The Southern Baptist clergy sex abuse scandal is personal for me. Twenty-three years ago, I was forced to resign as pastor of an American Baptist Church. My crime? I had attempted to ensure that a self-proclaimed “youth minister” would no longer enjoy one-on-one access to the congregation’s high school students.
The Houston Chronicle’s recent series on sexual abuse focuses attention on Houston’s Second Baptist Church, but the problem is ubiquitous. Two young men with charismatic personalities, checkered pasts and no theological training were hired to work, virtually without supervision or oversight, with the sprawling congregation’s youth group. This brief quotation from one of the victims interviewed for the three-part story will give you a feel for the investigative series.
[The girl’s youth pastor] began texting her with inappropriate messages when she was 12 and 13, but his behavior accelerated to web-cam displays of his erections and ejaculations after she got a computer for Christmas in 2010. Over the next year, she received 15,000 texts as well as Skype and Facebook messages from Foster, including explicit live videos of masturbation, invitations to send him nude photos and warnings to delete all logs and never tell anyone.
Asked to comment on his denomination’s escalating scandal, Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said this to NPR:
Well, I think in many cases, there was an understanding of forgiveness and grace and reconciliation that doesn’t match up with what the Bible teaches. Jesus never, in any place, excuses the harming of vulnerable people and children and others. And so this is a human crisis, and it’s also a theological crisis.
The Chronicle’s reporting lays much of the blame for widespread abuse on the Baptist tradition of local church autonomy. On the heels of the Chronicle’s series came the news that Pope Francis had defrocked Theodore E. McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, after his long history of sexual abuse came to light. This couldn’t happen in the Southern Baptist Convention because no one has the power to tell local Baptist congregations who they can and cannot ordain to ministry. When abuse comes to light, the church sends the offending pastor on his way with a glowing letter of recommendation because congregational morale would suffer if the truth came out.
“Moody saw salvation, sanctification and justification as one unified, overlapping and lifelong process; not as a one-and-done proposition.”
While all Baptist groups practice local church autonomy, Southern Baptists have demonstrated a particular affection for the principle. Under the influence of J.R. Graves and the “Landmark tradition,” denominational leaders have refused to interfere with the life of local churches.
But when Russell Moore calls the clergy sex abuse “a theological crisis” he isn’t just talking about local church autonomy. A large part of the blame must be ascribed to the doctrine popularly known in Southern Baptist circles as “once-saved-always-saved.” Moore has addressed the issue in considerable detail on his personal blog.
How can these predators be back in churches, sometimes just moving down the street to another congregation, to prey again? Often, they do so by appealing to some perverted concept of God’s grace. “God can forgive anything,” they say. “Look at King David.” In so doing, these persons co-opt even the gospel itself (or, at least, a cheap, unbiblical version of it) as cover for their crimes.
Five years after I graduated from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, theology professor Dale Moody was forced into early retirement because of his views on the issue of “apostasy,” the idea that Christians could wander so far from the grace of God that the descriptor “Christian” no longer fit.
Since Moody was one of the school’s most theologically conservative professors who spoke fluent Southern Baptist, many wondered why he would bring his storied career to such an ignominious conclusion by attacking one of the pillars of Southern Baptist theology.
Now we know.
A brilliant scholar with a near-photographic memory, Moody could launch into a learned peroration on any theological or biblical question without ever glancing at his notes. His sermons were lectures, and his lectures were sermons.
Moody always reminded me of W.A. Criswell, the controversial Texas Baptist pastor. The comparison is apt. Both Moody and Criswell grew up listening to fundamentalist fireball J. Frank Norris and drank deeply from the dispensational well of Lewis Sperry Chafer. Moody eventually distanced himself from dispensational fundamentalism while Criswell vigorously embraced it, but even after rubbing shoulders with theological giants like Paul Tillich, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, Moody would drop by Criswell’s First Baptist Church whenever he was in Dallas. Every weekend, the feisty professor could be found teaching and preaching, in both dominant and obscure Baptist congregations throughout the South.
Moody was a died-in-the-wool Southern Baptist with a love for the Church universal. He longed to see his tribe linking arms with Catholics, mainline Protestants, Orthodox, Anglicans, Pentecostals and Third World churches. He loved and respected men and women from every corner of the Christian family and celebrated their gracious contribution to his life and thought.
Moody was willing to sacrifice theological agreement for ecumenical fellowship so long as everyone at the table shared a passionate commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But when the fire of Christian love was left untended, Moody taught, it could die. Moody saw salvation, sanctification and justification as one unified, overlapping and lifelong process; not as a one-and-done proposition. Christians grow in grace, Moody taught, and, if they aren’t careful, they can fall from grace.
“The clergy sex scandal proves that Moody was right when he denounced once-saved-always-saved as a dangerous heresy.”
The young pastors at the center of the Houston Chronicle’s investigative reporting were given endless authority without a shred of spiritual formation. They weren’t allowed to grow in grace. No one warned of the pitfalls and temptations that have always been integral to pastoral ministry.
Southern Baptists, like most evangelicals, are immersed in a culture that celebrates the glory of instant conversion. You can hear it in our gospel songs:
“What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought since Jesus came into my heart.”
“Heaven came down and glory filled my soul.”
“It was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day.”
Southern Baptists can tell you the year, day, hour and minute when they gave their hearts to Jesus. And once the great transaction is done, nothing they can do, be it ever so vile, can change their saved status.
Discipleship, in this tradition, is simply a matter of getting other folks saved.
Dale Moody didn’t go down with the good ship apostasy out of vainglory or a perverse thirst for drama. He kept harping on the 46 “warning passages” in his Greek New Testament because the danger was real and the consequences, now and in the age to come, are dire.
For decades, Dale Moody told anyone who would listen that he would be buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery right between W.O. Carver and A.T. Robertson, the two greatest spirits (in Moody’s opinion) to ever teach at Southern Seminary. On that great resurrection morning, Moody liked to think, his heroes would both look at him and declare “That boy was right all the time.”
When Moody died in 1992, he wasn’t laid to rest between Carver and Robertson (there wasn’t room), and time will tell if his eschatology passes muster with Carver and Robertson. But the clergy sex scandal proves that Moody was right when he denounced once-saved-always-saved as a dangerous heresy.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of several opinion articles to be published by Baptist News Global in response to the Houston Chronicle’s investigative series.
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