Southern Baptists and the SATF Report

Uncategorized // June 5, 2022 //

A few days from now Southern Baptists will gather together in Anaheim, CA for their annual meeting on June 14-15. As a Southern Baptist pastor, I’ve always looked forward to this perennial occasion. I enjoy connecting with friends and colleagues, hearing ministerial reports from across the country, and my favorite of all—seeing the commissioning of dozens of new missionaries at the IMB sending celebration. Those enjoyments aside, I attend the annual meeting for one real reason: to serve as a sent messenger of a local church, Coats Baptist. Decisions are made by those who show up. So, when votes are cast, I intend on being in the room.

At last year’s meeting in Nashville, TN messengers called for an independent investigation of alleged sexual abuse across the convention. A sexual abuse task force (SATF) was nominated who then contracted Guidepost Solutions to conduct a third-party investigation. There have been rumblings of such abuse for many years, but little formal action had been taken. Thankfully, that changed. But, the findings that ensued from the investigation were not good. On Sunday afternoon May 22 the Guidepost Solutions released their report to the public. The report cites grievous incidents of sexual abuse along with the intentional concealment of many claims.

Sexual abuse is a terrible assault against another human being. I am grieved, embarrassed, confused and angry—all at the same time—at the news of such actions committed. My heart hurts for the victims shouldering the indescribable and indefinite pain that such experience is sure to cause. I’m emotionally upside down at the thought of such moral travesties coming to light within such a gospel espousing denomination as the SBC. All the while, I am infuriated at the down-right gall that some leaders have displayed in their moral manipulation and shady coverup of these allegations all in the name of chauvinistic self-preservation. Such a behavior is beyond reproach for any person, especially those who carry the mantle of spiritual leadership before God and a watching world.

The news has been met with a flurry of responses. Leaders of state conventions, for example, have rightly respondedwith lament and repentance. Our own NC Baptist State Convention president Todd Unzicker rightly said, “People won’t trust our gospel if they don’t trust that they can be safe in our sanctuaries.” Our SBC entity leaders have done the same. Helpful articles have been written, such as the piece by Griffin Gulledge published by the The Gospel Coalition. I would encourage you to survey trusted resources such as Baptist Press to stay up to date with the news across our convention.

Having processed a week’s worth of news, and with the knowledge that there are many details surely yet undisclosed, I’d like to offer a few collected thoughts. I want to speak as a shepherd to sheep, thinking pastorally as we all should in such a time of crisis. You as a local church deserve to hear from your lead pastor. But I want to speak to my fellow Southern Baptists. We have problems, some below the surface of the present scandal, others adjacent to it.

1. We are suffering in part from self-inflicted wounds.

We know pastors are also broken men, and the devil roars like a lion (1 Peter 5:8). But these are age-old known quantities, neither of which deserve our concerned attention at this juncture. What is of concern is that Southern Baptists have a reputation for building churches on and around a pastor. In short, poor polity. They have thought more highly of the pastor than they do the pastoral office. As a result, bad things are bound to happen when churches are built on the personalities and performances of men.

In sum, many of our wounds are self-inflicted. The moral failure of pastors has been exacerbated by the poor polity structures within our churches. Such a pastor-centered polity creates an environment to marginalize the weak and idolize the strong. When crises come, the temptation is to self-preserve—both the pastor and the organization. And that is exactly what we have seen from both our largest churches and strongest entities. Actions show that we have been more concerned with protecting our names, brands and churches than we have exalting the grace of God in the gospel.

Just as we cannot legislate morality, church polity does not fix everything. However, a more biblical polity of elder plurality does create a more favorable context for accountability, which gives space for confession and restoration among church leaders. The lack of accountability, however, that is known among many pastor-centered models is a two-edged sword: It first elevates the pastor to a kingship status only known by him. This opens him up to all sorts of thorns and snares. But secondly, it isolates him to be alone with his sin, hiding in fear and shame. Over time, such double toxicity pollutes every corner of the church, creating one primed for scandal. Polity matters. Did I mention the lion?

2. Churches must double-down on their culture of protection and care.

We are in the people business. And as the people of God, seeking to reach people in a lost world, the local church should be the safest place on the planet. Full stop. People are messy, and their mess, therefore, must meet a gospel order and comfort when confronted by a gospel community. We of all people must bring trust to the table if we will ever reach them with the gospel. Without a platform of trust, there is little chance for any substantive ministry.

Proper policy is the first level of protection. There is absolutely no excuse to operate a ministry without a rule book. As the saying goes, “Have it in print before you have it in person.” Create the policy, activate the procedure, follow the protocol. High expectations for those who serve in official ministry capacities will instill a level of trust among the congregation as a whole. Just ask the mothers of young children.

However, we cannot paperwork our way into safety. No amount of policy will stop people from sin or stupidity. And here lies the more pressing issue in our churches—culture. As Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That’s true in the business world, but also in the church world. Sex abuse in the church is not a tangible problem that can be fixed. It’s not a leaking roof needing repair. No, instead it is spiritually intangible.

Churches must look in the mirror and ask themselves: Is there a culture of care among us? We know that the evidence of care goes far beyond a codified church document. Yes, churches should install policies and reform as needed. But it is the heart culture of the people that will set the temperature in the church. What do people sense when they walk into our facilities? What do people glean from overhearing hallway conversations? What do the components of the worship service tell about church values? What do people hear when they listen to us pray? These are all questions for the people to answer. They do so with their commitment to gospel ministry, their love for people, their manner of life, and with every “hello” and handshake they give on Sunday. It starts with the man behind the pulpit.

3. There is hope for the abused and for Southern Baptists.

We must believe the gospel. Only Christ can cure the pain of the abused and the sin of Southern Baptists. The gospel makes us all whole again.

For the abused, there is hope. We serve a God who puts the pieces back together again. He can restore the past and heal the pain. For sinners and the victims of sin, there is a refuge in the Lord Jesus (Prov. 18:10). He has an otherworldly ministry of restoration to which we must point the abused. NC Baptist leadership set the example recently in their praying for the abused and pledging to take action.

There is also hope for the Southern Baptist Convention. Hope found not in analysis or apologies, but biblical repentance and restoration. Genuine contrition of heart will not be a self-defense campaign, but the renunciation of sinful behavior and earnest action steps for repair. The issue at hand is not the protection of the SBC, but the victims of sex abuse. Christ did not die for a denomination, but for a people, some of which have been casualties of tragic assault. They deserve our attention, care, response and ministry. The Lord Jesus said of himself, “I am gentle and lowly in heart,” (Matt. 11:29). May we mimic our Lord in our care for those bruised by sin and sinners.

Southern Baptists will have a chance to do so next week as they gather in Anaheim.

I do believe we as a convention of churches will respond rightly with a biblical conscience and conviction. Motions matter and so do messengers, and by God’s grace a constituency from Coats Baptist will be on the convention floor with ballots in hand. Again, decisions are made by people who show up, and we plan to be in the room.

As we approach our time in Anaheim, we must keep our denominational affiliation in proper perspective. We are followers of Jesus, first and alone. Christ does not call us to be Baptists, Southern Baptists, or to place ourselves under any denominational label, such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Denominations are created by churches, for churches, of churches. To be in denominational partnership with other believers is God’s gracious accommodation to us to aid in missional impact. We are better together. That said, we do not need a denomination, but we are glad to be a part of one. My Baptist convictions, to be frank, run deeper and wider than the Southern Baptist Convention—yet I am happy to call it home. Denominational affiliation is to be a reflection of convictions, manifestations of religious liberty, and nothing else. In short, and not to be grim, if this turns south, I will not go down with the ship nor lead you to do so either.

However, I don’t think we are there. I said last week publicly, “I am not through with the Southern Baptist Convention, yet.” There is hope, and I do believe messengers will do the right thing. Furthermore, I speak for Coats Baptist in that we are glad to be a Southern Baptist church and wish to remain as such. Space fails me to speak of the benefits of being in cooperation with such a great group of gospel-minded, mission-focused churches. As grievous as the recent reports have been, I am confident that there are scores of churches and leaders throughout the convention who are serving with integrity and making and multiplying disciples with eternal impact. We are proud to be numbered among them.

Pray for the abused; pray for the annual meeting next week on June 14-15.

I close with the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness,” (Lam. 3:22-23).

About Neal Thornton