Sexual Abuse & the Southern Baptist Convention

Evil is never so evil as when done in the name of religion.

It’s “a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be…a true horror.” – Russell Moore

You can read about it in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, or Yahoo! News.  It’s everywhere for the world to see. Take your pick.  Or, should I say, pick your poison.

What is “it”?

“It” is the third-party, independent report released by Guidepost Solutions on May 22, 2022, in response to Sexual Abuse Allegations toward pastoral leadership within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

The scandal is not simply the crimes, but also the attempt to cover it all up by leadership within the SBC, thereby doing the unthinkable: blaming the victims, and permitting the accused to continue serving in leadership positions in churches.

The abusers comprise not only pastors, but also deacons, Sunday School/Small Group leaders, and other volunteer leaders within the local churches.

In a follow-up editorial by the Washington Post, the writer does a good job of disseminating exactly why the investigative report was initiated:

The SBC, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, on Sunday released a report by independent investigators that describes in nearly 300 pages of scathing detail how the Executive Committee that runs the convention’s day-to-day operations and its lawyers conspired to squelch complaints of predator pastors to avoid legal liability. Guidepost Solutions, which interviewed about 330 people and amassed five terabytes of data over the course of its eight-month investigation, examined abuse reports from women and children against male ministers from 2000 to 2021. Among the damning revelations: Senior leaders, including three former presidents, protected or even supported abusers; women and girls who were subjected to sexual abuse were re-victimized by a system that sought to demonize them; leaders falsely claimed they could not maintain a database of offenders to prevent abuse when a secret list of more than 700 abusive pastors had been compiled. No action was taken to ensure the accused ministers were no longer in positions to do harm.

What you just read is about a system infected with cowardice, ego, and deceit.  It’s reprehensible, disgraceful, criminal. 

An entity called the SBC Executive Committee was mentioned above.  The SBC EC is comprised of elected members, some employed full-time by the SBC, others who serve as pastors of local churches, and others who are leaders in their communities.  The following should be noted:

  • Denominations i.e. Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, etc., are all created by man due to doctrinal differences (different interpretations of parts of scripture – I’ve served as a pastor in a Southern Baptist church for almost forty years).  But it gets even more confusing.  For example, within the Baptist denomination you have your choice of Southern Baptist, Fundamental Baptist, Primitive Baptist, and the list goes on. It reminds me of Baskin-Robbins’ 31 Flavors.  But, there won’t be any denominations in heaven.
  • Further, each denomination uniquely employs what we call polity i.e. their system of governance.  So, when we talk about the Southern Baptist Convention, what kind of church government are we talking about?  Unlike, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church, there is no hierarchy within the thousands of churches who identify as Southern Baptist.  Every single church is autonomous, meaning those holding leadership roles within the SBC have zero authority over any Southern Baptist Church.  To put it simply, the leadership within the SBC are to serve, and be accountable to, the churches, not vice versa.

Before I begin, I want to make certain two things are clear: 

  • First, some have tried to deflect from “judging” those guilty of sexual abuse, saying, “Hey, we’re all broken.”  Of course we are.  Through Jeremiah, God warned, “The heart of man is deceitfully wicked…”  No one is disagreeing with this biblical truth.  All of us – every last one of us, myself included – are capable of the most heinous of crimes.  I read a centuries-old prayer years ago that included this statement:  “O Lord, if you did not hold us back every moment, we would be devils incarnate.” But, that doctrine – the depravity of mankind – is a different topic.  This blog is about the corruption and abuse of power within the SBC leadership, and their attempt to cover up pastoral sexual abuse.
  • Second, there are thousands of humble, pastor-shepherds who have faithfully loved their people, and shepherded their respective churches for decades with utmost integrity. But, they don’t get the press. 

Those exposed in this report are those who, at some point in their life, became intoxicated with power and prestige, corrupt, the pictures of hubris, believing they’re untouchable, beyond the reach of consequences for their actions.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. – Lord Acton

The report released this past Sunday is actually the product of a story that was written in 2019 when the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News blew the top off of it on Sunday, February 10th.  Christianity Today commented the very next day by writing:

In Sunday’s report, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News were able to do what victims say the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has failed to for years: provide a picture of the extent of the abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention and a database of those found guilty of their crimes.

With allegations against 380 church leaders in 20 states (a majority of whom were convicted or took plea deals), it’s believed to be the biggest report on sexual abuse among Southern Baptists in the movement’s history.

This begs the question: “So, why wasn’t this addressed in 2019?  Why weren’t these wolves exposed then?”  Good question.  The answer?  Because many of those now publicly exposed in the Report had “skeletons in the closet.”  And they did everything in their power to keep a lid on it. 

You can begin to see why there is so much outrage today.

To perpetuate the cover-up, we often heard the cry,  “If this gets out, it will only bring division and hurt to our cause to reach the world for Jesus Christ!”

Make no mistake: they stopped caring about the cause of Christ the moment they started scheming to cover up the truth.  The stain brought to “the cause” is on them, no one else.

My friends, never – never – put “unity” over truth. 

That kind of unity is not unity – it’s conformity enforced by fear and manipulation.  God abhors “dishonest scales” i.e. deception, lying.

The following post by one of the victims/survivors sums up the reason for the outrage:

“They had the list of our abusers. They could have stopped the abuse. Instead, the Southern Baptist Convention decided to let us be raped and tortured for the sake of their Gospel, their Mission, and their Church.”

The report by Guidepost Solutions is 288 pages long.  It’s thorough.  It’s sickening.  On page 2, you will find the Table of Contents.  You can choose to read what you want, or nothing at all.

Abuse from church and ministry leaders continues to make headlines.  Scandals reported within the life and ministry of Ravi Zacharias in 2021, and more recently, in the Discovery Plus documentary, “Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed” are sobering reminders.

Additionally, perhaps you saw the story of the Indiana pastor who, just this past Sunday, publicly confessed to his church that he was involved in an inappropriate relationship years ago.   I’m not sure if he was hoping for sympathy and/or applause for his “courage” to come clean.  But, that’s clearly not what God had in mind.  Immediately after he finished, the girl he sexually abused – who was only 16 years old at the time – approached the platform, took the mic and, in the words of Paul Harvey, told the rest of the story.   It was a powerful moment.  Not only did the precious girl (now a grown woman) stand up for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (something the SBC EC did not do), but then her husband publicly confronted the pastor, as well. (I was able to view the video footage before it was taken down from social media.  But the article I’ve linked for you from the NY Post was able to include photos of the couple fearlessly standing before the people and the pastor who sexually abused the young girl.)

How do pastors end up doing these sort of despicable acts? Almost always, it doesn’t happen overnight.  It’s a slow burn, perhaps years in the making.  Satan is a smooth operator.  And he’ll take, if necessary, years to set us up for a fall.  (If you’ve never listened to the podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, it would behoove you to do so.)

Oh, my friends, this is precisely why I’ve written a number of times on social media about always providing loving, healthy accountability for your church leadership (you can read those blogs here, here, and here.)  And if you have a pastor who is resistant to accountability, or altogether refuses it, get rid of him. 

Pastors are not heroes.  We’re not celebrities.  We’re just people.  We’re people who have – hopefully – given our lives and careers to leading people to the hope, love and truth we have in Christ Jesus – but just people, nonetheless.  So please don’t create an environment that might lead your pastor to believe he’s at celebrity-status.  I saw one quote from someone who had been abused that said, “There is a demographic of church members today who actually want a narcissistic person as their lead pastor.” Translation: just like we do with professional athletes, we tend to treat them like gods.  And you know what?  After a little while, they believe they are. The 19th century, British pastor, Charles Spurgeon, warned,

“Christians are not so much in danger when they are persecuted as when they are admired.”

But, that couldn’t be further from what Jesus modeled, taught, or had in mind where church leadership is concerned.

The men accused in this Guidepost Solutions report, somewhere along the way,  forgot (or never knew) that the biblical word for “pastor” means “shepherd,” not CEO.  At some point along the way, they came to believe they were above accountability, and in some cases above the law.

Have you ever heard a church leader boast, “I would never do that!”  To that church leader I would say something like, “Congratulations.  You just said what Satan has been waiting for you to say. He loves a challenge.  And when we are not walking closely with Christ, Satan always wins.  Paul warned,

Therefore let the one who thinks he stands firm [immune to temptation, being overconfident and self-righteous], take care that he does not fall [into sin and condemnation].1 Corinthians 10:12, amp

Of course, that warning is for all Christians, church leaders or not.  We’re simply using it here within the context of the present topic.

Allow me to close by bringing attention to three groups of people, and then a final editorial.

The victims (and their families). So many hurting.  Violated. Tormented.  This report, albeit right, will trigger memories they have been desperately trying to forget.  Lift them to Jesus. More than the news from the report, I have been reading the words of the victims. I have wept. What if that were my child? My heart breaks. You can watch one victim’s story here.

The families of the accused. These are the collateral damage. They are also victims, albeit differently than the abused. Lift them to Jesus.

The abusers. I hope I’ve conveyed in this blog I am no better than they are, capable of ruining my ministry and life in a moment. They are no less loved by Christ than the rest of us. Should they continue to serve in leadership? Absolutely not. Should we look down on them as Pharisees? Absolutely not. Lift them to Jesus.

Lastly, I quoted Russell Moore at the beginning of this blog for a reason.  He writes with righteous indignation. But, because of his leadership experience within the SBC, he brings insight many of us cannot provide. So, I’ll close by inviting you to read what he said.  Christianity Today requires a subscription, so I have included Moore’s entire editorial for you below.

Pray for your church leaders.  If Satan wants to take out the sheep, he’ll begin by taking out the shepherd.  Nick

They were right. I was wrong to call sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) a crisis. Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse.

Someone asked me a few weeks ago what I expected from the third-party investigation into the handling of sexual abuse by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. I said I didn’t expect to be surprised at all. How could I be? I lived through years with that entity. I was the one who called for such an investigation in the first place.

And yet, as I read the report, I found that I could not swipe the screen to the next page because my hands were shaking with rage. That’s because, as dark a view as I had of the SBC Executive Committee, the investigation uncovers a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be.

The conclusions of the report are so massive as to almost defy summation. It corroborates and details charges of deception, stonewalling, and intimidation of victims and those calling for reform. It includes written conversations among top Executive Committee staff and their lawyers that display the sort of inhumanity one could hardly have scripted for villains in a television crime drama. It documents callous cover-ups by some SBC leaders and credible allegations of sexually predatory behavior by some leaders themselves, including former SBC president Johnny Hunt (who was one of the only figures in SBC life who seemed to be respected across all of the typical divides).

And then there is the documented mistreatment by the Executive Committee of a sexual abuse survivor, whose own story of her abuse was altered to make it seem that her abuse was a consensual “affair”—resulting, as the report corroborates, in years of living hell for her.

For years, leaders in the Executive Committee said a database—to prevent sexual predators from quietly moving from one church to another, to a new set of victims—had been thoroughly investigated and found to be legally impossible, given Baptist church autonomy. My mouth fell open when I read documented proof in the report that these very people not only knew how to have a database, they already had one.

Allegations of sexual violence and assault were placed, the report concludes, in a secret file in the SBC Nashville headquarters. It held over 700 cases. Not only was nothing done to stop these predators from continuing their hellish crimes, staff members were reportedly told not to even engage those asking about how to stop their child from being sexually violated by a minister. Rather than a database to protect sexual abuse victims, the report reveals that these leaders had a database to protect themselves.

Indeed, the very ones who rebuked me and others for using the word crisis in reference to Southern Baptist sexual abuse not only knew that there was such a crisis but were quietly documenting it, even as they told those fighting for reform that such crimes rarely happened among “people like us.” When I read the back-and-forth between some of these presidents, high-ranking staff, and their lawyers, I cannot help but wonder what else this can be called but a criminal conspiracy.

The true horror of all of this is not just what has been done, but also how it happened. Two extraordinarily powerful affirmations of everyday Southern Baptists—biblical fidelity and cooperative mission—were used against them.

Those outside the SBC world cannot imagine the power of the mythology of the Café Du Monde—the spot in the French Quarter of New Orleans where, over beignets and coffee, two men, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, mapped out on a napkin how the convention could restore a commitment to the truth of the Bible and to faithfulness to its confessional documents.

For Southern Baptists of a certain age, this story is the equivalent of the Wittenberg door for Lutherans or Aldersgate Street for Methodists. The convention was saved from liberalism by the courage of these two men who wouldn’t back down, we believed. In fact, I taught this story to my students.

Those two mythical leaders are now disgraced. One was fired after alleged mishandling a rape victim’s report in an institution he led after he was documented making public comments about the physical appearance of teenage girls and his counsel to women physically abused by their husbands. The other is now in civil proceedings about allegations of the rape of young men.

We were told they wanted to conserve the old time religion. What they wanted was to conquer their enemies and to make stained-glass windows honoring themselves—no matter who was hurt along the way.

Who cannot now see the rot in a culture that mobilizes to exile churches that call a woman on staff a “pastor” or that invite a woman to speak from the pulpit on Mother’s Day, but dismisses rape and molestation as “distractions” and efforts to address them as violations of cherished church autonomy? In sectors of today’s SBC, women wearing leggings is a social media crisis; dealing with rape in the church is a distraction.

Most of the people in the pews believed the Bible and wanted to support the leaders who did also. They didn’t know that some would use the truth of the Bible to prop up a lie about themselves.

The second part of the mythology is that of mission. I have said to my own students, to my own children, exactly what was said to me—that the Cooperative Program is the greatest missions-funding strategy in church history. All of us who grew up in Southern Baptist churches revere the missionary pioneer Lottie Moon. (In fact, I have a bronze statue of her head directly across from me as I write this.) Southern Baptist missionaries are some of the most selfless and humble and gifted people I know.

And yet the very good Southern Baptist impulse for missions, for cooperation, is often weaponized in the same way that “grace” or “forgiveness” has been in countless contexts to blame survivors for their own abuse. The report itself documents how arguments were used that “professional victims” and those who stand by them would be a tool of the Devil to “distract” from mission.

Those who called for reform were told doing so might cause some churches to withhold Cooperative Program funding and thus pull missionaries from the field. Those who called out the extent of the problem—most notably Christa Brown and the army of indefatigable survivors who joined that work—were called crazy and malcontents who just wanted to burn everything down. It’s bad enough that these survivors not only endured psychological warfare and legal harassment. But they were also isolated with implications that if they kept focusing on sexual abuse people wouldn’t hear the gospel and would go to hell.

Cooperation is a good and biblical ideal, but cooperation must not be to “protect the base.” Those who have used such phrases know what they meant. They know that if one steps out of line, one will be shunned as a liberal or a Marxist or a feminist. They know that the meanest people will mobilize and that the “good guys” will keep silent. And that’s nothing—nothing—compared to what is endured by sexual abuse victims—including children—who have no “base.”

When my wife and I walked out of the last SBC Executive Committee meeting we would ever attend, she looked at me and said, “I love you, I’m with you to the end, and you can do what you want, but if you’re still a Southern Baptist by summer you’ll be in an interfaith marriage.” This is not a woman given to ultimatums, in fact that was the first one I’d ever heard from her. But she had seen and heard too much. And so had I.

I can’t imagine the rage being experienced right now by those who have survived church sexual abuse. I only know firsthand the rage of one who never expected to say anything but “we” when referring to the Southern Baptist Convention, and can never do so again. I only know firsthand the rage of one who loves the people who first told me about Jesus, but cannot believe that this is what they expected me to do, what they expected me to be. I only know firsthand the rage of one who wonders while reading what happened on the seventh floor of that Southern Baptist building, how many children were raped, how many people were assaulted, how many screams were silenced, while we boasted that no one could reach the world for Jesus like we could.

That’s more than a crisis. It’s even more than just a crime. It’s blasphemy. And anyone who cares about heaven ought to be mad as hell.

Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.