In a May 26 New York Times column, “The Southern Baptist Moral Meltdown,” conservative commentator David Brooks wrote: “They dedicated their lives to a gospel that says that every human being is made in the image of God. They dedicated their lives to a creed that commands one to look out for the marginalized, the vulnerable. The last shall be first. The meek shall inherit the earth. And yet when allegations of sexual abuse came, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention betrayed it all.”
Brooks continued: “Those men — and they seem to have all been men … covered up widespread abuse in their denomination and often intimidated and belittled victims. More than 400 people believed to be affiliated with the church, including some church leaders, have been accused of committing abuse.”
That “moral meltdown” perpetrated by ministry-related sex abusers and extended through their ecclesiastical protectors was documented in a 2019 expose by reporters for the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-New. It remains a stark wakeup call to a denomination whose leaders pride themselves (in the best and worst sense of that word) in adhering to a formidable theological orthodoxy, grounded in an inerrant Bible and the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention’s confession of faith.
The SBC’s doctrinal/ethical dilemma offers a sobering case study for the rest of us who claim and are claimed by the teachings of Jesus, whatever our church affiliations. It is a reminder that the intensity of our shared or varying belief systems must not blind us to abuses we may foster or enable even as we wrap ourselves in the mantle of a specific set of dogmas. Such an orthodoxy will not hold, particularly if it becomes a cover for our own errant or abusive actions.
“The SBC’s doctrinal/ethical dilemma offers a sobering case study for the rest of us who claim and are claimed by the teachings of Jesus.”
At this year’s annual gathering, messengers from SBC churches confronted various challenges facing the denomination and its application of the orthodoxy detailed in the Baptist Faith and Message. That confession, first approved in 1925, 80 years after the convention’s founding, revised in 1963, and again in 2000, represents the SBC’s declaration of doctrinal orthodoxy following the “course correction/takeover” (depending on one’s perspective) secured by conservatives near the end of the 20th century. The Baptist Faith and Message includes traditional Baptist dogmas related to Scripture, trinity, salvation, election, church, and mission, as well as denominational responses to issues such as abortion, homosexuality and the role of women in marriage and ministry.
Baptists have written confessions of faith since their beginnings in the early 17th century. These confessions reflect shared beliefs and practices, including the need for a personal experience of God’s grace through faith in Christ, outwardly professed through baptism. Yet they also vary, especially regarding the process of conversion. For Calvinist-oriented Baptists, repentance and faith follows regeneration (new birth), an infused grace from God to the elect. For Arminian-oriented Baptists, regeneration follows repentance and faith, an interaction of God’s grace and our free will.
Baptists also have differed over the meaning and use of confessions. Some omitted them all together by stressing Scripture alone as sufficient for faith and practice, while others used confessions to define the nature and parameters of Baptist doctrine.
Historically, Baptists also differed over confessions themselves, some resisting a “creedal” or uniform interpretation of and subscription to confessions, while others understood the terms “creed” and “confession” as synonymous. In 2022, while Southern Baptists agree on a solidly conservative approach to biblical teachings and the orthodoxy of their shared confession of faith, they differ on how strenuously and collectively that confession can be applied.
Revision of the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000 occurred because of the conservative “course correction” by which fundamentalist-oriented leaders gained control of the SBC denominational system. They insisted the SBC is a “confessional” coalition of churches and individuals who sign on (sometimes literally) to the Baptist Faith and Message.
Given those beliefs and actions, the documentation of extensive sexual abuse committed by various ministerial figures in SBC churches, the “coverup” of certain offenders, and the minimizing of claims from abused victims, strikes at the roots of SBC assertions of theological and ethical orthodoxy. The time has come for another “course correction.”
At this year’s SBC annual meeting, the denomination’s Sexual Abuse Task Force presented two recommendations for responding to abuses and related cover ups, based on a 300-page report from Guidepost Solutions, the company hired by the task force to investigate the abuse. In response, messengers overwhelmingly approved those proposals: 1) Creating an Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force to study the Guidepost report and bring additional recommendations; and 2) Developing a “Ministry Check” website and process for maintaining a record of pastors, denominational workers, ministry employees, and volunteers “who have at any time been credibly accused of sexual abuse.”
Prior to the vote, several messengers objected to the proposal when it was learned that the Guidepost organization had expressed its appreciation for LGBTQ pride observances. A Florida pastor stated: “I and 47,000 other SBC pastors, plus millions of faithful members feel betrayed. We paid millions to a LGBT-affirming and proud organization to guide us on moral and spiritual matters!? Is there no fear of God?”
“We have a group that celebrates sexual sin advising us on how to handle the sin of sexual abuse.”
Echoing those concerns, an Indiana pastor declared: “I believe Guidepost has polluted this report. Let’s vote this down and pick it up next year. … We have a group that celebrates sexual sin advising us on how to handle the sin of sexual abuse.” (The Baptist Faith and Message asserts that “all Christians should oppose … all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.”)
A former seminary president commented: “None of us is approving of sexual abuse. No church is affirming laxity or indifference as a church body.” Then he concluded, “I have a sense this whole enterprise, which was stimulated by The 1619 Project, is stained.” His sense of “orthodoxy” empowered him to alienate abuse victims and any African Americans left in the SBC.
North Carolina pastor Bruce Frank, chair of the task force, brought the issue back to Southern Baptists, noting: “The issue is not what does Guidepost think about LGBT; it’s what do Southern Baptists think about sexual abuse.” The task force’s recommendations passed overwhelmingly.
The critiques call to mind a passage in John 9 describing the interaction between a group of first century religious leaders and “a man born blind” whom Jesus had just healed. The leaders, suspicious about Jesus’ ability to affect such a result, quizzed the man on how the healing occurred. They warned the former blind man: “Speak the truth before God. We know that this fellow (Jesus) is a sinner.”
“All I know is this,” the man replied: “Once I was blind, now I can see.”
Noting their interest in Jesus’ action, the man then asks the leaders: “Do you also want to become his disciple?”
And the Gospel writer says: “Then they became more abusive,” scornfully denouncing the once-sightless man. “Who are you to give us lessons,” they declared, “born and bred in sin as you are?”
Their orthodoxy didn’t hold that day two millennia ago. It won’t hold now either.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
The SBC rebuffed its most extreme factions but remains extremely conservative | Analysis by Mark Wingfield