I am writing this morning’s Daily Article with a grieving heart.
I became a Christian in a Southern Baptist Sunday school class and was baptized in a Southern Baptist church. I was licensed and ordained as a vocational minister in that church. I attended college at a Texas Baptist university and graduate school at a Southern Baptist seminary. I taught on that seminary’s faculty and pastored four churches affiliated in various ways with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Southern Baptists support nearly nine thousand missionaries around the world, are training more than 22,000 seminary students, served more than 2.9 million meals last year to those in need, and assist those in crisis with practical compassion. God has used Southern Baptists to share the gospel with multiplied millions of people around the world.
And so, this story in yesterday’s Houston Chronicle pains me deeply: “20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reforms.” Reporters at the Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News began an investigation last year “to compile an archive of allegations of sexual abuse, sexual assault and other serious misconduct involving Southern Baptist pastors and other church officials.”
What they discovered is tragic.
380 credibly accused leaders
The reporters “found complaints made against hundreds of pastors, church officials and volunteers at Southern Baptist churches nationwide.” They focused their search on the last twenty years, concentrating on individuals who had a documented connection to a church listed in an SBC directory published by a state or national association.
They spent more than six months reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison, and police records from more than twenty states and conducting hundreds of interviews. They also searched sex offender registries nationwide.
Ultimately, the reporters compiled information on 380 credibly accused officials in Southern Baptist churches, including pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers, and volunteer leaders. They verified that about 220 had been convicted of sex crimes or received deferred prosecutions in plea deals.
They learned that at least thirty-five church pastors, employees, and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were able to find jobs at churches over the last two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement or warn other congregations.
Victims as young as three were molested inside pastors’ studies and Sunday school classrooms. Some victims were adults seeking pastoral guidance who say they were seduced or sexually assaulted.
“An overseer must be above reproach”
SBC President J. D. Greear called the abuses described in the investigation “pure evil” and said, “I join with countless others who are currently ‘weeping with those who weep.'”
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, called the report “nothing short of a scandal and a crisis.” He added, “There should be no tolerance for, or covering up of, sexual abuse of the vulnerable ever, especially within the church of Jesus Christ.” (See his larger response here.)
Even one victim of sexual abuse by a Southern Baptist leader would grieve the heart of God. Seven hundred is horrifying.
Scripture could not be clearer on the imperative of sexual purity:
- “Flee sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18).
- “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
- “God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).
- “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
Leaders are to be held to an even higher standard: “An overseer must be above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7). James warned that “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
Two prayer requests
While others are responding to the denominational and leadership aspects of this tragedy, I’d like to explore the spiritual and cultural strategy at work here.
Sexual abuse is ultimately instigated by Satan, who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). His purpose behind this tragedy is not only to attack the victims but also to undermine the church’s witness to the fallen world.
As horrific as this tragedy is, these perpetrators represent only a small portion of Southern Baptist leaders. There are more than 47,000 Baptist churches in the US. If each church had only one pastor, five deacons, and ten Sunday school teachers (the smallest church with which I am familiar), there would be more than 752,000 Baptist leaders.
The report documents 380 credibly accused perpetrators. They would be 0.05 percent of the total. The vast majority of Southern Baptist leaders are committed to godly integrity. The vast majority of Southern Baptist churches are safe places for children and families to worship and serve.
Please know that I do not mean at all to downplay the appalling tragedy of this report. As I stated earlier, one victim of clergy abuse would be too many. I cannot imagine the pain these victims have endured. As Russell Moore notes, “The courage and grace of these survivors is contrasted with the horrific depravity of those who would use the name of Jesus to prey on them.”
While I cannot comprehend the victims’ suffering, I am praying for their healing. And I am praying for churches and leaders across the Christian world to renew our commitment to engage our culture with positive, proactive service and transformational love (Matthew 5:13-16).
Will you join me?
Originally posted at Denison Forum.