A question of authority—and accountability
A heated debate over how to handle charges of sexual abuse confronts the Southern Baptists’ annual meeting
By 2019, Jules Woodson felt like she had exhausted her options for holding accountable church officials who she says mishandled her claims of sexual abuse as a teen. Soon after a sexual encounter with her youth pastor in 1998—she was 17, he was 22—she reported what happened to the associate pastor of her church, Woodlands Parkway Baptist in The Woodlands, Texas. Then she watched, dismayed, as the youth pastor, Andy Savage, moved on to another Baptist church in Tennessee and carried on a successful career in ministry.
Woodson went public with her story in January 2018, motivated in part by the #MeToo movement. She also filed a police report, but prosecutors told her the statute of limitations had passed. Savage admitted publicly he had an inappropriate relationship with Woodson, apologized publicly to her, and resigned as teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tenn. Larry Cotton, the associate pastor to whom Woodson reported the incident, stepped down from his position at Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas, and issued a statement apologizing for how he handled the incident. (WORLD left phone and text messages for Cotton and did not receive a response.)
But at Woodlands Parkway Baptist, now known as StoneBridge Church, the senior pastor from Woodson’s teen years was (and is) still in charge.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting next week in Nashville, Tenn., comes amid an increasingly heated debate about how the denomination is handling cases such as Woodson’s. At the center of the debate is the Credentials Committee, whose members have said SBC policies and the denomination’s doctrine of church autonomy limit the ways in which they can respond to sexual abuse.
Woodson began dealing with the Credentials Committee shortly after the SBC at its June 2019 annual meeting repurposed the committee to field complaints against churches. It seemed to Woodson like a new opportunity to hold StoneBridge accountable. Woodson says in 1998 Cotton urged her not to discuss the incident with anyone, not even her parents, and she says senior Pastor Steve Bradley was complicit with that approach. Woodson felt Bradley had never taken responsibility for how the church handled the incident, including failing to report the alleged abuse to the police.
(Shortly after Woodson went public, Bradley issued a statement denying a cover up and defending how the church handled the incident. “We were heartbroken 20 years ago when this happened, and we remain heartbroken for Jules, her family, and all those impacted,” he said. WORLD attempted to contact Bradley at his church via phone and email and received no response.)
The Credentials Committee decided not to recommend action against StoneBridge because the church had “taken significant and extensive steps to improve policies, practices, and procedures to better serve their people,” the committee said in an email to Woodson. “It was what I felt like was my last resort for the SBC to do the right thing,” she told WORLD.
Last week, a Baptist blog published a letter from a former SBC leader, Russell Moore, to J.D. Greear, the elected president of the convention, accusing other leaders of intentionally stonewalling efforts to hold accountable abusers and the churches that mishandled abuse claims. “You know well the obstacles that both you and I faced from figures within the Executive Committee in merely raising questions about sexual abuse,” wrote Moore, who until June 1 was president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the public policy arm of the SBC. Greear confirmed the letter’s authenticity in a statement Monday and said it was meant to be private correspondence.
The Executive Committee has 86 seats for elected members tasked with making decisions for the SBC between its annual meetings of “messengers” or delegates from local churches. The doctrine of church autonomy, which Baptists believe is based on the Biblical teaching that Jesus Christ is the only head of the church, limits the Executive Committee’s authority. It manages the SBC’s budget and allocates it to churchwide ministries such as the ERLC and other cooperating organizations. It can also vote to declare a church out of fellowship with the convention if that church does not follow Biblical and doctrinal standards.
Some members of the Executive Committee are pastors, professors, and theologians. Many are lay people. Some have called for reforms to the way the SBC addresses sexual abuse in churches, while others have defended the denomination and resisted change. The Executive Committee also has a paid staff that includes a CEO, other executives, and accounting and communications professionals.
Since Moore’s letter to Greear became public, other communications between Executive Committee members and staffers have surfaced. In one 2019 email, Augie Boto, who was then general counsel for the Executive Committee, cautioned against changing the denominational structure of the SBC, saying sexual abuse allegations should be addressed by local churches.
“This whole thing should be seen for what it is,” Boto wrote. “It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.” Boto retired from the Executive Committee staff later that year. Moore specifically mentioned Boto in his letter as someone who tried to obstruct reforms, along with Executive Committee CEO Ronnie Floyd and member Mike Stone, a pastor in Georgia who is running for SBC president at next week’s meeting.
Both Floyd and Stone issued statements expressing support for survivors of sexual abuse (Stone says he, too, is a survivor) and defending their actions. Stone called Moore’s accusations slanderous and ungodly. Floyd pointed to his work to establish the purpose of the Credentials Committee in 2019 as evidence of his commitment. On Friday, the Executive Committee announced it had “hired Guidepost Solutions to conduct an independent review of its processes as they relate to the recent accusations of the inappropriate handling of sexual abuse claims alleged by Dr. Russell Moore.”
A bombshell Houston Chronicle report in February 2019 brought concerns about the SBC’s handling of sexual abuse claims into the spotlight. The report included a database of more than 200 people convicted of sexual abuse who served as Southern Baptist church volunteers or officials. At the June 2019 annual meeting, the SBC adopted a constitutional amendment giving its Executive Committee the power to kick churches out of the convention for mishandling sexual abuse claims. The repurposed Credentials Committee would make recommendations for disfellowshipping churches that did not act in accord with Biblical standards and doctrine, especially with regards to racism or sexual abuse. The nine-member Credentials Committee meets and functions independently of the Executive Committee, but it reports to the Executive Committee when it finds that a church should no longer be part of the SBC.
Rachael Denhollander, a well-known child sexual abuse survivor and attorney, made headlines in 2016 for exposing the widespread sexual abuse of competitive gymnasts. After coming forward with her own story of survival, she became a lightning rod for abuse survivors in the church. She and other advocates of abuse survivors say the SBC has not equipped the Credentials Committee members to adequately investigate and respond to the complaints it receives. She said improving how the SBC addresses sexual abuse complaints is “going involve the Executive Committee, and they are not talking to the people they need to be talking to. They are not seeking to learn, and that has been the problem all along, is leadership doesn’t seek to learn.”
Dee Ann Miller, a former Baptist missionary who says a ministry colleague sexually abused her in the 1980s, agreed. She left the mission field and the Baptist church but continues to work with abuse survivors.
“You need people who are experts in the field,” she said.
In January 2021, Miller met with the chairwoman and vice chairman of the Credentials Committee about Woodson’s case, hoping to persuade them to reexamine it.
Miller bemoaned the fact that the members of the committee “haven’t had one hour of training” in conducting sexual abuse investigations. WORLD asked Credentials Committee chairman Mike Lawson, a pastor from Sherman, Texas, about the training committee members received. He noted the committee is made up of volunteers who are in a “constant process of seeking greater knowledge and implementing recommendations all along the way. … When limitations are recognized, expertise beyond the committee is sought and utilized, including licensed counselors and legal experts.”
According to an FAQ the Credentials Committee provided to WORLD, investigating abuse claims isn’t part of the committee’s work.
“The Credentials Committee may make inquiries of a church, but may not exercise any authority over a church through an investigation or other process that would violate Article IV of the SBC Constitution,” the FAQ said. Article IV of the SBC Constitution states the convention has no authority over any Southern Baptist church or group.
If the Credentials Committee doesn’t investigate, what does it do? The FAQ said the committee receives complaints (it set up an online portal for submissions in 2019) and makes inquiries of the churches involved. Based on the information it gets from those sources, it considers whether the church “is in cooperation with the convention.” If the Credentials Committee decides against a church, it forwards a report to the Executive Committee, which can vote to disfellowship the church in question.
If the Credentials Committee does not recommend disfellowshipping a church, the complaint and any information related to it remain private. The committee would not disclose to WORLD how many reports it has received since it started fielding abuse complaints in 2019. In that time, it has recommended the Executive Committee disfellowship three churches because they employed registered sex offenders and two churches that accepted practicing homosexuals as members.
In an email to WORLD, Lawson emphasized the Credentials Committee looks at a church’s current practices, not past ones, when inquiring about complaints: “While in every instance of past harm we are deeply grieved, our specific assignment is to determine if a submitted church is currently in cooperation with the convention.”
The Credentials Committee’s decision about StoneBridge Church became publicly known when Woodson discussed it with news media. Woodson told WORLD the committee sent her an email thanking her for coming forward and applauding her for being an agent of change. The email, which WORLD reviewed a copy of, cited Article IV of the SBC Constitution, stating, “Neither our committee nor the Southern Baptist Convention has any authority over another Baptist body.”
Survivors advocates, including Denhollander, say the doctrine of church autonomy does not have to stand in the way of the SBC doing more to hold churches accountable for mishandling sexual abuse claims. At next week’s annual meeting, multiple people in the SBC—including some members of the Executive Committee—are expected to introduce resolutions to strengthen the convention’s response to the crisis.
“This can be done in a way that … does not violate Southern Baptist autonomy, preserves their theology, is legally sound and in accord with best standard practice,” Denhollander said.
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