Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches

Before we take a look at what appears to have been the key development at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention, let’s pause and discuss a few matters linked to how America’s largest non-Catholic flock does business.

One of the first things reporters learn (.pdf here), when they show up at national SBC gathering, is that the people attending are not “delegates” — they are “messengers” from local churches. Again, this is a sign of the degree to which Baptist identity is built on church authority residing in autonomous local congregations. The Southern Baptist Convention is a convention that exists when it is in session. It can vote to create a publishing house, or mission boards or an “executive committee” to do specific tasks in between conventions.

But SBC folks get testy when reporters assume that Southern Baptists are supposed to be organized like Presbyterians, Methodists or, heaven forbid, Episcopalians. What makes SBC meetings so wild is that all kinds of people in that big room can grab a floor microphone. With that in mind, let’s look at a crucial part of a New York Times story, focusing on efforts to handle sexual-abuse issues:

Thousands of pastors voted late Tuesday afternoon to address the problem in a concerted way for the first time, enacting two new measures they say are a first step to reform. Outside the arena where they were gathered, victims and their families protested what they considered an inadequate response.

The pastors voted to create a centralized committee that would evaluate allegations against churches accused of mishandling abuse. They also approved an amendment to their constitution that would allow such churches to be expelled from the convention if the allegations were substantiated.

“Protecting God’s children is the mission of the church,” the denomination’s president, J.D. Greear, said on Tuesday morning as he addressed the gathering. “We have to deal with this definitively and decisively.”

Wait a minute. SBC “pastors” voted to take these steps? Since when are all of the SBC “messengers” pastors?

The Times should correct that error immediately. It appears that the same mistake showed up in a 2018 Times story and I missed it at that time. As in:

WASHINGTON — In the latest sign of the Trump administration’s outreach to religious conservatives ahead of a critical midterm election, Vice President Mike Pence told a large gathering of pastors Wednesday that the White House would continue to fight for evangelical priorities. He appealed for the community’s continued support, even as his appearance led to complaints that a religious event was being used for political gain.

“This is a pivotal year in the life of our nation,” Mr. Pence told the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, where nearly 10,000 evangelical pastors gathered in Dallas.

So who is eligible to be a “messenger”? Pastors only? The rules (2018 version) say this:

Each messenger shall be a member of the church by which he or she is appointed.

Yes, note the word “she.” Also, there is this:

The Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention consists of representatives, or "messengers," as they are called, from cooperating churches, who gather to confer and determine the programs, policies, and budget of the Convention. Each church may be represented up to a maximum of 12 messengers. …

Members interested in becoming messengers should contact their pastors for information on the appropriate process of approval applicable in their church.

Back in the days when I was on site covering the big SBC show, there were way more laypeople there than pastors. The officers are almost always clergy (there have been rare exceptions), but the “messengers” are laypeople and clergy alike.

Thus, a correction is needed, pronto (if readers are to understand the dynamics of an SBC meeting).

So what did the messengers try to do? Here is some additional information on that, care of veteran Religion News Service reporter Adelle Banks:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (RNS) — Southern Baptists, faced in recent months with hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse in its ranks, have overwhelmingly adopted changes to governing documents that will bring greater visibility to their desire to disaffiliate with churches that do not handle instances of abuse properly.

A new standing “Credentials Committee” also will consider whether churches are not “in friendly cooperation” for that and other reasons, including involvement in “discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity.”

Delegates, called messengers, also voted … to amend the constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention so that it will make explicit that churches that mishandle cases of abuse or racial discrimination are not welcome.

What is happening here? It appears that Southern Baptist leaders have decided that, since they are dealing with independent/autonomous local congregations, they cannot tell them what to do on this issue (and be legally liable for having the authority to do that). However, they do have the authority to kick churches out of the convention if they have been shown to violate SBC teachings and procedures on this.

In other words: The local, autonomous churches can no longer say they are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. They are totally, totally independent Baptist churches (and there are thousands of churches like that all across America).

So why hasn’t the national SBC crowd done that before? Good question.

For decades now, Southern Baptists at other levels have given the boot to congregations that stepped out of line on controversial theological issues. Consider the top of this UPI report from 1983:

An effort was made in the Chicago Metropolitan Baptist Association to exclude messengers (delegates) of the Cornell Baptist Church because it had recently called a woman, Susan Wright of Louisville, Ky., as its pastor.

The effort to exclude was blocked in Chicago, but in Oklahoma City, the Capital Baptist Association did vote not to seat messengers from Oklahoma City First Baptist Church because the church allows women to serve as deacons. And in Vallejo, Calif., messengers from three Southern Baptist churches were denied seating at the Redwood Empire Baptist Association meeting over the ordination issue.

Note that this happened at the level of regional associations inside a larger state convention. Were there associations that allowed the ordination of women? Yes — all over the place, for quite some time. That’s the thing about a national “convention” that also works with many STATE conventions that also have to deal with regional associations.

Yes, it’s confusing and allows lots of room for arguing and congregations being able to pick and choose what they support and what they oppose. Baptists like it that way. At least, they liked all that flexibility in the past.

It’s interesting that, in the past, it tended to be doctrinally progressive Baptists who went out of their way to stress this freewheeling way of doing business. They didn’t want the national or state bosses telling them what to do — about the ordination of women, for example. Recently, another issue has pushed similar buttons, as seen in this Louisville Courier-Journal report a year or so ago:

The Kentucky Baptist Convention … cut ties with more than a dozen churches, including at least one in Louisville, for supporting a Baptist religious organization that earlier this year lifted a ban on hiring LGBTQ employees.

The Louisville-based Kentucky Baptist Convention, which has long opposed same-sex marriage, ordaining gay ministers and believes homosexuality is sinful, voted to end its relationship with KBC-affiliated churches that also made financial contributions to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at its annual meeting in Pikeville, Kentucky.

What’s the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship? That’s another long and complicated story, one that is also linked to efforts to prevent national SBC leaders from having too much control over local (think progressive) churches. Oh, and is a “fellowship” more flexible than a “convention”? I think the correct answer is: #YouBetcha.

So what is the big idea here? Well, after decades of seeing local associations and state conventions give the boot to independent congregations, it appears that the national SBC body will attempt to take the same approach.

Can the SBC do that, as well as (quoting the earlier Times report) “create a centralized committee that would evaluate allegations against churches accused of mishandling abuse” without creating a structure that lawyers will be able to sue when accusations of sexual abuse are aimed at local clergy or other church leaders?

That is clearly the next stage of this story. See this very recent development in Virginia:

COLONIAL HEIGHTS, Va.-- Attorneys have filed a motion to add religious organizations to a multi-million-dollar civil lawsuit in connection with a sexual abuse case involving Immanuel Baptist Church in Colonial Heights.

The motion would add the Southern Baptist Convention, the Baptist General Association of Virginia, and the Petersburg Baptist Association to the civil suit already pending against the church and three individuals.

The lawsuit involves former Immanuel Baptist youth group leader Jeffrey Dale Clark and his father Alvin “Ted” Clark, who held several leadership positions at the church spanning more than four decades. Fred K. Adkins, a former junior pastor at Immanuel Baptist, is also named in the civil suit.

The implication, of course, is that the national, state and local SBC bodies had some kind of authority and control over the actions of leaders at this local autonomous church.

Stay tuned. There are legions of lawyers paying close attention.

PS: What about all of those complaints from SBC folks about media references to the national convention as a “denomination,” as opposed to a mere “convention” that exists, legally, when it is in session?

Mainly, Baptists mean: We are not structured like, as I said earlier, the United Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and many other mainline Protestant bodies. That is true. But what are the most common definitions of “denomination,” as the term would be used in a newspaper? Here are two:

denomination — A religious denomination is a subgroup within a religion that operates under a common name, tradition, and identity.

Or see this dictionary take:

denomination : a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices

This debate will continue, as well. But there can be no debates about the importance of the overall “convention” structure and the actions of the laity and clergy who serve as “messengers” from their autonomous local congregations.

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