The Path Forward on Abuse Reform in the SBC

Center for Baptist Leadership [Atlanta GA]

March 4, 2024

By Josh Abbotoy, Jon Whitehead

Returning to Baptist Accountability

The path forward for addressing sex abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is deceptively simple: Baptist accountability.

By Baptist accountability, we mean the accountability that naturally flows from the biblical and historically Baptistic principles that undergird the cooperation of autonomous local churches while preserving their direct accountability to God.

This Baptist accountability, as G.K. Chesterton might say, hasn’t been tested and found wanting; rather, it has been deemed challenging and left unexplored. 

Our modest statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, defines the theological commitments and parameters of our cooperation. Baptist churches form voluntary and advisory bodies designed to “elicit, combine, and direct the energies of our people in the most effective manner” for the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom. Baptists seek to be unified in “spiritual harmony and voluntary cooperation for common ends.” But there is a limit. Cooperation cannot include “violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and His Word as revealed in the New Testament.” Under this system, the churches send messengers to hold the Convention entities and trustees accountable to these principles. 

The Convention has no authority to dictate the internal activities of SBC churches. The Convention’s primary, narrow role in accountability for SBC churches is helping the messengers enforce the stated boundaries of cooperation for the Convention as a body of cooperating churches. When congregations are not New Testament churches and specifically Baptist churches, or when cooperation with them would violate conscience or compromise loyalty to Christ and His Word, it undermines the faith and message of the entire effort if the Convention fails to react to public, material violations of its stated purposes.

To stay healthy, the Convention’s accountability tool–disfellowshipping churches that are out of step with our confession–must be employed. Yet lately, SBC leaders have found countless reasons to keep taking money from, and giving votes to, congregations that undermine our mission. 

How Failure to Use Baptist Accountability Undermines Our Mission

For at least three generations, Baptist leaders have pushed hyper-voluntarism and individualism without accountability. Together, these work as acids against the Convention’s stated commitments.

In 1962, James Leo Garrett, Jr.’s Baptist Church Discipline noted that Southern Baptists excelled as evangelists but lagged behind in churchmanship. In other words, even the cherished childhood memories of our seasoned leaders recall a time when SBC pastors excelled in the pulpit but struggled to conserve an “ordered, disciplined congregational life” in the pews. This local struggle has now engulfed the Convention as a whole.

Now, the SBC is harvesting the rotten fruit this of hyper-voluntarism and individualism. The old goal–ever-larger cooperation without discipleship or accountability–is failing. It’s not just running out of steam; it’s going bankrupt, both theologically and financially. A two-century legacy of Baptist endeavors is actively slipping away. Seven American generations have transmitted the Baptist tradition to us, yet the next generation may inherit only our recollections and cautionary tales. 

The SBC is not a church. It is a cooperative effort of discrete churches. By definition, cooperation does not allow for contradiction on the matters of cooperation. Two men cannot walk together in different directions. Hyper-voluntarism tries to grow the SBC by reducing cooperation to a voluntary transaction with no walking together at all; you agree to send money to the SBC’s tall-building gospel experts, and that’s that. But a series of cash transactions is not what most Baptists mean by a cooperative effort to advance Christ’s kingdom. When some leaders harp on “mission over doctrine,” one might reasonably ask if their definition of “mission” goes beyond collecting cash? 

Southern Baptists believe the Bible, as reiterated in the BF&M, contains God’s good commands for how Baptist churches should operate, both independently and cooperatively. The BF&M describes broad agreements on the beliefs and teachings-the faith and message-that God has set down for His Glory and mankind’s good. A family of churches that believe and teach within these broad principles can advance Christ’s Kingdom together. If the SBC-whether through the messengers, the Credentials Committee, or blue ribbon task forces-is afraid to offend groups that publicly and grossly undermine the BF&M, the problem is that we do not love what we say we love. If we fear a call for our churches to cooperate with our basic faith and message, we clearly have deeper problems that social justice merchants and New York City consultants cannot fix.

Two Violations of 1 Timothy 2

In recent years, Baptists have identified two violations of I Timothy 2 that publicly and materially undermine our cooperative message.

True New Testament churches cannot ignore the Bible’s teaching on the sex of pastors.  

And true New Testament churches cannot ignore the Bible’s teaching on the sexuality of pastors.  

The sex of a pastor matters. A local church must not give pastoral titles or authority to someone not qualified to be a pastor, and women are not qualified to be a pastor. This is true even if many people in a particular church feel an unqualified man or woman has been called to ministry. All saints are to minister. But God has not called men to be pastors without providing enough qualified men.

And the sexuality of a pastor matters. By this, we mean that a local church must not give church authority to a minister who has ever misused a divine office for unholy, sexual purposes. This is true even if the other party, male or female, consents to the misuse. Even if the sheep could consent to being wronged by their shepherd, their sins would not be the same.

New Testament churches uphold I Timothy 2. If biblical justice is followed, they don’t flinch in removing unqualified elders from office. New Testament churches tell the authorities when crimes are committed against those who can’t defend themselves. They tell the members of the body and even other churches when reasonably necessary to protect others.

Churches that do not uphold I Timothy 2 undermine their claim to be a New Testament church. And this open, public sin, if left unaddressed, undermines Baptist cooperation in a way that exposes hypocrisy in the broader Convention.

Why Has it Been So Difficult for the SBC to Address Sex Abuse?

Of course, the way forward has not been this simple in practice. Why?

Economist Milton Friedman once described some institutions as “fools in the shower.” When the water was too hot, they crank the valve as cold as possible. Too cold, and they crank the valve to blistering hot. Thus, the shower is always painfully hot or cold, and never comfortable. 

To use the framework set forth above, it is evident that on questions of Convention membership, SBC leaders seem to crank their “accountability” valve to frozen hyper-voluntarism on the sex of pastors on the one hand, allowing the proliferation of female pastors in hundreds of churches across the Convention go largely unchecked. On the other hand, they crank it back to boiling authoritarianism on the sexuality of pastors, building an investigatory bureaucracy to conduct incredibly resource-intensive fact-finding missions and vested with the power to disfellowship churches for failure to comply with the investigations or implement recommended best practices. Why?

First, for too long, Convention leaders have focused on growth, not health. For example, sending a check to Lottie Moon is not a commitment to friendly cooperation in the SBC, and it should not buy admission or affiliation–and yet it does (if combined with a few other steps). Every year at the Convention, we are treated to very detailed reports about certain numbers that are ostensibly a positive sign-baptisms, new church plants, total Cooperative Program giving, etc. But these numbers are often skewed by “ministerial speak,” and ultimately rendered meaningless if the increases are accomplished using unbiblical methods. Real Baptist success might very well look like a smaller Convention faithful to its stated principles.

Second, it is easy to win popularity using other people’s money. Certain “advocates” in the SBC have tried to gain favor by making promises they won’t fulfill themselves. They urge the Convention to apologize for wrongs it did not commit, to take missionaries off the field and replace them with permanent investigators, and to pay debts the Convention did not incur. Of course, they are not willing to shut down their own churches and give away the proceeds. Rather, they imagine that other churches have an endless duty to sacrifice, but their ministry is theirs, above and outside the cooperative efforts of Southern Baptists. Yet the expensive, hard-earned truth is this: Under oath, SBC President Bart Barber testified that the SBC never mishandled the reporting of abuse. Anyone who wants to be a leader in the SBC must be able to say this unapologetically.

Instead, many current Baptist leaders have opted to dissemble in their public rhetoric. They will blame others because doing so brings them a false and temporary feeling of peace. Instead of solving problems, they stall and shift blame so that the blowup occurs on someone else’s watch. They want to look like good guys, but they offer diffuse responsibility; if they can argue everyone is responsible for abuse, no one in particular is.

Third, political operatives and demagogues are trying to steer the Convention away from Baptist solutions. When Kentucky’s Supreme Court recently ruled that the legislature could not revive claims against those who allegedly failed to stop someone else’s abuse, strident activists opined that the law must be called evil. They argued that it is always evil to deny a victim the chance to take money from a defendant, even at the edges of responsibility. But starting at “Who can pay?” is not the same as “Who is responsible?” This claim for a wide net of responsibility for systemic wrongs is popular among social justice advocates, but our legal system has always required a tight connection to responsibility before juries can order that money be taken from the accused.

Activists should also know that membership-based institutions don’t become responsible for everything their members do. A teachers union is not responsible for abusive teachers or even teachers who cheat on their taxes. The Philatelist Society isn’t responsible for mail fraud among stamp collectors, even if they could have withdrawn the membership. And the SBC has no authority over the conduct of local churches–and by extension, no legal liability either.

So, the SBC, as an institution, has no responsibility for what occurs within a local church. Unless, of course, compassionate Baptists are guilted into accepting responsibility to pay for debts that they do not owe. Thus, part of the strategy of the most strident activists is to get our most tenderhearted, lachrymose Baptists to blame other Baptists and lament that the other Baptists did not do more. Despite having no prior duty to train churches about abuse, and no way to force them to take training, our Resolutions Committee had messengers apologize for the SBC’s “failure” to train churches. This is no throwaway claim about the past. If you are in the SBC, activists will argue that it is evil to deny any victim the right to take money from you based on a remote connection. Even you, the most sympathetic and emotionally-moved Baptist serving on the Resolutions Committee. 

Beyond the activists, liberal evangelicals have risen up again to say that the SBC’s “Conservative Resurgence” was really a “pursuit of power” driven by “abusive” theology and engineered by bad actors, so the only answer now is to listen and learn from liberal voices. Feminists want us to deny complementarianism. Psychologists want us to subordinate the Bible to their theories. Other “advisors” appear to want us to measure success by DEI measures.

These voices are not doctors for the SBC, and they are not offering a return to health. They are selling institutional assisted suicide. Their endless committees and task forces are a denominational hospice, trying to keep the patient sedated and comfortable until he finishes bleeding out.

And so we are again in the situation W.A. Criswell described in 1985: It is a question of whether we live or die. Conservative theology has many opponents who say things like “the Convention should fall on a grenade and turn to ashes, so that something may bloom on its corpse.”

But the Conservative Resurgence was thousands–tens of thousands–of Baptist pastors and laymen who insisted our only hope is an inerrant Scripture that tells us the truth. They knew that justice and beauty are found in the Bible. “The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring and refreshing the soul; The statutes of the LORD are reliable and trustworthy, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). Pastors and laymen heard Adrian Rogers’ call; grandmothers and grandfathers heard W. A. Criswell’s challenge; the Conservative Resurgence wasn’t about “power,” it was a generation of Baptists who rejected liberal Christianity’s rejection of the Bible and embrace of feminism and Freudianism and abortion as any kind of “new truth” worth embracing.  

Today, the battle is only slightly different. It is not about whether the Bible speaks inerrantly and authoritatively about supernatural creation. It is about whether the Bible speaks inerrantly and authoritatively about the nature of men and women, and how we must respond to the charge that Christian morality is bigoted.

How to Move Forward in Truth

What does Baptist accountability look like at the next SBC annual meeting?

First, vote for the truth. Vote for leaders who unapologetically say, “There is not, and never has been, an abuse coverup crisis in the SBC.” Vote for the Law Amendment, which unapologetically says pastors must be men. And, of course, unapologetically vote to exclude churches that tolerate sinful sexual abuse by pastors. 

The SBC should never vote to accept responsibility for what it cannot legally or biblically control in local, autonomous congregations. Some will say this is too narrow; other loud SBC voices might be unhappy. But it is biblical, just, and Baptist.

As C.S. Lewis said, “We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road, and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” The SBC has traveled the wrong road for nearly six years, following advisors and consultants who promise us that new truth is around the corner, along with peace, happiness, and public adulation. But there has been no peace. Baptist accountability requires messengers to point out leaders going down a self-destructive path. And the first step in the right direction is to tell the truth.

Second, vote to shutter the current Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF). ARITF will return to the Convention and request an extension. It has overpromised and under-delivered at every turn, missing deadlines and undermining our polity. Now, its Chairman says, “Given the current legal and financial challenges facing the SBC and the Executive Committee, the formation of a new independent organization is the only viable path that allows progress toward abuse reform to continue unencumbered and without delay.” If the Chair firmly believes that the members don’t think ARITF is viable, and if it has no path to progress, it should be shut down–not allowed to linger and waste offering plate dollars. 

ARITF has failed at the core mandate from messengers to create a useful Ministry Check database. This failure is for the better, as ARITF produced ill-conceived plans from the start. Why? Baptists have no special skill at legal records databases and no good way to figure out which criminal convicts are Southern Baptists. The Ministry Check database, if it only includes some convictions and court decisions, is not viable. It would be a more expensive version of commercial background check companies that aren’t limited to Baptists.

However, if the Ministry Check database expands to include those deemed by an independent third-party investigator to have been “credibly accused” of a crime, then the database irresponsibly imitates civil courts. Add the wrong name or middle initial to a list of sexual abusers, and a pastor’s life would be destroyed, and legal liability would follow. There is a reason why criminal courts (who have the force of law behind them, as well as sovereign immunity) don’t have commercial competitors.

Ending ARITF does not mean the Convention abandons its response to sex abuse. It will permanently retain curriculum and training, but the SBC already has entities equipped to teach and train pastors and churches for this task. And the Guidepost report gave a permanent, outside look at the facts necessary for trusting the Executive Committee (on this issue at least): The EC was completely transparent with its records and passed the test.  For all its failures in the past few years, an independent investigator found no evidence the EC mishandled reports of abuse. The SBC does not need to abandon reasonable and appropriate efforts to better train and equip churches to prevent and respond to abuse. Still, we do not need the ERLC to assume this task, nor do we require new, permanent, and unaccountable organizations to do so.

Finally, messengers must vote against any adoption, affirmation, or funding for the poorly conceived Abuse Response Commission (ARC). ARITF chair Josh Wester and former chair Marshall Blalock have openly tried to sell the plan as a lawsuit-avoidance gimmick. “The point [of ARC],” he says, “is to serve the churches of our Convention while not creating liability for the SBC.” Wester also said ARC would buy insurance that specifically protects the SBC, but one has to wonder why the ARC would need to buy insurance to protect an institution that they are independent from? And presumably, they could quickly expand their independent database to include the “credibly” accused. Again, the potential liability is the risk that a poorly run database falsely defames someone as an abuser.  

But ARC’s incorporators seem to have no shame in publicizing it as a scheme to help the deep-pocketed SBC avoid lawful, legal liabilities should they arise. ARITF would have preferred the “credibly accused” database to be inside the walls of the SBC, but apparently, the Task Force decided the risks were prohibitive. Instead, Wester and Blalock have announced a plan to be faith-based legal deadbeats, contriving to shift judgments from the well-funded SBC to the underfunded ARC. NAMB, IMB, and SENDRelief immediately distanced themselves from this racket. 

We believe the wink-and-a-nudge “independence” of ARC will evaporate in litigation. The scheming invites the wrath of ten thousand judges. Anyone affirming ARC now risks being drawn down in the whirlpool with it.


Now, as then, the answers to hard moral problems are deceptively simple; our disobedience is a failure of will rather than intellect. Baptist accountability has not been tried and found wanting–it has been found difficult and not tried. The Convention needs leaders who will implement Baptist accountability and resist the siren call to abandon our faith and message for schemes that promise a worldly-approved veneer of justice that is not a biblical nor Baptistic form of justice at all.

  • Josh Abbotoy – Josh Abbotoy is the Executive Director of American Reformer and Contributing Scholar at The Center for Baptist Leadership. A seasoned private equity lawyer by background, Josh is a lifelong Southern Baptist with an M.A. in Medieval and Byzantine Studies from the Catholic University of America and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. His writing has appeared in American Reformer, the American Mind, and the Federalist, and more.
  • Jon Whitehead – Jon Whitehead is a lifelong Southern Baptist and the founding attorney of the Law Offices of Jonathan R. Whitehead LLC, located in Missouri. He is a trustee at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC and serves on the Advisory Board for the The Center of Baptist Leadership.