We have been waiting for months for the Report of the Independent Investigation to detail sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention and the response to that abuse. That report was released yesterday afternoon; I read it with great interest and a broken heart. The report is full of abuse, pain, cover-up, and sin. Every Christian must mourn the shocking mistreatment that so many precious people received at the hands of those charged with their care.
The report is long and complex with many details, but at the risk of oversimplification, I want to communicate the report’s findings in one sentence. For years a group of leaders in the Southern Baptist Executive Committee resisted openness, transparency, and protection of sexual abuse victims out of a desire to protect the convention against legal liability.
This is a tragedy. For my entire adult life, I have been in some level of leadership in various Christian ministries. Legal liability is always an important issue, but it should never be prioritized over our commitment to faithfulness, especially when that faithfulness places hundreds and thousands of innocent people at risk. One great lesson of this report is that Christians must always put our love for people ahead of a desire to protect our ministries. This lesson is not new (Matthew 22:38-40).
As horrifying as the report is, I must tell you that the dominant emotion I had as I read it was gratitude and encouragement. As I read the various other responses circulating out there, I am aware that my response seems unusual. So, I want to share with you three reasons why I am so encouraged by such a devastating report and why I hope you will be too.
The idea of exposing the darkness to light was God’s idea before it occurred to any group in the Southern Baptist Convention, “But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light” (Ephesians 5:13).
For years, Southern Baptists have been asking for an open, honest accounting of abuse, and now we have it. We must be grateful and encouraged to possess this information.
To be absolutely clear, we are not thankful and encouraged by abuse. In the days ahead, I will be making clear how repulsively wicked sexual abuse is. It is at odds with everything Christian ministry is about. A single victim of abuse is overwhelmingly one too many. Even one cover-up is inexcusable. In fact, that is the point.
The problem is not the exposure of abuse. The problem is the abuse. In a world where these abuses are happening, the exposure of them is a good thing. God hates the darkness. He loves to expose the darkness to light. And now he has.
In this report, I am encouraged because I see the gracious hand of God exposing horrifying darkness that has been covered far too long.
God has been merciful to us.
The Southern Baptist Convention is massive, with tens of thousands of churches and millions of people. One of the most noteworthy elements of the report was how a relatively small group of people worked to keep that massive convention in the dark. They resisted accountability, reporting, and transparency. They did it for decades. They were wrong.
They proved to be ineffective, however, in fighting the convention. Ultimately, thousands of Southern Baptists came together and took charge of the situation. They demanded openness and transparency, and they got it. Just as in the days of the conservative resurgence, the faithful masses came and wrestled control from the faithless few.
This is a fundamental good. It is a mark of health. It is the reason why Southern Baptists have been able to remain faithful when other denominations have stumbled. In a sinful world, people will sin and do awful things. From the bottom of my heart, I wish it were not so, but it is. In that terrible world where awful things happen in every organization, I am thankful for a convention that holds its leaders to account. The reckoning came, and it came at the insistence of Southern Baptists.
God has been merciful to us.
The report details abuse, mistreatment, and cover-up by several significant leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention. That is as true as it is lamentable. We should pray for accountability for every instance of corruption.
But there was good news in the report too. The report identified many faithful leaders in the convention who refused to play by the rules of concealment and cover-up. Just two examples from the report are Al Mohler from Southern Seminary and J.D. Greear during his time as SBC president. Each of these men, in their own way, sought to serve Jesus and the convention by faithfully responding to abuse victims and demanding that others do so as well.
There are more faithful examples outside of the report throughout our convention. The Southern Baptist Convention is full of thousands of faithful churches demanding that we handle this crucial issue in a way that protects people and honors Jesus. These leaders have helped us get to this crucial point of transparency.
God has been merciful to us.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. All is not well. The report chronicles devasting instances of abuse, negligence, cover-up, and mistreatment. It is worse than that. The report does not tell us about the countless victims who never came forward and the predators we do not yet know about. We should be sobered by all that we do not know. Our churches have a massive amount of work to do to ensure the protection of every innocent person.
As we do that work, it is clear that the real Southern Baptist Convention—the combined voice of thousands of churches—will work to correct its representatives in the convention apparatus. The sex abuse task force has called for a three-year period of review to determine what needs to change. I believe the churches that demanded the exposure of these sins will be equally committed to correcting what has been uncovered. We all must pray that this correction will happen with wisdom, care, and vigor.
I know those same churches will not wait for convention officials to clean up their act before they do the work of protecting people within their ministries. The church I am most familiar with in this regard is my own. It is a source of shame to me that my church was named in the report for abuse that was perpetrated on one of our precious former members. In the 30 years since that event, there has been a complete turnover in our leadership, we carefully screen and train all staff and volunteers, we have strict policies about protecting innocent people from abuse which are reviewed annually and carefully enforced, we report any instance of abuse to the authorities, and we have systems that care for those who have been abused. We are not waiting on the convention. We are loving, serving, and protecting victims now. I know there are thousands of churches just like us.
More than any of that, I trust the living Christ. Jesus is going to build his church (Matthew 16:18). He is going to love and protect his little ones (Matthew 18:6). He is going to ensure that on the other side of this, our churches are better, stronger, and safer. I trust him who died for all our sins to carry us through the exposure of these sins.
He has been merciful to us. He will be merciful still.
That makes me really encouraged.
Dr. Heath Lambert has been the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville since 2017. He is the author of several books, including Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace.