Bringing sin to light is not a distraction from the mission of the Church

I have to have surgery this summer. It’s nothing major, but there’s no “minor” when you’re asleep and open. I dread the surgery and the recovery, but I know it has to happen so my body can start to heal. Otherwise, I will face worse problems down the road.

Sunday night, as I read the report from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Sexual Abuse Task Force, the phrase I kept repeating to myself was, “It’s painful, but it’s necessary. For those not in the know, a group of sexual abuse survivors lobbied for the Southern Baptist Convention to be more proactive in handling sexual abuse by SBC pastors. They also advocated for the SBC to put in place a mechanism to prevent abusive pastors from being able to resign and simply go to another church down the road.

SBC leaders claimed this would be difficult to do because of the politics of the Convention – how it is organised. Churches are self-governing and make their own decisions about calling staff. Churches voluntarily cooperate with the SBC, and the Convention has no say in how local churches are governed. However, the SBC can declare that the churches are no longer “in friendly cooperation” with the Convention because of their theology.

In recent years, survivors have begun to appeal to the SBC’s Executive Committee (EC), which oversees the day-to-day operations of the Convention. As they began to see what they believed to be the EC’s mishandling of sexual abuse cases, they called for an investigation into the body. At the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention last year, the messengers endorsed a third-party investigation into the EC’s handling of sexual abuse reports. Last fall, the EC voted to waive attorney-client privilege so that Guidepost Solutions — the independent firm investigating the EC — could read emails between EC executives and their lawyers.

What the investigation revealed is painful to read for so many reasons. First, they said survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of SBC ministers were “met, time and time again, with resistance, blockages and even outright hostility from some within the EC”. They further found that “a few senior EC officials, as well as outside attorneys, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse…and focused singularly on avoiding SBC accountability.”

Reading the evidence in the report is seeing a master class in trying to avoid responsibility. In emails between EC leaders and their attorneys, they repeatedly looked for ways to ignore and downplay survivors’ concerns, primarily so the SBC could be shielded from lawsuits and financial responsibility. Concern for victims of sexual abuse rarely appeared in emails, and victims were often described in insulting ways.

A prominent and popular SBC leader was named in the report. The report accuses Johnny Hunt, former SBC president and pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, of sexually assaulting the wife of another pastor at a condo in Panama City. The report alleges that when confronted, Hunt told the couple they would hurt 40,000 churches he worked with if they went public. Hunt denied all the allegations in a note posted on his Twitter feed.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the report was how often SBC leaders said spending time dealing with the issue of sexual abuse was a “distraction” from the SBC’s commitment to evangelism. This argument never arises when a culture war issue is at stake. No SBC leader has argued that pro-life advocacy or opposition to same-sex marriage is a “distraction” from evangelism. However, when it comes to caring for the most vulnerable among us, those who have been tormented by men in positions of power and those who want to prevent future abuse, they are somehow guilty of hijacking the attention of the SBC of evangelism.

Put simply – when there is endemic sin in the house of the Lord, it is not a distraction from the mission of the church to deal with it. Sin hinders mission. Women and children sexually abused at the hands of men who are called to lead the church hinder mission. Just as removing cancer from a body promotes healing and health, so does bringing sin to light so we can move forward in repentance.

The Sexual Abuse Task Force closed its report with a litany of steps the SBC must take to address this crisis. Each step will bring the SBC closer to accomplishing its mission.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Related:

Russell Moore Calls SBC Executives’ Actions ‘Blasphemy’ After Sexual Abuse Report Released

Investigative report finds SBC executives responded to sexual abuse allegations with ‘resistance, blocking and outright hostility’

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Scott Slayton writes to “From one degree to another.”

Charles K. Eckert