In an address before the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, SBC President J.D. Greear called for lamenting and repentance over sexual abuse perpetrated by church leaders and volunteers, and called the denomination to greater accountability at every level.
He also advocated that the SBC’s governing documents be amended to address the definition of a “cooperating church,” the denomination’s title for churches that are affiliated with the SBC. “We must take bold and decisive steps to send an unequivocal message: Churches that have a wanton disregard for sexual abuse and for caring for the survivors are not in good fellowship with this convention,” Greear said, according to a transcript of the speech released to Baptist media before his presentation.
Speaking in Nashville Feb. 18, Greear shared the initial recommendations of a study group tasked with advising him on sexual abuse and misconduct in the denomination. The address was scheduled prior to a multi-part report in the Houston Chronicle about sexual abuse perpetrated by Southern Baptist ministers, staff, and volunteers over the past 20 years.
The study group was appointed last summer as the SBC struggled to respond several high-profile cases of abuse, including one which resulted in the termination of former seminary president Paige Patterson, who allegedly failed to report an assault at the institution he was leading at the time.
Greear reiterated Monday evening that the Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group isn’t a task force, because their task “will require constant learning, continual introspection, and ongoing vigilance.” Those on the study group were unknown before Greear’s address, but he did note 10 of the members during his speech in Nashville. The group includes pastors, counselors, and victims’ advocates. One well-known name is Rachael Denhollander, an attorney who was the first woman to accuse Larry Nassar of sexual assault.
Greear, who pastors The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham and was elected SBC president in June 2018, called first for repentance—from any who have aided or abetted abuse, and, as a Convention, “of a culture that has made abuse, cover-ups, and evading accountability far too easy.”
“Biblical teachings on grace and forgiveness never mean giving an abuser a second chance to prey on the vulnerable. Somebody that has been through this should never ever again be in a position where they can work [with] the vulnerable for the rest of their lives. And if they’re truly and rightly repentant, they’ll understand that.”
Greear announced that the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Birmingham this summer will include a time of prayer and lament on the subject of abuse.
The president outlined resources and documents developed by the study group, including:
- “Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused,” a free, 12-lesson training guide for ministry leaders that will be available this summer, and;
- Statements of Principles for Southern Baptist seminaries, all 41 Baptist state conventions, and local associational leaders, informing each group’s care for abuse survivors, and how they will equip and support leaders and churches as they engage the issue of abuse.
In the area of church and convention leadership, Greear said he has asked the Executive Committee to strongly consider requiring background checks for those appointed to SBC standing committees and trustee boards. He also urged churches to reexamine ordination processes for pastors and deacons.
“Why is it that our background check and screening process is often more rigorous for children’s ministry volunteers than people being ordained? This is a sacred responsibility and we have to take it seriously, ensuring each candidate lives up to the standards set out by the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 3—and being above reproach certainly means having no hint of sexual abuse or cover-up in their past.”
Greear also addressed a question that resurfaced following the Houston Chronicle’s investigation: Should the SBC have a database of offenders so that those who abuse are less readily able to move from church to church?
“We have already been evaluating possibilities related to a database and listening to a wide range of survivors, advocates, and experts on the options,” Greear said. He didn’t announce plans for a database during his report, but said the omission “does not mean that we are not doing everything we can to evaluate it as an option.”
Concluding his speech, Greear pointed to the urgency of the moment. “Brothers and sisters, it is time for change. The world is watching. People are waiting. And God is going to hold us accountable for how we respond to this moment.”