A Southern Baptist Seminary Professor Reflects on the SBC Sexual Abuse Scandal

SOutheastern

Last week we did a post on the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News reporting on a major sexual abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Over at First Things, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary administrator Keith Whitfield challenges his fellow Southern Baptists to take a hard look at what that convention has become.  Here is a taste:

The past twelve months have been a heart-rending season, with a handful of dismissals surrounding sexual misconduct and one for the mishandling of cases of sexual misconduct. Now another shoe has dropped: The Houston Chronicle published three articles—“Abuse of Faith,” “Offend, Then Repeat,” and “Preying on Teens”—on more than 700 abuse cases that occurred in Southern Baptist churches over the past 20 years. The banner graphic is a chilling mosaic of mug shots of Southern Baptists who were convicted or pleaded guilty to sexual abuse, faces that represent only a portion of the 220 known perpetrators since 1998.

It is devastating to realize that many of these accounts have been known for years. These survivors and many others have attempted to tell their stories, but their voices have been silenced. At times, their pleas have been ignored. In other instances, the accusations have been handled “in house” to protect the reputations of churches and leaders. Some survivors were even encouraged to “forgive and forget” those who victimized them. These responses are unacceptable, reflect complicity in the abuse of the vulnerable, and provide a place for predators.

As Southern Baptists, we have to come to face reality: These reports show a systemic problem spanning decades of neglect in handling abuse cases in our local churches and through our cooperative structures. While some of these same issues may be present in churches outside the SBC, this is the moment the Lord has appointed for us to deal with them in our cooperative family of churches. The SBC faces a moral crisis as big (if not bigger) than the theological crisis we faced over the “battle for the Bible” in the 1970s–1980s. The theological crisis called us to protect the faith; this challenge calls us to live it. 

I believe there are five key systemic reasons for our negligence that allowed for the disturbing scope of the abuses outlined in the Chronicle‘s report. 

Read the entire piece here.  It is a heartfelt reflection from an SBC insider that is worth your time.

I just have one issue with the piece, and I think it sheds more light on the current state of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Whitfield writes: “The SBC faces a moral crisis as big (if not bigger) than the theological crisis we faced over the ‘battle for the Bible’ in the 1970s-1980s.”  I am bothered by Whitfield’s decision to equate (or nearly equate) the sexual abuse of women in the convention with the fight over the inerrancy of the Bible.  The former is a moral crisis.  The later was a fundamentalist attempt to use one evangelical interpretation of the Bible as a means to win political control of a Protestant denomination.  There is no comparison.

12 thoughts on “A Southern Baptist Seminary Professor Reflects on the SBC Sexual Abuse Scandal

  1. John, thank you for interacting with my article. Don’t know how I missed this when you first posted it. Regret that I am late to this interaction. You are exactly right. Sexual abuse is far worse. I see how comparing the two issues is way too understated for SBC outsiders. To SBC’ers, it was read very differently. Just relating them and saying sexual abuse is a bigger issue than innerancy elevated the gravity of the issue for our tribe. Granted elevating the severity of sexual abuse should have never been needed, but as the piece admits, we have a history and practice of neglect when it comes to handling the issue rightly. Our fumbling around since February unfortunately does not suggest we’ve made much progress. Anyway, thanks again for excerpting the piece and your help critique, which I fully agree with.

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  2. John,
    Sure. Traditional Roman Catholicism and probably Eastern Orthodoxy manage it well. It is, however, a more difficult balancing act within Evangelicalism. The whole process also is clouded by the difficulty of pinpointing the definition of inerrancy.
    James

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  3. RSchooler,

    That’s a rather strong charge you make about inerrancy necessarily involving a bias against women. Can you elaborate on your theory?
    James

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  4. John, I agree with you. Driving out the liberals and moderates is not comparable to allowing sexual abuse. The problem is that Whitfield sees a connection. The inerrantist theory has at its core an anti woman bias.

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  5. Yes. There has to be, (and a halfway wise pastor should want this) a very firm rule against private sessions of any kind without at least some means of monitoring as you mentioned. They can’t be meeting any potentially vulnerable person off campus either. They should voluntarily agree failures in keeping that agreement, even if nothing improper happened, comes with termination or at least a serious consequence.
    The reputation of the church and Christ is at stake.

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  6. Sheridan,

    I am not a Southern Baptist and don’t want to carry water for them. Personally, however, I can say with certitude that ordaining women is not the solution. It is contrary to their interpretation of scripture. It just wouldn’t work denominationally. They just need to do a much better job of screening ministerial applicants and monitoring those already in place.

    A lot of the predatory behavior occurs in private counseling sessions. Accordingly, I can see the implementation of rules whereby pastors are never allowed to be in private meetings with vulnerable, trusting congregants. For starters each pastor’s office vould be retrofitted with walls which contain large glass plates allowing full visibility into the office. A trusted female church secretary or other disinterested female party needs to be immediately in the outer section with a full view but not necessarily auditory access to the meeting. Obviously, there are many other safeguards which could be implemented. Procedures have been far too unstructured over the years.

    In my opinion, most ministers who conduct private counseling sessions or meetings with females are not predators. By the same token, they are not wise men. Even the remote appearance of wrongdoing should drive them to modify their routine meeting practices.

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  7. “I am bothered by Whitfield’s decision to equate (or nearly equate) the sexual abuse of women in the convention with the fight over the inerrancy of the Bible. The former is a moral crisis. The later was a fundamentalist attempt to use one evangelical interpretation of the Bible as a means to win political control of a Protestant denomination. There is no comparison.”

    The trouble is that in many Christian circles the priorities are skewed to the opposite direction–like, I think I know what you mean when you say “no comparison,” but I still want to ask for clarification and ask which you think is worse. I know churches where incidents of abuse are meaningless when stacked against the notion that “inerrant” isn’t the only way to interpret or value scripture. Dogmatism has a way of eroding or destroying moral intuition.

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  8. Keith Whitfield’s article includes the following sentence:

    “The banner graphic is a chilling mosaic of mug shots of Southern Baptists who were convicted or pleaded guilty to sexual abuse, faces that represent only a portion of the 220 known perpetrators since 1998.”

    One doesn’t have to look too closely at the banner graphic of mug shots to see that every mug shot is a picture of a man. It is obvious to me that Southern Baptists have a “men in power” problem. If they want to do something about their “men in power” problem, perhaps they should consider ordaining more women and putting more women into positions of power. This may not totally eliminate the problem, but it is better than the Southern Baptists maintaining the status quo.

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  9. Whitfield’s recall of the “battle for the Bible” moment is a Freudian slip. Women were the collateral damage in that moment, as well, and the theological connections between these two SBC “moments” is horribly obvious.

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