Long ago, a leader in the “moderate” wing of the Southern Baptists used an interesting image as he described how the national convention carried out it’s work.
The Southern Baptist Convention, he told me, really wasn’t a “denomination” in the same sense as United Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans are part of national denominations. Southern Baptists — including those on the doctrinal left on a few issues — really do believe in the autonomy of the local church.
Then there are the ties that bind at the regional level, in Southern Baptist “associations.” Then there are the state conventions (in a few cases, there are more than one — as is the case in Texas Baptist life— because of doctrinal differences). Then, finally, there is the national Southern Baptist Convention that meets once a year to do its business, including selecting boards for the giant agencies and programs built on donations to the Cooperative Program.
Note that word “cooperative.” Hear the Baptist, congregational, “free church” sound of that?
In the end, this Baptist moderate said, the whole SBC idea is like a hummingbird. On paper, it should not be able to fly — but it does.
This is the subject at the heart of this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) about sexual abuse in America’s largest non-Catholic flock. Why can’t the SBC just create a national institution of some kind to ordain clergy, or approve and register ordinations done by churches, and then force local churches to hire and fire clergy and staff with the mandatory guidance of this national agency?
This new institution would then be responsible for tracking and shutting down clergy accused of sexual abuse. Somehow. It would warn churches about predators, if there is legal reason to do so. Somehow. And then, if this big agency made mistakes, lawyers for abused people would have some big SBC thing to sue — tied to big insurance policies, lots of property and endowments. Local churches may or may not have the money for large-scale settlements.
Why couldn’t the national SBC create an agency of this kind, accepting a national or regional responsibility in lawsuits that could be worth millions and millions of dollars? Why couldn’t they be like all those other churches?
Well, go back to the top of this post and read to this point again. And then read this passage from a Religion News Service report about the SBC’s recent conference on the topic of sexual abuse in its churches.
Some speakers referenced the unique challenge the SBC faces in confronting abuse. Unlike the Catholic Church and other more hierarchical religious groups, the SBC gives a high degree of autonomy to individual churches, complicating efforts to implement sweeping policy changes. …
Boz Tchividjian, a former child abuse prosecutor and founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or GRACE, suggested polity challenges were no excuse for failing to address abuse.
“A system that claims to have little authority against abusive churches and pastors I think would undoubtedly find such authority if an SBC church ordained a woman or a gay man,” he said.
Yes, it is true that some SBC-linked associations have removed congregations for those reasons. Others have not, last time I checked. What about state conventions? Some have spoken on those issues. Have they all?
Once again, this system — or anti-system — resists authority that runs from the top to the bottom. Baptists have theological reasons for that.
Southern Baptists are not United Methodists or Episcopalians or Catholics. Asking Baptists to undercut local-church autonomy is like saying to Catholics: “You know that whole pope thing? That needs to go.” Ask the Lutherans about that.
Here is another important voice discussing this issue, in a chunk of my “On Religion” column from this week.
Clearly, the SBC needs to take action. But will it take as much action as it can — be creative even — within it’s unique hummingbird of an anti-system? Some SBC leaders clearly want to do something. Others, at various levels, may resist, doing anything big. Some hesitant churches may flee into the anonymous safety of America’s massive, chaotic, growing world of totally independent churches and the powerful pastors who lead them.
Read between the lines in this:
The ultimate question is whether SBC leaders have the authority to force local churches to take these issues seriously. For centuries, Baptists have stressed the autonomy of individual congregations when dealing with issues of doctrine and discipline. Local churches ordain, hire and fire their own clergy — period.
"It will take no small amount of courage to confront the crisis of abuse amidst rampant skepticism," said nationally known Bible teacher Beth Moore, a childhood sexual abuse survivor who spoke during the conference. "The skepticism is fair, because talk is cheap. We earned distrust, and now we must take the long road of earning trust and walk forward in a posture of humility. It will take much courage not only to resist defensiveness, but to resist deflection. If we are cowards, the generation coming up behind us will either despise us or be like us."
During the conference, SBC President J.D. Greear discussed seven myths that Southern Baptists at all levels are wrestling with at the moment.
Here is myth No. 7, drawn from a Biblical Recorder — a North Carolina Baptist newspaper — commentary piece built on that speech. I put one key word in BOLD type. Look for it.
Myth 7: Updating our policies will take care of the problem.
New policies will not, by themselves, fix this problem. However, they are an essential step toward fixing it, which is why we have focused so much on better equipping local churches to change their policies. That’s why we developed the Caring Well Challenge.
But those policies must be paired, voluntarily, in our local churches by changes in attitude and culture. Local churches have to decide that they are going to be places that prioritize the safety of victims and respond immediately to reports entrusted to them.
We need to foster cultures of openness and protection in our local churches, where people feel like they know and are known enough to feel safe disclosing something, and even where people are close enough to one another to sense when something is wrong and ask questions.
Thus, the SBC has posted pages of resources such as the following:
What’s the common theme running through all of that?
Now, will leaders in local churches, regional associations and state conventions dive in?
The odds are that some will and some will not. That kind of thing happens, with this kind of church polity. May the local church goer beware?
Right there. That’s the story journalists will have to keep covering.