Opinion: Southern Baptists’ Sex Abuse Report Is A Repudiation of Past 40 Years

By Jonathan Merritt
sexual abuse probe sex abuse
Los mensajeros sostienen un manual de abuso de SBC mientras se enfrentan al desafío de detener el abuso sexual durante la reunión anual de la Convención Bautista del Sur, el 12 de junio de 2019, en Birmingham, Alabama. (Foto RNS: Butch Dill)

There’s an old saying about Southern Baptists’ annual meeting: After all is said and done, more will have been said than will have been done. But last June in Nashville the Southern Baptists broke the rule as the gathered messengers voted to establish a task force to investigate a fact that had become more than a hunch: The denomination’s leaders had long mishandled allegations of sexual abuse.

Not only did the messengers’ suspicions prove true, but they greatly underestimated the rot.

On Sunday, the appointed task force released the findings of a months-long independent investigation by Guidepost Solutions, determining, in an explosive, nearly 300-page report filled with sickening detail, that denominational leaders had for decades systematically leveraged their power to stonewall sexual abuse claims, intimidate and denigrate victims, refuse to investigate child molesters, oppose basic safeguards and allow predatory pastors to remain in ministry roles.

The report confirmed that SBC leaders often knowingly misled their members and the public. A decade ago, survivors came forward not with condemnation but pleas for sensible measures, including a database of known abusers so that churches could be warned when one showed up in a pastor search. Denominational leaders repeatedly responded that this was not possible, even as they were secretly maintaining such a list.

Comparisons to the devastating Roman Catholic sex abuse scandals, while imperfect, are difficult to avoid. In many ways the comparison is more damning, as the SBC ignored the trauma the Catholic hierarchy’s denialism had caused and took much the same path.

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The release of this report is more than the most important religion news story of the year. The nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention has inserted itself into politics, cultural battles and moral questions in the public square as if its conservative views were a necessary voice of conscience. With the publication of this report, Southern Baptist leaders have not just been humiliated. Their voice as a guide to the nation has been repudiated.

The irony is impossible to miss, at least for those of us schooled in the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent history. Beginning in the 1970s, fundamentalist factions within the denomination mobilized to seize control of the denomination, ousting moderates in order to stave off the moral decay of “godless” liberalism. Leaders called for a return to traditional family values. They set out to reverse the harm done by the sexual revolution, feminism and the panoply of new ideas fomented by the civil rights movement.

When the newly established conservative leadership revised the denomination’s statement of faith in 1998, they added language asserting that wives should submit to their husbands. In 2000, they released a revision with another addition: “Christians should oppose … all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality and pornography.”

They called abortion murder but, more importantly, they painted abortion rights advocates as murderers. They blamed the “gay agenda” for the decline of Western culture. And most recently they have claimed critical race theorists are corrupting children and opposed basic accommodations for transgender people.

As stalwart students of the Bible, Southern Baptists should have seen it coming. The Apostle Paul wrote in his epistle to the Galatians, “God is not mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” Those who live by the swords of judgment and condemnation will die by them also. Like fate, karma is a cruel mistress.

The SBC report reveals that all the while, these arbiters of virtue and self-proclaimed guardians of “family values” were spectacularly failing to protect the families under their care. It paints a portrait of leaders ignoring predatory behavior, the better to denounce the immorality of their neighbors. They bear the very shame they’ve attempted to dole out on others.

Many of us who are products of the SBC’s institutions have long since left that world — 3 million Southern Baptists have fled the denomination in the past 15 years, more than 1 million in the last year alone. While much of the response to the report on social media has fallen somewhere between pearl-clutching surprise and crumpled lament, those who walked away after sounding the alarm for years have responded with a shrug.

Russell Moore, former head of the SBC’s political arm who left the convention last year, wrote on Sunday, “Who cannot now see the rot in a culture that mobilizes to exile churches that call a woman on staff a ‘pastor’ or that invite a woman to speak from the pulpit on Mother’s Day, but dismisses rape and molestation as ‘distractions’ and efforts to address them as violations of cherished church autonomy? In sectors of today’s SBC, women wearing leggings is a social media crisis; dealing with rape in the church is a distraction.”

sex abuse moore
La sobreviviente de abuso Rachael Denhollander, a la derecha, analiza la historia de la Convención Bautista del Sur para abordar el abuso sexual con el presidente de la Comisión de Ética y Libertad Religiosa, Russell Moore, en la conferencia Caring Well en Dallas el 4 de octubre de 2019. (Foto de Karen Race Photography 2019)

Moore’s points are undeniable, but merely scapegoating the handful of leaders named in the report will only take us so far. We must also acknowledge the indispensable roles played by countless foot soldiers, including Moore himself, who dedicated years of their careers to propping up these leaders and cultivating the institutional system and culture that made all of this possible, if not inevitable. 

I’m a graduate of an SBC seminary, a former minister in an SBC church, and the son of a former SBC president. But I left the denominational ranks after realizing its leadership was clearly more interested in consolidating power and protecting reputations than doing the work of holy justice. I saw firsthand how Baptists’ hard-edged conservatism and pietistic theology produced both a sense of moral superiority and callous indifference toward marginalized people.

The problem is not a few rotten apples, but a diseased orchard. As one of my seminary professors used to remind us, ideas have consequences. 

While this report will trigger a barrage of criticism, especially from former members who have been harmed in Southern Baptist churches physically, mentally and spiritually, it’s difficult to imagine that those implicated in silencing victims and giving their abusers a pass will allow themselves to be changed. But transformation is the only way forward for a denomination that is fracturing internally, hemorrhaging members and now stripped of their public credibility as a result of this report.

Institutions don’t change overnight. Repentance requires more than a few tears shed at the altar. With Southern Baptists’ next annual gathering three short weeks away, the question is whether the denomination’s messengers will muster the resolve to overcome the power brokers who are already seeking to downplay this report. If they can find the will to implement long-overdue reforms, then perhaps for once, more will have been done than said. 

The views expressed in this commentary, originally published by Religion News Service, do not necessarily reflect those of The Roys Report.

Jonathan MerrittJonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service, a contributing writer for The Atlantic, and author of “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined” and “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He resides in Brooklyn, New York.

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10 pensamientos sobre “Opinion: Southern Baptists’ Sex Abuse Report Is A Repudiation of Past 40 Years”

  1. See Matthew 13 parable of wheat and tares which makes me believe that ministers don’t become abusers, abusers become ministers.

    1. Not all ministers are sexual abusers, perhaps a small minority. But the SYSTEMIC version of church leadership known as clergyism, has spiritual abuse baked into it. In fact it’s translated into our Bibles so they think it’s godly.
      “Let the elders who rule well…” 1 Tim. 5:17. The Greek word for “rule” is not here but translators put the english word there because they have wanted it for 500 years. Jesus used the Greek word for “rule” and forbade it’s use. When translators choose “rule” to translate “prohistemi”, they insert a direct contradiction to Jesus.

      “You know that the RULERS of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,”. Matthew 20:25,26

      Would Paul contradict Jesus? No, but clergy willl, here and other places to justify exalted status. This translation choice is used to force into the future, traditions from the past that grease the wheels of men who want authority yet posture it as godly. They nullify the specific instruction from Jesus. Some Pastors are slow to use ruling, but many are eager to use it since they are taught to be a “strong leader.” The church IS a family, a body, and other things but it is not an institution or government. This corruption changes the IDENTITY of God’s people. Sin spreads. And so does this corruption. This is only ONE of many scriptures that are tweaked to make exalted power and status by Pastors or Elders appear to be godly. it is sinful. We need to discuss this CORE CORRUPTION if we want many sinful practices cleaned up.

      1. Tim, I like what you say. We don’t have ‘rulers’ in our churches, but ministers: all minister in one way or another; some ministers we pay because they devote so much of their time and effort to making disciples. They also organise aspects of the life of the church. It is this that can transmogrify into the vanity of ‘leader’ because it is not understood that all adults lead in different and various contexts: that is exercise social influence to achieve group goals. But there is a mechanism that those who manage (the better word, after Mintzberg) have to understand: 1. clarify the mission, 2. enable the team, 3. organise resources. And that’s it. There, you’ve saved the fee for my 10 week course on that topic.

  2. Chinese character for “crisis”–DANGER & OPPORTUNITY Clean house–no matter how repentant they are–now– & lawyers. Bring back Moore–if he confesses his enabling. Look at the Pastoral Epistles–which Paul did not write. Bring in women pastors. Acknowledge racism & do not ignore how it lives in Housing, Policing, Schools, Interstates & pollution. Learn how many fertilized eggs come to tern & re-examine early abortions. Listen to the Holy Spirit on same-sex marriage,over Leviticus & Paul. Acknowledge the tension between Paul & John, & James & Matthew. Ask Bart Ehrmann to talk on “born again” & Revelation.
    Finally, go bankrupt, pay victims, & start over, spiritually-cleansed.

    1. Richard Stadter

      Sorry, Johnnie. Abandoning Scripture is not the answer. It is there that we read about how to let the Spirit conform us into the image of Christ, including integrity in personal interactions. Any supposed tension you find in Scripture must drive you deeper into God character and word, not away from it

      1. Not abandoning Scripture, but acknowledging that it was compiled, copied and “corrected” by men.
        Some of those men wrote the Pastoral Epistles in Paul’s name, after his death.

        1. Sorry, you are grasping at phony theories of men about Paul to abandon God’s inspired word to justify more political theories of men.

          God has done an AMAZING job writing, copying, compiling, and preserving His word through men. NO ONE has EVER claimed people were not involved. God knows how to get His work done through people.

          It’s no different than his assignment to all of his people now to be AMBASSADORS of his reconciling work to sinful people. If your heart has been tweaked by men to reconcile men to current political theory, you can give that a try, but that is on Satan’s side, not God’s side. There are lots of believers who have been deceived to work for the wrong side and think they are on God’s side. I used to be deceived in this way, but I got it fixed with the Bible. No help from hired Bible scholars of any branding.

          1. The scholarly consensus is this:
            The Pastoral Epistles refer to a form of Church organization that did not exist in Paul’s lifetime. They contradict what Paul undeniably wrote on the subject at other places–there is “no longer Jew or Greek….” They are written in a different Greek.
            If you arbitrarily impose the “inerrantcy” of the Bible, how do explain the two Creation accounts? The different dates for the Last Supper? What is the true ending of Mark?
            And most importantly, why does the double meaning in Greek of “born again/from above” not occur in Aramaic, which Jesus actually spoke?
            There are involved literalist interpretations to explain these and other internal Bible contradictions, but it would be freeing to similarly interpret other parts of Scripture, and acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is still telling us some things–as it did about slavery.
            Has Satan has been working through these scholars–since 1700?
            My Church killed witches in 1692 as the Bible still commands, but we repented of it and began our long march toward a more-rational view of Scripture.

  3. This report reveals such great sadness, but it doesn’t make sense to make Russell Moore be an object of criticism, that he played an ‘indispensable role’ as one of ‘countless foot soldiers’, and not include Mr. Merritt’s father and Mr. Merritt himself… perhaps countless, but why single out Russell Moore? He is someone who was willing, like Esther, to act in a time as this, but in his case, he and his family paid dearly. I am thankful for his responding to God’s prompting.
    I do not write as a Southern Baptist, but unfortunately do write knowing first-hand the pain of suffering such abuse, of being shunned/blamed/disbelieved when I tried to bring things to light, of having forgiveness weaponized. Healing is a long process, that can have much heartache. Thankfully, our God is greater than all we suffer and can redeem even our suffering. Change doesn’t typically happen overnight. Light needs to continue to shine so rot could be identified, removed, and changes wisely implemented, looking to God each step of the way. As people were gravely injured by others, pray for God to raise up new others to be patient instruments of His healing.
    Prayer is my other reason for writing. For over a year, God has prompted me to regularly pray for the SBC, including last year’s convention, the Executive Committee and their votes, those who have been so hurt, those who need to repent (God is here giving them an opportunity to turn to Him), and now for this upcoming Convention. I have prayed for repentance, for God’s working, for revival. I begin my prayers asking that God show me where I need to repent and work revival in me. God is faithful. Please pray.

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