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By Terry Mattingly
Before the Southern Baptist Convention’s strong vote to approve what supporters called “bare minimum” sexual abuse reforms — with victims in the crowd weeping with relief — there was a strategic amendment to the recommendations.
Rather than stay with the independent Guidepost Solutions organization, the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force would seek to use “best practices in keeping with Southern Baptist church polity,” while a “Ministry Check” website tracking those “credibly accused” of abuse would be “established and maintained by an independent contractor.”
Before the vote, activist, attorney and #ChurchToo abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander pleaded: “Institutions must be held accountable. It doesn’t matter who they are. Justice and truth are always what we should pursue.”
Afterwards, she posted another challenge on Twitter: “It is the first, most basic steps. But it is a testament to the survivors who fought so long and so hard. I am grateful. Now let’s keep working.”
That work will depend on the cooperation of pastors and church leaders in the SBC’s 47,000 local churches, as well as the administrators and trustees of agencies, boards, seminaries and other institutions at the state and national levels.
The bottom line: In Southern Baptist “polity” — with sprawling structures of autonomous congregations that, to varying degrees, fund state, national and global ministries — there are no leadership structures resembling local Presbyterian presbyteries, regional annual conferences among United Methodists or the powerful diocesan structures of Catholics, Episcopalians and others. Local churches ordain, hire and fire clergy.
Outsiders often struggle to understand the theological and practical implications of Baptist polity, said Thomas Kidd, who teaches church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Baylor University.
“Many people continue to think that the SBC can make its churches do this or that or the other, and that simply isn’t true,” he said.
Southern Baptists do have regional associations that help build and support missions and churches, he noted, but these “associations don’t ordain Southern Baptist clergy — churches do. Associations don’t own property or have any money to deal with — churches do. Our local churches will have to choose to take part in efforts to address these painful issues.”
In other #ChurchToo abuse scandals, including decades of Catholic controversies, survivors have sued regional and national structures with large budgets, trusts, property and insurance policies. With Southern Baptists, the focus will be on claims against local churches, many of them small, and SBC institutions. So far, most of the attention has centered on the actions of the SBC’s 86-member executive committee, which conducts business on behalf of the national convention when it is not in session, such as this year’s gathering of local church “messengers” in Anaheim, California.
Many observers, even longtime Southern Baptists, keep asking a blunt question: “Who runs this place?”
“Who actually has the power in the SBC? You could say the 567 trustees, 12 Agency Presidents/CEOs, 1 SBC President, 130 on the nominations committee & committee on committees. And that’s it. By my rough count (and I might be off a little) that’s 710 total people,” argued the Rev. Jimmy Scroggins of the Family Church network based in West Palm Beach, Florida.
But the reality is more complex, he noted in a lengthy series of tweets addressed to anyone trying to understand SBC news this past week.
“You want to impact the direction of the SBC?” he asked. “You want better oversight or responses or attitudes or tone? Unless you are an agency Prez, a committee appointee or a trustee, there is really only one way you do it: Become a credentialed messenger from your SBC church, make the trip to the SBC annual meeting and vote for your preferred candidate for President. Rinse. Repeat. Every year.”
The ultimate question, Kidd concluded, is whether church structures can convince shepherds in pulpits and pews to confront sins and crimes inside their own flocks.
“It comes down to people who are in authority — whether that’s in denominations or in local churches. … That’s true for Catholic leaders, Southern Baptist leaders or anyone else,” he said.
Southern Baptists will “have to confront this simple fact — that there is a long history of some of our leaders failing to deal with cases of sexual abuse. That’s hard. Facing that will take honesty and strong leadership.”