SBC encourages churches to 'permanently disqualify' pastors who commit sex abuse

James Merritt, former SBC president and chair of the Committee on Resolutions for the Southern Baptist Convention, answers questions at a press conference on June 16, 2021, after giving a report during the SBC Annual Meeting. | Eric Brown

NASHVILLE — Messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting approved a resolution encouraging churches within the nation's largest Protestant denomination to "permanently" disqualify individuals who have committed sexual abuse from the pastorate.

That resolution is nonbinding and encourages all SBC affiliated churches to hold the standard that any person who engaged in sexual abuse in their life “is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor.” 

Former Southern Baptist President James Merritt, who also serves as the chairman of the SBC Committee on Resolutions, told to reporters Wednesday that any pastor who commits sexual misconduct should be “permanently disqualified” from ever returning to church leadership. He warned that such behavior damages the credibility of the Body of Christ. 

“I just read yesterday about a pastor that had to resign [from a] church,” Merritt, the senior pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Georgia, said.

“He committed sexual abuse 40 years ago, and it came out. This will be hard for the outside world to understand, but the Scripture is very plain that a pastor has to be above reproach."

"Good, bad or indifferent, when someone commits sexual abuse, whether it's 20, 30 or 40 years ago, if it comes up, it's just going to be damaging," Merritt added. "It's going to put a lot of doubt and a lot of people's minds."

Merritt said he’s of the “firm belief” that if a pastor is unfaithful to his wife, he’s also “permanently disqualified” from ever being a pastor again. 

“I honestly believe that,” he said. “It's not an issue of forgiveness. If a Christian gets drunk and drives his car into a tree and loses his left arm, God will forgive him. But he still won't have a left arm.”

Pastors who commit such offenses can return to the ministry in some fashion, he clarified, but never as a lead pastor. 

“We've got a big job ahead of us as pastors, I believe, to rebuild credibility and trust in the community,” he continued. 

Nathan Finn, the vice chair of the resolutions committee, agreed that allowing pastors who have committed sexual sin to return to the pulpit “weakens the credibility of the entire office of pastor.”

“So I believe it's very important for Southern Baptists to speak unequivocally and in a way that everyone can understand us that we believe that sexual abuse is a disqualifying factor for anyone who would serve in church leadership where they were commended to vulnerable populations in the church,” he stressed. 

The issue of sexual abuse within the denomination was a hot topic at the SBC’s annual meeting, which drew more than 21,000 people to Nashville’s Music City Center, including 15,726 messengers.

On Wednesday, SBC messengers overwhelmingly approved a motion to set up a task force to oversee an independent investigation into allegations that SBC Executive Committee leaders have mishandled allegations of abuse within SBC churches. 

A leaked May 31 letter from former SBC ethicist Russell Moore to outgoing SBC President J.D. Greear alleged that leaders mishandled a “crisis of sexual abuse” in the denomination by intimidating whistleblowers into silence and exonerating churches with credible allegations of negligence toward sexual abuse victims.

The SBC Executive Committee subsequently announced that Guidepost Solutions would review such allegations. 

Guidepost Solutions was also commissioned to "review and enhance training provided to SBC Executive Committee staff and its board of trustees" as it relates to sex abuse and the organization’s "communications to cooperating churches and congregants in cooperating churches."

Wednesday's motion comes after the Executive Committee rejected a motion earlier in the week to expand the scope of the Guidepost Solutions' investigation by appointing an independent task force to oversee the inquiry instead of Executive Committee leaders. 

Finn said the resolution served as a way to “come alongside all the positive momentum that says our first instinct needs to be to care for those who have been abused more than protecting our own reputation.”

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