Only Churches Can Stop Baptist Predators

By Gary Ledbetter
April 30, 2007

Here's the bottom line at the top: neither the Southern Baptist Convention nor any other Baptist denominational entity has any standing, any power or any official business intervening between a local church and even the worst minister they employ. Those who say otherwise either have no understanding of or no respect for the essential definition of Southern Baptist cooperation.

I say this in the context of calls for the SBC to maintain or even investigate cases of sexual abuse by pastors. Christa Brown of Houston claims to be such a victim and has started an organization and website aimed at "stopping Baptist predators." I have no reason to doubt her testimony or to oppose her basic intent.

Her story is poignant and the details are terrible. The abuse she suffered obviously left her with pain and a justified anger toward those who took no reasonable action to protect her. No doubt her case is typical of victims who suffer abuse in our day. Again, I agree with her intent to stop predators.

At the same time, I would disagree with her by saying that I don't believe there is anyone in denominational service who is less than horrified at the thought or reality of ministers who abuse people in this way. Mrs. Brown seems to think that if we cared we could find a way to make our polity work and still apply top down pressure on churches that are careless in their pastor search process. She also thinks there is something we can do to ordained ministers who practice or cover up sexual abuse in their churches.

Her proposal for Southern Baptists is that we create a database of ministers convicted of sex offenses and that we form an independent committee tasked to investigate charges of such abuse by ministers. Presumably the results of these investigations would also be posted somewhere so that churches can make sure that their ministers are not predators. Mrs. Brown's rhetoric also implies that the denomination can exert some pressure on churches that do not take appropriate care in their ministry hiring process.

She's wrong about something very important. There is no top down authority in the Southern Baptist Convention. The denomination does not direct churches or control ordination, as would be the case in many denominations. To make it otherwise in some small way would be to burn the village in hopes of thus saving it.

Our churches are the building blocks of all denominational organization. They are not local franchises of the national "headquarters" and they are not directed by any employed or elected official of the denomination. If SBC churches decided to affirm something horrible, as they did a couple of decades back regarding abortion, that becomes the stand of the SBC, regardless of what the president or any convention employee says on the subject.

I'd even go so far as to say that the impossible-to-imagine success of her proposal would make the problem worse. Denominations that work in hierarchy are more prone to the abuse of authority because individuals are apportioned more authority of necessity. Current cases where an individual has covered for a coworker or friend have been localized. Nationalize Southern Baptist power over local ministry and you will likely nationalize this very human tendency to wink at the sins of a friend and magnify the sins of a stranger or adversary.

There is simply more accountability in our bottom up polity than there is in any human hierarchy. It doesn't look that way on paper but the theory never takes into account the fallen nature of mankind.

If I were Christa Brown, I would not be very convinced by arguments that point out the logistical nightmare of making such a list and constantly checking it for accuracy. Neither would I care about the certain damage an accused minister would face after being investigated, cleared, and perhaps having the results posted on a national website. Would you hire a youth director the whole church knows has just been cleared of child abuse?

She will not likely care about these things but they are easily predictable reality. The SBC would become too much involved in this work as our main mission. It would be endlessly controversial, result in many lawsuits, and still leave room for the abuse of power by those determined to prey on those in their ministries. Always be leery of an argument that requires us to believe that the potential of saving one person from harm justifies any action and is worth any cost. Nothing works that way and the payoff is rarely what we'd hoped.

For that reason I do not favor the motion being proposed by an Oklahoma pastor that we investigate the feasibility of such a database of offenders. This relatively small step will not be satisfactory to Mrs. Brown. The creation of the database could, however, create some of the problems I've suggested while being little more than a gesture toward the solution.

An idea from Farmersville Pastor Bart Barber on his blog has some merit, though. He suggests that the federal government require all institutions do a criminal background check on everyone who works with minor children. I have had one done on me at my church and also a background check and credit check done upon my employment with the SBTC. Many of our churches do this because their insurance companies advise it but others do not because of laziness or unfounded optimism.

The government already intervenes on behalf of disabled people and requires considerations for the safety and health of those who enter a church building. City laws govern church signage, zoning regulations, and other public welfare concerns. A federal law requiring a background check for church employees and volunteers seems to be no more invasive or wrong-headed than those.

Such a law would not single out churches and would not exert any power over who a church hires or employs as a volunteer. It would, however, cause more churches to take this prudent step. It would remove from them also the shelter of "we didn't know" when faced with a horrible situation.

.Now, let me reserve my most intemperate language for churches and ministers who behave foolishly. Foolish can become evil before you know it. Do a background check and a credit check on church employees, every time you hire someone. There is no excuse for "we didn't know." Everyone agrees that you should have known.

For church leaders of every kind, there is also no excuse for the "putting away quietly" of guilty staff members. You have only pawned them off on another unsuspecting ministry. It is not friendship, it is not modesty, it is not generous to allow a man to resign or move away when he should be prosecuted or when he has disqualified himself otherwise from any kind of church leadership. It is evil wrapped in a soft fuzzy blanket.

While denying the call for denominational action on this problem, I know that ministers network pretty effectively without any denominational help. When a church behaves carelessly toward its stewardship of children, other churches and pastors know about it. When a church covers for a pastor who is an adulterer, word gets around. When a staff member moves from church to church, manifesting the same moral problem in each place, somebody knows.

Although I do not believe that denominational bodies have the authority to compel a church or pastor to do something, that does not mean that we should complacently watch reckless or wrong behavior in a sister ministry without offering advice, or even rebuke. It is a terrible evil to allow such things to become a tragedy for another family to discover.

.While I see some good reasons why the federal government should force our hands on being more careful with our ministries, I'm frankly disgusted that it would come to that point. While I do not share Christa Brown's apparent disdain for the foundational principles of Southern Baptist polity, I do understand her rage. She assumes, wrongly, that Southern Baptist leaders don't care because she has seen too many, more local, cases where churches leaders were unwilling to do what was in their power alone to do. That's terrible and there is no denominational "magic bullet" to solve it, but that doesn't mean that churches and community's can rightly do nothing at all.

Search "child abuse" at and you'll find articles and links for churches that want to improve the safety of the children in their ministries. I strongly recommend '10 steps to avoid child abuse in the church.


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