There is most likely a virus inside your body right now. Probably even a few. These latent viruses are tiny squatters that call our bodies home. Some of the more well-known latent viruses inhabit as much as 80% to 90% of the human population.
These insidious microbes slip into our bodies when we are kids. Our young immune systems let them in, and they become permanent lodgers. They are mostly harmless, but if your health slips, one of these latent viruses could spell your doom.
The Southern Baptist Convention has been unhealthy for a very long time, and now her two most deadly latent viruses are wreaking havoc on the body.
Sexual abuse report
The SBC released an independent report regarding decades of sexual abuse within some churches and institutions. In excruciating detail, it chronicles the horrific, calloused and hypocritical behavior of top SBC leaders who worked to stonewall, discredit and even demonize abuse victims who came forward.
High-profile former seminary president Paige Patterson wrote in an email that he needed to meet alone with a victim who had come forward to report abuse so that he could “break her down.” Other key leaders were themselves involved in immoral behavior even as they were stonewalling abuse victims.
I grieve for each victim who has courageously refused to remain silent only to be met with indifference and angry recriminations. I stand amazed at the courage of the survivors who never gave up even after years of being pushed aside, ignored and demonized by SBC leaders.
“I grieve for each victim who has courageously refused to remain silent only to be met with indifference and angry recriminations.”
Southern Baptists across the nation are horrified by the details of the report and are calling for a reckoning. The new SBC leadership has vowed to make amends and bring much-needed change.
The thoroughness of the investigation, transparency of the report and recent acceptance of prevention measures are a good start and an indication that the SBC system of governing has worked.
The report repeats in several places that most SBC Executive Committee members were kept in the dark, making it easy to identify a few high-ranking culprits and pin most everything on them.
The temptation, then, is to think if the average Southern Baptist layman were allowed into the decision-making process this cover-up never would have happened. Or, that the answer is to replace the old leaders with new and improved, more enlightened leaders.
That, of course, is delusional.
There is a sickness at the core of the SBC — latent viruses that have been hiding in the shadows of the convention for decades — and the body never will recover until those viruses are acknowledged and dealt with.
Some observers of SBC life have known of these viruses for some time now. That’s why, although the report is extremely saddening, it is not surprising. There are at least two theological ideas that have entrenched themselves in SBC life and will ultimately spell her doom.
Strict male hierarchy
The biblical world was a man’s world, as patriarchy was the primary social structure for the setting of the biblical narratives. In addition, until recently, almost all biblical interpreters, preachers and teachers have been men.
It is no surprise, then, that the majority of evangelical Christians view the Bible and therefore all of life through a masculine lens.
“Anyone who is willing to remove that myopic lens and read the Bible anew will discover Jesus had a revolutionary attitude toward women.”
However, anyone who is willing to remove that myopic lens and read the Bible anew will discover Jesus had a revolutionary attitude toward women. Jesus’ acceptance of women into his band of disciples was no less than astonishing compared to every other social or religious institution of his day.
Although Paul has been largely misunderstood in this area, he also had radical inclusion practices for women in his ministry.
Jesus and Paul accepted women as disciples (learners), apostles, deacons, worship leaders, missionaries, prophets, house church leaders, evangelists and teachers (as long as they didn’t assert a dominating authority as they taught).
It is difficult to exaggerate the radical nature of the early Christian church’s acceptance of women as leaders in the face of their male-dominated Near Eastern culture.
By contrast, the SBC historically has restricted the roles of women in the life of the church. The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message specifically restricts women from serving as pastors.
Although more recently those restraints have been tested, it is still true that in many SBC churches women are not allowed to teach men, chair committees or serve as ushers, deacons or pastors.
The SBC leadership mirrors this exclusion.
Every candidate for SBC president this year has publicly disavowed the idea of women as pastors. One candidate, Tom Ascol, also argues that churches that have women preach during worship services have no place in the SBC.
Women have been shut out of any SBC position in which they might have even a hint of authority over men.
“Women have been shut out of any SBC position in which they might have even a hint of authority over men.”
There never has been a female president of the SBC. There never has been a female Executive Committee president. There never has been a female SBC seminary president.
Nor will there ever be under the current convention ideology.
Women seeking leadership roles have been largely relegated to the Woman’s Missionary Union organization and even there, they are closely watched by the SBC all-male leadership lest they accrue too much power. Annie Armstrong, the first president of WMU, was run out of office because of the paranoid fears of the all-male SBC leadership in her day.
The cornerstone of strict male hierarchy is that men were created to lead and women were created to submit. This male-over-female hierarchy was baked into creation and therefore is valid for every sphere of life.
This theological stance, taken to its logical conclusion as some SBC leaders do, would mean women are not only unqualified to preach, teach and lead in the life of the church, but that they are also unqualified to be judges, senators, NBA referees, CEOs, CFOs or, of course, president of the United States.
Strict male hierarchy taken to its logical conclusion creates a culture where women are treated as second-class citizens, valued only if they stay firmly in their role as followers.
“Strict male hierarchy taken to its logical conclusion creates a culture where women are treated as second-class citizens.”
This has the inevitable effect of creating a culture of oppression. The female voice might be heard but with little power or recourse, it is easily dismissed.
Women come to be viewed as important worker bees and valuable pawns in the building of the kingdom of God — useful only as long as they swim in their proper God-ordained lane, and don’t publicly question their male leaders.
This is precisely why some SBC leaders moved quickly to exonerate the male abusers and the churches that knowingly hired them, while at the same time demonizing and ostracizing the victims who dared to speak out.
When a man boldly and forcefully speaks the truth, he is deemed a prophet. When a woman does the same, she is labeled a troublemaker with evil motives.
This is precisely why it took 20 years for the voices of the female victims to reach the ears of the convention-at-large with enough momentum to effect change. Think about how much preventable abuse occurred in those 20 years.
It wasn’t until certain male SBC leaders started publicly speaking on behalf of the female victims that the SBC started to listen.
“Unless the feminine voice is given a respected and powerful platform at the highest levels of SBC life, history will repeat itself.”
Unless the feminine voice is given a respected and powerful platform at the highest levels of SBC life, history will repeat itself.
Most SBC leaders would deny any affinity with dominion theology. However, their actions and sometimes their words betray an underlying flirtation with dominionist ideology.
The problem is that dominionism comes in varying shades and colors, making it easy for SBC leaders to practice and preach its most basic tenets while disavowing the more radical corners of dominion theology.
Historically, dominion theology has found a comfortable home within charismatic and neo-Calvinistic, Reformed theological circles. However both, and especially the latter, have seeped into the ethos of SBC life.
Rousas John Rushdoony, considered the intellectual father of dominion theology, was an American Calvinist philosopher, historian and theologian. Both his followers and critics have argued that his ideas exert considerable influence on the evangelical Christian right.
When Jerry Falwell Sr. — who although denying it, personified many of the dominionist ideologies — announced in 1996 that he was becoming a Southern Baptist, it was a signal to many the SBC had succumbed to a majority of dominionist ideas if not wholesale capitulation to dominionist ideology.
Al Dager in his book Vengeance is Ours: The Church in Dominion defines dominionism: “A basic premise of dominion theology is that when Adam sinned, not only did man lose dominion over the earth, but God also lost control of the earth to Satan. Since that time, some say, God has been on the outside looking in, searching for a ‘covenant people’ who will be his ‘extension’ or ‘expression’ in the earth to take dominion back from Satan.”
Dominion theology, then, is predicated on three basic beliefs:
- Satan usurped man’s dominion over the earth through the temptation of Adam and Eve.
- The church is God’s instrument to take dominion back from Satan.
- Jesus cannot or will not return until the church has taken dominion by gaining control of the earth’s government and social institutions.
The most radical dominionists advocate for Christians to reclaim “the seven mountains of culture” — government, religion, media, family, business, education, and arts and entertainment.
“They want to coerce every American to embrace a Christian worldview.”
In other words, dominionists want Christian belief systems (especially certain parts of the Old Testament law) to govern every aspect of American life, including the secular legal system. They want to coerce every American to embrace a Christian worldview.
Three key ideas of dominionism
It would spell the unholy and historically disastrous marriage between church and state.
Ken Silva, in his article “What is Dominionism?” identifies 20 characteristics of dominion theology. Many of these characteristics are found in statements by SBC leaders. Three are particularly relevant to the SBC report on sexual abuse.
First, the Old Testament is exaggerated and emphasized, while the New Testament is minimized or viewed through the lens of the Old Testament.
This has the effect of placing women in a subordinate role to men in all things and provides the fodder for male domination and abuse of power. It also tends to diminish the role of grace and extol a militaristic ethos.
Silva notes that among dominionists there is a “preoccupation with aggressive rhetoric and military metaphors that could easily evolve into outright force, coercion or brutality, and a preoccupation with militarism, including the merger of civil-military goals with spiritual warfare.”
“The demonization, marginalization and expulsion of all perceived enemies is welcomed and even encouraged within dominionist thinking.”
The demonization, marginalization and expulsion of all perceived enemies is welcomed and even encouraged within dominionist thinking.
According to the SBC report, the women who came forward to report abuse “were asked sexually explicit questions in front of men about their clothing and behaviors prior to their assaults, and concerning their previous relationships with men.”
Some SBC Executive Committee members and staff reportedly referred to the women who were speaking out on abuse as “Potiphar’s wife,” (a biblical character who makes false accusations of rape).
According to one abuse victim, SBC seminary president Paige Patterson, in private emails to her, referred to victims who were speaking out as “evil-doers” and “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.”
As recently as June 2019, one high-profile abuse victim, while attending the SBC annual meeting in Birmingham, was “pulled out of her chair by a woman who threatened her while physically restraining her, and she was called a ‘whore.’” She reports she also was the subject of disparaging comments by pastors who considered her an adulteress.
Augie Boto, general counsel for the SBC Executive Committee, described the focus on sexual abuse as a “satanic scheme” to distract the Executive Committee from evangelism.
According to the report, “Mr. Boto singled out Christa Brown and Rachael Denhollander, a survivor advocate, as architects of this ‘satanic scheme.’”
This type of violent rhetoric against any perceived enemy is the hallmark of Dominionist ideology. It may now be suppressed at the highest levels of the SBC for public relations reasons, but it will continue to percolate and boil to the surface from below.
Second, a “do whatever it takes” extreme pragmatism is exalted. A natural consequence of believing the Christian faith is in a do-or-die battle with Satan for ruling the earth is that unchristian behavior and language are justified as long as they are serving the greater purpose of promoting Christian ideals.
“A natural consequence of believing the Christian faith is in a do-or-die battle with Satan for ruling the earth is that unchristian behavior and language are justified as long as they are serving the greater purpose of promoting Christian ideals.”
This breeds a philosophy that the “ends justify the means,” where people are viewed as “human capital” assigned with an economic value and there is a cult-like rigidity as well as harsh reprisals for nonconformity.
One abuse victim, Christa Brown, sent certified letters or emails to more than 25 SBC national, state and local leaders asking for help. According to the SBC report, no one ever treated the sexual assault of Brown “as though it even mattered.”
According to Brown, “In countless encounters with Baptist leaders, their words and deeds have left a legacy of hate. The lesson they taught said, ‘You are a creature void of any value — you don’t matter.’”
According to the report, “In March 2007, Father Thomas Doyle, a priest and canon lawyer who first warned of the looming Catholic sex abuse crisis, wrote to the SBC and EC presidents. He expressed his concerns that SBC leaders could be falling into some of the same patterns as Catholic leaders in not dealing with clergy sex abuse, and he urged that Southern Baptists should learn from Catholic mistakes and take action early on to implement structural reforms so as to make children safer.
“Dr. Page, the Executive Committee president at the time, responded in a short letter that ‘Southern Baptist leaders truly have no authority over local churches’ but that they would attempt to use their ‘influence’ to provide protections.
“According to a news source, Father Doyle characterized Dr. Page’s response as dismissive, stating that such reactions are standard for people in church leadership positions, who tend to place the needs of the institution before their Christian obligations.”
This only happens in a culture where the institution becomes more important than people, and “the ends justify the means.”
Third, covenants, oaths, manifestos, declarations, decrees and pledges are highly valued for the sake of conformity.
Dominionist ideology craves extra-biblical agreements that are usually enforced by coercion or guilt and are often based on Old Testament law.
“Dominionist ideology craves extra-biblical agreements that are usually enforced by coercion or guilt and are often based on Old Testament law.”
“A psychosocial contract that serves as a formal ‘joining up’ process in which one aligns their life’s purpose to an organization’s purpose,” according to Dager, is essential for dominionist ideology to prosper.
This inevitably breeds a culture of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” Dominionists, like strict fundamentalists, can only survive with a bogeyman to fight.
Russell Moore was one of the few top SBC leaders who consistently fought for the victims. During his tenure as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, Moore now reveals that he, his wife and his children, endured “psychological and institutional terrorism” for his stance on sexual abuse and racial discrimination issues.
Moore finally resigned in frustration. His only sin was that he refused to adhere to the institutional manifestos, knowing that they were being used to suppress the voices of the victims.
One SBC Executive Committee staff member said, “The problem is that in nearly every instance in the past when victims have come to those in power in the SBC, they have been shunned, shamed and vilified. At the EC, we have inherited a culture of rejecting those who question power or who accuse leaders.”
The irony is that top SBC leaders repeatedly used the autonomy of the local church as a cover for dismissing the abuse victims, claiming that due to SBC polity they had no authority to tell individual churches what to do.
During the same time period, however, the SBC made decrees effectively expelling any churches that affirmed homosexuality or ordained women as pastors. Apparently, the SBC has no problem telling local churches what to do when it serves their agenda.
Debbie Vasquez’s Southern Baptist pastor started sexually abusing her when she was 14 years old. As a result, she became pregnant with her abuser’s child.
“She was forced to go in front of her church to ask for forgiveness, but she was told she could not mention who the father of the child was because it would harm the church.”
She was forced to go in front of her church to ask for forgiveness, but she was told she could not mention who the father of the child was because it would harm the church. Her abuser went on to serve at another Southern Baptist church.
She wrote multiple letters and emails to SBC leaders. She pleaded: “Please open up your heart and mind and talk with some of the people who are trying to get things changed. Please put aside differences and compromise — come up with a solution together. … Please do not ignore and pretend this problem does not exist. Please help stop other people like myself from being hurt in the way I was hurt.”
She was mostly ignored and dismissed. She then asked in frustration why churches could be disfellowshipped over homosexuality but not for having a minister who has sexually abused a child.
Unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears because almost every reported conversation between SBC leaders focused on reducing liability to the institution, not on helping the victims.
Dominionist ideology demands conformity to its own version of orthodoxy while turning a blind eye to much of its own orthopraxy.
The Jennifer Lyell case
Nowhere is this insistence on conformity more evident than in the case of Jennifer Lyell, a former top executive at Lifeway, the publishing arm of the SBC.
Lyell had been sexually abused by David Sills, a seminary professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She privately disclosed her abuse to her boss at Lifeway and then to Al Mohler, president of the seminary where her abuser was then employed.
She told Mohler and her boss at Lifeway that any sexual contact she had with Sills had been nonconsensual and involved violence, threats of violence against her and others, and coercion.
Mohler clearly understood not only the nature of her disclosure but expressly stated that he believed her and stated it was his opinion that she had been abused by the professor. As a result of her disclosure, Sills resigned from his position at Southern after being confronted by leadership.
Baptist Press, the news arm of the SBC, published a story on the abuse. Lyell provided a first-person account of her sexual abuse to BP staff, making it clear that what she had experienced was sexual abuse.
A member of BP staff wrote a summary of the potential story, as well as Lyell’s first-person draft, and sent it to the top SBC leaders for review. Shortly before the final article went live online, a BP employee called Lyell and told her the lawyers had them pull all uses of the words “abuse” and “nonconsensual.” The BP employee made it clear to Lyell that the decision already was made and was not a matter for debate.
“The edited version of the article characterized Lyell’s relationship with Sills as an adulterous affair.”
The edited version of the article characterized Lyell’s relationship with Sills as an adulterous affair. After the final, edited article was posted, Lyell was subject to numerous online attacks. The majority of the attacks were based on the incorrect assumption that Lyell had consented to the sexual relationship with her abuser — an assumption that stemmed from the opening paragraph of the article.
Ultimately, Lyell lost her career, her health and many of her colleagues and friends due to the way her “relationship” with her abuser was portrayed in the article written by Baptist Press.
Dominionist ideology cannot stomach a free press that might question her faulty theology and foster nonconformity among the laity. Baptist Press proved itself to be an effective and essential propaganda machine for powerful SBC leaders.
Dominionist ideology always will reward loyalty to the cause over anything else, including the truth.
A culture of domination and oppression
These three beliefs born of dominionist thinking, along with a strict male hierarchy, were contributing factors to an SBC leadership that saw itself as God’s chosen to lead and therefore insulated from the moral codes that in the past have served as limiting forces on oppressive behavior.
These theological pillars foster a belief that positional power is preeminent, change comes through coercion, and the institution is more important than any one person.
These unbiblical beliefs have fostered a culture of domination and oppression at the highest levels and will continue to do so until they are eradicated from SBC life.
Ellis Orozco serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Richardson, Texas. A Houston native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University before going on to earn a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry from George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University.
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