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First Thoughts

Four Facts about Sexual Abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention

Part 4: We Must Have Solutions That Understand the Way Our Convention Works

No Right to Fatigue

During the release of the most recent update from the Abuse Reform and Implementation Task Force (ARITF), the chairman, Josh Wester, observed a sense of fatigue setting into the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in our response to sexual abuse. He warned against an attitude that desires to move along too quickly.

I appreciate Pastor Wester’s service, the hard work of his committee, and his words of warning. Every pastor I talk to in the SBC agrees with them. We know we have an obligation to keep our people safe, and we are not exhausted by that obligation but invigorated by it.

A Sacred Obligation

Every pastor has a sacred obligation to protect the people in our churches from abuse. Our principal obligation is to prepare people to meet God through the grace of Jesus alone. But no one will listen to anything we have to say about the next life if our ministries place them in jeopardy in this one.

That reality is why the vast majority of churches in the SBC where abuse did not happen have sought to learn from the tragic examples of places where it did happen or was handled improperly. Thousands of churches have used the exposures of abuse to tighten their policies and retrain their people, ensuring greater safety in their ministries.

That is a crucial reality to understand for anyone frustrated by a slow response to abuse. The most important response to abuse in the SBC will not happen on the convention floor or in a temporary committee. The most important response happens in local churches where people actually gather. I don’t know a single pastor waiting for a decision from Nashville to ensure the safety of their people.

Honor Our Cooperation

That doesn’t mean SBC pastors don’t care about the convention-wide response. It is pastors and the members of their congregations who keep showing up as messengers at the convention to request solutions. That demand for solutions, however, has not meant that our convention has had equal love for every proposal from the ARITF.

It is important to know that the difference between the acceptance or rejection of any proposal has nothing to do with anyone’s commitment to ending abuse. The only people who like abuse are abusers. The difference between a proposal’s acceptance or rejection is how faithfully the proposal honors our cooperative partnership in the convention. The most controversial proposals over the years have not been the ones that have the best chance of ending abuse but have been the ones that have tended to have the least amount of respect for the way our churches cooperate.

A Current Example

The leaders that I talk to are excited about the release of the “Ministry Toolkit.” Such a resource is exactly the kind of thing people believe the SBC should be doing. Such resources can be used all over the world in churches, large and small, to declare best practices for a problem we all want to eradicate. Such a resource not only respects our cooperation but helps it.

On the other hand, is the proposed Abuse Response Commission (ARC). The idea is for this commission to host a database of those credibly accused of sexual abuse. Every faithful leader, pastor, and church member ought to be in favor of exposure for any abuser because of the biblical demand to expose the darkness to light (Ephesians 5:11). The questions Southern Baptists have are not first about exposing guilty people, but about whether this particular way is best.

So many questions exist: What will be the ongoing governance structure of this entity? What will be the ongoing funding structure? Will Southern Baptists have the freedom to use other ministries and resources other than this one, or will they be penalized if they do? What ongoing connection to the SBC will this ministry have? Since we are told that other such databases exist, why not use those instead of creating a new one? What will be the ongoing financial burden to the churches of the SBC for such a ministry?

That last question about the financial burden on our churches is a crucial one moving forward. Several SBC entities have already made clear their lack of interest in funding this ministry. Many churches are going to have similar disinterest.

Not about Commitment but Cooperation

If Southern Baptists reject the proposed ARC, it will not be about their commitment to ending abuse but about the nature of cooperation in our denomination. Remember, faithful SBC churches are already pouring money and energy into protecting against abuse. The example of this that I’m most familiar with is First Baptist Church in Jacksonville. Every year, we spend at least six figures on background checks, training, security, technology, and other things to keep our children safe. This year alone, in addition to that figure, we are spending over $3 million on physical upgrades connected to our increasing commitment to keeping kids safe. Our church’s financial commitment to safety cannot be measured by what we send to the SBC.

When our church sends contributions to the cooperative program, it’s not because we are waiting on the SBC to help us keep our people safe in Jacksonville—we have already owned that responsibility. Our gifts to the SBC are to help send missionaries overseas and to provide theological education for ministers of the gospel. We are not asking a large convention apparatus to keep us safe in Jacksonville. We are asking them to help us spread the gospel around the world. That is the basis on which we and thousands of other churches will make a decision about the ARC.

The Way Forward

Over the years, when Southern Baptist leaders have pushed back on ARITF recommendations they have, at times, faced slanderous accusations that they’re opposed to reform. Such hysterics misunderstand the responsibility that every SBC committee has to messengers. That responsibility is not that of the convention to automatically receive what is offered without dispute, debate, or concern. The responsibility is that of the committee to persuade Southern Baptists of their proposals and be willing to receive feedback and correction where they’ve been wrong. SBC committees must be as glad to hear from our convention as our convention is to hear from them.

Such convention feedback is one of the most beautiful and important elements of our cooperation together. We need this feedback because the real experts on abuse prevention are the pastors, children’s workers, security volunteers, and parents in our churches. These are the precious people living, working, and serving on the front lines. They know what is required to address this crisis.

This feedback is not a bug but a feature. It helps rather than hurts. When this feedback occurs, it is an example of a convention that is working, not one that is broken.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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