Having abandoned the denomination in which I was converted over forty years ago, I am not a part of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), whose moral credibility has just been torn to shreds by the devastating Guidepost Solutions report on twenty years of SBC Executive Committee (EC) mishandling of sexual abuse allegations in SBC churches.
But I do have enough history in SBC churches to note two crucial settings that appear and reappear in that damning report. One is the SBC headquarters building in Nashville. The other is the countless SBC churches scattered all over the land. Together, both proved ripe for the creation of a religious culture susceptible to sexual abuse, coverup, and worse.
Take the average local congregation. Consider this humble group of a couple of hundred regular people in a little community somewhere, united around belief in the Southern Baptist version of Christianity. The only requirement to join is usually a statement of faith, maybe a transfer of a letter from another church. Just walk down the aisle and join; everyone is so happy you are there they rush to come up and invite you to Sunday lunch.
If you perhaps wish to lead such a congregation, all you need is the search committee to call your name and the people to vote you in, and you are on the job. Ordination may not even be required. If ordination is required, education might not be. And almost certainly, no criminal background check will be undertaken. And further: there is – or has been – no centralized denominational office keeping track of sexual misconduct claims on the part of the denomination’s own clergy. (Well, it turns out that the SBC EC has been keeping clippings and other accounts of sex abuse, just not doing anything with them to prevent misconduct. This is just one of the bombshell findings of the Guidepost report.)
If you think about it, the local church in a decentralized denomination might just be the ideal setting for sexual predation. In a context of high trust, with weekly baths of religious piety, seemingly like-minded Christian folk become a kind of family. Here is a multigenerational community including numerous women and children, visiting in and out of each other’s homes and in restaurants and cars, traveling together on retreats and mission trips, and meeting up at the church for events large and small, all to fulfill the grand religious mission of the congregation. And there are the pastors, with the most trust, the most credibility, and the most access of all…
Just for a moment compare the training, credentialing, vetting, professional moral and legal codes, and access to clients of your community’s nurses, doctors, counselors, and educators compared to its pastors and lay volunteers. There is no comparison. This we have known for a while: for sexual abusers, churches are easy hunting grounds.
Now turn your attention to the SBC headquarters building in Nashville. I have been in that building, as an invited guest, long ago, back in the day. I remember being invited to a very high-level consultation in 1995 to help draft the SBC’s racial reconciliation resolution that marked 150 years since the founding of the denomination – founded, one must not forget, to defend the moral and spiritual legitimacy of slavery against northern Baptists who had other ideas.
I remember that building, or at least the suite where we gathered. It had a serious executive club vibe, lots of wood paneling and gleaming tabletops and plush chairs – and about twenty men, white and Black, gathered to make some history together. Several of the people mentioned in the Guidepost report were there, including the self-important Paige Patterson, who always had a place in every significant SBC gathering after the conservative takeover that he helped engineer – until his own moral credibility was mortally wounded by his horrendous response to sexual abuse complaints, which are detailed in the report.
That room, that floor, that building, reeked of power.
It reeked especially of male power. It was a Baptist boys’ executive country club.
And here is the link between all those little SBC churches out in the highways and byways, and that gleaming conference room in Nashville – male power. (Almost exclusively white male power, of course.) Underneath the rhetoric of biblical inerrancy, the conservative takeover of the SBC was largely about cutting off and then reversing even the smallest slivers of theological and practical progress toward a denomination in which women would share religious and political power with men.
So it was that reports of male sexual abuse in SBC life, almost exclusively given by women at great risk and cost to themselves, entered into a religious culture in which at every stage they were adjudicated (mainly dismissed, ignored, stonewalled) by men – from the local congregation to the executives in the paneled conference rooms. When brave women like Christa Brown and Tiffany Thigpen and Jennifer Lyell attempted to tell their stories and demand change, they were outsiders, interlopers in a system dominated by men who were inclined to protect other men in the all-male leadership club – some of whom they had personally trained and mentored. The Guidepost report frankly reveals what a novelty it was for this boys’ club to even have women visit their “rooms where it happens,” and the result was predictable – disparagement, dismissal, even degradation.
But now, in part because “nevertheless, these women persisted,” the stories hidden in the dark closets of the Baptist building in Nashville have truly hit the fan. A few men show up as having stood in solidarity with victims – I honor Russell Moore and J.D. Greear here. Most were bystanders, however, ducking and weaving and passing the buck. Some reached a level of complicity with criminal behavior that might well earn them criminal prosecution – and for now and forever, profound moral revulsion.
So the Executive Committee of the SBC is to gather for an emergency meeting on this Tuesday after the apocalyptic report’s release. I wonder how many women will be in that room. Oh, never mind.
Patriarchy cannot heal itself. Rooms in which only men of power gather will not hold accountable other men of power, especially when they are linked in networks of loyalty and patronage. A denomination that does not want to face the reality of systemic evil in society must now face the reality of its own systemic evil. How can that system heal itself when it doesn’t understand the most rudimentary facts about its own corrupt organization of power?
Might there be some brave Southern Baptists out there willing to respond to this disaster by reconsidering the patriarchal vision of God, church, ministry, and family that bears so much responsibility for the evils that have been revealed? But that would require reconsideration of the very cause that has been treated as the central reason why the SBC needed a “conservative resurgence.”
Who is ready to face that level of repentance? Maybe some people who want to follow Jesus.
David P. Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and chair of Christian social ethics at Vrije Universiteit (“Free University”) Amsterdam/IBTS. He is also the author of several books, including After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity.