Wednesday, November 30, 2022

A Statement on Johnny Hunt's "Restoration"

For Immediate Release

In 2021, the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting adopted a resolution “On Abuse and Pastoral Qualifications.” I was a member of that committee. I contributed significantly to the content of this resolution. It reads, in part, “any person who has committed sexual abuse is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor.” This is the sentiment of the Southern Baptist Convention.

At that same meeting, the messengers overwhelmingly insisted that an independent investigation should be conducted about the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s response to allegations of sexual abuse. The result of that investigation was the publication of a report in May of this year by Guidepost Solutions. That report disclosed the details of a pastor’s wife’s account of an incident in which Johnny Hunt aggressively approached her for a sexual encounter, including his pulling down her pants, pinning her down, pulling up her shirt, and sexually assaulting her with his hands and his mouth. In relation to this episode, Guidepost Solutions stated in their report, “our investigators found the pastor and his wife to be credible; their report was corroborated in part by a counseling minister and three other credible witnesses; and our investigators did not find Dr. Hunt’s statements related to the sexual assault allegation to be credible.” Guidepost identified and interviewed multiple witnesses who had first-hand knowledge of Hunt’s involvement in events that ensued after the assault.

In response to the investigation and report, Hunt told a succession of contradicting accounts. Guidepost Solutions reported that Hunt denied ever being in the location where the assault took place and denied ever having had any contact with her. After the report was published, Hunt at first “vigorously den[ied]” that he “had abused anyone,” and then later admitted “I chose to enter her condo” and he had a “brief but improper” relationship with her.

The North American Mission Board ended their employment relationship with Johnny Hunt. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary announced their intention to remove Johnny Hunt’s name from an academic chair at the school. Pastor Jeremy Morton, who succeeded Hunt at FBC Woodstock, GA, said, “One incident of abuse in any place or any church is a tragedy and it cannot be ignored.”

In 2022, the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting adopted a resolution “On Lament and Repentance for Sexual Abuse.” In the text of that resolution, the Convention said, “we…unreservedly apologize to survivors mentioned in the report…for our not heeding their collective warnings and taking swift action to address clergy sexual abuse sooner.” The survivor in the Johnny Hunt account is one of the “survivors mentioned in the report,” although I do not know her name or any other aspect of her identity.

Recently a panel of four pastors—Mark Hoover of NewSpring Church in Wichita, KS; Mike Whitson of First Baptist Church, Indian Trail, NC; Steven Kyle of Hiland Park Baptist Church in Panama City, FL; and Benny Tate of Rock Springs Church in Milner, GA—declared that Johnny Hunt has completed a restoration program and is ready to embark again upon professional ministry.

I would permanently “defrock” Johnny Hunt if I had the authority to do so. In a fellowship of autonomous churches, I do not have the authority to do so. Yet it must be said that neither do these four pastors have the authority to declare Johnny Hunt to be “restored.” They do not speak for the Southern Baptist Convention. Indeed, it is not clear that they even speak for their own churches. For those Southern Baptist churches who practice ordination to ministry, the authority to ordain is generally considered to arise from the congregation, but no indication has been given that any of these four congregations have consented to or given their authority to this process. Also, Jeremy Morton and FBC Woodstock have explicitly stated that they had nothing to do with this process. Although Johnny Hunt’s church membership has apparently been at Hiland for several months now, FBC Woodstock is the church at which the offensive actions took place. The idea that a council of pastors, assembled with the consent of the abusive pastor, possesses some authority to declare a pastor fit for resumed ministry is a conceit that is altogether absent from Baptist polity and from the witness of the New Testament. Indeed, it is repugnant to all that those sources extol and represent.

It is best for people just to regard this pronouncement as the individual opinions of four of Johnny Hunt’s loyal friends. These four pastors do not speak for the Southern Baptist Convention. The voice of the Southern Baptist Convention is best found in the text of the resolutions adopted by the messengers and referenced above.

Pastor Tate, his voice breaking with emotion, cited Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, saying that he didn’t want to be guilty of leaving Johnny Hunt wounded on the side of the road. The wounded person on the side of the road is the abuse survivor, not Johnny Hunt, and she received no mention at all by this panel—she was passed by, in a way, by this quintet. I do not know her, but I don’t want to be guilty of leaving her on the side of the road. I am praying for her, I have heard her, and I believe her.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Why FBC Farmersville Remains Enthusiastically Southern Baptist

This is the third in a series of blog posts about the Southern Baptist Convention. The previous posts are:

I've put a lot of work already into a post suggesting a way forward on the Credentials Committee, the office of pastor, the role of The Baptist Faith & Message, and such matters. I thought that was going to be the next post, but to be honest, it's something of a Lernaean Hydra at this point, and I need to work harder at getting it all organized into something readable. If I can avoid it, I don't want to post anything that has more tangles than does Matt Henslee's beard.

The long-and-short of that post is the office of pastor (not just "senior pastor," I think) is limited to qualified men. I think Southern Baptists should stand firm on that position. We can do that in ways that affirm women serving our churches both with words and with equity in pay and taxation—ways that you may not have considered. Also, there's an examination of the unprecedented demands that we are placing on an SBC structure not designed to handle them. Oh, yeah…nearly forgot…there's an attempt to construct a biblical theology of how to handle doctrinal and behavioral disputes among autonomous local churches.

Like I said, there's a lot there, and although I'm confident in the content, I'm dissatisfied with the organization of it all. So, you'll have to wait for that.

Staying Southern Baptist: A Case that Makes Sense for Us

Anyway, as promised, here are some reasons why FBC Farmersville is all-in on being Southern Baptist.

The SBC is far-and-away the most efficient way for FBC Farmersville to plant doctrinally sound churches around the country and around the world. Some of the glass-half-empty folks, and especially the glass-has-a-hole-in-the-bottom folks will suggest that a post like this one comes from some "company man" who is just a member of the booster club—someone who shuts his eyes to flaws or differences in the Southern Baptist Convention. But I have not been silent about what I count as mistakes and failures in the Southern Baptist Convention.

  • I was vocally critical of The Camel Method back when it was being used and promoted within the International Mission Board (I wrote A LOT about that, but this article is as good a place as any to see a summation).
  • As someone whose ecclesiological dial is set about 2 clicks shy of full-blown Landmarkism, I've walked away from domestic church-planting partnerships that involved churches who were, in my estimation, not sufficiently committed to one or two principles of Baptist ecclesiology that I consider to be important for church health.
  • I strongly criticized some ways in the recent past that the SBC has tried to manage the idea of Sole Membership and the attempts by some to avoid waiving attorney-client privilege as requested by the messenger body.

And yet, even for the ways that I have found fault in the past and the ways that I may find fault in the future, I'm still dedicated to the path of cooperation through the Southern Baptist Convention. Here are some reasons why:

  1. FBC Farmersville could not feasibly accomplish outside the SBC what we accomplish inside the SBC. And I'm willing to put that in terms of what we accomplish in the strictest construal of our own beliefs.

    Let's assume for a moment that only 10% of IMB missionaries and NAMB church planters have beliefs that line up very closely with those of FBC Farmersville (not Reformed, robustly-congregationalist, convictionally-Baptist-and-proud-of-it, strictly-complementarian, etc.). I think the number is higher than that, but let's go with 10%. That means that FBC Farmersville is supporting more than 350 IMB missionary units who are very closely aligned with our theology.

    Yes, there are IMB missionaries who are Reformed, a little more broadly ecumenical, more prone to entrust most governance to "lay-elders," etc. But even they, every one of them, falls within the doctrinal parameters of The Baptist Faith & Message. Why should I focus on the ones with whom I have some disagreements to the absolute exclusion of the dozens of missionaries who closely agree with my church?

    If I choose to "take my toys and go home," how long would it take FBC Farmersville to build a network of 350 missionaries around the globe who are serving with beliefs that line up perfectly with those of my church? The answer? Longer than my remaining natural lifetime. For us, the choice to leave the SBC would be the deliberate choice to be less effective in sharing the gospel around the world.

  2. FBC Farmersville benefits from SBC ministries, and it is only right for us to support those ministries. Every member of our ministry staff is a graduate from an SBC seminary. My predecessor was an SBC seminary graduate. His predecessor was an SBC seminary graduate and is presently a professor at an SBC seminary. That pattern continues back well before I was born. I expect that it will continue beyond my tenure here.

    This point is not entirely separate from the prior point. SBC seminaries graduate Methodist students, Presbyterian students, Non-Denominational students—I even had an Episcopalian classmate once upon a time. If you pay the tuition you can take the classes. Also, SBC seminaries turn out some Southern Baptist students who would not be a good fit at FBC Farmersville.

    Does the fact that our seminaries graduate some students we wouldn't hire count as a good reason to walk away? Why should it!? What's important to us is that the SBC's seminaries consistently graduate multitides of students every year who are exactly what FBC Farmersville wants and needs in terms of pastoral leadership and staff leadership. For that reason, even if we were to leave the Southern Baptist Convention, we would still be using not only seminary education but also a dozen other resources produced by Southern Baptists.

    We want to support what we consume. Especially since…

  3. FBC Farmersville gets to govern the ministries that serve us and that we support through the SBC. The SBC process respects not only the autonomy of the local churches but also the authority of the local churches. Jesus founded churches, not conventions. Our church appreciates the opportunity afforded by SBC polity for us to have our say, alongside the voices of the other messengers sent by the churches, in the ways that our money is spent.

    Churches are fallible, but I trust this church-centered process to yield the right outcomes over the long haul.

    I think the messengers' response to clergy sexual abuse at the 2021 and 2022 Annual Meetings is a good example. Our churches are asserting themselves, saying clearly that they want to honor Christ by preventing clergy sexual abuse. The Spirit of God moves through these messengers, and over time, He refines and reforms us.

    But even when they get it wrong…

  4. Error at other churches doesn't, just by virtue of our mutual affiliation in the SBC, compromise my church's integrity. That doesn't mean that there's no good reason to disfellowship wayward or apostate churches. It just means that the reason to do so isn't that I have to fear that my own church's health or orthodoxy is determined by the health and orthodoxy of a congregation across the continent.

    My church can fund cooperative missions through the Southern Baptist Convention while retaining our own autonomy. We're not entangled with the other churches in the convention by way of our using the same mission board any more than we are entangled with Mormons by voting predominantly for the same political candidates or are entangled with a drug pusher who may use the same bank that we use.

    Again, doctrinal error at any of our SBC entities is worth correcting, and the disfellowshipping of churches who have gone astray is a thing worth doing, but not because our autonomous church is somehow sullied just be our being in the Convention together with one another. No. We correct the course of entities and we disfellowship churches when doing so is needed to protect our cooperative ministries.

    This is why the leaders of the Conservantive Resurgence were content to declare "Misison Accomplished" while there were still CBF churches affiliated with the SBC. The boards were populated with biblical inerrantists. Biblical inerrantists filled all of the entity-head slots. CBF churches were entirely unable to shape the ministries of the SBC. The lingering presence of those CBF churches posed no threat to the health and stability of our churches. Certainly they constituted no good reason to part ways with the SBC. That's still true 30 years later.

    So, I shouldn't act like my church is somehow corrupted by the mere presence within the SBC of another church whose practice or doctrine I find offensive.

So, for all of these reasons, even when we see something happen in SBC life with which we may disagree, FBC Farmersville doesn't think it's even a close call. We are enthusiastically Southern Baptist. We thank God for our opportunity to participate in this family of churches.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Ideal Denomination

The Ideal Breeding Heifer Poster

"The Ideal Cow"

On the wall in my agriculture classroom of yesteryear hung a poster of "the ideal cow" similar to the image at the top of this post. The ideal cow has a strong, straight top line, doesn't fall off from her hooks to her pins, has a feminine head, isn't post-legged, has strong pasterns, is balanced, and blends well through the shoulders, ribs, and hips, among other things. Those are characteristics of the ideal cow.

There's one other very important characteristic of the ideal cow…

…she's not in your pasture and she's not for sale. The only place you can find her is on that poster in the classroom. Every real cow in the real world is an imperfect reality that is juxtaposed against all of our idealized abstractions.

Somewhere in Heaven there's a poster of the ideal family of churches. They are united in biblical orthodoxy (what they believe) from the start to the end of their statements of faith. Likewise, in their orthopraxy (what they do), they are faithful and pure, and consistently so. They have a zeal for the gospel and for their love for one another. They do not shrink back from correction of one another in the unlikely occasion that it is needed, but they never offer that correction in anything other than a humble acknowledgement of their own failures and a gentle eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. And when those occasions come, the churches that have fallen are quick to repent and are thankful for fraternal correction. Together they proclaim the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ, winning the lost to Christ and planting healthy churches like themselves, all while making sure to baptize them and to teach them all that Christ has commanded them.

Down here, there are no denominations like that. There are no churches like that. There are only imperfect realities juxtaposed against the idealized abstraction toward which we are striving and for which we are yearning.

That's not to equivocate. Not all churches and not all families of churches are equally close to the ideal. Not all churches are even making the attempt with equal effort. Some churches and some denominations are what we might fairly call apostate churches whose lampstands were long ago removed. There are differences, and the differences matter. But it is nonetheless worthwhile to acknowledge that if your favorite sport is criticizing the bride of Christ, you're going to be able to rack up some points, no matter which group of local churches you make your target.

All that just to say this: There are criticisms made of the Southern Baptist Convention and of the local churches who affiliate with her, and they are not all specious. Nevertheless, I believe that the Southern Baptist Convention bears the marks of a family of churches in which the Holy Spirit is still at work refining us, and that gives me hope and reason to stay, even in the light of our failures.

The Criticisms

So, let's look at some of the criticisms that are levied against the Southern Baptist Convention. Let's dare to measure the Southern Baptist Convention against the perfect cooperative structure for churches and see how she fares. Let's look unguardedly at her weaknesses. Let's do so fairly and with compassion.

Criticism 1. The Southern Baptist Convention doesn't manage well the appropriate level of accountability among member churches. Like most of these complaints, this one comes at the SBC from both sides. Some are uncomfortable that the SBC has grown too cavalier in hunting down wayward churches, having yielded too greatly to what I'll call the "root and branch" elements of the messenger body. Others are uncomfortable that the SBC has grown too latitudinarian, or perhaps just too lazy or incompetent, in failing to police vigilantly enough the doctrinal or behavioral variations among its affiliated churches.

Of course, it's more complicated than that. Alongside people who think the SBC is too stringent and people who think the SBC is too lax, there exist a substantial number of people who believe that the SBC is BOTH too stringent AND too lax. They may think that the convention should be quicker to disfellowship churches guilty of racism and sexual abuse and yet less hasty in disfellowshipping churches who call women as pastors and who keep people in membership who are unrepentantly engaged in homosexual sex. They may flip that situation on its head, being skeptical about haste in disfellowshipping those credibly accused of sexual abuse and yet ready to pull the trigger quickly on the church with a female Assistant Pastor to Junior High Girls.

What all of these positions share in common is an idea that the Southern Baptist Convention has a responsibility to hold local churches accountable to a standard of friendly cooperation alongside a responsibility to defer to the autonomy of local churches, that they know how to balance those two realities, and that the Convention isn't measuring up in this area.

Criticism 2. The Southern Baptist Convention doesn't practice enough transparency to ward off corruption or to discharge its duties to churches in friendly cooperation with the Convention. Sometimes this concern is offered regarding salary structures at entities. Sometimes it is connected with calls for independent audits of the various entities. Sometimes it isn't necessarily connected with financial transparency, but is related to calls for greater and more detailed communication. This year's motion to explore structures for greater independence for Baptist Press would be an example of a call for greater transparency, in a way, seeking the opportunity for enhanced neutrality in the reporting of Convention-related news.

At its best, this criticism is rooted in a concern that messengers may not make the best decisions if they do not have the best information. Transparency, in such a case, is an important prerequisite for proper SBC governance. In this vein, sometimes the concern is that even SBC trustees are not the beneficiaries of sufficient transparency to do their jobs well—not every person calling for transparency is calling for tell-all exposés. At its worst, this criticism can be an element of conspiracy theories and allegations that are not well founded in credible sources (one trivial example: the allegation that B.H. Carroll's portrait at SWBTS formerly contained a cigar, but that anti-tobacco prudes had it painted out and covered up the story).

Separately, I should mention that cover-ups and other mishandling of sexual abuse that has happened in Southern Baptist churches have become an area of major concern when it comes to the need for transparency in the Convention.

Criticism 3. The Southern Baptist Convention has inappropriately devolved into an oligarchy, and the common people in the churches to whom the Convention apparatus should be accountable have lost their voices. Whether you call it the "elites," the "platform," or the "smoke-filled room," this criticism suggests that messenger governance at the Annual Meeting is a façade and that the Convention is actually under the control of a small group of powerful people.

This criticism is actually made by people on all sorts of different sides. The emergence of the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN) included the organizational involvement, undisclosed at first, of key SBCEC leadership like Mike Stone, and although it was denied for quite some time, eventually Paige Patterson acknowledged that the introductory videos were shot in his Parker, TX, home. Consequently, some people have portrayed the CBN as a group of disaffected power-brokers trying to control the Convention in opposition to the will of a messenger body over which they have lost control. Others have traced the movement of people formerly connected to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary into key positions of influence at SBC entities and have claimed that Dr. Mohler is the "Godfather" of the SBC, maintaining control from Louisville. Still others have pointed to Danny Akin, Russell Moore, JD Greear, Kevin Ezell, et al, and have found in them the true power-brokers of the SBC.

One related idea that deserves separate mention is the idea that the messenger body themselves are the "elites" and the "platform," and that the expense and difficulty of participation in the Annual Meeting shuts out any opportunity for the real rank-and-file of the SBC to influence decision-making.

Common in all of these perspectives is the idea that the rank-and-file Southern Baptists—curiously always understood to agree with the speaker—have been deprived of their rights to decide the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention. As a result, one hears, the Convention is being led to take positions that are antithetical to the interests of the common Southern Baptist.


I believe that the major criticisms that give rise to people's interest in leading their churches out of the Southern Baptist Convention have been mentioned in this article. But I want to make certain that the ensuing articles "scratch where it itches." With that in mind, can you think of major complaints, widely held, that are unrepresented here? Leave a comment or send a tweet or post if anything comes to mind.

Starting with the next post, I will begin to address these issues and demonstrate why I believe that, notwithstanding these complaints, continued participation in the Southern Baptist Convention is good for your church (if you match up with the criteria I have mentioned in the first post in this series). Also, I hope to show that, when you compare the SBC with your other available real-world options (instead of just comparing her against the "ideal cow"), there's a strong case for leaning in 100% to cooperation through the SBC and the Cooperative Program. This is true, I think, even given the fact that there are always VALID criticisms that can be lodged against the SBC.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Why the SBC Is Worth It

Kate Shellnutt at Christianity Today was the reporter who surprised me, and herself, with a question that touched upon my most profound personal thoughts about being elected as President of the Southern Baptist Convention (skip to 19:05 in the interview below).

In particular, I want to expand upon one statement that I made: "Every way that I've served Southern Baptists has left scars—every way that I've done it—but this family of churches is worth it." I have no desire to elaborate upon the scars, but I do want to take a few moments to talk about why the SBC is valuable to individual pastors, to member churches, and to the world outside the Southern Baptist Convention.

Why This Message Is Timely

It always matters to speak to the value of the SBC, because since the formation of this family of churches, there has never been a moment when there were not some individuals and churches contemplating departure from the Convention. Churches left to join the new Campbellite movement (which later became the Church of Christ denomination), the anti-missions ("hardshell") movement, T.P. Crawford's "Gospel Missions" movement, the "associational Baptist" denominations (the BMAA and the ABA), the Independent Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and a dozen other assorted destinations.

This moment in time is no different. Well-known Southern Baptists like Russell Moore and Beth Moore (unrelated) have recently left the Southern Baptist Convention, and their departures have received a significant amount of attention. Their departures were attributed to the idea that the Southern Baptist Convention is too strict, too dour, too hostile, too beholden to the politics of the far-Right in America, and too corrupt. Other Southern Baptists like Josh Buice have led their churches to depart from the Southern Baptist Convention because it is too lax, too winsome, too accommodating, too behloding to the politics of the far-Left in America, and too corrupt. Are these people looking at the same family of churches? They are, and they are all sincere in their observations, just as most of those who have left the SBC since 1845 have been.

Some people will no doubt point out that none of these departures have managed, over the course of nearly 185 years, to scuttle the ship of the SBC. Indeed, Southern Baptists have, by many measures, fared far better than any of the other outlets preferred by the departees. Right now, even in the midst of some controversy, Cooperatieve Program giving is strong and strengthening (although the nation's economic indicators are ominous). Sometimes in our history, the departures have arguably been the very cause of seasons of significant growth and improved effectiveness for Southern Baptists—controversy can be costly and distracting. Considering all of this evidence, some people might say, "Why argue the value of the SBC to those who want to leave?" Because there is always somewhere else to go, and because churches' decisions about affiliation with other churches should always be based upon the best way for those churches to pursue the Great Commission, those who see the value of the Southern Baptist Convention should never cease making the case for cooperation within this fellowship of churches.

Toward that end, over the next few days, I am going to be authoring a series of blog articles making the case for why affiliation with the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention is a reasonable and valuable partnership for your church. That is, the reasons I will be giving in this series of posts are reasons why your church should stay in the SBC.

But, Should Your Church Stay?

Well, hold on a minute. I don't know for sure that your church should stay, because a lot of people could be reading this post from a lot of different sorts of churches. The Southern Baptist Convention is a wonderful fellowship of churches, but it is not the right place for every church. Whether you belong here depends upon your church's theology, mission, and temperament.

If your church's theology fits within The Baptist Faith & Message, you can know for certain that you have a theological home in the Southern Baptist Convention. Our statement of faith is in some places deliberately precise and in some places deliberately vague. I grew up across the street from a godly Methodist woman. She was a blessing to me. She didn't belong in the Southern Baptist Convention. I attended school with a good friend who wound up serving in Anabaptist and Methodist churches because he did not belong in the Southern Baptist Convention. I received a congratulatory message after my recent election from a well-known Presbyterian. He does not belong in the Southern Baptist Convention. Sometimes, to say that a church does not belong in the Southern Baptist Convention is not an attempt to defame or insult anyone, or even an attempt to break personal fellowship with them; it's just an honest effort to describe them and seek a good ecclesiological home for them. Southern Baptist churches have in common some shared theological convictions that define boundaries for our cooperation and affiliation with one another.

If your church's mission includes cooperating with other churches to fund and otherwise support a variety of activities—activities that make all of our churches more effective in our Great-Commission work—then you can know for certain that you have a missiological home in the Southern Baptist Convention. Several of the departures that I mentioned above in this essay (for example, T.P. Crawford's "Gospel Missions" movement) involved people who shared the Convention's general theological beliefs but who did NOT think that individual local churches should cooperate with one another in quite the Southern Baptist way to send missionaries, train pastors, print Bibles, respond to disasters, or some of the other dozens of things that Southern Baptists cooperate with one another to do. Understand, they thought all of those things should be done, but they disagreed with the idea that multiple local churches could form a structure like the SBC through which to do it. Most Baptist churches have not had any qualms about cooperating in this way, but if your church does, you likely should not be affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

If your church's temperament is one of cooperation, then the Southern Baptist Convention is a good fit for the personality of your church. Some churches or believers just don't want to see value in other churches, other ministries, other pastors, and other believers as potential partners for gospel work. I'm reminded of what a family friend once said: "I've decided to become an Independent Baptist, and the first thing I've decided to be independent from is other Independent Baptists." There are people like that—good people sometimes—who just place a very low value on the idea of cooperation with other believers or churches who don't dot all their 'i's and cross all their 't's just the same way. Some of my readers will be familiar with the idea of secondary separation, often applied to minor doctrines, that have marked some of the more stringent Independent Baptist churches. This idea of separation, however, is not the exclusive property of groups like the Independent Baptists; sometimes the theological Left, especially in more strident forms of contemporary "cancel culture," can have its own disassociative strictures. If you or your church has a long list of doctrines or political positions that would mandate something like secondary separation, you're probably going to be happier somewhere other than the SBC.

But that's likely not most of you who are reading this essay. For you, the conservative, missions-minded Baptist in a church who can affirm The Baptist Faith & Message, I hope you'll find the forthcoming series of articles helpful.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Response to the Sexual Abuse Task Force Report

Bart Barber
May 25, 2022
For Immediate Release

I have now read the complete text and the appendices of the May 15, 2022, document from Guidepost Solutions entitled, “Report of the Independent Investigation: The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s Response to Sexual Abuse Allegations and an Audit of the Procedures and Actions of the Credentials Committee.”

The record represented in this report is clear. Men and women, boys and girls, have been abused in Southern Baptist churches. The churches belong to Jesus Christ, their Founder and Head. Every time abuse happens in a church, the abuser has committed a mutiny against Christ’s lordship over the church and has scandalized His little ones. Jesus said that it would be better for such a one to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be thrown into the sea (Matthew 18:6).

Sometimes the victims of that abuse or sometimes the leaders of those churches have called the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention to seek advice or to try to protect other churches from enduring the same abuse at the hands of the same abusers. Each of these contacts has presented the Executive Committee with an opportunity to help those churches and those individuals as much as possible. Instead, some people entrusted with leadership at that entity have deliberately helped as little as possible—deliberately refusing to return phone calls and messages, deliberately withholding information that they were collecting about abusers, and deliberately minimizing the amount of helpful advice that they would disclose.

How did it come to this? The report demonstrates very well that these bad decisions arose out of a fundamental misunderstanding of the distinctive Baptist belief in the autonomy of the local church.

Unlike some denominations, Baptists believe that every pastor in every local church is also an elder and a bishop. We recognize no biblical office with any authority over multiple local congregations. Our churches enter voluntarily into association with one another, but they cede none of their God-given authority to these associations or to any of the other churches with which they are affiliated. They call their own pastors; they own their own properties; they set their own doctrine; they direct their own finances. This is a biblical doctrine that Baptists have followed and cherished since the 1600s. Like all our doctrines, it certainly can have legal implications, particularly when attempts are made to hold some churches accountable for the misdeeds of other churches. It is, nevertheless, a theological concept, not a legal device.

The Executive Committee seems to have been operating under a different notion of local church autonomy—one arising less out of the Bible and more out of Blackstone.1 The biblical doctrine of local church autonomy in no way prevents churches from advising one another, critiquing one another, or establishing or withdrawing fellowship from one another. Yet, although these activities in no way endangered the biblical doctrine of local church autonomy, the Executive Committee’s counsel believed that these activities posed a threat to the Executive Committee’s legal arguments against ascending liability. The biblical doctrine of local church autonomy came to be conflated with that legal argument, although they are not the same thing.

The waiver of attorney-client privilege has proven to be indispensable in enabling the report to show us this doctrinal failure. It is only in the released memoranda and emails between Executive Committee staff and the Executive Committee’s legal counsel that we have been able to read for ourselves this doctrinal misunderstanding—in at least some cases, what seems to have risen to the level of doctrinal misrepresentation—that has led us so far astray.

Southern Baptists need to reassert a proper biblical understanding of local church autonomy.

  • We can affirm local church autonomy while telling the truth about survivors like Jennifer Lyell.
  • We can affirm local church autonomy while responding to the correspondence and respecting the advice of survivors like Christa Brown.
  • We can affirm local church autonomy while disfellowshipping congregations who give standing ovations to or persist in employing those who have abused survivors like Jules Woodson or Dave Pittman.
  • We can affirm local church autonomy while allowing survivors like Rachael Denhollander to speak the truth to us without censorship.
  • We can affirm local church autonomy while putting in place a robust process for determining the truth about allegations that member churches have dealt recklessly with cases of sexual abuse and then taking action upon the truth that we discover.

What’s more, although I am not a lawyer, I think we can do all these things and more without plunging headlong into some legal connectionalism that nullifies all the legal protections that arise out of our sincerely held beliefs about local church autonomy.

In conclusion, this much is certain: The same Bible that teaches us about local church autonomy teaches us more clearly and forcefully about loving one another. The words and actions described in this report are in many cases far removed from love for survivors and for their advocates. What’s more, the ways that we have walked past survivors on the streets and sidewalks and walked into our meetings without stopping to hear what they had to say has not been an act of love. Guilt for that failure reaches far beyond the C-suite at the Baptist Building. It reaches to me. I wish that I had listened more quickly and more carefully. I am sorry.

Sometimes our assertions of local church autonomy have seemed insincere to the people on the receiving end of them. Do we want people to take seriously what we say about local church autonomy? Then we should demonstrate with actions our commitment to love them to the fullest extent and seek justice for them to the fullest extent that we can achieve within our beliefs.

Regardless of whether I am elected as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, I pledge my efforts toward that end.


1 "Blackstone" is a famous legal reference work.