Even though I was born and raised in the Western United States, I grew up attending Southern Baptist Churches, graduated from a Southern Baptist seminary, and pastored a Southern Baptist Church. Weird, I know. My point: I have some familiarity with that world.
Recently we learned of a history of sexual abuse within this tradition. While the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is large, the extent of the abuse was still sobering. The report found that over 200 pastors and leaders, over a 20-year period, were convicted of, or took plea deals, for crimes of a sexual nature. This impacted over 700 victims. Of course, when we consider the families and churches connected to the victims, this impacted well over 700 people.
The current leaders of the SBC have, as we would expect, responded with a clear sense they understand the gravity of the report. Even though the report came from outside the SBC, and there were calls for looking into the problem from SBC pastors and leaders prior, they at least sound like they will do something now. It’s a start and better than nothing.
The problem though is the same as outlined here regarding the “Me Too” movement. The core problem is not culture, or policies, or procedures. The problem is not a lack of proper vetting or hiring practices. Yes, all those areas are important and there is no doubt changes in those areas will help to some extent. Still, those are not the underlying key problem and until that problem is addressed, all the vetting and policy changes in the world will not prevent these things from happening again, on this sort of scale.
As outlined in the piece by Linda Kay Klein, the problems, among others, are:
“We need to take a long look at the theological and structural conditions that enable abuse — rejecting purity teachings that are used to shame and blame survivors, renouncing authoritarianism and elevating the voices of the many who remain unheard.”
There is an obvious relation between structures/culture and theology/philosophy. They reinforce each other. Still, long term, meaningful change to structures/cultures comes from, among other factors, changes to theology, to deeply held beliefs. Such is where the SBC needs to focus and change. Their best theologians and scholars need to address these problems. Like turning an air craft carrier, it may take some time, but it will be from changing beliefs that behavior follows, which then will be codified into structure and culture.
Clearly, immediate policy and procedure changes also need to be made. But the underlying theology is key. Long term, real, meaningful change will happen once the underlying theology is addressed.
At bottom, the SBC still suffers from what all fundamentalism suffers from: They are too modern (See here and here). They think their theology harkens back either to the first century church, or the Protestant churches formed shortly after the Reformation, when what they really harken back to is a 1950s American, white, middle-class, Southern church. And such is more a product of the Reformation, Enlightenment, and late capitalism, modified and shaped by American history, than any Bible proof texts.
Also, the idea of an “autonomous” local church is a fairly modern idea. It reflects, first, a Reformation anti-Catholic reaction to the polity of ancient ecclesial structures, and, second, the general autonomy of the individual, which is an Enlightenment principle. Again, either is probably the more accurate origin of the idea than proof texts. And yet, this modern idea is exactly what has allowed leaders within the denomination to side-step any responsibility and is partly why the reported abuse was not dealt with earlier. To be fair, we could point out that a Catholic ecclesial polity did not prevent the abuse found in their tradition either, which is why theological changes regarding human sexuality and relation are more important the just structural polity changes.
The fundamental theological change however needs to come in the area of human sexuality and the treatment, view, of women. Conservative Southern Baptists think “complementarian” theology protects women and the “traditional” (?) roles of men and women. This report regarding abuse, one could argue, reveals the very opposite. Such a theology does not protect women. It is little more than a “separate but equal” type of theology that can never lift up the one separated, and serves to, under the guise of a condescending paternalism, keep them in “their place.”
And if history tells us anything, it is that people constantly told by theology, law, and culture to stay, “in their place,” are never truly protected and are ripe for abuse and being taken advantage of. And young women who are told their “purity” is everything, that their bodies are little more than temptations, who then are taken advantage of by older men, are left to live in shame and silence.
Any theology that allows for such, that creates an environment for such, is a theology that needs to be left behind. No policy, vetting, or hiring practice can take the place of deep theological reflection and change. While I’m no longer a Southern Baptist, or in that world anymore, let us hope the SBC makes the better choice here.
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