SBC delegates move to rebuild broken trust
Supporters of an independent inquiry hope to make amends with sex abuse survivors
The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting this week in Nashville highlighted widespread distrust of the denomination’s Executive Committee to handle sexual abuse allegations that have plagued the denomination in recent years.
“Our process has been flawed,” said Pastor Troy Bush of Rehoboth Baptist Church in Tucker, Ga. He has investigated claims of abuse at his own church and become an advocate for survivors in recent years. He got involved in 2019 when a Houston Chronicle report named a former member of his church as an abuse victim. He told WORLD the SBC Executive Committee missed an opportunity to hold accountable the alleged abuser and the church where he worked.
Bush says the Executive Committee did not have an adequate process to handle abuse claims. “Even so, it should have been handled far differently than it was,” Bush said.
A recently approved investigation into the Executive Committee will consider its actions and decisions related to sexual abuse allegations between Jan. 1, 2000, and June 14, 2021. Delegates, known in the church as messengers, approved a motion Wednesday to give oversight of the investigation to a task force that the new SBC president, Alabama pastor Ed Litton, will appoint. The Executive Committee had already agreed to hire an outside firm to conduct the inquiry, but the motion makes the committee accountable to someone other than itself for what it does with the results.
“I believe the convention acted rightly in passing that motion,” Litton told WORLD. “You sensed it—there’s an overwhelming mood: People better pay attention. And I’m paying attention.”
Former Baptist leader Russell Moore, who recently resigned as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has accused the Executive Committee of intentionally stonewalling attempts to hold accountable abusers and churches that mishandle abuse allegations. Moore listed concerns about what he said were instances of committee members mistreating and intimidating abuse victims in a May 31 letter to J.D. Greear, Litton’s predecessor as president. A Baptist blog leaked the letter, leading the Executive Committee to hire Guidepost Solutions to conduct the investigation. Earlier this week, the committee rejected member Jared Wellman’s proposal to broaden the investigation’s scope.
Critics, including many survivors, claimed an outside task force was necessary to hold the committee accountable for the findings. As evidence, they pointed to how the Executive Committee handled cases such as that of Trinity Baptist Church in Ashburn, Ga. It was one of 10 congregations Greear asked the Executive Committee to review in February 2019 following the Houston Chronicle’s bombshell report.
Five days after Greear’s request, a bylaws workgroup made up of Executive Committee members announced it did not think Trinity “evidenced indifference” to sexual abuse, nor did it warrant further inquiry.
Meanwhile, Bush determined to conduct his own investigation since David Pittman, listed as a survivor in the Chronicle report, claimed to have been abused at Rehoboth. He started with a simple Google search and a series of inquiries, including speaking with Pittman.
Bush identified five boys who claimed they were molested by a former student minister in the early 1980s at Rehoboth. The minister went on to serve at other churches, including as a staff member at Trinity Baptist. The pastor at Trinity Baptist, Rodney Brown, said he fired the accused staff member in March 2019 and publicly repented for taking so long to do so even though he had known about the accusation for years.
“If we had not stepped forward and done things we felt we were obligated to do as a church involved in this case, I truly fear what the outcomes might have been and today that [the alleged abuser] might still be on staff,” Bush said.
The motion approved by SBC messengers on Wednesday includes an audit of the Credentials Committee, a nine-member group repurposed in June 2019 to identify congregations not acting in accord with Biblical standards and doctrine, especially with regard to racism or sexual abuse. The Credentials Committee reports to the Executive Committee on whether those churches should be “disfellowshipped” from the SBC.
The 86-member Executive Committee makes decisions for the SBC between its annual meetings of messengers. 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 committee’s authority. The committee 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.
Members of the both the Credentials and Executive committees have said SBC policies and the doctrine of church autonomy limit the ways in which they handle sexual abuse. Some survivors say the Credentials Committee has let them down.
Bush believes the role of the Credentials Committee must be examined and improved. He left the annual meeting hopeful. “There’s division, but also a growing unity not just on Scripture, but on walking with people who are marginalized and abused. There is a growing commitment to address this—and we’re going to get it right.”
Editor’s note: WORLD has corrected this report to reflect the dates of sexual abuse allegations the investigation into the Executive Committee would consider.