Why Sexual Abuse within Baptist Churches Is Not the Same…

Why Sexual Abuse within Baptist Churches Is Not the Same… February 16, 2019

Why Sexual Abuse within Baptist Churches Is Not the Same…

Recently a major U.S. city daily newspaper has run a series of articles about sexual abuse by clergy and other church professionals especially in the Southern Baptist Convention. Victims and victims’ rights groups have demanded that the SBC do more to prevent sexual abuse within its ranks and to punish (by banishing) the predators. It’s clear to me that there exists some confusion about Baptist polity (church government); I suspect many people are thinking this catastrophe is similar to that within the Roman Catholic Church—in terms of tolerance and lack of desired and demanded response.

All I intend to do here is educate my readers (and others who may happen to read this because of the topic) about Baptist polity. There is no commensurability between Baptist polity and Catholic polity. This helps explain, I think, why the leaders of the SBC are not responding as victims and victims rights advocates demand.

I realize this is a volatile issue and I have no intention of adding to victims’ pain. All I intend to do here is clear up the apparent confusion about what SBC (and other Baptist) leaders can and cannot do in such cases. Again, it seems that some who are speaking out about the problem of sexual abuse among SBC pastors and other church professionals are confused about the Baptist form of church government.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Like most Baptist denominations in the U.S., and like Baptists in general, worldwide and historically, the SBC is a loose and voluntary affiliation of independent, autonomous Baptist congregations over which there is no authority. There is no official hierarchy among Baptists (with a very few exceptions especially in some non-Western Baptist groups that have adopted a hierarchical structure). Traditionally, historically, a Baptist “denomination” like the SBC has no other power over a member congregation than to stop accepting money from it and to stop recognizing its elected “messengers” as voting members of its state and national conventions.

Typically, historically, authentically, each and every Baptist congregation is totally autonomous. It decides alone who its pastor will be (or cease to be). There is no office like “bishop” (although some African-American Baptist churches use that term for especially influential pastors) with authority or power to control local congregations.

The Southern Baptist Convention, like most Baptist groups, is a cooperative program for purposes of missions, education and publishing. Independent Baptist congregations can affiliate with it or not. But affiliation with it does not give any SBC leader or group of leaders power to interfere in the “inner workings” of the congregation. The worst the SBC executive committee can do is decline to receive funds from a congregation and decline to recognize its “messengers” (delegates) as voters at convention business meetings.

The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, is a true church made up of parishes, congregations, and the bishop of a diocese (which is officially considered the church to which congregations belong) can interfere in the “workings” of congregations and with the priests who are appointed to congregations and can be removed by the bishop.

I could go on talking about the obvious and very stark differences of ecclesiastical polities. They are truly incommensurable. In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church, for example, the SBC is not really a denomination as such (although we call it such) but a voluntary collective of congregations and associations of congregations. But even the local associations of congregations have no control over the local congregations that are members of it.

The one exception is that if a local Baptist congregation owes money to the association or convention, the association or convention has some ability to interfere in its inner workings. But that is all in the “contract” between the local congregation and the association or convention. A case would be, for example, if the SBC funded the planting of an SBC congregation in a city. That congregation might be under the SBC’s control for a time—while the funds are owed.

More to the point: The SBC and other Baptist groups do not ordain anyone. Baptist ordination is by the local congregation. The SBC or other Baptist group can decide not to recognize a person’s ordination but that does nothing to the person’s ordination other than say “we don’t recognize it.” The person remains ordained unless the congregation that voted to ordain him or her votes to withdraw the ordination. Even then, “once ordained, always ordained” remains a typical belief among many Baptists as among many Christians.

I think this total difference between typical, historical Baptist polity and Catholic polity (and other “episcopal” polities) must be understood in the current discussion about sexual abuse by Southern Baptist clergy and other church professionals. I fear it is not understood.

Illustration: Years ago I was a member of a Baptist (not SBC) congregation that was involved in a heated debate and struggle within the congregation—between members, staff and lay leaders. Someone called the executive minister (leader of the local association) to come and help with conflict resolution. That was all he could do and at a church business meeting he announced that the conflict resolution had failed and that the worst he could do was not to recommend any would-be pastor to that particular church (because of the severe dysfunction that Baptists typically call a “church fight”).

Of course, these matters change somewhat if we are talking about a Baptist institution with employees. The leader of a Baptist seminary, college or university, missionary agency, publisher, can fire an employee for misconduct—especially sexual misconduct. But the Baptist convention, conference or association with which the institution is affiliated cannot by itself, unilaterally, do the same unless the institution is owned or controlled by it—which is rarely the case. Most Baptist institutions are only Baptist in the sense of having Baptists on its governing board. They can do much within the institution, but the executive minister or director of mission (or whatever the elected leader of the denomination is called) cannot unilaterally do anything. He or she is not a bishop in the Roman Catholic or episcopal Protestant sense.

So why am I writing about this? Because I am aware that very few journalists (for example) understand that Baptist “denominations” are nothing like what they think. They hear “Southern Baptist Convention” and assume it is something like the Roman Catholic Church or the Episcopal Church or even the United Methodist Church. It isn’t. There are no “Baptist bishops” in the sense of people with authority over congregations. All Baptist congregations are totally autonomous (with a few rare exceptions where the congregation owes money to the convention, conference or association). They own their own property. They call and pay their own pastors and staff. They elect their own lay leaders. They have total control over their congregation and everything about it. The only thing a Baptist convention, conference or association can do is punish a local congregation by dropping it from membership and fellowship. That changes nothing about the “inner workings” of the congregation.

All this has led to a common joke among Baptists: “I don’t belong to any organized religion; I’m a Baptist.”

The practical point is this: People who expect a Baptist denomination (convention, conference, association) to interfere when a pastor or other church professional (not an employee of the denomination) is reported to be abusing people are expecting the impossible. The leader of the convention, conference or association can only advise. He or she can’t fire or “reappoint” the abusive person elsewhere.

Now, I can just hear someone objecting “They could do something!.” Yes, perhaps, when they learn about an abusive pastor or church professional among their “ranks.” But unless the person confesses or is found guilty they would have to be extremely careful because he or she is not an employee and reporting allegations to, say, other churches could result in a defamation of character lawsuit.

It has to “sink in” how independent Baptist churches are. All this, in my opinion, mitigates the guilt of denominational leaders whose hands are tied when it comes to the inner workings of a congregation or even the misconduct of non-employee church professionals.

One collage of SBC church professionals that I saw online implied that the SBC was guilty of covering up these people’s crimes. That is not necessarily the case when the people are not employees of the denomination and the denomination has no authority over them (which is usually the case because they only work for a local congregation over which the convention, conference, or association has no authority.)

I am not a defender of the SBC. I’ve never been a member of a SBC church, at least not intentionally. I was once a member of a SBC church and didn’t know it. It was only considered a SBC church by the SBC because a few members of the congregation sent money through the church to a SBC missions program. But the SBC would not have recognized the congregation’s messengers (delegates) to any SBC business meeting because the church had a woman pastor.

I personally know of former SBC congregations that have voted to “leave the SBC” and the SBC continued to consider them SBC—because a few individuals within the church continued to support SBC programs financially. And because the congregations were members of the local Baptist association which had/has no official connection to the SBC. Confused? Yup. It’s very confusing. I have been told by directors of missions of local Baptist associations that the SBC counts as members all the members of all the Baptist churches in every Baptist association of churches even if said churches vocally, by vote, have declared themselves not SBC. Go figure.

So, apparently, you cannot “leave the SBC” but you can be expelled. But being expelled might not even cause the SBC no longer to count you as one of its sixteen plus million members in the U.S. And individuals, not employees of the SBC, cannot be “expelled.” Only churches.

My only point is that when people read about sexual abuse within SBC churches it is a mistake to point fingers at the denomination unless it knew about the abuse and covered it up. But if the local congregation did not stop the abuse, the denomination could do nothing about it except possibly expel the congregation for condoning the abuse and (if there is proof or strong evidence of crime) report the abuser to the proper civil and criminal authorities.

Finally, yes, it is still possible for critics to claim that there is a “culture” of abuse within the SBC, but that would be hard to prove. One would have to demonstrate that the rate of abuse among SBC-affiliated church professionals is higher than in other organizations. I doubt that can be shown. Any organization (or whatever the SBC might be called—it isn’t highly organized!) of that size will inevitably have its “bad apples.” Because of the way the SBC is organized (or disorganized!) it is virtually impossible for anyone to “track” these cases and prevent or diminish their occurrence. Many, many of the church professionals of SBC congregations have no direct connection to the SBC which has no headquarters or hierarchy as such. (Yes, it has a kind of headquarters in Nashville, but that HQ is not anything like the HQ of other denominations in terms of control over congregations and their employees and leaders.)

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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