It’s just the Wild West out there right now,” a colleague declared of the Twitterverse, as Baptists registered their opinions on new reports of sexual abuse and the failure of Southern Baptists to stop perpetrators’ movement among churches. Then the Internet mostly applauded the recommendations by SBC President J.D. Greear’s study committee to address sexual abuse in our churches. Then when the Executive Committee reported that the actions of only three of ten churches cited by the Houston Chronicle merited further investigation, the blogosphere blew up again. “A free for all!” my colleague said.
That’s to be expected. Emotions are running high, and there has been a lot of use of crisis language. But beyond that, on any ordinary day, Baptists are a people who expect their voices to be heard.
Please hear me say this: Action must be taken to prevent sexual abuse in the future, to deal with those credibly accused, to assure they do not have places of leadership in SBC churches, and to minister to those who have been harmed by abuse or the threat of abuse.
That said, let me also say, we also have to handle faithfully our historic Baptist doctrines.
We may find in the discussion leading to the SBC annual meeting in June that nothing in Southern Baptist life is a done deal until it is accepted and implemented at the grassroots level.
A seminary professor of mine told this story of a convention in a large southern state: The receptionist was instructed to answer the phone, “Baptist Headquarters.”
“Hmmph,” she soon heard, followed by a long pause. “This is Pastor Smith calling from First Baptist Church. This is Baptist headquarters.”
The next time the pastor called, the phone was answered, “Hello. Baptist Building.”
The professor’s point sticks: The local church is Baptist headquarters. That’s what it means to be a Baptist. We are not a hierarchical denomination, and we don’t operate from the top down. We are the un-denomination. Early leaders even refused for the SBC to be called a denomination, thus they chose the term “convention” to describe this voluntary association of local churches. And, thus, the word “autonomy” becomes important.
In the recent reporting, a few writers described autonomy as a shield some leaders hid behind to avoid dealing with the critical issue of prevention. Maybe autonomy was an easy response to difficult situations in the past, as leaders were accustomed to churches making their own decisions on most matters of policy. And, to be sure, autonomy of the local church must not be an excuse for keeping our eyes closed to evil in our midst. But the foundational Baptist doctrine of autonomy cannot be dismissed.
In the Houston Chronicle’s reporting, around 380 people in Southern Baptist churches were credibly accused and about 220 were convicted of sexual abuse or received plea deals. Of those, 35 found new places of service in other Southern Baptist churches. For our denomination to effectively stop offenders from becoming repeat offenders in new settings, local churches will have to do the hard work of policing and training and fingerprinting and screening volunteer workers and ministry candidates. That is first a local action that must be done first in local churches. Without full participation of local churches, we won’t have a solution to the problem, even if we do create national policies and databases.
One reporter described Pope Francis’s call to his own church, in light of their abuse crisis, not to “simple condemnation but to concrete and effective measures.” As we offer and endorse solutions, we should remember that Baptists accomplish more by cooperation than declaration. In Southern Baptist life, it’s not the language of crisis that compels us or draws us, but the invitation to responsible cooperation.
Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist.