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.