Johnny Hunt’s New Church Threatens Legal Action Against SBC Amid Inquiry

The Roys Report [Chicago IL]

February 18, 2023

By Sarah Einselen

A Florida church being targeted by the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Credentials Committee for platforming disgraced pastor Johnny Hunt is now threatening legal action against the SBC.

The church—Hiland Park Baptist Church in Panama City, Florida—was recently placed under inquiry by the Credentials Committee for actions allegedly out of step with the SBC’s stance on sexual abuse. Hunt, a former SBC president who’s accused of sexual assault, joined Hiland Park Baptist last summer, after leaving his longtime church in the Atlanta area, First Baptist Woodstock.

In a letter dated Wednesday, Hiland Park leadership stated it is discussing the inquiry with legal counsel “in pursuance of all our legal recourses.” The church added that there is “no proof whatsoever” that Hunt has “committed sexual abuse.” And it claimed the inquiry “violates every historic norm” about Southern Baptist church autonomy.

Hiland Park’s leadership argued that the Credentials Committee is using an “unbiblical standard” that pastors who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse are not qualified to be Southern Baptist ministers.

“We believe the standard of ‘credible accusation’ to be troublingly ambiguous, far below biblical standards of considering evidence against a spiritual leader, and exceedingly dangerous,” the leaders wrote in the letter.

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The letter, posted to the church’s homepage, added “‘Guilty until proven innocent’ is an ungodly and unbiblical standard.”

Hiland Park was responding to a letter by the Credentials Committee, which hasn’t been made public. The committee previously stated to TRR that it keeps complaints confidential. It names churches under inquiry only if the committee decides to recommend a church be dismissed from the SBC.

A move from one church to another

Hunt pastored First Baptist Church Woodstock from 1986 until transitioning to pastor emeritus in 2019. But he was removed as pastor emeritus after allegations came out last May that he had sexually assaulted a woman.

blockbuster report exposing sexual abuse and cover-up within the SBC found an SBC pastor’s wife had made “credible” claims that Hunt had sexually assaulted her.

The report stated Hunt was also interviewed and denied any physical contact with the woman. But after the report’s release, Hunt admitted to “a brief, but improper, encounter” in 2010 with a woman who wasn’t his wife. He claimed the encounter was consensual.

In a June 2022 letter, FBC Woodstock’s leadership stated it was suspending Hunt, citing its “biblical theology as a church regarding spiritual leaders being above reproach.”

FBC Woodstock’s leadership also stated they had recommended “a clear process of counseling, accountability, and restoration.”

Hunt apparently rejected his longtime church’s plan for accountability, instead choosing four pastors to form a panel who would declare him restored to ministry just six months later.

SBC President Bart Barber previously stated FBC Woodstock “had nothing to do with this process.”

TRR reached out to FBC Woodstock for details about its recommended accountability measures for Hunt, but did not immediately hear back.

A Credentials Committee inquiry begins

Hiland Park hosted Hunt in January for his first sermon since the allegations against him were made public. Within weeks, the Credentials Committee had begun an inquiry into Hiland Park and another church that recently platformed Hunt.

SBC bylaws state the Credentials Committee can inquire into whether a church is “in friendly cooperation” with the SBC. It can also recommend a church be kicked out of the SBC if the committee thinks the church is out of line.

Then the SBC’s Executive Committee, which administers SBC business matters, considers the Credentials Committee’s recommendation. The Executive Committee has the final say about whether a church is disfellowshipped, or kicked out of the SBC.

Standards for friendly cooperation are laid out in the SBC constitution. The constitution was updated in 2021 to state that churches should “not act in a manner inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse.”

Cooperating churches are also expected to align closely with the SBC statement of faith and financially support SBC entities, among other standards.

The committee can infer SBC beliefs from sources like SBC governing documents and resolutions that messengers approve at annual meetings.

In 2020 and 2021, the Executive Committee disfellowshipped two churches with sex offenders as pastors; one church whose pastor had confessed to statutory rape; and two churches that affirmed homosexuality.

Hiland Park Baptist Church argues in its letter that the Credentials Committee inquiry is an “overreach.”

The unnamed woman’s allegation “falls far short of a legal accusation,” Hiland Park’s letter states. It adds that Hunt hasn’t been found guilty of sexual abuse by any “duly authorized body recognized by our church.”

The church further contends that the Credentials Committee has “no ecclesiastical authority over our autonomous congregation.” The letter notes an SBC bylaw that states the committee “shall never attempt to exercise any authority over a church through an investigation or other processes that would violate Article IV of the Constitution.”

Responses range from critique to support

Some responded to Hiland Park’s letter with criticism. On Twitter, Mike Keahbone said “an inquiry is not an overreach.”

Keahbone is an Executive Committee member and vice chairman of the SBC’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force addressing sexual abuse issues. He described a Credentials Committee inquiry as a way “to gain clarity” and confirmed that neither the SBC nor the committee can “make any church do anything.”

Another Executive Committee member, Adam Wyatt, noted the SBC has kicked churches out before over who was allowed in their pulpits.

Two advocates for SBC abuse reform echoed Wyatt’s point.

Dave Pittman stated SBC survivors have said “for decades” that the SBC takes action only when churches let women or gay men preach. He’s one of multiple men who say an SBC music minister molested them when they were boys.

And Emily Snook, who told TRR she’s been on staff at several SBC churches, noted a “direct correlation” between how some SBC members treat alleged victims and alleged abusers.

“That correlation is this—for many bros being a woman is worse than abusing us,” Snook stated.

Still, Hunt has plenty of supporters. Many wrote on his public Facebook page or on Hiland Park’s that they were grateful for the church’s letter.

In one comment, Pastor Steven McEntyre of Cheatham Hill Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia, compared the atmosphere surrounding abuse in the SBC to “the days of the Salem witch hunts.”

“Looking forward to hosting you in my church in November!” McEntyre added.

Sarah Einselen is an award-winning writer and editor based in Texas.