By Ian McCaulley
This isn’t the article I was planning to write, but I think I need to. The recent sex abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention demands our attention. We must, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:12, take heed that we do not fall. The facts of the matter are simple, and eerily reminiscent of the scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic church late last year. It has come to light that 220 Southern Baptist pastors were either convicted of sex crimes or had struck a plea deal. At least 35 known sexual predators have been able to get jobs at Southern Baptist churches over the last 20 years. These men’s (they don’t deserve the title ‘pastors’) own churches covered up for them. The leadership of the Southern Baptist convention was aware, to some degree, that this was happening and did nothing, despite repeated requests from victims.
We will see what comes of this. The SBC needs to clean house, and we should pray for them. We should also learn from this so that we know how to respond if, God forbid, it should happen, or even be suggested in our own churches. Most importantly, we must look at ways to prevent it from happening in the first place.
The first step in protecting our churches is a proper ecclesiology; namely a plurality of elders, or pastors. These churches followed the single pastor model of church structure where only one pastor leads the church. While this model isn’t inherently sinful (sometimes you only have one man qualified to be a pastor) it is highly vulnerable for abuse. When the pastor is at the top of the church, it is very easy for him to view himself as above others and to abuse his power, as we have seen recently. I don’t say this to condemn all single-pastor churches. I have attended many, pastored by godly men who would never take advantage of their flock. That said, the model consistently presented in the Bible is that of having multiple pastors. The bearing on this case is clear. Multiple pastors can hold each other accountable more easily than congregants. The presence of multiple pastors also dilutes the feeling of monolithic power that a pastor can be tempted towards. Also, in the worst case, it provides someone that people can go to if one of the pastors is abusing his position. In addition to being a check on each other, a plurality of elders can keep a better watch on the affairs of the church, so that no one else is abusing others.
The second thing we can do is to run background checks on people who are being put in positions of authority. This is certainly the case for pastors, who must be above reproach. To be clear, sexual abuse does permanently disqualify a man from ministry. Duh. It’s also a common sense safety measure that can should be taken with non-pastoral roles, like sunday school teachers and the like. This, combined with the oversight of a plurality of elders, will drastically reduce the risk of abuse within the church.
One suggestion I’m certain will come up from more left-leaning Southern Baptists is putting more women in ‘positions of authority’ (i.e. making them pastors). No. Only men can be pastors. Scripture is super clear on this. Women cannot be pastors or elders.
While prevention is crucial, it may be too late in some churches. What do we do? First, we must take these accusations seriously. Let me be clear. This is NOT the same as ‘believe all women’. That is literally assuming guilt based on nothing more than an accusation. We don’t believe someone’s claims because of their sex. We also don’t dismiss credible claims. Instead, we investigate, bring it to the attention of the elders, and find out the truth of the matter. We believe the evidence, wherever it points. If there is no proof of the accusation, we must assume the accused is innocent. Likewise, if there is proof we go to the police, and initiate church discipline. We cannot cover up a proven case of sexual assault, no matter how sorry the offender may be (or pretend to be); to do so trivializes a grievous sin, and is a disgrace to Christ’s church. Even true repentance does not necessarily remove temporal consequences of sin. Such a person is not beyond salvation, but there are still consequences they must suffer for the crime they have committed. This includes imprisonment and, yes, lifelong stigma. To sweep such a thing under the rug, even in a case of true repentance, is un-Christlike. Jesus’ concern for His followers is made clear in Mark 9:42 when He says:
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea.
I think it is safe to say that the faith-shattering harm inflicted on the victims of sexual abuse in the church counts as causing them to stumble. We must guard against sexual predators in our own churches with Christ-like zeal. We must also guard against our own fleshly weaknesses and tendency towards sinful excess even in righteous causes; and refrain from acting prematurely and solely upon accusation. An accusation must be taken seriously and investigated, and we must follow the evidence, no matter our feelings towards the accuser or the accused. Our goal must be the truth, not conviction or acquittal.
To bring it back to the current crisis in the SBC, we must pray for our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters. Pray for wisdom for their leadership, and healing for those who have been so grievously hurt by this horrible sin. Above all, we must look to ourselves and take heed that we do not fall.