What Southern Baptists Must Learn from The Sexual Abuse Crisis

Several of you have asked me to comment on the bombshell report of sexual misconduct in the Southern Baptist Convention. I’ve been waiting to comment until I had something to add to the conversation. I weep with the victims of these crimes, and I am furious that this has happened in my own theological and denominational backyard. It’s time to clean house. Beyond that, the most important takeaway is this: this didn’t happen by accident, and almost all of the blame falls on our leaders. It’s obviously true that the guilt for these crimes rests on the offenders themselves, but this didn’t have to be a crisis. It didn’t have to be a nationwide problem with multiple repeat offenders.

1. This happened because we have refused to preach the wrath of God.

It’s not a coincidence that great evil often overlaps with the teaching that we should not fear God. Modern pastors insist that we should replace “fear” with “respect.” I obviously agree that we should respect God, but there’s no way to read the Old Testament especially (but also significant portions of the New Testament) without the recognition that God is an Avenger Who punishes the wicked. I’m speaking very carefully here: Avenging evil and punishing the wicked isn’t only what God does; it is who He is.

The result is that we have millions of Christians in America (many of them Southern Baptist) who do not fear God. They do not live with the awareness that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Are we really surprised that such great evils persist?

2. This happened because we have refused to publicly rebuke Elders who sin.

It’s astonishing how much suffering is the result of a simple refusal to do what Scripture plainly commands. In this case, we have a clear and unmistakable word:

Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. (I Timothy 5)

When was the last time you saw an elder be rebuked in public? Have you ever seen it? Even once? At the risk of piling on, I would point out that these verses also contain that pesky fear word again. We have created a situation where pastors who don’t fear God are preaching to their congregation that they don’t need to fear God either. What did we think was going to happen?

We also need to emphasize the public nature of these commanded rebukes. It’s probably true that not all of the 380 church leaders indicted in this report committed criminal offenses. But all of them sinned. And the other churches in those communities deserved to know the truth. But instead of obeying God, we have an established pattern in America of allowing leaders to resign quietly, with no one the wiser. That’s the sort of cowardice that enables abuse.

3. This happened because we have tried to handle criminal offenses in-house.

If you’re a pastor and you think you can administer justice better than the magistrate, I have two words for you: too bad. You are a pastor, and you have not been given the sword. The magistrate has been given the sword to punish the evildoer (Romans 13).

Let him do it.

4. This happened because we have minimized, accepted, and leveled sin. Especially sexual sin.

Much ink has already been spilled on the fact that America never could have accepted gay mirage without our churches first accepting divorce. If you stop treating marriage as sacred when no-fault divorce happens, you can’t suddenly start again when the practitioners of degrading passions want to get in on the action. The bottom line is that the church in America has made peace with the breaking of marriage vows, and has largely refused to excommunicate anyone, for any reason.

The perfect example of this phenomenon was a recent sermon by Southern Baptist Convention President JD Greear. It’s obviously true that this crisis preceded his ascendency in the denominational hierarchy, but this sermon encapsulates the broader problem we face.

In this sermon, Greear insisted that the Bible “whispers” about sexual sin and “shouts” about materialism and religious pride. With friends like these, who needs enemies? What more could an abuser possibly want to hear more than “your sin is comparatively insignificant. It’s those prideful people who are really the problem.” What did we think was going to happen, when our leaders say such outrageous things?

It is at this point the defenders of JD Greear (and pastors like him) will exclaim “he wasn’t trying to tolerate, protect, or downplay sexual abuse!” And they’re right. I grant that point immediately and without controversy. But what they don’t understand is that sin always gives you more than you bargained for. If you soft pedal the Bible’s teaching on sexual sin, you don’t get to say “this far, and no further.” If you tolerate one kind of sexual sin, you don’t have the power to stop other kinds from popping up. The Bible says that sin gives birth to death. This means that we don’t get the option of having the sin, without getting the death. The death is coming as an inescapable consequence of harboring the sin.

The leveling of sin is also a problem here. As it turns out, when you allow the worst sinners to say “you’re just as bad as me,” that makes it a lot easier for them to keep sinning. Why admit that you’ve hit rock bottom when you’ve been given the rhetorical and theological tools to pull everyone else down to your level?

If we want to stop the tidal wave of sexual sin, we have to start proclaiming what God says. God says that if a man sins sexually, he has sinned against his own body. He has defiled himself. God says that there are greater sins. God says that some sins can only be brought to justice if the offender is executed. How many pastors have the guts to preach these clear teachings of Scripture?

About as many as have the guts to stop an abuser.

As we weep with those who are weeping, let’s also pray that our pastors would gird up their loins. Pray that God would strengthen these men to act like men. To be strong. To wage war against sin. Pray that our leaders would fight like their lives depended on it.

Because someone’s life really does.

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