Southern Baptist Convention’s Lawyers to Cut Ties After Vote to Waive Privilege

By Bob Smietana
Southern Baptist Convention
The Rev. Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC Executive Committee, addresses the annual meeting on June 15, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (RNS photo by Kit Doyle)

The longtime general counsel for the Southern Baptist Convention has decided to cut ties with the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

The decision came after members of the SBC’s Nashville-based Executive Committee decided to waive attorney-client privilege as part of a sexual-abuse investigation. That decision means that records of conversations on legal matters among Executive Committee members and staff would no longer be confidential.

That decision made it impossible for the denomination’s legal counsel to continue its role, wrote attorneys James Guenther and James Jordan of Guenther, Jordan & Price.  

“We simply do not know how to advise a client, and otherwise represent a client, with the quality of advice and representation the client must have, and in keeping with the standard of practice our firm tries to uphold, when the client has indicated a willingness to forego this universally accepted principle of confidentiality,” Guenther and Jordan wrote in a letter to Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd.

News of the break between the firm and the Executive Committee was first reported by the Baptist and Reflector, a Tennessee Baptist state newspaper.

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Guenther, 87, has been general counsel for the SBC since 1966. Before then, he spent a decade working for what was then known as the Baptist Sunday School Board, now LifeWay Christian Resources.

Guenther told the Baptist and Reflector that his firm has represented the SBC in about 50 cases where the denomination was being sued over the actions of a local congregation.

“Because Southern Baptists are not hierarchical, and the convention does not control churches, Guenther and his firm have never lost an ascending liability,” the newspaper reported.

The attorney warned Southern Baptists to stay true to their theology in order to protect themselves legally.

“We have got to always be diligent that we practice what we preach and conventions need to take care to respect what the Baptist Faith and Message says about local church autonomy,” he told the Baptist and Reflector.

The issue of confidentiality and attorney client privilege was a subject of intense debate in recent weeks among Southern Baptist leaders, as was the issue of local church control over national SBC entities such as the Executive Committee.

The debate centered around a decision made by the denomination’s annual meeting to investigate how the Executive Committee has responded to allegations of sexual abuse and how Executive Committee members and staff treated abuse survivors.

The Executive Committee had originally ordered an investigation of its own, but local church delegates took control of that investigation. Those delegates, known as messengers, specifically directed the committee to waive privilege if asked to do so by the outside firm doing the investigation.

During meetings this fall, committee members argued that waiving privilege could bankrupt the SBC by exposing it to lawsuits. They also argued that waiving privilege went against the advice of Guenther and other attorneys brought in to consult on the matter.

Other committee members, including committee Chair Rolland Slade, argued they were obligated to follow the instructions of local churches’ messengers.

After weeks of deadlock, the committee voted on Oct. 10 to waive privilege. At least 10 committee members, most who opposed the waiver, have resigned. In their letter to Floyd, who also raised questions about the issue of waiving privilege, Guenther and Jordan defended attorney-client privilege.

“The attorney-client privilege has been portrayed by some as an evil device by which misconduct is somehow allowed to be secreted so wrongdoers can escape justice and defeat the legal rights of others,” they wrote. “That could not be further from the truth.”

Floyd praised Guenther’s firm for its long service to the SBC.

“With deep regrets, we accept their decision and fully understand their reason behind it and their need to withdraw,” he told Baptist Press. “We are extremely grateful for their 56 years of superior service to the Southern Baptist Convention and the Executive Committee.”

After news of counsel Guenther’s break with the SBC, former Executive Committee President Morris Chapman posted a comment that appeared to be a response on social media.

Letter to SBC Executive Committee – Oct. 11, 2021

Letter to SBC Executive Committee

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service. 



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9 thoughts on “Southern Baptist Convention’s Lawyers to Cut Ties After Vote to Waive Privilege”

  1. I write as an Australian Christian with no links whatsoever to the SBC. I abhor sexual abuse. However, whatever else needs to be done on this issue, this waiving of privilege is astonishingly unethical. It is, at this level, unprecedented. It now sets a precedent where there can never ever be future trust. Why would any individual ever again feel safe to be a member of rtes SBC Executive Committee?mThe SBC Executive Committee have made a blunder of unfathomable proportions.

    1. Maybe if EC were transparent and ethical to begin with when all the abuse complaints started, this never would have happened. They sowed the wind and they will reap the whirlwind. They tried to bury things and coverup, and to borrow a famous phrase from the political realm:

      “it is not the crime, but the coverup.”

      Or if you prefer a more Biblical example, see what Nathan said to David in 2 Samuel 12.

      They made their bed, now they can lie in it. I have no sympathy or compassion for them at all.

    2. Jesus’ enemies were the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes should really be translated as “lawyers” in modern translations. This is what they were. Nothing has changed. They still are anti-Christs looking to cover up evil while making a mountain of Mammon while doing it. Your definitions of ethics is as backwards as theirs. Are you a lawyer? Sounds like you are thinking like one…

      1. Ralph. The function and achievements of both scribes and lawyers, cannot fairly be reduced in the manner you suggest. Neither grouping, in their respective historical times, are homogeneous in their probity and integrity (or lack of it) and achievements. If it comes to an adjudication of how we have collectively respectively fared under the rule of law and commitment to God and Christ (as something to believe in and aspire to), what is there to be put in the scales on behalf of both, is very mixed.
        It is true that scribes and lawyers concerned and concern themselves with the Earth-side of human existence. In discharging that remit they can and did and do attenuate what that remit is for. Bureaucracy and personal factors can get in the way of remit discharge; but that does not vitiate the remit. Rather it simply calls for constant refreshment of purpose.
        The Christ-side of human existence never transcends the inescapable Earth-side of that same existence. Rather the two can and must co-operate despite tensions. Abandoning either of those resource-loci is unwise.

  2. What we have unwinding here, is a complex encounter between the nominal Christian hermetic, and the hermetic of a wider society in which that Christian hermetic is embedded. In essence, some of those within that Christian hermetic believe they can and should rely solely on that hermetic, while others within their community of faith believe that much to do with the wider society cannot and should not be zealously abandoned.
    There is then a complexity to do with the issue nominally being addressed, namely how the SBC has dealt with claims of sexual abuse. That issue has crucial intrinsic aspects: but is also an issue taken up to oppose and defeat what is seen as Conservatism and chauvinism;where this mix of motivation begs questions.
    My sense is, that the unwinding still has a long way to go, such that the expectations of opposing factions within the SBC and outwith the SBC, will not be much fulfilled. The unwinding taking on a life of its own, with indeterminate results.

  3. Is anyone surprised? The attorney / client confidentiality privilege is second only to that of the pastor / parishioner. Now with no legal representation and soon no insurance support, the SBC is done. May God help us all.

  4. In the UK we sometimes look to the Magna Carta of 1215, where a king’s absolute right became curtailed by written conventions, as the beginning of law as we now understand it. So for 900 odd years, this protection under law, has evolved. A crucial aspect of this law is limited confidentiality; there being a host of reasons why such confidentiality is crucial.
    It makes great sense for an individual to operationalise their Christian faith absolutely. While the results of doing this are mixed, so doing does mediate some of the best humanity we have. So individual faith zealousness need not be criticised.
    Institutional faith zealousness is far more dangerous; and historically we have no evidence that outcomes from so doing can sustain goodness. Rather institutional faith and what is secular, often and for the best, move forward synergistically.
    The focus on the SBC EC is illogical, as the individual Churches are autonomous. The focus for investigation of sexual abuse and victim neglect, should be on those Churches. The demand for privilege waiver was never necessary.
    The reasons for the demand for privilege waiver, and the investigatory focus on the EC, by groupings only partially identified, needs to be ascertained if the SBC is to regroup so as to legitimately protect its (congregational) interests.

  5. In Hebrews 4:12 God says “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
    The secular legal system that has crept into the church is nothing more than satan’s way of hiding sin. It is best to deal with sin and repent while you still can. Once we die there will not be an opportunity to do so and only an eternal judgement remains.

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