leaders avoided responsibility and swept reports under the rug so that churches would not withhold funding. Those who raised their voices were called dissenters and malcontents.
What is the significance of this report — personally and for our church?
I’m still processing and will continue to do so, as so many others in our church will, too. But today I want to offer two, specific, Biblical responses.
First, sexual abuse is a horrific sin that requires accountability.
Ephesians makes it plain: “Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3, NIV).
Sexual abuse by pastors and other leaders is especially appalling because these persons represent the God of love. God has a heart for those who are vulnerable: women, children, the elderly, those in poverty. It’s especially abhorrent when leaders who operate under the name of Jesus take advantage of those who are weak. The writer of Hebrews states that we should have confidence in leaders because “they keep watch over you as those who must give an account” (Hebrews 13:17, NIV). Therefore, as God’s holy people, there should not be even a “hint” of sexual impropriety.
The vast majority of Southern Baptist leaders are not guilty of the offenses detailed in the investigative report. But we cannot give a pass to those who are guilty of abuse just because it is uncomfortable to talk about or costly to address. After all, the victims of abusers have already had so much taken from them.
Second, we need as a church to continue to create safe policies and be ready to listen to those who have been the victims of sexual abuse.
Psalm 91 says, “This I declare about the Lord: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; he is my God, and I trust him …. He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection” (2-4, NLT).
Just as God longs to protect us, we are called to protect one another. God’s care extends through us as we care well for one another.
I am thankful for the work that Susan Tatum and Chuck Powell do to maintain safe policies and practices for our children and youth. I am planning to implement a yearly seminar for our ministerial staff to highlight the need for vigilance and make sure that we are current in best practices to keep our youngest members safe.
We also need to continue to cultivate a culture of openness and safety relative to our adults. Our congregation should be a “safe space” for all. If there is ever a need for a person to discuss a violation of trust and power, whether by a pastor or other leader, we need to be ready to listen and respond.
It’s a hard day to be a Baptist. This is a time to lament, repent, and commit ourselves to shining more light on the darkness of abuse. I hope you’ll join me.
Dr. Brent McDougal is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Knoxville, where this writer is an active member. He writes a weekly letter to our congregation, and I wanted to share this week’s missive with all readers of KnoxTNToday.com.