Sackcloth and Ashes in the Southern Baptist Convention

Sackcloth and Ashes in the Southern Baptist Convention February 11, 2019

Yesterday the Houston Chronicle released a bombshell report (part 1 of 3) about sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention. It is scathing and it is gut-wrenching to read as a lifelong Southern Baptist. The report names names, and while most will think the most important names are the denominational leaders and megachurch pastors called out, the most important names are the names of the victims, lives forever tarnished and ruined by vicious sexual assaults, assaults that took place within the sacred confines of our church buildings and within relationships fostered by the church. From the article:

Heather Schneider was 14 when she was molested in a choir room at Houston’s Second Baptist Church, according to criminal and civil court records. Her mother, Gwen Casados, said church leaders waited months to fire the attacker, who later pleaded no contest. In response to her lawsuit, church leaders also denied responsibility.

Schneider slit her wrists the day after that attack in 1994, Casados said. She survived, but she died 14 years later from a drug overdose that her mother blames on the trauma.

“I never got her back,” Casados said.

Sexual abuse is unfortunately not new within the realm of religion, but until now there’s been a sense of plausible deniability within the Southern Baptist Convention. The problem has always seemed “out there.” Other churches dealt with this dark stain, not us. Other denominations had issues, not us. There has seemed to be a smug sense of satisfaction and judgment as other denominations wrestled with their dark demons. (Southern Baptists have a convenient short-term memory when it comes to our beginnings and the institution of slavery in America). For years I believed there’s been an assumption that our theology has been a shield wall for us, that our conservative interpretation of the Bible has somehow protected us from the evils that have bombarded other denominations. So how awkward is it to read in a non-Christian newspaper (because we never had the courage to call it out ourselves) that two of the architects of our Conservative Resurgence (Paige Patterson and Judge Paul Pressler) are both connected to sex abuse scandals?

Since Southern Baptists love their Old Testament as much as their New Testament, I believe an Old Testament picture best describes what the current state of the SBC soul should be:

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. Daniel 9:3

Sackcloth and ashes is a sign of complete and utter brokenness. It’s not a nominal acknowledgement of sin nor an attempt to quickly pivot to more agreeable subjects. It’s complete brokenness over sin. For the SBC, there’s no explaining this away. There’s no theology to hide behind. We have allowed sexual abuse to occur within our walls, among our highest leaders, and like so many other denominations, we have shamed survivors and shielded leaders to protect what crumbling integrity we have left.

Sexual abuse scandals have rocked almost every Christian denomination at multiple levels over the past generation. Is it any surprise that the fastest growing religion in America is the one that identifies as “None”? Can you blame people for walking away from the faith, when this is how the faith is represented?

We celebrate our Bibles, our piety, our theology at denominational meetings. If I were Jesus, I’d be handing out millstones (Matthew 18:6) instead. Covering over sexual abuse, especially at the highest levels, is absolutely inexcusable.

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