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First Thoughts

Sexual Abuse and The Future of The Southern Baptist Convention

The exposure of the sin of sexual abuse in our churches created the greatest crisis in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Here are four facts about where our convention truly stands as we head into New Orleans.

1. Southern Baptists Want Sexual Abuse Reform

The exposure of sexual abuse jolted the SBC to the core. One case of sexual abuse would have been overwhelmingly too many. Hundreds of victims are as horrifying as they are heartbreaking. This terrible problem, however, is not where the trouble ends. Sadly, two opposite kinds of people refuse to tell the truth about this crisis. Some have a vested interest in the status quo, have downplayed the problem, and have resisted any good faith efforts at reform. Others have amplified the problem to the point of caricature. They have portrayed the churches of the SBC as if they are collectively guilty of the sins of others. Neither of these extremes is accurate.

The truth is that the SBC has admitted we have a problem and have proven our support for reform. In every single vote on the convention floor, messengers have chosen change, openness, transparency, and safety. Our entities and committees have spent millions on investigations and efforts to support survivors. Our president, Bart Barber, declared in a deposition under oath,

I don’t know of any time that the Convention knew about ongoing abuse and failed to report it. I don’t know about any occasion where the Southern Baptist Convention or the Executive Committee had any involvement in helping an abuser to continue with abuse . . . I don’t know about any illegal thing that they ever did.

This truth is important to me for personal reasons. I was a victim of childhood physical abuse for years. I was also sexually assaulted in elementary school. In each case, the abuser was a family member. It would be wrong for anyone to downplay the abuse I suffered, to deny that it happened, or to refuse to offer help. But it would also be wrong to portray every member of my family as a violent sexual predator. Wickedness exists in each extreme.

You can’t address abuse if you deny that it happens. You also can’t address abuse if you pretend no one wants to help. Our convention is not defined by these extremes. As a whole, we are repulsed by abuse and committed to reform.

2. We Owe the Sex Abuse Task Force a Debt of Gratitude

The SBC tasked the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF) with some of the hardest jobs of any committee. The committee worked relentlessly and faithfully in a good-hearted attempt to fulfill their mandate and protect the vulnerable in our convention.

I don’t know any committee that has ever done its work perfectly—or ever could. The ARITF was certainly imperfect. The report in the spring announcing their recommendation to work with Guidepost Solutions was quite poorly received in the SBC.

The committee responded to the convention-wide disapproval by doing what the best of us would have done. They reached out. They expanded the circle of voices speaking into the situation. They really listened. I personally sat with Marshall Blalock for three hours in a room full of Florida pastors. He was kind, gracious, and wise.

The ARITF learned as they listened and promptly corrected their proposal. In their most recent report, they have made clear that they will not work with Guidepost or any of their affiliates. That is wonderful news.

I don’t know about you, but I have made many wrong decisions in my life and have required plenty of grace for those errors in judgment. All of us who have received grace in those situations must be willing to extend it to others.

The ARITF has worked hard to do the job they were asked, and they have moved the ball down the field. Our convention should be grateful.

3. There Is Not Going to Be a Database for the “Credibly Accused”

In the latest ARITF report, the two biggest headlines were that Guidepost will be out of SBC life and that the task force is slowing down on including the so-called “credibly accused” from any ministry database. It has always been uncontroversial to have a database with predators who have been convicted or have confessed. More controversial and more complicated has been the idea that we would include the “credibly accused.”

The ARITF is clearly realizing the weight of these concerns and is recommending more study. That recommendation is fine as far as it goes, but I’ll stick my neck out and predict that credibly accused people are never going to be included in any database.

This reality has nothing to do with whether the SBC is in favor of abuse reform (see the first point). It also has nothing to do with whether you are personally in favor of the idea or not. This reality has everything to do with whether a database of credibly accused people is possible. At least two reasons exist why the idea is impossible.

A credibly accused database is not possible financially. There is no money for it in our churches or in our convention. Money is a practical limitation on every wonderful intention. An effort to solve world hunger on my personal grocery budget is impossible. I want to stop people from starving but don’t have the means to do it.

It is the same with a credibly accused database. All the will in the world will not create the money to make this happen.

A credibly accused database is also impossible practically. The SBC has no ability to oversee a national process that determines whether people are credibly accused. The idea has been to establish whether one is credibly accused based on the preponderance of evidence standard used in civil courts. Unfortunately, our convention has no way to replicate the clear standards for due process, the opportunity to face your accuser, or the penalties for perjury which are present in the courts. More than that, we have no way to protect against the financial liability when we inevitably face litigation over a wrong decision to put someone on the database.

The fact is that a database of those credibly accused of abuse is not going to happen. The quicker we realize this, the quicker we can move to real solutions.

4. The SBC Has a Long Way to Go to Truly Protect Potential Victims

I am not saying all our churches are unsafe. Far from it. My church works hard to ensure the safety of our children. Many of yours do too. But at the convention level, we have miles to go. So far, our most significant conversations have been around things like the website, which, by definition, is meant to report abuse that has already happened. Southern Baptists need to keep abusers from repeating their sinful crimes, but we also must prohibit predators from harming anyone in the first place.

My prayer is that the next phase of convention energy could focus on staying ahead of the predators—not merely reporting what they have already done.

Train, Enforce, Report

Right now, our convention could adopt a threefold strategy to begin helping our churches become safer than they are. The strategy is Train, Enforce, Report.

Every church must train every worker caring for children. There are ways to select volunteers, hire staff, and equip our people that lowers the risk children face in our ministries. Our convention and its entities could begin today to equip our churches with these resources. It would do worlds of good.

But churches cannot train their workers and then forget about it. We must enforce our training. Children’s workers must be held accountable for following the rules of working with children. When the rules are violated, staff members must be fired, and volunteers moved to areas of service away from our kids.

Finally, when there is an accusation of wrongdoing, our churches must report it. It must be a strict rule that every accusation of abuse gets reported to the authorities. These authorities are the best independent third party available. They are best equipped to investigate claims, punish criminals, declare who is guilty, and protect the weak.

Our convention could begin today to equip our churches to train, enforce, and report. Such a strategy will not solve all our problems, but it would be a start. And it would be better than announcing who the predators are after they have already hurt someone. This plan would not require our convention or its entities to make any unnecessary demands of our cooperating churches. It only requires us to do what we are already doing. The SBC has seminaries, state conventions, and other entities that hire ministry experts to provide training and expertise in everything from missions to theology. These entities must add to their curriculum the best practices on how to protect people in our ministries.

This crisis is the biggest one in the history of our denomination for a reason.

We don’t have the right to preach the gospel at our churches if we place people in danger when they come to hear what we have to say. We must conquer this problem, and we really can. We can be a convention that is faithful, transparent, and safe. But doing that requires work. And we don’t have another moment to lose.

This is part 5 of a series of blog posts on the Future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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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