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Southern Baptists mull what’s next on confronting abuse

Messengers pray for unity during the first session of the two-day Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas on June 12, 2018. Photo by Adam Covington via Baptist Press

DALLAS (RNS) — The sermons, the hymn singing and the floor debates of the Southern Baptists’ annual meeting have concluded, but a key question remains: How will the denomination address the issues of sexual and physical abuse that loomed over the proceedings?

At this week’s (June 12-13) meeting, there was a sense that the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has only started down a long road toward an answer after months of scandals. Days before the Southern Baptists arrived here, Paige Patterson, an architect of the faith group’s conservative turn in the 1980s, was ousted from the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary after reports arose of his mishandling rape allegations by students. Other former luminaries have been accused of abuse or left positions unexpectedly due to immoral behavior.

The alleged untoward behavior by Southern Baptist leaders forced many of the messengers, as delegates to this meeting are called, to grapple with how to rein in abuse while respecting the autonomy of the convention’s local churches. One step that the messengers took was to pass a nonbinding statement that suggested that “church and ministry leaders have an obligation to implement policies and practices that protect against and confront any form of abuse.”

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, gives a report during the final session of the two-day Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting on June 13, 2018, in Dallas. Photo by Kathleen Murray via Baptist Press

The convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission announced that it will partner with a research firm to study the extent of abuse that is occurring in churches. The commission also has been referred a request from a messenger to evaluate the feasibility of establishing an “online verification database” of known sexual predators among ministers and other church personnel. It is scheduled to respond to that request at next year’s annual meeting.

Historian Bill Leonard said that a national database would be a challenge for the fiercely independent Southern Baptist congregations.

“It gets at the heart of both the freedom and the problem of Southern Baptist congregational autonomy,” said Leonard, professor of Baptist studies at Wake Forest University’s Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C. That autonomy, he said, “has often limited the ability to monitor the personal, moral and ethical life of candidates for ordination.”

Even proponents of the database are cautious about what it would mean for local churches’ independence. Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson, who first suggested that churches share abuse information at an annual meeting more than a decade ago, noted that it would need to be maintained “in a manner consistent with our traditions of church autonomy and redemptive ministry.”

Ginny Dodson attends the “For Such a Time as This Rally” outside the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on June 12, 2018, in Dallas. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Some congregations are already taking some precautionary measures to help avoid having predators in their midst. “More and more churches are doing background checks of the people they ordain and they’re doing it because of the danger of being sued if those persons are convicted of varying degrees of criminal acts, from embezzlement to sexual abuse,” said Leonard, who has recently served as an expert witness in lawsuits against churches that have ordained a minister accused of abuse.

The pressure to address abuse is not likely to end with the annual meeting’s last gavel. At a “For Such a Time as This Rally” held Tuesday outside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center as the messengers met inside, several dozen people, including anti-abuse activists of other faiths and members of the media, called for mandatory training about sexual assault and domestic abuse for all pastors and Southern Baptist seminaries.

Ginny Dodson, a former Southern Baptist who traveled 30 miles from Highland Village to attend the rally, said she thinks recent negative publicity could now prompt real changes. Dodson said her former church’s leadership told her to stay put in her marriage as she endured an abusive situation for two decades. She said she was told to “meet his sexual needs, make sure dinner was cooked properly, make sure I was doing all my wifely duties because if he had any reason to abuse, it was because I wasn’t doing my job.”

Asked about the possibility of mandatory training and a database shortly after his election as SBC president Tuesday, North Carolina megachurch pastor J.D. Greear said the “voluntary cooperation” of Southern Baptist churches would limit what could be required of them. But he said he is “very open to anything that can lead to a greater transparency and greater safety and that prioritizes the safety of the victim above everything.”

Greear also said he hopes to bridge what he considers to be a “gap of ignorance” within some congregations.

“There is an education problem in the Southern Baptist churches, I think, on this because
not everybody understands the laws,” he said.

J.D. Greear, center, newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, accepts the gavel from outgoing SBC President Steve Gaines as all newly elected officers and their spouses, left, are recognized on stage during the closing of the 2018 SBC annual meeting in Dallas on June 13, 2018. Gaines will preside over the 2019 meeting in Birmingham, Ala. Photo by Matt Miller via Baptist Press

First, others say, churches must understand the dimensions of the problem. On the day before the SBC meeting, Beth Moore, a prominent author and speaker, joined a pre-convention panel discussion in the convention center’s exhibit hall about abuse in the church. Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd, she recommended putting notices in bulletins and in church restrooms to let people know there’s help for them if they are in crisis. Like Greear, she said education about reporting abuse is necessary.

“There is a long, long shot of difference between sexual immorality and sexual criminality
that we have got to get straight,” said Moore, herself a sex abuse survivor. “Both are sin. Both demand repentance in order to be restored. But one calls the police.”

Steps away, at a booth for MinistrySafe, a company that provides background checks and other child protection services for churches, Olivia Mueller, a MinistrySafe staffer, said she had received hundreds of visitors on the eve of the SBC meeting.

“A lot of questions pertain to when to report, whether an incident is a reportable incident,” she said. “The attorneys almost always say, ‘When in doubt, report.’”

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Patterson was president before moving to Southwestern, told messengers his school in Wake Forest, N.C., is committed to providing “the safest possible environment” for its students, “especially our women.”

Jeffrey Bingham, interim president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, gives a report at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting on the last day of the two-day event in Dallas on June 13, 2018. Photo by Van Payne via Baptist Press

“And we also want them to know that if they are the subject of any type of abuse, they will find a loving ear, a sympathetic ear, a helpful ear,” Akin said. “We are there to care for them. We are there to protect them. We are there to watch over them.”

Jeffrey Bingham, who has succeeded Patterson as interim president at Southwestern, said he has instructed all his staff to retake and complete a sexual harassment course by July 31. The former dean of Southwestern’s School of Theology said he is also meeting with agencies and ministries that will aid the school in improving its response to abuse allegations.

“Let me state without any lack of clarity my intention, my priority is to create a safe environment and a campus culture that protects and cares for the victims of abuse,” he said, drawing applause from messengers.

“At Southwestern, we denounce all forms of abuse, all behavior that enables abuse, all behavior that fails to protect the abused and all behavior that fails to protect those who are vulnerable to abuse. We pray for the abused and we agonize for them.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

54 Comments

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  • A comprehensive and accurate data base would be the most obvious choice. This would require a commitment to honesty and transparency, of course. When it comes to honesty and transparency, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has set an incredibly low bar, so hopefully the SBC can do better. Or not.

  • As a Catholic, I understand this problem all too well. When you belong to a system that accepts the premise that one class of human beings is inherently superior to another, abuse is the inevitable consequence. That superiority may or may not be enshrined in doctrine, but it is still a practical reality within the Southern Baptist tradition.

  • unfortunately rock, the abuse is within all denominations. Satan is no respecter of denomination,
    “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” Jude 1:4

  • always, I don’t think it has anything to do with denominations. We hear of RC because there are more RC priests than probably anything else, but it is probably very prominent in most denominations.
    “They are the kind who worm their way into households and captivate vulnerable women who are weighed down with sins and led astray by various passions…” 2 Timothy 3:6

  • “Autonomy” is being used as an excuse. Yes, each church is autonomous. But the Convention can also choose to remove churches from fellowship – as they did just this week with a church deemed racist. They have also removed churches which embrace LGBT inclusion and women pastors. They can remove a church which refuses to take abuse seriously, if they want to.

  • I don’t disagree with that, which is why accountability should always be part of the governance of any church or denomination. Power corrupts.

  • There were (and continue to be) two problems within the Catholic Church. One is the psychopathology of abuse itself, which, as you point out, exists in all denominations. But there is also a clerical, hierarchical power structure with Catholicism that exacerbated the problem. The culture of secrecy and priests and bishops protecting their own runs very deep and will not be easy to overcome.

  • That also has happened in the Anglican church – it isn’t only RC. I agree with you, it won’t be easy to overcome. Sad.

  • VERY GOOD: “The convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission … at next year’s annual meeting … [shall] evaluate the feasibility of … an ‘online verification database’ of known sexual predators among ministers and other church personnel … [inside] the fiercely independent Southern Baptist congregations.”

    VERY BAD: “SBC president … J.D. Greear … said he is ‘very open to anything’ … Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary … told messengers … [that] ‘women … subject of any type of abuse … will find [3 ears] a loving ear, a sympathetic ear, a helpful ear'”.

    VERY UGLY: That every time a speaker opened her/his mouth, it was “drawing applause from messengers” – consistent with what the title of the article says, “Southern Baptists mull what’s next on confronting, preventing abuse”. And “mull” they sure did. So, altogether now: “Applause”. “Applause”. “Applause”.

  • I don’t call stalling another year over creating a data base of abusers “Very Good.”

  • Abusers exist everywhere.

    But churches – catholic and protestant – created a culture that attracted proportionally more abusers by giving leaders access to children and unquestioned deference.

    My questions
    1. Why do churches with all that prayer for leaders and a direct line to the magic all knowing deity have no better discernment than secular groups?
    2. Why do people in churches – supposedly new creatures with the power of Jesus – protect powerful insiders at the expense of vulnerable outsiders just like police departments and corporations?

    Conversing with the all powerful, all knowing deity, reading its inerrant word, being made a new creation, etc etc simply makes no difference. Its almost like it’s all make believe…

  • In my opinion, while the Southern Baptists are addressing sexual and physical abuse of women. they should also take up the issue of emotional abuse of women as well. That comes when sincere and dedicated women aren’t allowed to even consider the ministry as a career option, because this male-dominated denomination has decreed that male genitalia is THE prerequisite for becoming an ordained spiritual leader among them.

    Over fifty years ago the Episcopal Church proved that idea to be wrong. I’ve been a member of Episcopal and Lutheran parishes led by women ministers, and–if anything, their gender is an asset in creating a warm and nurturing climate in their churches. That climate is also essentially free of the legalism that sometimes accompanies male leadership of churches.

  • The SBC was founded in/on sin, the subjugation of those of African decent as slaves. It supported the CSA, later the KKK, supported the war in Vietnam and opposed the ERA just to name a few positions based on sin. Bottom line it follows the teachings of John Calvin & Oliver Cromwell, rather than those of The Christ. Therefore using deductive reasoning; a Christian Church? Nope.

  • Citing religious mythology from probably the most misogynistic book ever written doesn’t support your conclusion that Satan even exists. One of the many reasons the Old and New Testaments are irreconcilable is because of their radically different treatment of Satan.

  • Women pastors? And christians believe the buybull’s misogyny emanates from their god. hilarious.

  • The problem with the baptists is that they don’t enforce 1 Peter 3:1-6, “…you women must submit to your husbands like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham, and called him master.” Women shouldn’t be allowed outside the house without bowing to their husbands and calling them master. Christian mythology is just hilarious.

  • How could anyone believe Jesus of Nazareth was the christ since he didn’t sit on David’s throne and couldn’t trace his lineage to a human father in patrilineal Judaism?

  • You’re right. Nature has made it so that men cannot have babies. It’s MEN, however, who prevent the women from preaching in the Southern Baptist denomination. Nature had/has nothing to do with this later decision.

    The brain and heart of the person has nothing to do with their ability to preach and follow through with the way they chose to live their lives.That would be as individuals transformed by the Love of Christ!

    And THAT’S real life, my friend!

  • No, it’s Christ who stops women from preaching – for them to do so, they would be disobeying His Word

  • Where in the Gospels does Christ SPECIFICALLY say anything that prohibits women from preaching?

    Now you’ll most certainly find that prohibition in the words of the Apostle Paul, but most Bible scholars believe that he had a big bias against women. It’s most likely the Apostle Paul was divorced, as it would have been highly unlikely for a member of the Sanhedrin to be a single, unmarried man, and Paul was, indeed, a member thereof. Tradition has it that he went through a painful divorce, rather than being widowed. That’s how he came to be single during the days he was persecuting Christians before his “Road to Damascus” experience that changed him into a Christian, and a faithful missionary of Jesus Christ. His statements making women much “lesser than men,” are attributed to this painful event that caused him to have such a bias, and express it in his admonitions in the Bible. Of marriage, he once stated, “It’s better to marry than to burn!” That’s a rather low opinion of such a beautiful gift that Christian marriage can be!

    During his brief lifetime, Christ did nothing but elevate the status of women. There were no women apostles in that day, but I believe there were many, many women disciples, just as there are today. So in my opinion, smart and committed Christian women shouldn’t be prohibited from seeking the call to be a pastor, or even an evangelist. Our Pentecostal brothers and sisters have had both for many years now!
    .

  • ” Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” 1 Timothy 2:11

    “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer[a] must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,[b] sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
    “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued,[c] not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise[d] must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” 1 Timothy 3
    “…As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” 1 Corinthians 14:33

    “To the woman he said,
    “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
    Your desire shall be contrary to[f] your husband,
    but he shall rule over you.” Genesis 3:16

    “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” 1 Corinthians 11:13

    I hope this helps you. I have to go make my hubby dinner now before it ends up being a burnt offering 🙂

  • ” Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” 1 Timothy 2:11

    “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer[a] must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,[b] sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

    “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued,[c] not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise[d] must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” 1 Timothy 3

    “…As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” 1 Corinthians 14:33

    “To the woman he said,

    “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;

    in pain you shall bring forth children.

    Your desire shall be contrary to[f] your husband,

    but he shall rule over you.” Genesis 3:16

    “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” 1 Corinthians 11:13

    I hope this helps you. I have to go make my hubby dinner now before it ends up being a burnt offering 🙂

  • So, my dear woman, how does it feel to be one of those cursed, second-class-citizen women you seem so bent on convincing is God’s plan, by your crude defense of what to most modern, intelligent women, is indefensible?

    You insist on quoting the Apostle Paul, which I’ve already discounted because of his blatant bias against women! You then go on and quote Genesis, in the Old Testament scriptures. The Israelites didn’t do a very good job of honoring their women, hence the need for Jesus Christ to elevate the status of women throughout His lifetime.

    So, “the head of every man is Christ,” and the head of the woman is some human GUY??? Talk about inequality! Why are women not good enough for Christ to be the head of them, as well as men?

    Please don’t answer this. All the readers on here pretty much know how this discussion is going, and–like me, are most likely very much amazed that you are so accepting of your second-class citizen status in the Kingdom of God, that you go to such great lengths to defend it! This reminds me of the Stockholm Syndrome where victims turned to loving and clinging to their captors!

  • I’m not second class. Christ has things He doesn’t want me to do.
    You tried to discount Paul – Christ approved of Him and what Paul taught
    No second class honey – just a different job to do. That does not make men second class either. Christ has different expectations for each sex (edited)

  • Why was it “Very Bad”, too, then? Or “Very Ugly”, too? Wasn’t it “Very Good” – relative to, or when curve-graded with, what “Very Bad” and “Very Ugly” things that went down at that SBC annual meeting this week? Kinda like a rerun of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly starring Mike Pence I mean Clint Eastwood, no?

  • So you sell the christian fraud to women by explaining that Muslims hate women more than christians? That’s a wonderful selling point although I doubt the Quran states, like 1 Timothy 2:15, “Salvation for a woman will be in the bearing of children…” Just imagine all the millions of Catholic nuns who’ve devoted their lives to helping others and will spend eternity in hell because they didn’t have children. Amen and amen.

  • Sin is ever-present….even in church. I do find it strange that the SBC is paralleling pop culture so closely on this.

  • I will leave this here: herchurch.org

    The ELCA bishop responsible for this pastor and congregation flatly refuses to address the pagan rituals and anti-christian teaching occuring weekly on ELCA property.

    Mainline protestant denominations are dying specfically because they eschew the Gospel for political correctness.

  • How convenient to discount Paul. How about we ignore the parts you don’t like about the Gospels too?

    The Holy Bible is just like a cafetetia, take what you want, ignore the rest., right?

  • I will leave this here: herchurch.org

    The ELCA bishop responsible for this pastor and congregation flatly refuses to address the pagan rituals and anti-christian teaching occuring weekly on ELCA property. –After all, such action may cause CNN to dispatch a newsvan to the good Bishop’s office…stick a microphone in his face and ask “Why are you picking on those lesbians in San Francisco?” Pretty sure the Bishop is more concerned with CNN than sound theology.

    Mainline protestant denominations are dying specfically because they eschew the Gospel for political correctness.

  • If you think they are going to spend eternity in Hell, that’s your misinterpretation.

  • Lies. Do you have anything but lies?? Plenty of women preach. If women are supposed to be silent, then why don’t you stop preaching your lies and be silent?

  • All Christians do that. Every single one of them. The Bible is rife with contractory statements.

  • Let us know when you’re ready to comply with being silent, as your Scriptures dictate.

  • The main ‘abuse’ is lying to children. These religions have refused to show evidence to prove the existence of their gods…. thus telling tales of gods to children is Child Abuse.

  • ‘Sin’ is a false man-made construct in order to punish for infractions to mythical commandments invented by arrogant dictators….

  • Now – there is a piece of shit statement – extraordinarily stupid…. Have your christ come on down and speak for himself [except there is still no evidence that he ever existed in real history]

  • ” ” Let us know when you’re ready to comply with being silent, as your Scriptures dictate. ” ”

  • The Bible is a compendium of fire side tales and fables recounted orally for generations by goat herders and primitive tribes from the stone age, until writing was invented, and then again many different sources, transliterations, and versions were written down.
    There were no grand central universities to organise the many various versions of these origin stories.
    They were for entertainment, and to answer the questions of the many mysteries of our universe since there was no science yet.
    This is the old Testament.

    The ‘new’ Testes is also hearsay since these letters, ‘gospels’ and stories were written by the loyal faithful, the camp followers, not by objective historians at that particular time, or by any contemporary writers, and these tales were written many years after the supposed events of this mythical Jesus.
    Thus, there is no verifiable evidence of a Jesus.

    Then many of these stories, but not all, were compiled by one self-absorbed converted Roman Emperor for his expressed purpose of conquest and control of the people of Europe for his Holy Roman Empire.
    He recognised that this was the perfect religion/mythology for domination of the populace. Half the stories were ignored by the Nicean Bishops and none have been proven to be based on fact.

    This ‘Bible’ is backed up by absolutely no facts and evidence.

  • If anyone needed further proof that apologetics as practiced by Josh McDowell is merely an exercise in after-the-fact rationalization of beliefs held on prior emotional grounds, I welcome him to Chapter 8 of ETDAV. One can only say again that McDowell is the worst enemy of his own faith: with defenders like this, who needs attackers? The more seriously one takes him as a representative of his faith, the more seriously one will be tempted to thrust Christianity aside as a tissue of grotesque absurdities capable of commending itself only to fools and bigots.

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