From the Desk of Dr. Michael Wren:
Many of you are aware of media reports about a sexual abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention. In moments like this, we are obligated by God to carefully consider the truth and respond in a godly manner. Let me detail for you briefly some of the relevant facts. In June of 2021, at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Nashville, which Angela and I attended, the convention voted to commission an investigation by an independent firm, Guidepost Solutions, into the actions of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee related to sexual abuse reporting. (The Executive Committee of the SBC consists of a full time leadership team and representatives appointed by each State Convention).
A couple of factors motivated this. First, frustration had been mounting for a number of years at what was viewed as inaction on the part of the Executive Committee to improve its response to the survivors of sexual abuse and the churches that still harbor abusers. Despite talk of change and efforts to promote change, little was being done. Second, immediately preceding last year’s convention, a major conflict erupted between the Executive Committee and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Convention’s public policy arm, specifically over differences about how to handle this issue. In the wake of that embarrassing conflagration (there’s not a better word for it) messengers from our churches showed up to Nashville motivated and angry. The independent review, which was later contracted to Guidepost Solutions, was commissioned by a large majority of messengers. The report from Guidepost Solutions was released on Sunday, which is why there is so much media attention. It is filled with troubling details revealing a pattern of stonewalling and deflection on the part of SBC leaders, particularly the leadership staff of the Executive Committee in Nashville, toward both abuse survivors and efforts to achieve greater transparency as a Convention. Let me digest for you a few key insights from the report:
- The Executive Committee’s legal counsel from 1966-2021 consistently advised them to avoid involvement with sexual abuse survivors and churches that employ abusers in order to limit legal liability. The report summarized on page 192: “Overall, the legal advice focused on liability created a chilling effect on the ability of the EC to be compassionate towards survivors of abuse. Survivors were always viewed through the lens of potential plaintiffs threatening lawsuits, rather than as individuals who had been harmed and were in need of care.” The legal firm used by the Convention resigned in advance of this investigation, but did cooperate with them. In addition, all the senior leadership of the Executive Committee resigned as well. The report details the stories of numerous abuse survivors who were frustrated, stonewalled, shamed, or ignored over the years by the Executive Committee.
- The Executive Committee voiced consistent concern about respecting the autonomy of the local church. When requests were made for action, Executive Committee leadership usually referenced the reality that each of our churches are autonomous. No agency could persuade churches to take action against an abuser. This is undoubtedly the reality, but local church autonomy must not be a shield behind which we hide to avoid doing what we can when it might prove unpopular with some.
- The Executive Committee leadership, including the President, Vice President, and certain other full time employees were primarily culpable. The committee members appointed by state conventions who submitted themselves to interview consistently reported that they were not informed about most of what went on. The evidence Guidepost uncovered seemed to corroborate that.
- The report related an abuse allegation against one key leader, former SBC President and—until last Friday—Vice President of Evangelism at the North American Mission Board, Johnny Hunt. The report was detailed, explicit, and disturbing. This allegation was unknown to the North American Mission Board and to virtually everyone within the SBC. Albert Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for the last 29 years, says in an editorial for World Magazine, “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?” Hunt is no longer employed by NAMB.
The report is greatly detailed, and these four bullet points are the best I can do to briefly summarize it.
You might ask, “Where do we go from here?” The Executive Committee has already met to take preliminary action, and you can be assured that the SBC meeting in Anaheim next month will take further action. In short, the Convention will be balancing the reality of local church autonomy with the responsibility to bring light to the continued work of abusers within our churches. Abuse survivors deserve better.
Let me close with three short admonitions:
- Prioritize the truth. We cannot afford to be afraid of the truth or hide from it. Part of what motivated silence on the part of the EC was a fear that the truth of what had happened in some of these circumstances would alienate some Southern Baptists. Cooperation without truth and transparency is a conspiracy. Our Lord deserves better than that from us.
- Pray for persistence and wisdom. We have hard work ahead as a convention. Leadership at every level—national, state, associational, and local churches—must do hard work laying out policy, enforcing policy, and prioritizing truth and compassion. We need the Lord’s guidance and we need to stay at this.
- Don’t jump ship. We cannot create change if we hide, live in a fantasy world of our own creation, or leave the Convention. A culture change is badly needed. The time has come, but the churches of the SBC must face this together.
As members of Hephzibah Baptist Church, please know that we have a Child Protection Policy, screened workers, and accountability at every level. We have a culture of transparency and compassion here. We need to cooperate with our SBC partners and pray for leaders as they navigate the difficult road ahead. Remember, we cooperate so we can reach the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are less effective alone.
May God continually give us grace as we seek His face,