Baptists believe there is no higher church authority than the local church; each is “autonomous.” That autonomy is grounded in deep theology, not just pragmatism. Some Baptists are so separatist as to be unable to cooperate with others.
But the larger portions of Baptists in the United States cooperate, but carefully. They want to avoid complicity in the wrongs of other churches and people.
The Southern Baptist Convention has become the United States’ largest protestant denomination through an intricate set of relationships. They try to maximize the things Baptists can agree on, without making each other responsible for the things we disagree on. A church in the SBC might have a female minister of education; most churches will disagree with that position, but not feel “responsible” for the other church’s wrong. But if it affects our cooperation, upwards of 50,000 people can try to conduct a town hall meeting, where direct votes are taken. Even among Evangelical protestants, the Southern Baptist experiment is unusual.
A few years ago, the Houston Chronicle posted a series of articles showing the downside to this cherished autonomy. Story after story described women abused in one church, only to find their abuser had gone to another church.
If you wanted to identify a sexual predator in SBC churches, pure autonomy makes it difficult. Predators worm into social groups, and push the limits to find victims until someone gets suspicious. Then the predator moves somewhere else, to begin again, until someone doesn’t get just suspicious, they catch them dead-to-rights. This doesn’t just happen in Baptist churches; Boz Tchividjian cites studies showing that an average molester averages twelve victims. But if you were to design a system to catch the predator earlier, the most common way is to get people to share their suspicions with each other earlier, so they see a pattern. And there is no church that can make another church say report.
Americans, though, highly value personal liberty; “mind your own business” describes Planned Parenthood’s position, just as much as modern Bible translations put the same words in the mouth of the Apostle Paul. If you think a person is a threat, a common first instinct is to get rid of the danger, not fight to get proof for a jury. Thus, all fifty states now have some kind of mandatory reporting, a legal obligation to report to some governmental authority if you any evidence of child abuse.
But what is your obligation to another Baptist church? If you have a bad feeling about Jane Doe, and she suddenly moves to another church to teach youth, what should happen? Should you share your suspicions? Or what if you know that Youth Intern John Doe has had a sexual relationship with one of the students in the youth program? If they’re close in age, and it was consensual, it might not be illegal in your state. If he confesses and repents, should that follow him to the next church?
I’d argue “yes,” but I’m afraid I’m in the minority. On responding to ‘reference checks,’ my sense is that many people would say the church should just confirm employment and termination dates. They’ll say something about avoiding lawsuits and what big companies do in refusing to give out negative information. They’re concerned that maybe the suspicions and allegations aren’t true, or aren’t up to Biblical requirements.
In the past, some Baptists were pretty bold about this; it was not uncommon to see letters to the editor of Baptist newspapers, warning other churches to beware of a fleeing preacher or abuser.
What are the ways to encourage cooperation between local churches on this? One is to give churches reassurance that they won’t be sued; Bart Barber worked on a bill toward that end signed into law; I worked with a state legislator in Missouri on a similar bill, but it died with the COVID pandemic.
Another ongoing suggestion has been a database of credibly identified sexual abusers.
Jenn Lyell’s abuse by David Sills at SBTS (and the Executive Committee’s response to it); Hannah-Kate Williams’ suit against multiple SBC institutions, claiming they ignored obvious signs of abuse; Tiffany Thigpen’s abuse by Darrell Gillyard, a preacher fast-tracked by then-SBC leaders; the ouster of Paige Patterson over his “break her down” comments and subsequent attempts to commandeer a board seat at a Texas foundation; and the mind-blowing claims against Judge Paul Pressler all contribute to the idea that something is not right in our Baptist Zion.
Under our autonomous polity, most Baptists think of the “system” almost like Adam Smith’s invisible hand. It’s an outgrowth of decisions made in tens of thousands of independent churches, by millions of individual Baptists.
The closest thing to the “center” is the comically hamstrung “Executive Committee,” the only entity tasked with thinking about the SBC as a whole. The EC’s main job is to accept gifts to the SBC, and to distribute them according to the budget. While it has authority to “act for the Convention in matters otherwise not provided for,” the Convention leaves little not provided for. The EC can ask and talk, but it can’t order another SBC entity or Church to do anything. Its 86 members are typically leaders from Baptist state conventions, who socialize, review financial reports, and set talking points at their meetings.
But the dot at the top of the Baptist organization chart is also the point where all the money enters the SBC under the Baptist offering system, the Cooperative Program. In the 1920s, when Baptists formed the EC, American law recognized “charitable immunity.” If you were injured by a charity, you couldn’t take its money or property to satisfy a lawsuit judgment. But in the late 20th Century, most courts liberalized these rules, and so charities suddenly had to consider “Plaintiff’s lawyers” and “class actions.” They began to fear that outside courts and lawyers would make decisions for religious groups, by swamping them with legal fees or extreme judgments. The SBC did not change too much, because its agencies were all separate. But there were efforts to change terminology, like shifting from “agencies” to “entities,” because ‘agency’ implies a kind of direct control by a principal that might bring ascending liability. The lines of limited authority by the Convention were made clearer using the “sole membership” terminology developed in the law, to clarify the SBC was separate from its entities, even as it had rights of governance.
Most Baptists are predisposed against litigation and lawyers, perhaps for understandable reasons. Paul chides people who file lawsuits rather than seek resolution inside the Church. And so, going to lawyers is seen as a last resort, lawsuits or not. I’ve had many people tell me something like “it’s a shame we need people like you.” And this is an easy-enough belief when, in popular culture, lawyers are portrayed as ambulance chasers and fabricators of frivolous claims of spilled coffee and unverifiable whiplash injuries.
This pop-culture attitude to lawsuits, combined with a 1970s fear of ever-expanding-and-overreaching tort lawsuits colored the Southern Baptist response to any suggested reforms. Added to those unusual risks, there was little-to-no chance Baptists would consent to putting it a centralized data base of Baptist abusers at the EC, the one place where all the money flows through. Their lawyers imagined the denomination losing control of its finances at a single point of failure, and thus collapsing the Convention’s ministries into one giant till for the trial bar. For them, it was a question of whether the Baptist system of direct democracy would survive American tort law. Anything controlled as directly as a church controlled its pastors and deacons was a single unit of liability, which could be swamped in some tragedy.
And beyond that, another key factor: no body in the Convention wanted the hot potato. Not the Seminaries, not Lifeway Publishing, not Guidestone, and not the “Southern Baptist Convention” corporation that only operates two or three days a year. And certainly not the smallest agency, the ERLC, known for its radio shows and Washington “lobbying.”
For one thing, people are more aware of real victims. Hollywood might play up false claims of abuse, but it has become clear why the Harvey Weinsteins of the world might oversell that story. And while Jezebel and Potiphar’s wife were real, so are Bill Gothard and Ravi Zacharias. My first blog was keeping congregants informed about the fallout of a [sexual abuse scandal at my home church], where the pastor’s son had fathered a child with his intern in the young adults ministry. Several years later, the pastor suddenly resigned after his own adultery was uncovered.
In the SBC, the story of Jenn Lyell has galvanized the younger generation of Baptists that know her personally; she has advocates at most of the entities, who would like the EC to reconsider her claim using independent investigators. That’s opened the door to listening to longtime survivor advocates like Christa Brown and Dianne Langberg, and Rachel Denhollander, some of whom had been shut out.
The legal landscape has also shifted. While there’s not been a return to charitable immunity, the Courts are not rapidly expanding tort liability. Most state legislatures have enacted some form of tort reform. And Courts have been pretty consistent in protecting legally separate entities; the horrors of “ascending and descending liability” have mostly been made predictable. It’s unlikely, for example, that Southern Seminary will be liable for misconduct at Southeastern Seminary. The SBC and EC consistently win those suits, although the Florida Baptist Convention did get embroiled in a case in which it controlled a church planter who abused a boy.
For these reasons, I think it’s time for the SBC to at least have this debate. Should we have a database?
A database still has real hurdles and risks. I am not sure most Baptists want it, or are willing to take the risk. I am not sure those Baptists who want it fully comprehend the risks.
For me, the question is whether those risks can be managed and implemented consistent with Baptist polity. Churches can’t be required to check, or required to report to a database, and it would work best if coupled to some other carrot, like SBC cooperation. And that kind of “authority” may rankle some churches. But even if Baptists exercise their maximal authority to nudge churches to check the database, it will be virtually impossible to make it an accurate database. There will be gaps and wrong claims in any list.
And so, there will be lawsuits. Victims may sue if they think the database was unreasonably incomplete. Some people will make false claims in the database. But the issue is not “will the database be sued.” It’s America; we’ll be sued for not doing anything, too. The issue is losing control of our assets and ministry because of lawsuits. Just as the Convention vaunts its 50-and-0 lawsuit record, and just as NAMB has been sued by Gerald McRaney, getting sued is not the end of the world. It’s losing the “big ones” that matter.
I think most such lawsuits would lose their claim. The First Amendment should protect most church-to-church communication, and church-to-database-to-church communication; it may be possible to get statutory protection in Tennessee for such communications. As long as there is insurance, that litigation can probably be made manageable, and over time those costs will decrease.
Some will no doubt have a concern about the level of proof for reports, given I Timothy 5:19’s requirement to avoid accusations against elders that don’t have two or three witnesses. I imagine churches will be able to screen requests for reports that meet the level of proof they feel is required.
There are still good reasons not to put the database at the SBC Executive Committee. And one of the biggest reasons is the stream of money that flows through the EC. The EC can be a fiduciary for the Convention. It houses the Convention’s credentials committee. It protects the Convention’s gifts. It’s difficult to imagine putting the database-for-churches service at the most power-restricted, cash-rich bottleneck of the Convention. As much as the law has improved, it will be irresistible to those hoping to siphon money away from the SBC, for whatever reason.
For another, the EC lacks experience in responding to sex abuse victims – and may be unable to ever be able to fully respond. If the reported abuser reports that the SBC is involved in the abuse, the EC then would be put in an impossible position, having to do what’s best for the Convention’s assets, while responding to a victim that needs trauma care and to make a claim. All the incentives are a mishmash.
More, the EC mostly provides services to the Convention, not the churches. It organizes meetings and committees for the Annual Meeting. It reports news. It owns an office building used by other entities. It does provide PR materials for the Cooperative program, but not directly to churches. A database, however, is a service to Christians and churches, more than for other entities of the SBC.
For all these reasons, if Baptists want to really explore this idea, it should happen separately from the Executive Committee.
The ERLC, however, has a long history in developing resources in this area, especially in the past few years. Most Baptists will trust it on this issue. And all four of the ERLC’s ministry assignments begin with “Assist[ing] churches.” The ERLC helps churches apply moral and ethical teachings, helps them communicate in the public area, and helps churches in their moral witness. And the ERLC’s ministry of helping churches promote religious liberty is relevant to the First Amendment right of churches to share information about ministerial qualification with each other.
The Convention defines the ministries of its entities.
Yet the SBC Bylaws call for open communication between the Executive Committee and Trustees, and for them to study and make recommendations to the Convention. While it may be possible to go straight to the SBC with such a request, the most natural place to turn is for the ERLC’s Trustees to ask the EC to cooperate with it in making and recommending an expansion of the ERLC’s ministry statement to include: “To assist the churches by offering them a confidential method of communicating to each other concerning concerns about fitness for service in the churches or SBC entities.”
This would require some reallocation in the Cooperative Program, or else outside funding. Hopefully, if the ministry statement is approved, plans would be in place for consideration of reallocation at the 2023 SBC Annual Meeting.
If you have thoughts or comments on what the motion should look like, please comment below.tags: