When Nathan Speaks: Reflections on the Southern Baptist Convention Sexual Abuse Task Force Report

Last week, some of the dirty laundry of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was put on full display. For those who read the report that was released by Guidepost and the Sexual Abuse Task Force (SATF), it was a stark reminder of the brokenness that runs through the human heart. That was followed by the 200-page list of abusers that was released by the Executive Committee (EC), a list that had been secretly kept by the SBC. As a member of a church that is in fellowship with the SBC, my heart was broken for those who suffered at the hands of professing Christians in churches that partner with mine. 

These victims make up the most vulnerable portion of our membership, and they are the ones who we are responsible for protecting and caring for, and we let them down.

I would encourage you to read the report and the list of offenders. These are lists of (primarily) women and children who were victimized by (primarily) men in positions of authority in local churches, schools, and seminaries. These victims make up the most vulnerable portion of our membership, and they are the ones who we are responsible for protecting and caring for, and we let them down. Churches are supposed to be havens for the hurting, not soft targets for predators. This is a vital moment for the SBC. We need to rise to this challenge, not fall into the defensive patterns of the past. The following are a few reflections on what this report means and how we as members of churches affiliated with the SBC can respond. 

  1. Some churches responded to abuse appropriately. By and large, the vast majority of instances of abuse that were specifically named in the list published by the EC were of abusers who were caught and convicted. This means that churches failed to protect the most vulnerable, but that when they were made aware of abuse, the authorities were involved and the abuser was removed.
  2. We need to further harden our churches. Predators come to churches (and sports teams, etc) because they are soft targets. There is easy access to children, and churches by nature are trusting. A solid child protection policy is a must for any church that truly desires to protect the vulnerable, and with the bevy of quality resources available, there is no excuse for not creating such a policy. 
  3. The Messengers were right to force the EC to waive privilege. This was a massive battle over the last year, and I don’t want to get too far into the weeds. For those new to this situation, here is the Cliff Notes version. At last year’s annual meeting, the messengers voted to appoint the SATF to investigate the handling of sexual abuse by the EC. Part of the motion was for the EC to waive attorney-client privilege. The EC pushed back on this, and it took several votes of the EC before they agreed to do this. The major problem with waiving privilege was supposed to be the liability that could be introduced. The EC trustees are considered fiduciaries, and many believed that waiving privilege would violate their fiduciary obligation to the SBC by introducing the risk of litigation. This may very well be true. However, the SBC is not a “top-down” hierarchy, but a grassroots convention that is governed by the will of the messengers. If the messengers want truth at the risk of litigation, then their will is what ultimately matters.
  4. The Celebrity Culture of the SBC needs to go away. There are no VIPs in the Kingdom of Heaven, and there shouldn’t be in the SBC. I have heard over and over again the refrain of “he’s a really important person in the SBC.” No, he’s not. He’s a servant of Christ. The second we believe that there is a “ladder” to climb in the SBC is the moment we have lost our identity. Can we just admit that megachurch pastors aren’t pastors? They are preachers who don’t know more than a handful of the people who they are supposedly shepherding. Shepherds can’t lead if they don’t smell like sheep. Get rid of the branding and the book deals and the speaking tours. Stop acting as if being the pastor of a humble church of 100 members is only a stepping stone to the real work of teaching at a seminary and publishing a couple of books and hitting the lecture circuit. There is no room for celebrities in the SBC or the Kingdom. Now, let me be clear, just because someone publishes a book or has a familiar name doesn’t mean he automatically falls into this category. I have been impressed by Capitol Hill Baptist and the ministry of 9Marks there. Our church wanted to study music, so I emailed Matt Merker, and he joyfully came and spoke for several hours to a group of thirty people. Another staff member came and taught for four hours with our church’s elders about small groups. These were truly humble men who desired to see healthy churches above personal gain. 
  5. We need to focus on people over politics. One of the most disturbing facts about the SATF report was the general trend toward “protecting the brand” of the SBC. EC staff and members used legal counsel as cover to not respond to abuse allegations instead of caring for the vulnerable people whose lives had been turned upside down. These are not shepherds. True shepherds take every opportunity to guide and care for those who come into their sphere of influence. Politicians spin and shade, playing word games. I have seen this pattern in individual churches, and it is deeply concerning. Politicians have no place in leadership in the SBC or as Pastors/Elders in local churches. We need shepherds who will speak clearly and care for the most vulnerable among us. 
  6. There are going to have to be a lot of discussions ahead. The SATF report had around 30 recommendations for the SBC to implement. There needs to be a lot of discussion about these. One of them was to establish a survivor’s compensation fund. This is going to require a LOT of thought, and I’m still not sure how it’s viable. Would this fund remove liability for cases of abuse from the local church and place it at the feet of the EC or SBC at large? Where would this funding come from? I am not in favor of more of our Cooperative Program (CP) dollars going to things other than advancing the gospel among the nations. Many of us may need to speak with our wallets. I will always give to advance the gospel, but if I feel that our money is being misused, I have every right to redirect that giving to a place more in line with biblical principles. There is much here to delve into. 

There is much good that can be accomplished if we will deal with these issues and change the status quo of the SBC.

Is it time to give up on the SBC? That’s a tough question, and one that should not easily be dismissed. There is much good that can be accomplished if we will deal with these issues and change the status quo of the SBC. If that can happen, I believe the future of our denomination is bright. But if the political nature of those entrusted with power in the SBC continues, then some hard decisions will need to be made. What we need is to have churches and church members actually talking about these things, and asking their leadership for answers and clarity. We give thousands of dollars a year to the CP, we deserve to know how it is being used. The victims of abuse whose voices have been stifled deserve to have their questions answered.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash