On Feb. 10, 2019, the Houston Chronicle published the first part of a three-part series entitled “Abuse of Faith” and subtitled “20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reforms.” This article exposed a heartbreaking history of sexual abuse that came from within the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The article published by the Houston Chronicle began with the story of a young girl who was raped by her pastor, impregnated, and ignored by the leaders of the church when she begged them to consider prevention policies. The authors of the article continued to outline the long history of Southern Baptist leaders who have ignored and perpetuated the problem. The authors emphasized the fact that many SBC churches continue to accept volunteers and hire employees who have faced allegations of sexual assault.
The Houston Chronicle’s article condemned the leaders of the SBC and noted that numerous leaders have used the autonomy-focused structure of the denomination as an excuse for inaction. The SBC does, in fact, emphasize the local autonomy of the church; the Southern Baptist constitution states that, “while independent and sovereign in its own sphere, the convention does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or convention.” Athough the SBC opposes exercising authority over bodies of believers, they have the ability to disfellowship churches who fail to maintain the beliefs that are outlined in the constitution of the organization.
Despite the history of abuse in the SBC, God has provided hope for the situation. In 2018, the SBC elected J.D. Greear to be their new president. Greear was widely regarded to be a change for the SBC. He voiced his focus on diversity, racial reconciliation and redemptive history for women. When Greear and other Southern Baptist leaders responded to the Houston Chronicle’s article, they emphasized their thankfulness that light had been shed once again on the issue.
Greear also stated his plans to institute changes: “We must change how we prepare before abuse (prevention), respond during disclosure (full cooperation with legal authorities), and act after instances of abuse (holistic care).”
So far, the SBC has taken steps to provide resources for victims. The SBC also voted to add amended language to its constitution; churches that are indifferent to sexual abuse and racism will be disfellowshipped. These actions are positive steps in the right direction.
As Christians, we weep with the victims of sexual assault and with the SBC during this time. We also pray for change.