The reckoning of the Lord
The Southern Baptist Convention faces the truth
“It happened, when king Hezekiah heard it, that he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the LORD’s house” (Isaiah 37:1).
I am writing this essay in one of the most difficult moments ever experienced by my beloved denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Considering the historical roots of the SBC, that is quite a statement, but it is true. It is a moment long in coming and it is not over.
Yesterday afternoon, the report produced by the investigative firm Guidepost Solutions concerning sexual abuse in the SBC was released to the public. Along with everyone else, I saw it yesterday for the first time. The report was produced as an independent investigation of sexual abuse in the SBC and the handling of abuse accusations by the denomination’s Executive Committee. The report is devastating, heartbreaking, and infuriating.
Why am I writing this essay? I am not a neutral or independent observer. I am president of the SBC’s oldest institution and I have been involved in the leadership of the denomination for 35 years. I am also the editor of WORLD Opinions and I speak daily on my podcast, The Briefing, about how Christians should understand issues and events from a Christian worldview. Others, writing with greater distance from these issues and from outside SBC leadership, will certainly address this report and its consequences. But, given my responsibilities and roles, not writing this essay would feel like cowardice and dereliction of duty.
The first truth that must be spoken is the heartbreaking fact that many precious individuals, made in God’s image, have been victimized by pastors, ministers, teachers, volunteer leaders, and others within the context of the local church and denominational ministries. Women, children, and young people have been particularly harmed. Some of their stories are included (and their accusations are documented) in this report. One of the recurring revelations in the report is a resistance on the part of many leaders to see sexual abuse as abuse and all abuse as sin. That may well reveal a theological problem, rooted in a neglect of the Bible’s teachings on sin and its deceptiveness.
Every single one of these sex abuse survivors deserved protection, but experienced predation. Every cry for help deserved to be heard, but many were not heard. Worse, some were denied and uninvestigated. Shockingly enough, at least some staff members were compiling a list of offenders. Evidently, they did nothing with it. Among at least some officials, there was an organized attempt to suppress the truth or to deny it. All this is now documented for anyone to read.
A second truth is that horrible evil and serious crimes are often hidden within religious contexts precisely because the same contexts provide opportunity and camouflage. One of the big lessons of the investigation is that much more must be done to educate Christians about how to prevent abuse and how to deal with reports when they arise—and in a sinful world, they will arise. The report sets out specific proposals for SBC action and recommendations for churches. There is no human possibility that the SBC will be able to deal with all the recommendations by the time the convention assembles for its annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., next month, but the time for action has clearly arrived.
A third truth is that there is truly shocking material in the report. One former SBC president is accused, with documentation, of sexual abuse. I can’t imagine an informed SBC figure who is not shocked by that specific revelation. Without this independent investigation, would we ever have known?
Throughout the report, there is solid documentation of matters handled wrongly and wounded people treated badly. Some questions remain unanswered and investigations are to be pushed further.
Fourth, the world will be watching how Southern Baptists handle this report and the moral burden of sexual abuse as they gather in Anaheim. If there are factual corrections to be made, let them be made. But the weight of truth calls for repentance, broken-hearted concern, and a concerted determination to make things right. We will not get—and will not deserve—a second chance at this.
This report is about one specific denominational entity, but it is the Executive Committee of the SBC, after all, and thus central to the convention’s work. Recommendations extend to every work of the convention and every entity. Moving ahead will require elected leadership ready to guide Southern Baptists through difficult decisions and necessary actions. No one should underestimate the scale of that challenge.
Southern Baptists must see this report as part of a reckoning that will reveal God’s wrath, but also His mercy, each in rightful proportion. Some see this report as an opportunity to condemn the SBC and to castigate its churches, members, and leaders as implacably opposed to dealing with this challenge with grace, truth, compassion, and the power of the gospel. I don’t believe that is so. It was the SBC that demanded that this investigation be done.
Truth is, this report shows Southern Baptists in the worst light. We have to face that fact. But I must move ahead with the confidence, based on long experience, that faithful Southern Baptist laypeople, pastors, and denominational leaders will do the right thing, once they know what that right thing is.
This is a moment for sackcloth and ashes. That is where we have to start. The gospel of Christ makes clear that’s not where the story can end. But we are going to be wearing sackcloth for some time to come.
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