The Southern Baptist Convention is in more trouble than we have seen in a long time. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of our convention is at stake. Southern Baptists have always been able to resolve their problems, and I have confidence that we can again, but this urgent moment is going to require the very best of each one of us.
A great deal depends on how we address several issues in Anaheim this June. I have already addressed the importance of leadership. In the weeks ahead, I am going to address several other problems that Baptists must begin to solve as we prepare to meet in Southern California this summer.
One of the most significant issues is abuse.
The Roman Catholic scandal of priest abuses was breaking when I was getting my start as a pastor. That means that my entire adult life has been lived in the shadow of scandal regarding sex abuse in ministry. Unfortunately, that scandal was not to be the last. The stench of sexual abuse was revealed to be a massive problem in the Southern Baptist Convention when the Houston Chronicle reported on hundreds of cases of abuse in a story in 2019.
The abuses that have taken place in the SBC are not all the same. Some leaders were guilty of abusive acts, others sought to cover up such abuses, still, others failed to respond to victims with wisdom and care. The combination of sin and ministry malpractice created a shockwave of skepticism and determined resolve on the part of many to address the situation.
Personally, I am thankful that these instances of abuse, cover-up, and incompetence have been exposed. Christians must be the very best at protecting the weak and creating a culture of care. When this is not true of us, we must confront the evidence, identify the problems, and we must change.
Unfortunately, I do not know many people who would say that Southern Baptists have done a very good job in this process. There has been too much effort to conceal, too much lack of wisdom at exposure, too many job losses, and too much fighting.
It is this fighting spirit that is of the greatest concern to me. The conflict demonstrates that we are not united. Different and competing agendas lead to all the other fights we are seeing. This competition is going to lead to a disaster this summer when the sexual abuse task force releases its report. No finding of theirs will be helpful if the messengers who receive it are unable to work together in response.
If our convention is going to get to the other side of this difficulty in one piece, we must find a way to achieve unity. That attempt at unity is where I want to focus here.
I think it is helpful to identify four different groups in the current scandal on abuse. It is notoriously difficult to identify divisions, as there are always multiple ways to slice any pie. Yet understanding these groups does much to help us understand the lay of the land.
The first group of people are leaders in the SBC who view the current abuse crisis as a threat to their power. They have held the reigns of denominational leadership for decades in some cases. Their concern is that this crisis will relocate power away from them. They are guilty of abuse themselves, mishandling abuse, or protecting their friends who abused others. Their guilt and interest in power means their goal in this crisis is to cover, stonewall, and, ultimately, to move along without much change.
The second group of people are leaders in the SBC who view the current abuse crisis as an opportunity to improve the convention. These leaders, regardless of the location and length of their tenure, know that the SBC needs to grow in its ability to offer wise care. They are heartbroken over the mistreatment experienced by any victim and want to work for meaningful and lasting change. They know that the only way our witness can be preserved is with heartfelt repentance. They view this crisis as an opportunity to discover the truth of what happened, fix the problems, and do everything possible to ensure it never happens again.
The third group is largely composed of people existing outside denominational leadership who are victims and victim advocates. They have first-hand experience with the pain of abuse and the agony of cover-ups. They know that religious people can sometimes be the most ignorant in responding to abuse. They have no interest in the politics of denominational life, but only want to ensure that weak people are protected. They are in this fight seeking that protection and they will not quit until it is provided.
The fourth group of people are also outsiders to denominational leadership. Many in this group are victims and victim advocates, but their agenda is selfish and sinister in comparison to Group 3. These people are motivated by the opportunity this crisis affords to promote themselves. They use the crisis and even their own stories of pain for the purpose of gaining a larger platform for themselves. Along the way, many of them are happy to be involved in the demise of a denomination. In fact, being involved in the destruction of America’s largest Protestant denomination would give them a boost and contribute to their self-promotion. They are not concerned about reform within the denomination but use calls for reform as the opportunity to boost their platform.
One of the most striking things to me is not the existence of these separate groups, but that the lines of division between them have seemed to be in exactly the wrong places. Far too many people understand the dividing line to exist between Group 2 and Group 3. If this is where we draw the line, then the division is between the insiders and the outsiders. This division places everyone in the current leadership of the SBC at odds with anyone outside of the leadership.
Placing the line here is unproductive and untrue. As a matter of fact, the denominational insiders in Group 1 are working to oppose not just outsider abuse advocates, but those of us who have devoted our lives to the SBC and who want to achieve reform. Outsiders in Group 4 have undermined good faith efforts from within the denomination to address this crisis.
Who Is In and Who is Out?
The cold, hard fact is that Groups 1 and 4 have no natural allies in the current conflict. Group 1 wants to sustain the SBC as-is to preserve their power and reputation. Group 4 would be willing to see the SBC go up in flames to promote their power and reputation. The members of both groups are selfish. They will make selfish alliances for a season that are useful in their pursuit of power, but these will be made in bad faith and will be temporary. Ultimately both groups are bad for the convention.
The Southern Baptist Convention is too important to be the instrument of anyone’s self-promotion. If the convention is to survive, it cannot be in support of anyone’s ego. If our convention is about providing a platform for people who want a name for themselves, then we do not deserve to exist any longer. If we go in the direction of Groups 1 and 4, we will not exist for long.
The two allies in this fight are Groups 2 and 3. Our commitment to the convention, desire to help victimized people, and resolve to change constitute a true path forward in this crisis. We know we must hear and learn from the stories of abuse. We know we can never go back to the way things were, and we must reject any leadership that would seek to have us do so. We also know that the convention’s leadership is not created equal and attacks on everyone with influence is the quickest way to ensure that the convention moves forward with corrupt leadership committed to the status quo.
Those of us in Groups 2 and 3 need to find each other between now and June.
How can we do this? How can the outsiders know the insiders in Group 1 from the ones in Group 2? The answer is found in the seriousness of abuse and the importance of accountability. Those people in Group 2 know how important abuse is and, therefore, know how important it is to have meaningful accountability on this matter. The insiders in Group 1 have a dangerous tendency to minimize abuse and, therefore, think accountability is unnecessary. If you’re in Group 3 and you’re looking for friends in SBC leadership, look for those whose hearts break over the sin of abuse and who are opposed to cover-ups.
What about the other side of the coin? How can the insiders who want reform tell the difference between outsiders in Group 3 and the ones in Group 4? The answer is found in integrity. Abuse advocates with integrity will see this as an opportunity to protect victims of abuse, not an opportunity to advance their own fame or to steer convention theology in a liberal direction. If you’re in Group 2 and you’re looking for an ally in the world of abuse advocacy, look for someone who wants to create a convention that is safe for the weak, not one who is scheming to create a new convention in their own image.
After those of us in Groups 2 and 3 find each other, we need to work together to call to repentance those in Groups 1 and 4. We need to work together to see that the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention are safe places for the weak and vulnerable. This is the only way our denomination can move forward preaching Christ with credibility.
We really can do this. The Southern Baptist Convention can change. It can be better than it was. It can be the very best convention of churches in the world at protecting victims and responding to abuse. More than that, we must be the best.
But this is going to take a lot of grace and it is going to take a lot of unity. That unity is going to require those of us who really want to see the SBC improve to know who we are fighting with and who we are fighting against.
May God help us.