If you're reading this, you likely already know that the Southern Baptist Convention released the report of its Sexual Abuse Task Force yesterday. The details of the report ended up being worse than feared. The report is nearly 300 pages long and contains the findings of an independent investigation conducted by Guidepost Solutions. The results of this investigation will be considered in detail and processed extensively in the weeks and months ahead. I offer here a few initial reflections from an outside but interested observer.
Weep with those who weep
No matter our relationship to the SBC, our initial response should be lament. More specifically, we should all hear and grieve over the pain and brokenness of those who have been abused. Untold numbers of people have been hurt and hurt deeply by people they should have been able to trust. But that trust was broken. And the rupture is deeper than most of us will ever realize. The first priority must be to honor those who have been victimized, to care for those who have been crushed, to come alongside those who have been abused. It is a time for the Church to weep over the wickedness that has been perpetrated in our midst. In the wake of this report, I hope you'll take time today to cry out to God for those who have been wronged, whose pain has not only been ignored but covered up. This is a time for the people of God to rush to the side of those who sorrow.
Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint from hunger at every street corner. -Lamentations 2:19
Bad and worse
The abuse itself is unspeakably bad. The coverup is worse. The report details how high-ranking denominational leaders used aspects of their polity (or denominational organization) to silence victims, protect abusers, and (attempt to) evade responsibility. If local churches are autonomous, they reasoned, we cannot create denomination-wide systems to protect local churches constituents from abusive leaders. Attorneys counseled Executive Committee members not to get involved because it would create legal liability. If they provide oversight, they also bear responsibility. The result, according to the report, is that, "Almost always the internal focus was on protecting the SBC from legal liability and not on caring for survivors or creating any plan to prevent sexual abuse within SBC churches."
Let me put it this way, if a denomination's polity can be used as a tool to silence abuse victims and protect abusers, it's time to take a look at that polity. That's not to say you can't have some version of local church autonomy. It is to say the Convention should have some standards of mutual accountability for churches that wish to enter into "friendly cooperation." A local church can maintain a significant amount of autonomy and agree to certain convention-wide standards and processes among its ordained leaders. At the very least, as many have noted, a database of known abusers should be maintained, and churches that hire known abusers should be kicked out of the Convention. Would it violate local church autonomy for the Convention to require background checks and perhapst even psychological evaluations before its member churches ordain persons for ministry? I wouldn't think so. The report itself contains numerous recommendations that have potential to protect people from abuse and coverup. We can only hope that they are implemented without delay.
The place of women in the church
I cannot help but think that a sort of rigid complementarian theology is part of the problem. Let me be clear: I'm not saying that all men who hold complementarian views are a party to abuse. I have many friends who are complementarian in their theology, who also love and respect the women in their families and churches. These friends are disgusted and infuriated by the scandal in the SBC. I disagree with the way they understand qualifications for church leadership, but I don't think they're all complicit.
It does seem, however, that what is sometimes called "hard complementarianism" makes women out to be second-class citizens and inferior members of the church. I've made no secret of my problems with such theology, and my fear is that it problematically lends itself to the subjugation of women in church and society. Make no mistake. Every hard complementarian will speak of honoring women and creating appropriate places to do appropriate ministry. Nevertheless, it's difficult to look at such contexts and not think that women are there treated as ontologically inferior to men. And when that (often unspoken) perception is present, there is a context in which it's easier for men to take advantage of women. Such a situation is ripe for abuse.
Polity and theology
In the end, we must always be looking at our organizational and our theological frameworks to consider what weaknesses create space where sin may abound. If our polity enables survivors to be silenced and abusers to run amok, it's time to rethink our polity. If our theology demeans women, it's time to rework our theology. This is not only the case for Southern Baptists. It's true for every denomination. And no matter our denomination, we should always - always - be seeking to speak up for the oppressed, do justice for the wronged, and grieve with those who suffer.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online.
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