Last week, Southern Baptists from around the country met in Birmingham, Alabama for their annual meeting. A major focus for Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president J.D. Greear is sexual abuse within the SBC, America’s largest Protestant denomination.
In February, the Houston Chronicle ran a piece outlining hundreds of examples of sexual abuse allegations within the Southern Baptist Convention since 1998.
At the time, Greear addressed the Houston Chronicle reporting in a series of Tweets. Greear admitted “We—leaders in the SBC—should have listened to the warnings of those who tried to call attention to this. I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure we never make these mistakes again.” He concludes his statement by saying “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 was quick to take action issuing “10 calls to action.” Included in these 10 calls were “entering a season of sorrow and repentance;” “take immediate action on abuse prevention and care;” and to “reexamine the ordination process.” A further part of the 10 calls was to “prepare to address abuse at the 2019 annual meeting.”
With that, we come to last week’s meeting. The SBC voted unanimously to adopt recommendations attempting to prevent sexual abuse.
The SBC is trying to make it easier to expel churches for failing to act on sexual abuse allegations. One of the votes at the annual meeting was to change the bylaws and task a committee specifically with the job of evaluating these situations. This passed to cheers from the voters.
There was a vote which would change the SBC constitution that would explicitly make addressing sexual abuse and racism as part of what it means to be a Southern Baptist. This will need to be voted on again next year, per their constitutional process.
In an address at the annual meeting, Greear said, “Bold resolutions and sweeping statements are not sufficient.”
Part of the tragedy is always that it takes so many victims before change happens within churches. I’m hopeful that the SBC has an opportunity to be a leader within Christendom and to help set new standards for keeping people safe from sexual abuse.
In different churches and denominations, from testimonies I’v ready from abuse victims, too many churches fail to take sexual abuse allegations seriously. This is shameful and unacceptable. There are a number of reasons why this can happen (none of them are good). I think denial can be a culprit of disbelieving allegations.
A church cannot excuse or overlook sexual abuse.
I appreciate the SBC taking proactive steps. I sometimes wonder if churches get a false sense of security from policies meant to reduce sexual assault. A plan can only be as effective as the seriousness with which churches treat it.
Part of the challenge of the SBC is their structure. Churches have a high level of autonomy and so it’s not as simple as J.D. Greear making broad decrees that every church must follow.
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Josh Benner has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has served churches in Minnesota and Illinois. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in St. Louis.