The Southern Baptist Convention’s continuing struggle to respond to hundreds of cases of sexual abuse is raising big questions about the denomination’s structure and governance.
On Feb. 23, the Southern Baptist Executive Committee’s bylaws workgroup responded to a request from SBC President J.D. Greear to look at whether 10 churches mentioned in a Houston Chronicle series have appropriately addressed claims of abuse. The workgroup’s report—which found three of the churches require further inquiry, six do not, and one is not an SBC congregation—dismayed victims of sexual abuse and their advocates, along with many Baptist leaders.
“It is an embarrassingly inadequate response to the situation,” blogged Iowa pastor Dave Miller on SBC Voices. Wheaton College’s Ed Stetzer, former executive director of LifeWay Research, wrote on his blog, “This is not the right path and it is not the moral path.”
Rachael Denhollander, a member of the study group Greear appointed last summer to help him address issues related to sexual abuse, tweeted, “I am deeply grieved at the SBC EC response to J.D. Greear. The EC has demonstrated the exact problems that lead to the abuse of so many—whitewashing the crimes and coverup, choosing largely irrelevant criteria, and investigating issues they have no training to investigate.”
Ken Alford was the workgroup’s chairman at the time of their report (he resigned from the workgroup and the Executive Committee amid the controversy). In his resignation letter obtained by the Chronicle, Alford acknowledged the enormity of the task the workgroup believed they had been given.
“What should be obvious is that the task of conducting extensive investigations of churches is an assignment far beyond the capability of our small Bylaws Workgroup,” Alford said. “Beyond that fact, however, is the reality that neither the Bylaws Workgroup nor the Executive Committee has any investigative authority given to it by the SBC.”
In a first-person column for Baptist Press, Executive Committee chairman Mike Stone acknowledged the charge that the workgroup’s process seemed rushed, calling it an inaccurate but fair perception.
“The group doesn’t have the authority to do an investigation and did not claim to do one,” said Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Ga. “And given the limited scope of authority and information, the preliminary report to the EC was as thorough as it could have been.
“But an on-looking world, especially victims, doesn’t necessarily understand the limits of the workgroup’s authority and shouldn’t be expected to do so. It seemed like a two-day ‘investigation’ despite wording to the contrary. So, questions of, ‘How did you do that so quickly?’ or, ‘Why didn’t you talk to this person or that person?’ are reasonable questions.
The controversy surrounding the bylaws workgroup’s response likely will follow Baptists to Birmingham this summer, where messengers will consider an amendment to the SBC Constitution that would deem churches that have exhibited indifference to sexual abuse to be not in friendly cooperation with the SBC. Discussion around the amendment could touch on several questions:
- What is the role of the Executive Committee in investigating charges of sexual abuse or indifference toward abuse?
- Do the criteria written by the Executive Committee to define indifference toward abuse do enough toward the prevention of abuse and care for survivors?
- Can autonomous Baptist churches rally behind the idea of a database of abusers that would seek to stop their movements from church to church?
As they work together to answer difficult questions, Stone urged Baptists to get on the same page, remembering that they’re all seeking the same goal. “I haven’t spoken to a single member of the EC that isn’t willing to do all we can to address this evil and to seek the Convention’s approval to do some additional things we currently don’t have authorization to do.
– Info from Baptist Press, Houston Chronicle, SBCVoices.com, Christianity Today’s Exchange blog