It has been a humiliating week for Southern Baptists.
Earlier this week, as a Clemons Fellow with Baptist News Global, I reported on the release of a memorandum authored by a sexual abuse survivor that details stunning and sweeping allegations that the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee has mishandled specific instances of abuse, resisted meaningful institutional reform, and mistreated and intimidated survivors.
A mere 14 hours after BNG’s report on this memo was published, The Tennessean’s religion reporter, Liam Adams, released a 2,400-word story about SBC entities’ use of non-disclosure agreements. In 2019, one of these entities, International Mission Board, attempted to use an NDA to police the social media posts of an abuse survivor.
Putting aside my reporter hat for a moment, I’d like to tell you more about what’s going on behind the scenes with these stories.
I am personally grateful to Christa Brown for allowing BNG to help tell her story. Having read the 29-page memo in its entirety, my stomach turned in learning of the correspondence between survivors and SBC officials. I suppose the allegation that infuriated me the most was the never-before published correspondence Brown had with an Executive Committee member wherein the official told Brown she was an “expert” on the issue, so much so that he did not think it a wise use of his time to listen to a survivor who had reached out for help. I am also tremendously grateful for Liam Adams reporting on something of which very few Southern Baptists are willing to speak.
Truthfully, I believe Brown’s newest allegation and the revelations from The Tennessean story are a microcosm of the posture many Baptist churches take in responding to disclosures of abuse: “It is outside of our domain, so let us send you to the ‘experts.’ And by the way, keep quiet about it!”
This posture explains the abysmal response many U.S. Baptist churches and entities of all stripes have had to survivors’ disclosures. This includes my own.
In June 2021, I went forward to a microphone at the SBC annual meeting to speak in favor of the resolution “On Abuse and Pastoral Qualifications.” In a somewhat ironic — or perhaps even providential — twist of fate, The Tennessean included my remarks at the microphone in their story on the resolution.
Prior to going to a microphone, I had seen chatter on social media and heard folks in the convention hall speak of attempts at addressing the crisis of abuse in the church as reeking of things like “worldly ideologies” and “secular MeTooism.”
During my speech at the microphone, messengers heckled me. One walked up to me on the way back to my seat and exclaimed, “That was horrible!”
The reason for this vitriol became apparent to me when a messenger found me on Facebook and messaged me that I did not believe the Bible’s words about forgiveness. By advocating for a plain reading of pastoral qualifications in 1 Timothy 2 and appealing to our public witness, I was undermining Scripture’s sufficiency.
Coincidentally, this exact rhetoric recently was employed to explain that abuse reform was one reason among many that Houston Baptist Church in Arkansas is leaving the SBC. The elders of Houston Baptist described the convention’s attempts to address abuse as an “unrelenting onslaught of conversations and the adoption of useless platitudes concerning sexual issues as a clear signal of capitulation to and allegiance with a watching world.”
The choice of language there is certainly intentional and echoes remarks I made at the convention microphone that were subsequently reported by The Tennessean: “If you cover up sexual abuse, if you commit sexual abuse, you are done in service to this convention of churches. We must take a stand before this watching world that we will not tolerate sexual abuse.”
My plea was certainly not “capitulation” to the world. No, I pleaded with the messengers to make it clear that pastors who commit sexual abuse are disqualified from the ministry in opposition to what I call “useless platitudes” that many fundamentalists in the convention spout off concerning things like “scriptural sufficiency” and “the power of forgiveness” — rhetoric that, in my mind, actively undermines the authority, sufficiency and perspicuity of the very Bible they claim to believe. This was why I began my remarks hesitantly with, “Brothers and sisters, this is embarrassing.”
It has become painfully apparent to me that when Southern Baptists protest any call for change or emphasize best abuse-prevention practices with an appeal to “the sufficiency of Scripture,” they really mean the sufficiency of their own hermeneutical assumptions and cultural constructions, which more often than not involve telling survivors to keep quiet, keep the church out of it, and a passing-off of responsibility to “experts.”
When allies are your enemies
But if you are tempted to think this abysmal response to abuse and toxic rhetoric is exclusively endemic to one side of the ideological spectrum in Baptist life (for example, the Conservative Baptist Network, Paige Patterson types), you are sorely mistaken.
Even Southern Baptists who many people in the convention and media think are on the “right side” of the issue have exercised their own instincts for self-protection and institutional insulation before exercising care for survivors.
“I have been gaslit and intimidated into ‘leaving things alone’ with cryptic statements that don’t quite qualify as threats, but approximate them.”
The things I have heard, seen, know and experienced from these false allies are enough to make even a Conservative Baptist Network Steering Council member blush.
I have had ministers brag to me about their sexual exploits.
I know people who were abused on SBC property.
I know of enablers of abuse who have been shuffled around in the SBC machine.
I have been sent to voicemail and blocked by leaders with whom I tried to share concerns.
I have been in closed-door meetings where concerns I raised were met with the reply of, “Knowing what you know, I would feel the way you feel. But knowing what I know, I feel the way I feel.”
I have been gaslit and intimidated into “leaving things alone” with cryptic statements that don’t quite qualify as threats, but approximate them, such as personal appeals of, “Now, brother, I know there are some things you’ve done in the past that you’re not proud of. But I know things are different now.”
In sum, I have learned that even those who we may want to think are different from the former inhabitants of the same seats of power are not so different after all.
The new guard is the old guard
Christa Brown said it best in her interview for the memorandum story: “The old guard versus new guard paradigm is not my point of view. There is a long, long entrenched pattern. There is a systemic problem that is wholly lacking structures for accountability. You cannot solve it by simply putting new faces into those same inadequate structures.”
“At every conceivable level, I have seen leaders and laypeople alike in Baptist churches abysmally fail to care for wounded sheep in the fold.”
At every conceivable level, I have seen leaders and laypeople alike in Baptist churches abysmally fail to care for wounded sheep in the fold. Many were wounded by wolves who had disguised themselves, as Jesus warned us. Many others could have been spared if the undershepherds had not fled or done nothing like hired hands.
And though many will protest that a faction is striving toward change, the simple fact remains that there is next to nothing preventing a new generation of leaders repeating the sins of their predecessors who double as their theological forefathers. And to that, I echo the words of Christ: “Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!”
David Bumgardner currently serves as a Clemons Fellow with BNG. He is a senior at Texas Baptist College, the undergraduate arm of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a member at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @david_bumg.