Saga of Little Rock church’s conflict over sexual abuse claims still making headlines

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

February 6, 2024

By Mark Wingfield

Conflict over sexual abuse claims at one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in Arkansas continues to make front-page headlines in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which has published 25 articles about Immanuel Baptist Church since December.

Seven of those articles have been published in the last week, as a fight between the church’s pastor and critics in the deacon body and the congregation has intensified.

In the latest move, Chairman of Deacons Greg Crain, who is senior vice president at Baptist Health in Little Rock, has demanded that all deacons sign a “recommitment form” pledging to support Pastor Steven Smith, the church’s staff and himself.

Chairman of Deacons Greg Crain has demanded that all deacons sign a “recommitment form” pledging to support Pastor Steven Smith, the church’s staff and himself.

Frank Lockwood, the reporter who has dogged the story for two months, explained Feb. 5 that at a contentious deacons’ meeting Sunday evening, Feb. 4, Crain handed out the forms and at least four deacons resigned rather than sign.

After a five-hour meeting, deacons voted 27 to 18 to table a resolution demanding Smith’s resignation as pastor for mishandling several cases of sexual abuse in the church. Nine othe deacons abstained or left before the vote, Lockwood reported.

“Crain, who had refused to call a meeting requested by Smith’s critics to allow a no-confidence vote, made the forms one of the first items of business, urging his colleagues to pick one up, fill it out and turn it in, even offering to run upstairs and make more photo copies himself when the supply ran out,” the paper said.

The crisis over known cases of sexual abuse also has highlighted irregularities in the church’s governing documents.

The church requires deacons to tithe, volunteer their time, regularly attend worship services and board meetings, abstain from alcohol, be married to “one wife” and support the pastor, chairman of deacons and church staff.

Immanuel’s members reportedly no longer have any say in the election of deacons, trustees or committee members — a break with Baptist tradition, which follows a congregational form of governance. Disgruntled deacons have told the newspaper the church has no constitution or bylaws.

Some deacons say they have filed complaints with the Credentials Committee of the SBC, alleging the church is not in compliance with the denomination’s doctrinal statement, the Baptist Faith and Message.

Meanwhile, Smith has refused to step down and recently preached that Satan is “trying to sabotage your life, your family and our church.”

Smith is the son of a former SBC president, Bailey Smith, who was part of the “conservative resurgence” that gained control of the SBC from 1979 to 2000.

Church insiders have told the newspaper many families with young children are leaving the church out of concern for the safety of their children. No specific attendance or membership details are publicly available.