Pastor's Blog: "Baptists Avoid Another Black-Eye”

 |  Pastor's Blog

Once upon a time, the Baptist “brand” was a badge of honor. No matter where you lived south of the Mason-Dixon line, most of your neighbors were either Baptist by affiliation or by osmosis. The influence of Baptists was so strong that one noted American historian remarked famously that the Southern Baptist Convention was equivalent to the “Catholic Church of the South,” because Baptist dominance was so prevalent not just in religious matters but also in political and social ones as well. Little wonder that so many of my generation answered the call to ministry through their participation in a local Southern Baptist church. Who wouldn’t respond positively to the opportunity to be a part of an institution at the center of every aspect of life?  

All of that honor began to fade in the late seventies, as a group of fundamentalist pastors and laypersons saw an avenue to redirect the SBC in a more conservative direction. I was in seminary at the time, and couldn’t believe how my professors, who were some of the most staunch church participants I had ever known, were vilified as liberal and unbiblical. Then, upon my graduation, I entered local church ministry where as a young pastor, I saw the divide heat up and consequently dutifully rounded up our church’s allotted messengers each June to go to the Southern Baptist Convention to vote for the moderate candidate for President, the officeholder in Baptist life who would appoint trustees to the various agencies and institutions of the SBC. But give it to the fundamentalists. They were able to convince the people in the pews that the controversy at the time was all about theology, with a dash of political ideology. And when the fundamentalists brought in counsel from political operatives who saw in the SBC a huge voting bloc, moderates didn’t stand a chance. From that unpleasantness came the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a network of moderate Baptists and congregations who ironically formed to “conserve” historic Baptist principles of soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom, and religious freedom. However, most CBF churches have maintained a modicum level of support for the SBC, primarily because of mission efforts, and such is the position that MBBC has taken.

Why do I dredge up that history? Because, as the Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And Southern Baptists this week narrowly avoided a decision that wouldn’t just have chipped away a bit more at the Baptist “brand,” but very well might have ultimately destroyed it.

Here is the short version, or as short as I can explain it. Over the course of the last twenty years, numerous reports of sexual abuse in local Baptist churches have been reported to the Executive Committee of the SBC, the group responsible for transacting the denomination’s business between the June meetings of the SBC and also for carrying out decisions made by the messengers who comprise those meetings. Since this past June SBC meeting in Nashville, the Executive Committee has been embroiled in a contentious discussion over carrying out an overwhelming mandate from the messengers to appoint a task force to investigate reports of abuse and treatment of abuse survivors and to have the Executive Committee waive attorney-client privilege so that the task force might have free access to all information. However, the Executive Committee balked at the directive from the messengers and proposed in its place an investigation of their own. The divide between the Executive Committee and the SBC messengers centered around waiving privilege. The Executive Committee claimed waiving privilege would expose the SBC to significant legal claims that might be brought against the denomination by victims of abuse. Meanwhile, lawyers for the task force appointed to conduct the investigation contended that justice required transparency and that privilege should be waived on the grounds that the Executive Committee’s refusal to do so might create greater liability given how the messengers had explicitly voted for them to do so.  

Needless to say, this situation has created quite a mess. Critics of the Executive Committee have argued that their refusal to waive privilege has made it appear as if Southern Baptists do not take abuse claims seriously. Other critics have contended that the refusal of the Executive Committee to waive privilege resulted from the power dynamics of the “good old boy network,” which worked hard to preserve its position in SBC life. Indeed, most of the Executive Committee trustees who balked against the waiver are part of the Conservative Baptist Network, a group of Southern Baptists who believe that the SBC is still not conservative enough. But some in SBC life have been supportive of the Executive Committee, saying that they were taking their fiduciary responsibility seriously and if Baptists would only trust them to do the right thing, they would.  

With time, however, the pressure for the Executive Committee to waive privilege grew more and more. For example, all six SBC seminary presidents called for waiving privilege, along with numerous state conventions, though Alabama Baptists did not, at least not officially.  

Everything converged this past Tuesday, when in a third called meeting, after two previous meetings in which the Executive Committee had voted against waiving privilege, they finally decided to do so. Clearly, the backlash from Southern Baptists to their previous votes finally got through, and the Executive Committee trustees voted 44-31, with three abstentions, to waive privilege and allow the task force complete access to everything.  

Where have I stood as a Baptist pastor who has a little toe in SBC life? I’ve been conflicted. On one hand, I’ve served as a trustee, director, board member, and officer of numerous Baptist bodies. I understand fiduciary responsibility and the dangers of waiving privilege. On the other hand, if malfeasance does exist with respect to anything that might compromise our Christian witness as Baptists, it needs to be addressed, and sooner rather than later. I do know that as with all situations where people try to hide the truth, it will eventually come to the surface. Better to seek it sooner rather than later. Therefore, I believe the Executive Committee trustees got it right. Now, the path has been cleared for the task force to do its assigned work of conducting their investigation and bringing a report to the 2022 SBC that will meet in Anaheim. I understand such a decision is fraught with risks, but the greater risk would be conveying to Southern Baptists and the larger culture that we aren’t invested in accountability with respect to abuse or that people in positions of power within the denomination have something to hide. We may be independent in our Baptist polity, but we must remain circumspect in our witness. 

I learned the hard way that all black-eyes eventually heal, but this one is likely to take some time and some effort to see things move in that direction. I am grateful to the Executive Committee for listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the messengers to bring resolution to this potentially devastating squabble. Too much hangs in the balance, both for the denomination and for those who have suffered at the hands of people who should have known and done better. One thing is most certain in this case as in all cases, only the truth will set people free. No healing for any of us Baptists will ever take place until then.

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs” (Matthew 10:26-27).