The Southern Baptists’ scarlet ‘A’

Let’s say your church’s pastor is accused of molesting at least four teenage girls.

Let’s say your local congregation decides to keep the pastor in the pulpit while depending on the court system to sort out the accusations.

Let’s assume that the newspaper story about your church will not be pretty. Neither should it be, in my humble opinion.

But in the case of an autonomous Southern Baptist church, should the outrage extend to the national denomination? That’s the key question raised in an in-depth St. Louis Post-Dispatch report.

Starting at the top:

STOVER, MO. — Last Sunday, the Rev. Travis Smith paced First Baptist Church’s sanctuary, decorated for the holidays with poinsettias and a Christmas tree. He addressed his congregation, speaking to them about forgiveness.

Smith read verses from the Gospel of Matthew that follow the Lord’s Prayer:

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,” he said.

Since Smith’s arrest in October on sexual abuse and statutory rape charges, which follow similar allegations from 2010, forgiveness from his congregation has become critical to his survival as its pastor. It is this group of about 100 souls — not a bishop, nor a disciplinary committee nor national church leaders at a faraway headquarters — who will decide Smith’s future in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Unlike members of many denominations — such as Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalian and Presbyterians — Southern Baptists don’t conform to a centralized, hierarchical structure.

The forgiveness peg up high is catchy, but I’m not certain it’s entirely accurate. Based on my reading of the story, the church members have not forgiven their pastor so much as refused to believe the allegations against him. If he has not sinned, what’s there to forgive?

The story then proceeds to push the idea that the autonomous nature of Southern Baptist churches makes it easier for abusive pastors to keep their positions:

In any denomination, Christians confronted with the shocking news that their often-beloved pastor has been accused of sexual misconduct, many congregations circle the wagons, some experts say. …

In those denominations with a centralized hierarchy, it is often a high-ranking church official who provides incontrovertible evidence that an accusation against a pastor is credible, forcing the congregation to face reality.

In many scandals I have read about, high-ranking church officials hushed allegations of abuse and moved abusers from state to state — and even country to country — without alerting local members.

Given that fairly well-known history, I wish the story had provided more insight and analysis on the claim that hierarchical denominational bodies inherently handle such cases better than autonomous churches.

Critics are given a voice in the story:

Advocates for clergy sexual abuse victims say Southern Baptist leaders are hiding behind their governing structure to avoid taking responsibility for the misconduct of Southern Baptist pastors.

“There’s nothing about autonomy that precludes denominational structures,” said Christa Brown, author of “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang.” “Other large congregational faith groups have regional bodies that assess a minister’s fitness to continue ministry.”

Who is Brown? Does she have a Southern Baptist background? Are those raising concerns about the Southern Baptists’ approach internal critics or outside voices? What do leading Southern Baptist theologians say about the autonomy issue as it relates to the ability of sexual predators to move from church to church with little oversight? These are questions I wish the story had addressed.

More from the story:

If the organizing body of a denomination claims no responsibility for supervising, or even ordaining clergy, it may be harder to hold it responsible when a pastor molests a child.

Even so, a Florida jury in May found the Florida Baptist Convention liable for the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old boy by former pastor Douglas W. Myers. Jurors decided the convention failed to check Myers’ background, which included a history of sexual abuse in Maryland and Alabama, according to news reports.

The incident is among dozens of sex abuse cases by pastors at Southern Baptist churches listed on Brown’s website stopbaptistpredators.org.

If the reporting is accurate, the Florida case seems to hold an important precedent. More details on that case — and exactly how the state convention was held liable for a local church’s hiring — would have improved the Post-Dispatch story. I am a little leery of facts attributed to “news reports.” I’d prefer that the reporter go ahead and verify the court records and decisions himself.

The story ends this way:

That theological tension between God’s invitation to forgive and his expectations of his servants has hung a burden on the congregants of First Baptist Church of Stover.

“This is a delicate situation for our church,” said Marriott, the church deacon. “We could jump to conclusions and dismiss him, but what if we’re wrong? We’re just a bunch of average people trying our best to live by God’s word.”

Smith’s sermon Sunday resonated with that struggle. Just as the Gospel of Matthew promises heavenly forgiveness to those who forgive, so, too, does it spell out consequences for those who refuse.

“But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

“Salvation,” Smith told his flock, “is conditional.”

Not to take a total detour, but salvation is conditional for Southern Baptists? Really?

All in all, give the Post-Dispatch credit for tackling an important subject matter. I just wish the newspaper had dug a little deeper.

Image via Shutterstock


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