The Elusive Answer to Sex Abuse in the Church

There is something profoundly horrible about sexual abuse. A woman may be taken advantage of while intoxicated at a party. A teacher may ask for a favor in return for a grade. Children may be molested at home. A woman or child may fall victim within their church, which is supposed to be a safe place. People generally feel disgusted at the news of rape, whether they can relate to the victim or not. Similarly, it should stir the hearts of all people to hear that hundreds of Christian churches are guilty of committing and covering up sex abuse.

A slew of cases recently surfaced in Southern Baptist churches. Thus, people have looked to the Southern Baptist Convention to remedy the situation. The Southern Baptist Convention (here, also referred to as the SBC or the convention) is a network of Southern Baptist churches—an incredibly large and powerful organization. There are nearly fifty thousand churches associated with the SBC, and it has been around for over a century and a half. Individual churches join the network if they share the beliefs of the other convention churches. (Conversely, a church may not join or may not remain joined with the network if it does not affirm these beliefs.)

Within this large and powerful organization, sexual abuse allegations have recently come to light with explosive magnitude. The last twenty years have contributed at least 700 victims to the SBC’s count. To address this, the convention voted to amend its constitution during the SBC’s annual meeting of 2019, which concluded on June 12, to reflect what Southern Baptists have always stood for. The SBC expressly articulates with this amendment that Southern Baptists believe it is necessary for churches to guard against sexual abuse and to care for victims. Accordingly, a church which acts wrongly in addressing sexual abuse reflects a church which believes wrongly about sexual abuse. Therefore, if the convention sees that an individual church fails to adequately address a sex abuse case, the church will now be deemed incompatible with the SBC—on the basis of beliefs—and thus expelled from the network.

It is important to note that the Southern Baptist Convention is not a denomination (a branch or category of Christians), as is often the misconception. Southern Baptist describes a denomination in the sense that it is a branch of Christianity (just like Presbyterian, Anglican, and Lutheran). However, the Southern Baptist Convention is merely a network of Southern Baptist churches (like The Gospel Coalition and Acts 29 are church networks). This network of doctrinally-aligned (aligned in what is believed and taught) churches is a means of building inter-church relationships. Through the network, churches collaborate to finance and conduct some of the work of the church—things like missions, seminary education, book publishing, and other para-church ministries. In other words, the SBC holds no authority over any individual churches. Rather, the convention consists of and is operated by representatives of individual churches. And the SBC’s constitution reflects Southern Baptist doctrine, only being associated with churches who affirm Southern Baptist doctrine.

Undoubtedly, though, the SBC has the power to do more than it should actually do. In situations such as this, where the problem in question is clearly an evil one, it is tempting to do whatever it takes to solve it. If, perhaps, the convention wields its financial power to pressure churches into action against abuse, it might be considered unethical (and probably ineffectual). This is because money is the wrong means of addressing sin. It might work for a time, but the underlying problem is in the heart. People need to be more convicted about the horrors of sex abuse, and being paid off will not bring about enduring change. Additionally, Southern Baptists believe that it would be unbiblical for any person or organization to have compelling power over an individual church. In this, the convention should not violate its own teaching. Alternatively, the goal with the convention is for individual churches to form relationships with each other and for them to lovingly hold each other accountable on issues of sin, including sex abuse. This way, a church may be convinced that they are wrong. This would be more motivating than money, producing more long-lasting change.

The SBC needed to be careful to respect local church autonomy in dealing with sex abuse, and that is what it did. This is something to rejoice over! The SBC is now more clear on what it believes is true, good, and righteous. This is an immensely positive shift in trajectory for the convention, but it is not perfect. It is not infallible or absolutely effective. The amendment to the SBC’s constitution should not be regarded as the ultimate solution since it cannot promise to engender significant change.

This amendment, even if it held authority, would never guarantee better churches. This is seen in the fact that today’s Catholic church faces a comparable sex abuse problem. Churches have minimal independence from the hierarchy of authority within Catholicism, yet sex abuse and extramarital sex are arguably just as, prevalent in the Catholic church as it is in Southern Baptist churches—or any other group of churches for that matter. By looking at Southern Baptist churches, we see that in the absence of accountability, sex abuse can be concealed and swept under the rug. And by looking at the Catholic church, we see that in a rigid hierarchy of power, sex abuse can also be forcibly silenced and concealed. Therefore, it is helpful that the SBC has drawn attention to improper handling of abuse as a doctrinal issue. Now, it is necessary that Southern Baptist churches take advantage of relationships within the convention in order to hold each other accountable. The SBC’s constitutional amendment will not be effective as a means of legislation, and it will not be effective without the accountability of inter-church relationships.

This amendment is unlikely to bring sex abuse in SBC churches to a complete halt because it is a problem as old as history and one which will never truly disappear. A woman named Dinah was raped in Genesis 34, and sexual assault probably existed even before that. Today, sin is just as prevalent as it was four thousand years ago. And if history has anything to say about it, it would seem that this sin will be around for another four thousand years, until Christ returns. As such, it would not be fruitful to expect any action by the SBC to eradicate abuse. To say that the convention leaders should do nothing would be wrong because they do have the power to make a difference. However, to harbor hope that any human action could altogether end sex abuse would be to set one’s self up for disappointment. Again, the amendment is, of course, a good thing and should be fought for, but it will not satisfy the desires of anyone who believes they will find the ultimate answer.

Finally, this amendment does not guarantee better churches because it does not have the authority to do so. There is a reason that the SBC has chosen not to act on this issue in the past. Southern Baptist churches generally hold to the doctrine of local church autonomy. Some Christian denominations are like the Catholic church in that there is a formal hierarchy of authority—in the Catholic church, everyone answers to the Pope, and so on. The Southern Baptist denomination, on the other hand, believes that churches should individually seek to adhere to Scripture as faithfully as possible. The convention did not and will not demand that any church change its practices; instead, it decided to be more precise about who is actually aligned with the beliefs of the convention. This may effect change by causing individual churches to see sex abuse as a more serious issue, encouraging them to oppose the crimes more proactively and to respond to the abuse more responsibly.

People want the SBC to fulfill what individual church leaders do not seem willing to do. Some want the convention to “end church abuse cover-ups,” according to Fox News. Some want the convention to “ensure that churchgoers are safe from abuse,” according to The Washington Post. And some want SBC churches to be successfully fulfilling in Christians’ lives—to stop letting their members down, in terms of safety and security—as implied by a testimony published by the New York Times. By this, I do not propose that church leaders are by any means excused from working to protect their congregations. There is no question: it is not too much to ask that churches do everything in their power to prevent and appropriately address instances of abuse. All people are commanded to have compassion on and be kind to those who are vulnerable. But here, people are also asking churches to accomplish lofty goals that should only be entrusted to God Himself. To expect a group of people (such as a church or even the SBC) to end the abuse altogether would be to lie to oneself about reality. The one who is deceived this way does not think rightly about solving the problem of abuse.

It is difficult—dare I say impossible—to find the perfect balance between being diligent in abolishing sexual crime and being careful not to trust in something that is certain to disappoint. My proposal is simply that we resist the temptation to revere the SBC’s policy change as the ultimate solution to sex abuse in the church.  This, again, is because of the SBC’s lack of substantive authority over Southern Baptist churches, because of the fact that people are inclined to rebellion when they feel forced, and because of how this type of sin has prevailed throughout history. If we begin to place our confidence in some man-made constitution to end sex abuse, we will cease to personally stand against the abuse, and we will definitely feel discouraged when the system fails. Instead, we must strive to protect our women and children from predatory behavior, utilizing things like the SBC constitution to hold each other accountable, utilizing even state and federal law, while keeping in mind the fallibility of all this effort. Individual churches and all individual people must be willing to take a stand for the oppressed, with or without the help of an organization like the SBC or the government. It should be of comfort to know that sexual abuse will be utterly wiped out and all justice will be served when Christ returns to reign judgment on the world. No evil occurs that God will not avenge.

One Comment to “The Elusive Answer to Sex Abuse in the Church”

  1. It is so important that all churches of all religious denominations address the issues of sex abuse. Victims who undergo such trauma in an institution that is meant to foster their spiritual needs are being taken advantage of. With the Catholic Church and other churches now being vocal about these concerns, it is important for officials to recognize and apologize for any cover-ups and lack of appropriate action taken. Although people will continue to break the law even though it is set in stone, every effort should be made to deter the problem as well as offer clear steps for recourse should the issue arise.

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