How Can the SBC Earn Our Trust?
What is a church even for, if it can’t deal with the rape of its own congregants?
On May 22, an independent report from Guidepost confirmed what hundreds of Southern Baptists already knew: The organization that oversaw their churches was swamped with sexual abuse cases, and members of their leadership committee worked to cover up predation in the pews at every turn. Above all else, Guidepost discovered that two members of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee kept a list of accused abusers in their member churches, only to deny that such a list even existed when victims came calling.
Abuse — sexual or otherwise — inside any institution is a tragedy, and such revelations are especially noxious when religion is involved. Churches, after all, trade their claims to morality and the voice of God for the confidence of people who fill their pews. When they violate our trust, they don’t just sin against their victims; they sear the reputation of Christian institutions and vindicate our growing skepticism of religiosity.
But the SBC? Of all faiths, none could less afford to get caught covering up sex abuse than the tent of Southern Baptistry.
As America has moved women into greater positions of authority in a long-overdue self-reassessment, the SBC has doubled (and tripled) down on barring women from the pulpit. In 2021, they even forced new churches to promise not to hire women as pastors. As LGBTQ families gain some semblance of acceptance in society, the SBC continues to eject its own churches for allowing gay couples to become members, voting to remove such congregations from its ranks as recently as last year’s meeting.
Evangelicalism’s public face draws a lot from the SBC, from the books they agree to distribute through Lifeway Publishing to the personalities who get to speak in SBC churches. Their dictates — especially on hot-button issues — are a big deal, and it’s not uncommon for evangelical Christians to see criticism of those dictates as attacks from Satan or “the world.” The revelations of abuse, then, aren’t just blows to the church’s legitimacy; they’re vindications of those who would scoff at evangelicals’ usage of the name of Jesus Christ. If God can be deployed to justify this, they must be asking, what crimes can’t He cover?
In the spring of 2021, another evangelical giant, apologist Ravi Zacharias, was revealed to have sexually exploited dozens of women. When one victim threatened to expose Zacharias’ crimes to the world, he told her that the faithful would deconvert, and souls would go to Hell if she did, according to Christianity Today. The victim thought about it, apparently, and kept Zacharias’ crimes to herself, only telling her story after the abuser died of cancer in May 2020.
Every time I hear a case of manipulation and abuse emanating from inside the 21st-century church, I can’t help but wonder how many people saw what was taking place, and said nothing “for the sake of the gospel.” I think of all the people who left a place that would put keeping converts over dealing with crimes of this scale and magnitude. And I wonder who would actually say, publicly, that the formerly faithful made the wrong decision by shaking the dust of such a church off their feet.
Churches aren’t just supposed to be places where you learn to address your spiritual life, or clearinghouses for us to reach out to our communities. They’re supposed to be places of refuge, where the vagaries and shortcomings of Earthbound lives are met head-on by the law of Heaven. And, yet, time and time again, the shadow of a watchful God looks scarcely different from the eyes of mere mortals when status and reputation are on the line, as the House of the Lord seems to mimic Hollywood and Silicon Valley in times of reckoning.
As a rule, evangelicalism’s claims on the moral corner market hinge on what kinds of lives their institutions are actually fostering. Would the world be a more heavenly place if we accepted “traditional Christian” principles about sex? I’d argue that we wouldn’t, but the truth is that we’ll never know, as long as the biggest boosters for those principles keep violating them themselves.
Michael Cosper, an evangelical pastor who covered various kinds of abuse inside the walls of a Peugeot Sound megachurch, once said that “we live in a secularized age, where spiritually seems contested and difficult.” Looking at the situation in the SBC, it’s not hard to see why.