That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

Throughout the 16-plus years that GetReligion has been around, I have received emails asking why the mainstream press has focused on clergy sexual abuse cases in the Church of Rome, but not abuse cases in liberal and conservative Protestant flocks.

That’s an important question and one that looms over the intense media coverage we are currently seeing — with good cause — at the Southern Baptist Convention meetings in Birmingham (click here for Bobby Ross Jr. round-up on preliminary coverage).

That is also the subject at the heart of a gripping #ChurchToo feature at The New York Times — “Her Evangelical Megachurch Was Her World. Then Her Daughter Said She Was Molested by a Minister” — linked to SBC debates about sexual abuse. It’s a solid, deep story about one controversy in a powerful congregation and it contains clues pointing toward larger issues that will, eventually, have to be covered in the national press.

You see, there are reasons that SBC leaders — the ones who truly want to act — have struggled to come up with a one-plan-fits-all proposal to crack down on the monsters in their midst. To understand why, I want to flash back to an important Joshua Pease essay that ran a year ago at The Washington Post. Here’s my commentary about that: “ 'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze.”

The following chunk of the Pease essay is long, but essential for those who want to understand the larger issues that lurk in the painful new piece at the Times.

Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates – especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. ...

The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism. Catholic Church abusers benefited from an institutional cover-up, but that same bureaucracy enabled reporters to document a systemic scandal. In contrast, most evangelical groups prize the autonomy of local congregations, with major institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention having no authority to enforce a standard operating procedure among member churches.

Journalists: Please read that passage two or three times. The Southern Baptists have a real problem, here, and it’s not going to go away. It’s a theological problem, as well as a legal one.

The autonomy of the local congregation is a concept at the very heart of what Baptists (and other “free church” bodies) believe about THE CHURCH, as in the New Testament Body of Christ. Asking Baptists to tweak that doctrine — creating an authoritative institution to handle this crisis — would be like asking Catholics to knock the pope off the Throne of St. Peter.

With that in mind, let’s look at the Times feature, looking for clues as to What. Happens. Next. Here’s the overture:

HURST, Tex. — Christi Bragg listened in disbelief. It was a Sunday in February, and her popular evangelical pastor, Matt Chandler, was preaching on the evil of leaders who sexually abuse those they are called to protect. But at the Village Church, he assured his listeners, victims of assault would be heard, and healed: “We see you.”

Ms. Bragg nearly vomited. She stood up and walked out.

Exactly one year before that day, on Feb. 17, 2018, Ms. Bragg and her husband, Matt, reported to the Village that their daughter, at about age 11, had been sexually abused at the church’s summer camp for children.

Since then, Matthew Tonne, who was the church’s associate children’s minister, had been investigated by the police, indicted and arrested on charges of sexually molesting Ms. Bragg’s daughter.

Ms. Bragg waited for church leaders to explain what had happened and to thoroughly inform other families in the congregation. She waited for the Village to take responsibility and apologize. She waited to have even one conversation with Mr. Chandler, a leader she had long admired.

But none of that ever came.

Now, long-time GetReligion readers may know that I grew up as the son of a Southern Baptist minister, who at one point was a regional-level leader inside the Baptist General Convention of Texas. I was ordained as an SBC deacon at the age of 28. I speak fluent Southern Baptist and Baptist polity also played a key role in the two degrees I earned at Baylor University.

However, I have to admit that one of the key elements of this story is foreign to me. Apparently, a trend among independent charismatic and evangelical churches has crossed over into Southern Baptist life, at least in many large congregations. I am talking about asking members to sign a covenant that, in some crucial ways, legally ties their hands during conflicts inside the church. Here is the crucial Times material:

… Her daughter’s ordeal showed her a different side of her church. The Village, like many other evangelical churches, uses a written membership agreement containing legal clauses that protect the institution. The Village’s agreement prohibits members from suing the church and instead requires mediation and then binding arbitration, legal processes that often happen in secret.

The Village also uses an abuse prevention company called MinistrySafe, which many evangelical churches cite as an accountability safeguard. Ms. Bragg assumed that MinistrySafe would advocate for her daughter, but then she learned that the group’s leaders were the church’s legal advisers.

That’s a huge story, right there. It will be interesting to see if this “church covenant” topic comes up during the national SBC meeting.

At the same time, we live in an era in which “voluntary associations” of all kinds are being forced to be ultra-explicit — yes, for legal reasons — about stating the beliefs that define their borders. However, is there a difference between clearly stating what a congregation believes about marriage and sex and requiring members to sign away their legal rights in, well, a case of clergy sexual abuse?

Note, once again: What power would national SBC leaders have to limit what the leaders of local churches put in a covenant of this kind? Could the SBC force independent local pastors to be more candid about the contents of these covenants? How?

Let’s look at another big issue in the Times report — money.

Journalists who have covered the multi-decade abuse crisis in Catholicism know that there is a simple legal concept that creates the headlines — lawyers know that the church’s legal structure allows them to sue the leaders of an entire diocese, since priests and other church employees ultimately work for their local bishops.

In other words, there’s lots of money — in endowments, properties and insurance policies — to seek in all of those abuse-case settlements.

Meanwhile, the typical Southern Baptist congregation contains a few hundred people and the facility will not be worth untold millions of dollars. How much insurance will churches of this size carry to handle legal problems of this kind? Not much.

So lawyers need a larger target for their lawsuits — like a new SBC agency with the authority to track wayward clergy.

But is the Village Church that kind of SBC congregation? Check out this key information in the Times piece:

With more than 10,000 weekly attendees, the Village now has five campuses across the Dallas area. Mr. Chandler is raising money to build a new campus that is likely to cost more than $70 million.

That’s a lot of money. Not that long ago, Christianity Today published a story noting an important decision that may be connected to that financial reality. Here’s the double-decker headline:

Matt Chandler’s Village Church Ends Multisite Era

Why the Dallas megachurch has decided to go from one church to six.

Can you spot the crucial word in this CT lede?

The Village Church, the multisite Texas megachurch led by Matt Chandler, will transition from several campuses across the Dallas–Fort Worth (DFW) metroplex to individual autonomous churches within the next five years, leaving behind a multisite model for a deeper commitment to local ministry and church planting.

Right. That word is “autonomous.”

What is the total value, in terms of property and bank accounts, of the whole Village Church mini-denomination? Well, that’s no longer an issue if the various Village-linked flocks are legally on their own. Right?

Toward the end of the Times piece, there is finally a reference to the larger, national story that is connected to this agonizing drama centering on one family inside one megachurch. Readers are told:

The Southern Baptist Convention has no explicit procedure or enforcement mechanism to respond to an abuse allegation when it arises in one of the denomination’s churches, each of which is autonomous. The S.B.C. has resisted calls for reforms for years, but addressing the issue of sexual abuse will be a major focus this week at the convention’s annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala.

Representatives are expected to vote on whether to create a committee that would evaluate allegations against churches accused of mishandling abuse and on a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow such churches to be expelled from the convention if the allegations are substantiated. Leaders also recently released a new curriculum on how to care for survivors.

Examining how churches legally protect themselves in abuse cases is not on the agenda. Some of the top officials who have been given responsibility for addressing the problem have also been looking to MinistrySafe as a partner.

The word “reforms,” of course, means that SBC leaders need to move in a specific direction in order to meet the doctrinal and legal standards of, well, The New York Times and the other principalities and powers of this day and age. Can SBC leaders do that, legally or doctrinally?

Are some megachurch leaders using “free church” polity and their doctrines about “The Church” as a shield from legal problems of this kind? It certainly appears that this is the case. However, that doesn’t mean that the doctrines at the heart of Baptist life are not real and that Baptists, for centuries, have been sincerely believed that the New Testament teaches what they believe that it teaches.

Who gets to demand that Baptists stop being Baptists?

This is not going to be an easy puzzle to solve. How can national, state, regional and local Baptist leaders force local congregations to make changes? Well, they can expel flocks that refuse to shape up. That may be the only legal option that they have.

To understand the larger issues that are at play, readers are going to need to know something about what Baptists believe and why they have held those beliefs for centuries. Those realities deserve more than two or three sentences in dramatic — and valid — abuse stories about individual sheep and shepherds in those autonomous flocks.

The big story is still out there.

Please respect our Commenting Policy