Abuse of Faith: The SBC Braces For a Long-Overdue Reckoning

Abuse of Faith: The SBC Braces For a Long-Overdue Reckoning February 9, 2019

Tonight, we segue just a little bit. Two Texas news outlets prepare to unleash a major report regarding an epidemic of abuse in Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches. They titled it “Abuse of Faith.” I can well imagine how the SBC’s top leaders must be bracing for it! Today, I’ll show you a little of what those leaders are afraid will come out in it–and what their reaction so far looks like.

(Samantha Sophia.) Seen during the Los Angeles Women’s March, which took place on January 20, 2018.

See what I mean? Weirdly, tonight’s special topic applies completely to our general theme this week.

Hypocrisy: It’s Baked Right Into the Crust!

Authoritarian flavors of Christianity can differ somewhat in their actual doctrines. Amazingly, I’ve encountered some evangelicals who successfully escaped authoritarianism at least to some extent. At the same time, I’ve tangled with progressive Christians who sounded strikingly authoritarian. All the same, we know one thing for sure:

The more control a group leader demands over the group and its members, the more likely abuse becomes–and the worse that abuse will be.

This rule holds true within Christianity and far beyond it.

Abusive leaders demand excessive amounts of control over their followers. They need it. Without it, nobody would ever put up with the awful stuff those leaders want to do to them.

In healthy groups, members can effectively push back against such demands–and put a quick stop to potentially-abusive behaviors.

But in unhealthy ones, leaders consolidate their power and surround themselves with equally-abusive enablers and sycophants. From there, they campaign to grow that power, enlarge the group and its reach, and brutally destroy challenges to the power they’ve clawed together for themselves.

Tightening Their Grip.

Evangelical churches’ membership continues to slide. As a result, their authoritarian-leaning leaders lose more and more control over their congregations and their surrounding communities.

Thanks to those losses, the victims of those leaders’ abuses finally feel freer to speak out about what they experienced. In the past, when a youth pastor decided to rape a child, the church’s other leaders could silence the victims and families affected.

They utilized a number of coercive tools to get the job done, too. In their communities, their groups largely set the entire social agenda and high-ranking members owned all the businesses around there. So church leaders could–and did–anything they wanted in order to quash accusations.

They shamed their victims into humiliated silence. They encouraged victims to put their churches’ and religion’s reputation ahead of justice and their own safety. Sometimes, they even flat-out forced victims to apologize. Stories circulated about pastors who forced sex-abuse victims to apologize to their churches!

If those preventive measures failed and somehow an accusation got out into the wild, Christians retaliated viciously by destroying victims’ reputations, causing financial harm to their families, and more.

As a last resort, churches shunned the victims of their leaders’ abuses.

With these techniques, for years abusive church leaders have kept these stories from reaching too many public ears.

What Happened Before.

When accusations against clergy members arose in the SBC before recent years, church leaders relied upon tried-and-true methods of dealing with them. Always, their focus remained on maintaining their stranglehold on power over their groups.

First and foremost, they tried to keep the accusations entirely private between the victims and the ministry staff. Authoritarian church leaders have always scoffed at mandatory-reporting laws. By avoiding formal law enforcement entanglement, they often kept the whole situation under wraps. They could easily exert enough control over victims and their families to pressure them not to contact the police.

If the abuse stories threatened to reach the attention of the group itself, then the abusive clergy person’s own leaders faced a potential hit to their credibility. They sought to stave off that threat by shuffling the abusive minister away to another church.

Of course, the new church rarely received any kind of advance warning about exactly why their new minister had had to change locations. Since authoritarian groups don’t often talk among themselves about exactly what abuses are going on in their particular groups, the move quelled gossip.

Also of course, the abuser continued to seek and harm new victims. Their superiors didn’t care. It usually took time for things to get to a boiling point. Once that point came for the new church, the abuser’s superiors shuffled the abuser away to another church. This shell game often continued for years, through many churches.

In the meantime, those superiors always do everything they humanly can to resist anything that might impact their power. They resist all calls for third-party oversight or auditing, attack the motives and credibility of those pushing for accountability in leadership, and offer half-assed “reform” measures that are guaranteed to fail miserably to stop abuses within their groups.

But Now, A Fraying Net.

Authoritarian control functions a lot like a fishing net. Leaders maintain their hold over their groups thanks to a number of interdependent lines of power. If those lines fray, their hold weakens just like a hole tears open a net.

And of late, the SBC’s leaders’ power has been suffering a long and lingering death from a thousand cuts.

Back in 2008, Time assembled a list of the “Top 10 Underreported News Stories.” Number 6 on that list was the SBC’s firm refusal to adopt a pedophilia database to curb abuses.

Ten years later, here we are.

Sure, abusive leaders still enjoy unchecked control over their immediate flocks. But they no longer hold sway over their general communities. If people decide to switch churches, their former churchmates and leaders can’t do much about it. If people entirely withdraw from church culture, in most parts of America they can do so with most Christians none the wiser. Except for isolated areas, the church no longer controls the entire local community.

Heck, even within the church community itself, members find it increasingly easy to hide off-limits behavior from all but the most controlling of ministers. With congregations drawn from unconnected neighborhoods in the area, chances are those misbehaving members won’t be seen and snitched on by anybody from church.

And the internet has created a whole new tangle for authoritarian leaders. There, in secret, flocks can reach out to outsiders, learn about stuff their leaders have outlawed, complain about stuff they don’t like, and even set up escapes from the worst groups.

Receipts for Years.

For years, watchdog groups have raised the alarm about abuse in SBC churches.

Stop Baptist Predators maintains a huge repository of news stories about evangelical abuse. So does Spiritual Sounding BoardWartburg Watch, and some few others that keep an eye on general ultra-right-wing nutjobs like Hatewatch, RightWingWatchand ReWireBut these aren’t always well-known sites. Of course, individual bloggers like Warren Throckmorton also maintain a steady eye on evangelical abuse.

Meanwhile, disconnected reports erupt constantly, everywhere in the United States and all around the world, all shining like points of light in a map but rarely connected. Christians wrestling with abuse situations profess mystification at how in the world it seems like so much abuse is happening. They don’t even know what questions to ask to begin understanding the scope of it all.

In a lot of ways, the situation on the ground looks a lot like it did in 2002, before the roof blew clean off of the Catholic church’s child sex abuse scandal thanks to the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigation. Boz Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham, told his tribe five years ago that he thought the evangelical sex abuse record was worse than that of Catholics. It sounds like he was hoping to spur them toward dealing with the problem before their chickens came home to roost.

But it’s not like they cared enough to deal with it after all the previous warnings they got.

And now finally it looks like evangelical abuse might be getting its own Spotlight moment.

The 2019 Sex Abuse Story Coming Tomorrow.

The advance notice on the website of the San Antonio Express-News announces that tomorrow, they’re dropping an extensive in-depth writeup of an investigation they did with the Houston Chronicle about sex abuse in SBC churches. On their announcement page, they feature a short trailer for the upcoming story.

It begins,

Victims begged Southern Baptist leaders to track sex abusers inside churches.

They refused.

As the victim of one of these ministerial rapists recounts the devastating violation of her body and her trust, the trailer tells us:

We found about 220 abusers who have been convicted or took plea deals.

And more than 700 victims.

When I consider those numbers alongside of Al Mohler bleating about how he totally had NO IDEA that tons of abuse was going on in HIS denomination, things start smelling really fishy for him and those top leaders.

And the Part Printed Already.

Their partner, the Houston Chronicle, has already dropped the first of three parts they’re printing about the scandal. They recount almost 400 accused church leaders and volunteers. Of those, 250 faced formal accusations. And of those, 220 took plea deals or got convicted. Almost 100 of those accused abusers sit in prison.

And many of those accused folks still work in SBC churches to this day.

The Chronicle’s journalists did what the SBC refused to do: they built a searchable database of the accused abusers.

They also interviewed top leaders at the SBC and gathered quotes about them wringing their widdle handsies over the report’s discoveries. The SBC’s attempt to limit the blame they deserve and to put limits on just how much they could ever possibly do to stop this abuse fills the report from top to bottom. The Chronicle got quotes from SBC President J.D. Greear and other such luminaries in the denomination. And their report ends with Greear:

But Greear said in an email that he is limited by local church autonomy.

“Change has to begin at the ground level with churches and organizations,” he wrote. “Our churches must start standing together with a commitment to take this issue much more seriously than ever before.”

Oh, well, then I’m sure everything will be fine for him and his pals.

(BTW, if you’re wondering, he’s busy pretending on Twitter that he is gonna GET RIGHT ON THIS THING. The Chronicle cut him slack on the “recently” wording. We’ll be examining Greear’s assertion next time.)

The Reaction So Far.

I wondered what the SBC’s general reaction might be to the story unfolding over in Texas tonight and coming tomorrow.

I should have wondered what their non-reaction would be.

Over at Baptist News Global, their lead story concerns how, despite their losses in terms of “moral credibility,” Baptists can still totally turn things around. They just need to Jesus hard enough again, like they totally used to. Not a word yet about the investigation. Similarly, Baptist Standard hasn’t said a word yet, and neither has SBC Life or The Gospel Coalition (TGC)World Nutbar Daily likewise hasn’t weighed in yet, and I didn’t see anything on Faux Noise.

But we had a lone holdout! At SBC Voices, someone published a post this evening asking how his fellow Baptists “should” respond to the report. Pastor Todd Benkert’s suggestions run along the exact same lines as those of the denomination’s biggest-name leaders. He proposed exactly zero truly actionable ideas and tended to lean toward just drilling down harder on the denomination’s doctrines and teachings.

I’m guessing we might see more official responses in coming days, but so far it’s nearly radio silence on the major SBC outlets. And on Tuesday, we’ll look at whatever that response turns out to be–and why it will no doubt be more of the same blather.

NEXT UP: A bunch of authoritarians trying desperately to ride out cultural shifts to avoid changes that threaten their personal power. Then we’re plunging into the Cult of Family – oh, you will not believe this shockingly bad Christian marriage-advice book I just got. Mr. Captain is already sick of it. It is next-level WTF even by “terrible Christian marriage advice” standards. See you soon.


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Endnote: Man alive, I can’t wait until the United Pentecostal Church, International gets similar rigorous journalistic examination. I mean sure, they’re nowhere near as numerous as the SBC is. But dang, they’ve got a lot of skeletons in their closets. The survivors of their abuses are probably hoping that this SBC report means their own day may be nearing. Let’s hope.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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