As a young boy growing up in Southern Baptist churches, I was taught to save my pennies to give each Christmas and Easter to two missions offerings named to honor two Baptist women, Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. Those offerings are a small testimony to the beauty of our convention.
Sixteen million Southern Baptists stand together on the inerrancy of God’s word while setting aside other differences to collectively fund the largest missionary sending agency in the history of Christianity, church planting in North America and six of the largest seminaries in the world. These are all sources of pride and part of what it meant to be a Southern Baptist.
But after the long-awaited report on the mishandling of sexual abuse by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, being Southern Baptist means something different.
There have long been warning signs for the SBC. Concerns have been repeatedly raised. So at the 2021 Nashville Convention, messengers (delegates made up of pastors and members from local SBC churches) approved a task force to supervise an independent investigation into how sexual abuse allegations were handled by the SBC’s Executive Committee (our denomination’s executive leadership structure). The inquiry, conducted by Guidepost Solutions, investigated the actions and decisions of Executive Committee staff and members over a period of 20-plus years from Jan. 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021.
On Sunday, May 22, the report was released to the public. It opens with a 15-page summary, followed by 250+ pages of substantiating evidence from documents, emails, interviews and more. Instead of the heartwarming image of churches in our Convention taking the good news to the world, the report tells the dark story of victims and children coming to leaders for help and finding only harm. Underneath our mission to go to the nations, a rotten bureaucracy told victims, “Go away, and be quiet.”
In the report, former SBC president and beloved former megachurch pastor, Johnny Hunt (at the time, the North American Mission Board’s senior vice president of evangelism and leadership), is accused of sexually assaulting the wife of a pastor he mentored. Within minutes of the report’s publication, news of his resignation was made public. On a typical day, this news alone would shake the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. On this day, it’s one horror preceding hundreds more.
The report details how a law firm repeatedly instructed Executive Committee staff members not to help or even respond to abuse victims (p. 4). Longtime Executive Committee General Counsel and later Interim Executive Committee President Augie Boto refers to two female abuse victims as “opportunistic” and “professional victim[s]” (pp. 5–6). He describes their advocacy on behalf of other abuse victims as a “satanic scheme.” Boto’s active work against efforts to assist victims regularly features in the report. The report reveals that while working against sexual abuse reforms, Boto testified on behalf of a child molester as a character witness (p. 7).
The report details how abuse victims called for reforms and crafted plans for a centralized sexual abuse database for the Convention over 15 years ago. Leaders rejected the plan. In itself, that’s a scandal. But those same Executive Committee leaders saw the need for a database so clearly that they created one for themselves internally, collecting records of over 700 abusers in the span of a decade. Instead of using this report to protect the vulnerable in SBC churches, they kept it private to protect themselves in the case of lawsuits.
Throughout the report it’s clear that Southern Baptist leaders have used the Convention for their own power, position, and profit. Lawyers and leaders feared “ascending liability” — putting money designated for missions at risk by establishing public databases or mechanisms for accountability between autonomous SBC entities (like the Executive Committee) and autonomous churches. Yet the behavior detailed in the report shows little regard for the greater liability those who mistreat victims will incur when they stand face-to-face at the final judgment with the Lord who loves the abused (Matt. 18:6; John 5:27–29).
Today, Southern Baptists are feeling many things: grief, pain, disgust, horror, shame and rage. In other words, Southern Baptists are getting just a taste of what abuse victims have felt for decades as they suffered in silence, maligned and neglected by the ones who should have offered them help. Online, men and women from SBC churches are clearly horrified at what they’ve read. What can we do?
Here are four recommendations for how Southern Baptists, and all Christians, can respond to this report.
1. Don’t look away.
In moments like these, we’re all tempted to say, “This doesn’t pertain to me.” We’re tempted to ask, “Is that my problem?” It’s an echo of the excuse spoken east of Eden: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). The answer to that question was always yes. So much mistreatment and abuse has happened because Baptists refused to look, refused to learn, and refused to listen. Undoubtedly, this is painful. But as light pours into a dark place, don’t shut your eyes or refuse to see. Educate yourself on the plight of the abused. Read the report. Learn to help.
2. Don’t downplay.
Some will be tempted to say, “This is just a few bad apples,” or, “Most of that was in the past.” Humility requires us to honestly admit, “We have no clue how much of this continues now.” This report, limited in scope, is the first word on abuse in our convention, not the last. More will come out.
A similar scandal destroyed the witness and reputation of the Roman Catholic Church. Page 58 of the report documents how Father Thomas Doyle wrote to SBC leaders in March 2007. He expressed his concerns that SBC leaders could be falling into some of the same patterns as Catholic leaders in not dealing with clergy sex abuse, and he urged that Southern Baptists should learn from Catholic mistakes by taking action early on to implement structural reforms. Sadly, his warning was dismissed by SBC leaders. The priest responded that such reactions are “standard for people in church leadership positions, who tend to place the needs of the institution before their Christian obligations.”
We cannot continue to dismiss warnings. We must learn humility and stop pretending this is overblown.
3. Don’t be silent.
We must listen and learn. We must also speak up. A source of clear pain throughout the report is how often abuse victims stood alone as they fought for reforms. If we read this report and cannot find our voice, how are we any different from those in James 2:16 who say, “Be warmed and filled!” and then refuse to give food and clothing?
4. Don’t walk away.
This last point is directed to my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters rather than Christians at large. Many of you are likely ready to walk away at this point. But who are you walking away from? We now know that our leaders, our money and our institutions hurt people. Can we say with a clear conscience, “I’m done”? At this moment when justice cries out, dare we walk away? This is the hour to speak up, to refuse to yield, to fight for the justice and mercy God requires of us. To walk away from the SBC now is to walk away from victims. To walk away now is to walk away from our responsibility.
The Guidepost report closes with important recommendations, all of which will receive serious consideration as SBC messengers prepare to meet for the 2022 Southern Baptist Convention in Anaheim. At that meeting, the Sexual Abuse Task Force will be allotted time to bring these recommendations — and perhaps others — to the Convention floor. My prayer is that Baptists will live up to the inerrant Word we believe in and find the resolve to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord (Col. 1:10), no matter the cost. God help us.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This article originally appeared at thegospelcoalition.org and is republished with permission. Griffin Gulledge is originally from Alabama and grew up at NorthPark Baptist Church in Trussville. He is a graduate of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham and currently serves as pastor of Madison Baptist Church in Madison, Georgia.