Why Many SBC Churches Are Still Ripe for Abuse

By now, I’m sure many of you have read or at least heard about the expansive report from the Houston Chronicle about systemic abuse among Southern Baptist churches, a report which will continue to unfold in all its wicked, heart-breaking sorrow in parts 2 and 3.

This morning, Beth Moore started a thread of women sharing photos of themselves at the time they were first sexually abused. As a father of a little three year-old girl, I see my own daughter in their beaming faces and wonder how such atrocities could be taking place in our own churches.

On his morning radio show The Briefing Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, mentioned a third-party registry as a possible piece of the solution. I agree. However, this kind of measure only insures that sexual predators don’t gain new ministry positions after they’ve already committed abuse. As I think about my own daughter, my objective is to prevent abuse in the first place by any means! Shouldn’t this be our goal for all possible victims–to spare as many of them emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual scarring by preventing abuse whenever possible?

I’ve seen a lot of people expressing the sentiment, “We must do better!” I understand the intention, but it’s not enough. We must do differently. I’m a Southern Baptist pastor because I believe in Southern Baptist theology and ideals. However, in my experience Southern Baptist practice often leaves much to be desired. I believe that until these three specific matters are addressed, many of our SBC churches will continue to be ripe for abuse.

Unqualified Pastors.

When I interviewed for my first pastorate (where I still currently serve) I was asked questions about how I would reach new families. I was asked about how I would handle conflict resolution. I was asked how I felt about the King James Version. My preaching was observed.

Not once was I asked a question that dealt with godly character. No questions about pornography or sexual immorality, about outbursts of anger, drunkenness, self-control, or how I managed my house–or even about my marriage! To their credit, they did check my references and do a background check. However, I would bet that my experience is quite common across the denomination–especially in small-town churches.

We are not shooting from the hip here, churches. The Apostle Paul has clearly–explicitly–given us instructions about the qualifications of an elder, not once but twice (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1)! How many of our SBC churches even consult Paul’s list of qualifications when considering a new pastor?

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:5-9)

We wonder why our churches are rife with abuse–both among the laity and the ministers. For the love of Christ, for the love of God’s holy name, for the love of the children, vet your pastors according to Christ’s command! Paul warns Titus, he warns him right there–RIGHT THERE!–after the list of qualifications what kind of men will enter the church if it chooses to disregard these qualifications:

“For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers…to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.”  (Titus 1:10,16)

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul further describes these false shepherds as “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” He continues, “Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions…” (2 Timothy 3:5-6). How can we not see it laid out before us in black and white? Disqualified pastors are predators. They actively seek to capture weak women. Churches, we will be held responsible if we elect these unqualified men into the office of pastor.

One final note, it is absolutely foolhardy for a church to place a man fresh out of high school in a shepherding role over teenagers in the church simply because he likes reading his Bible, has charisma, and likes to go camping. Call him a youth pastor, youth director, youth intern, whatever–it’s a recipe for disaster. The young man placed in that position is being set up to fall into “the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6). Churches must realize they are creating an alarmingly dangerous environment for young ladies whose parents tend to be way too trusting of anyone on staff with the church.

Lack of Plurality.

Somehow, the single pastor/multiple deacons became the default structure of the local Southern Baptist congregation. I’m not a church historian; I’m sure someone else would be better qualified to explain how that happened. What I do know is that this model is not written into Baptist theology or ecclesiology–or the Scriptures.

Whenever we encounter pastors/elders/bishops/overseers in the New Testament, we find elders plural:

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5)

“And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”  (Acts 14:23)

“Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.” (Acts 20:17)

Somehow Southern Baptists got derailed onto a whole different track, one that empowers predators and endangers faithful men. To quote Kanye West, “Not one man should have all that power.” And not one man was ever intended to! The shepherds were meant to shepherd together, not alone. Every honest pastor admits with Moses, “I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me” (Numbers 11:14).

Worst case scenario, a church elects a deceitful, predatory man into the pastorate who abuses members for years without anyone discovering it. Best case scenario, a church elects a faithful but imperfect man to an office where he then must fight any onslaught of temptation or attack from Satan without fellow pastors as peers to help him in the battle.

The church that continues persistently without praying and striving for multiple pastors and elders is not caring either for its pastors or the flock. It’s a situation begging for Satan to enter in and destroy lives. Pastors need personal accountability from other pastors who can see clearly and objectively into each other’s ministry, ask probing questions, and stand as a roadblock at the head of any path that may lead into temptation.

Lack of Church Discipline.

I attended four different SBC churches before going to seminary. I did witness one instance of church discipline where an associate pastor had to be removed for sexual immorality–though not of an abusive nature.* I was only a teenager then, but to the credit of the senior pastor at the time, my recollection is that it was done by the book.

I would say that the general policy in SBC churches is more “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to sin issues like divorce, sexual immorality, domestic abuse, etc. Since becoming a pastor, I’ve heard numerous tales from elderly widows who were regularly abused in their homes. The church never addressed it. Fellow Southern Baptists, have you ever witnessed a matter of church discipline? If not, either one of two things was happening: (1) Sin is being dealt with behind closed doors or (2) sin isn’t being dealt with at all. I’ll leave you to judge which of those is the case.

What is more, I can count on one hand the number of churches I remember being disfellowshipped from the Southern Baptist Convention. Church discipline is absent both in our local churches and in our cooperation as a convention. Until this changes, abuse will fester.

In the book of Acts, Luke recounts an early instance of divine church discipline. Ananias and Sapphira sell a piece of land in order to give the proceeds to the church. They then conspire together to keep back part of the sum and lie about the price. Peter says the two have determined to “test the Spirit of the Lord”, and God strikes them dead on the spot. Here is the result: “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.” (Acts 5:11).

God wouldn’t tolerate lying about offering, but in our churches today “it is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans…and you are arrogant!” (1 Cor. 5:1). Why do men not fear God? Why do predators feel free to lurk and pastors to leer and ministers to molest? There is no fear of God in our churches because we do not practice church discipline.

In fact, the Apostle Paul commands that pastors who have fallen into egregious sin should be defrocked in front of the congregation for this very reason:

“Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”  (1 Timothy 5:19-20)

Furthermore, the SBC as a denomination needs to begin to practice church discipline, removing churches from cooperation who not only become aberrant in theology but in church life. We can begin by disfellowshipping churches that remain unrepentant after this Houston Chronicle exposé. This is not to say that sex offenders cannot be saved or forgiven. It is to say that sex offenders should never again pastor a church.

Brothers and sisters of Southern Baptist churches, we must not merely do better. We must do these things which we have left completely undone. God help us.

If you would like to read more about a theology of abuse, I’ve written about the Bible’s view on abuse for Christianity Today: “God Hates Abuse”.

(photo credit)

*Update: Originally I said I hadn’t witnessed a church discipline case growing up. I was contacted by a high school friend who reminded me that we had in fact seen one case of church discipline. I had no intention of misleading anyone regarding my experiences, and I’m appreciative to my friend for correcting my error.

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

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