Southern Baptist leaders are thanking God and promising change in response to a Houston Chronicle report spotlighting sexual abuse in its churches.
"The voices in this article should be heard as a warning sent from God, calling the church to repent," Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear wrote in response to the report on Twitter.
"This is a scandal crying out to heaven," wrote Russell Moore, president of the SBC's Ethic & Religious Liberty Commission, in a blog post. "The church’s message to survivors should be a clear communication that they are those who have been sinned against, not those who have sinned, that they are not troublemakers in the church but those who are helping the real 'trouble' to come to light."
The Houston Chronicle's Sunday report, the first in a three-part series, found over 700 victims of alleged sexual abuse by 380 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers since 1998. 220 have been convicted. 100 are still in prison.
More disturbing still, many of the victims accused other Southern Baptist leaders, including past presidents, of concealing the abuse. Some of those who were accused of sexual abuse and left their congregations were able to find jobs in other Southern Baptist churches. Many of the victims were kids when the abuse occurred, as young as 3.
Most of the allegations are not new news to the SBC, the report noted. Many had been investigated before, but the SBC failed to act, citing church autonomy as a hindrance to any meaningful reforms from the national organization.
Greear pledged that would change.
"The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse. Church autonomy is about freeing the church to do the right thing — to obey Christ — in every situation. It is a heinous error to apply autonomy in a way that enables abuse," he wrote.
Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church, Famersville, Texas, tweeted that "Any church the [Houston Chronicle] has identified as employing a pastor with a history of sexual misconduct, if still employing that pastor in June and haven’t already left the SBC by then, should be disfellowshipped at that meeting. I’m willing to stand up and make that motion."
Moore took the same position, saying, "church autonomy is no excuse for a lack of accountability. Yes, in a Baptist ecclesiology each congregation governs its own affairs, and is not accountable to anyone 'higher up' in a church system. And yet, the decisions a church makes autonomously determine whether that church is in good fellowship with others. A church that excuses, say, sexual immorality or that opposes missions is deemed out of fellowship with other churches. The same must be true of churches that cover up rape or sexual abuse." (Emphasis in original.)
Barber also reposted a resolution on sexual abuse that he proposed in 2016 but did not make out of committee.
Moore also thanked God for the Houston Chronicle bringing the scandal to light.
"No church should be frustrated by the Houston Chronicle’s reporting, but should thank God for it. The Judgment Seat of Christ will be far less reticent than a newspaper series to uncover what should never have been hidden," he wrote.
"As a denomination," Greear concluded, "now is a time to mourn and repent. Changes are coming. They must. We cannot just promise to 'do better' and expect that to be enough. But today, change begins with feeling the full weight of the problem."