Tennessean [Nashville TN]
June 16, 2021
By Katherine Burgess
The Southern Baptist Convention this week took a stronger stand against sexual abuse, who can serve as a pastor and which congregations can remain a part of the network of conservative evangelical churches.
Churches will only be considered in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention if they do “not act in a manner inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse.”
Southern Baptist messengers gathered Tuesday in Nashville approved the constitutional amendment in the second of two required votes.
Another part of the constitution was also amended: Churches will only be considered in friendly cooperation if they do “not act to affirm, approve, or endorse discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity.”
The topic of sex abuse remained at the front of many actions at the Southern Baptist Convention this week. It cropped up in resolutions, amendments and conversations between messengers, those delegates who get to vote on denomination business.
Southern Baptists place great value on church autonomy, and ultimately the only recourse the convention has to discipline a church is to remove it from fellowship, which they have done as recently as February.
The convention came on the heels of leaked letters written by Russell Moore, the former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the convention’s public policy arm.
In the letters, Moore alleged that the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee mishandled sexual abuse claims and mistreated victims. The executive committee then hired Guidepost Solutions to conduct an independent review of its processes.
Some, however, called for the independent review to be expanded, an effort the executive committee shot down Monday.
And the day before the convention officially began, a Georgia pastor released a statement saying that members of the executive committee and others did not do enough to stop abuse at a Georgia church.
The constitutional amendment was first voted on in 2019 in Birmingham after a Houston Chronicle investigation revealed widespread sex abuse in Southern Baptist churches.
Newly elected SBC president Ed Litton said the convention needs to do more about sexual abuse in the church. He said that looks like getting “as many of our churches as possible seeking to become safe places.”
“I think we need to serve notice on our communities that this is not going to be tolerated,” Litton said.
Pastors committing sexual abuse ‘permanently disqualified’
Southern Baptists also decided Tuesday that any person who has committed sexual abuse “is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor.”
That resolution, which is nonbinding, recommends that all of the Southern Baptist Convention’s affiliated churches apply that standard to positions of church leadership.
“If you cover up sexual abuse, if you commit sexual abuse, you are done in service to this convention of churches,” said David Bumgardner, a messenger from a church in Texas. “We must take a stand before this watching world that we will not tolerate sexual abuse.”
Not everyone agreed with the resolution on pastors and sexual abuse. Some argued it was too vague, that it would disallow someone who had committed sexual abuse as a child from becoming a pastor. Others argued the nature of forgiveness should be taken into account.
“A permanent disqualification does not regard God’s forgiveness, cleansing and transformational power. Who would have thought that the Pharisee Saul could become the apostle Paul?” said Mike Hibbard, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Missouri.
Bart Barber, a resolutions committee member from Texas, explained that Southern Baptists believe the Bible gives qualifications for the office of pastor that don’t have anything to do with sin, meaning someone could have committed a sin and be forgiven, but still be disqualified.
“There have been occasions where people committed sexual abuse offenses and wound up going right back into the ministry,” Barber said. “Even for those of us who aren’t doing things like that, it weakens the credibility of the entire office of pastor when we see that sort of thing happening.
“I believe it’s very important for Southern Baptists to speak unequivocally in a way everyone can understand us, that we believe sexual abuse is a disqualifying factor for anyone who would serve in church leadership and would be in a position where they were commended to vulnerable populations in the church.”
Southern Baptist messengers also voted that part of the convention’s “Vision 2025,” a five-year initiative focused on spreading the gospel, will include seeking to eliminate all incidents of sex abuse and racial discrimination.
Survivor hopeful about changes but more work needed
Jules Woodson, a sexual abuse survivor, said she was “certainly hopeful” to see the actions taken at the convention to combat sexual abuse.
At the same time, there is work to be done, she said.
“I’m so grateful (the resolution on pastors) passed, but going back the division and the people that fought that, it just shows there’s still a lot of contention in the heart of the SBC regarding these issues,” Woodson said.
“It’s not something that should just be elevated to the role of pastor. Does that include youth pastor? There’s still a lot of questions. Does it include anyone in a staff position or do they have to truly be labeled a pastor? It’s a great start but the SBC has a long way to go.”
Messengers brought an array of motions on sex abuse from the floor.
One would have prohibited cooperative program funds from going toward a third-party investigation into allegations related to the ERLC or the executive committee until a group of seven Southern Baptist pastors has been convened to investigate the matter. That was ruled not in order.
Another would have a third party made up of SBC pastors investigate the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission over Moore’s “alleged concealment of grievous sin,” referring to things in his letters that he witnessed or heard. That was referred to an SBC entity to report back in 2022.
And a third calls for the newly elected president to appoint a task force to assume oversight of the third-party review announced by the executive committee or initiate a separate review.
That review would follow specific guidelines. When that motion was referred to the executive committee for a report back in 2022, the messengers voted to overrule that action, taking the item to debate and ultimately approving it.
The sponsor of that motion, Grant Gaines of Belle Aire Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, spoke strongly against it being referred to the executive committee.
“Serious allegations have been made against our executive committee on the issue of mishandling sexual abuse cases,” Gaines said. “An investigation does need to be done but it does need to be done in the right way. Because our executive committee is the one under investigation, the executive committee can’t be the ones in control of the investigation.”
Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at email@example.com, 901-529-2799 or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.