In a sermon preached Sunday, April 3, Southern Baptist Convention presidential nominee Willy Rice publicly addressed the controversy that followed his April 1 announcement that his Florida church had removed one of its deacons after a pastor from another state reached out with information that the deacon “committed a sexual sin that could also be described as abusive.”
Baptist News Global previously reported that the deacon in question is said to be a former high school language arts teacher and assistant football coach in Tampa Bay who admitted to an inappropriate sexual relationship with an 18-year-old girl who was a student at the school where he taught in 2005.
In his sermon at Calvary Church of Clearwater, Fla., Rice stated: “Some people outside our church identified one of our brothers who’s serving in a role in our church and, trying to, you know, score some points.” Rice noted that the deacon’s sin was “awful,” but was quick to clarify that it “doesn’t involve children.”
“You ever thought about your worst moment being put in the newspaper?” Rice asked his congregation. “I’m glad they didn’t put all my bad moments in the newspaper, because they’d have to sell a lot of papers!”
Rice noted that the deacon came to Calvary “over a decade ago” and had “repented of that sin” with a life changed “by the grace of God.” Rice said he was willing to have conversations about leadership qualifications in his church “away from the firestorm and away from a bunch of outside pressure.”
Rice continued his remarks before the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper: “I want you to know this about my brother: … If he’s not saved, I’m not saved. If he’s not forgiven, I’m not forgiven. If the blood of Jesus Christ is not enough to save him, then it’s not enough to save me. And I’ll tell you what else, it’s not enough to save you either! But I want you to know that it is enough.”
“The world cancels people. Jesus cancels sin. There’s a difference.”
“The world cancels people. Jesus cancels sin. There’s a difference,” Rice concluded to an applauding congregation.
Although BNG broke the news story, it was based on a video that Rice himself recorded for the church’s website, apparently responding to pressure from other SBC leaders who had threatened to make the story public if he did not. BNG Executive Director Mark Wingfield confirmed that the news service had no knowledge of the situation prior to the video being posted.
Rice’s Sunday comments came amid multiple calls from SBC pastors for him to withdraw from the presidential race. One such call came from Grant Gaines, pastor of Belle Aire Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn. “In an effort to go forward with truth,” Gaines tweeted in part, “it would be best for another candidate to step in.”
Likewise, Todd Benkert, an Indiana pastor who is active in denominational commentary, tweeted April 1: “In this moment in SBC life, it is imperative that we elect a president who has a proper understanding of abuse and is able to show himself trustworthy to SBC abuse survivors.”
Jennifer Lyell, a sexual abuse survivor whose story was mishandled by the SBC Executive Committee and Baptist Press — drawing a rare public apology in February this year — also weighed in via Twitter saying Rice appears to be “lacking the requisite convictional awareness of the foremost pastoral responsibility to protect the sheep — not to defend future ops of those who harm them. He absolutely should recognize that continuing to run for SBC president is broadly harmful & myopic.”
“He absolutely should recognize that continuing to run for SBC president is broadly harmful & myopic.”
In a statement to BNG, Christa Brown, a prominent abuse survivor, advocate, retired appellate attorney and whistleblower stated she was “heartbroken and nauseated” by Rice’s Sunday statement and condemned it as “exploitation of religious language for obfuscation.”
“I am revolted by how he essentially uses the blood of Jesus to excuse the church’s irresponsible act of making a known abuser into a deacon. Contrary to how Rice makes it sound, this isn’t about the man’s salvation — that’s between him and God. It’s about the uncaring recklessness of the church in installing someone with a known history of sexual abuse into a position of high spiritual trust as a deacon. It is exploitive of faith itself for church leaders to use ‘under the blood’ as an excuse for ignoring a history of sexual abuse,” Brown concluded.
One thing that remains unclear is whether Rice will withdraw or if his planned nominator, Clint Pressley of Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., still plans to nominate him.
The SBC annual meeting is set to take place June 14-15 in Anaheim, Calif. Two other candidates for the convention presidency have been announced: Conservative activist and Cape Coral, Fla., pastor Tom Ascol, and former international missionary and seminary professor Robin Hadaway. It is possible for still more candidates to be announced. Last year’s presidential contest began with four candidates.