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First Thoughts

Four Facts about Sexual Abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention

Part 1: Abuse Is a Real Problem, but Is Not What We Were Told

From Confusion to Clarity

Any encounter with sexual abuse leads to an explosion of pain, shock, and confusion. That was true for me in the fifth grade when my 300-pound older stepbrother dragged me out of bed and sexually assaulted me. Pain, shock, and confusion also struck our convention when we first encountered the abuse that had taken place in some of our churches.

But over time and by God’s grace, clarity grows out of confusion. One slow step at a time, you come to understand what is really going on and begin to have a sense of how to move forward.

Many developments since 2019 are helping Southern Baptists grow in clarity, but the most recent ones have been an update from the Abuse Reform and Implementation Task Force (ARITF) and an announcement about the Justice Department investigation.

As Southern Baptists prepare for Indianapolis, we have growing clarity on the state of sexual abuse in the SBC. One fact that is increasingly clear is that sexual abuse in the SBC is a real problem but is not what we were told.

A Real Problem

We have been talking about a sex abuse crisis in the SBC since the Houston Chronicle exposed hundreds of cases of abuse taking place over a long period of time in many different places throughout the country. Some convention leaders have tried to move too quickly past this revelation and make it seem like this is no big deal. Such a response is wrong because the problem is a very real one.

The horror of sexual abuse is grounded in the precious innocence of children, the sanctity of marital sex, and the sacred trust that pastors have to protect those in our ministries. Any form of sexual abuse is an assault against those cherished realities. A single victim is infinitely one too many, and the minimization of any sexual sin is sinful itself.

Southern Baptists have been right to expose this crisis, to own it, and to fight like crazy to fix it.

Not the Problem We Were Told

It is also the case that this very real crisis has not happened on the scale that some have claimed. A correct understanding of the scale of the crisis doesn’t make it not a crisis. A crisis doesn’t have to be the worst one imaginable to be worthy of the title.

In every meeting of the SBC since the initial exposure of abuse, the convention has demonstrated their total commitment to responding to this crisis. They have publicly expressed repentance and called others to do the same. They have passed resolutions about the sin of sexual abuse, have demanded openness and accountability, paid millions of dollars in independent investigations, cooperated with law enforcement, allowed victims to speak, created task forces, developed church resources, and more. The last five years have been dominated by efforts to make our churches more safe. Now, after years of private and federal investigations, no evidence currently exists of any convention-wide conspiracy to harm innocent people or to cover up such harm.

The truth is that over many years and throughout many places in the country, horrible things happened to innocent people. Crimes were committed. Some went unreported. It happened in the dark and was sinful. But when the facts were made known, Southern Baptists marshalled every effort to ensure our congregations are safe from predators.

The voices that have minimized the crisis and the ones that have exaggerated it are both corrupt. The prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). God condemns those who won’t describe a situation as it is. Our convention should do the same.

A Global Problem, not a Denominational One

The sad reality is that the real sexual abuse crisis is far worse than almost anyone acknowledges. Sexual sin has been inseparable from life in a fallen world since Adam and Eve first sinned and realized they were naked. In one way or another, sexual abuse touches every individual, every family, and every institution.

Sexual abuse impacts every trade group and professional society. It is in churches, in governments, and in Hollywood. It exists in police departments and in volunteer associations. It has happened in public elementary schools and in private Christian universities. Any newspaper reporter could find horrifying stories of abuse to uncover in every place, from fire departments to basketball leagues.

This tragedy is not first a Christian problem, a Catholic problem, a denominational problem, or even a male problem. It is a global sin problem. It infects all time and place.

So, Now What?

In a world overrun with sexual abuse, we need the SBC. The SBC is dominated by churches full of faithful pastors, parents, grandparents, young adults, and volunteers who want to ensure the safety of every person in our communities. We learned the painful truth that predators sought to break into our churches and hurt our people. But the last several years have found those predators locked out of churches by Christians committed to safety, security, and purity. This abusive world would be much worse without the commitment of millions of Southern Baptists to address this crisis as they have.

The day I was personally introduced to sexual abuse, I was able to discern what was happening and what was not happening. There was a problem with sexual abuse with one member of my family. The problem was not with everyone in my family or even with most of them. That clarity led to help. I ran to my dad, and he helped me.

There are solutions for our problem with sexual abuse. But knowing where to run for help means knowing what is really going on. Clarity moving forward means declaring the real truth about sexual abuse in the SBC.

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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