Guest Post - Jim Denison
“This is the Southern Baptist Apocalypse”
This is how Russell Moore, who leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today and is a former Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) agency leader, is responding to a report now making global headlines.
The nearly three-hundred-page investigation was released yesterday afternoon. Christianity Today summarizes its findings: “Armed with a secret list of more than seven hundred abusive pastors, Southern Baptist leaders chose to protect the denomination from lawsuits rather than protect the people in their churches from further abuse.”
The report was a $2 million undertaking that involved 330 interviews and five terabytes of documents collected over eight months. It is the largest investigation in the Southern Baptist Convention’s 177-year history.
The report states, “When abuse allegations were brought to the EC [Executive Committee of the SBC], including allegations that convicted sex offenders were still in ministry, EC leaders generally did not discuss this information outside of their inner circle, often did not respond to the survivor, and took no action to address these allegations so as to prevent ongoing abuse or such abuse in the future.” Instead, “Almost always the internal focus was on protecting the SBC from legal liability and not on caring for survivors or creating any plan to prevent sexual abuse within SBC churches.”
Denison Ministries is nondenominational and thus not related to the Southern Baptist Convention. In addition, many of you are not Southern Baptists. As a result, I will not focus this morning on the specific findings of the report, which you can read for yourself, though we will likely discuss their significance further in the coming days.
For today, I want to think with you about two biblical responses that relate to all followers of Christ.
Sexual abuse is horrific sin and must be held to account
God’s word is clear: “Sexual immorality and all impurity and covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:3). Sexual abuse by pastors or other Christian leaders is an especially appalling betrayal of their biblical calling, for “they are keeping watch over your souls” (Hebrews 13:17) and “must be above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2).
As a result, when leaders “persist in sin,” the church is to “rebuke them in the presence of all” (1 Timothy 5:20).
The vast majority of Southern Baptist leaders are not guilty of the sins detailed in the investigative report. I am also personally grateful for the enormous good God has done through the Southern Baptist Convention across its history. For example, I became a Christian through the outreach of a Southern Baptist church, received two degrees from a Southern Baptist seminary, and taught on that seminary’s faculty more than three decades ago.
Every Southern Baptist I know would join me in condemning in the strongest terms the abuses described in the report and in pressing for accountability for the perpetrators. The report itself, in fact, is the product of demands for transparency made by Southern Baptists attending their annual meetings.
That said, Southern Baptists must respond emphatically to this report when they meet in a few weeks for their 2022 convention. Survivors who came forward must be thanked with the deepest gratitude; all victims must be supported with heartfelt sorrow and solidarity; perpetrators must repent and make amends.
These same principles apply to any Christian church, ministry, network, or denomination.
Imagine how you would feel if your daughter or granddaughter were a victim of the abuses described in this report. This is the grief and pain our Father feels for every victim of abuse.
Let’s join him.
You and I must settle for nothing less than personal holiness
At this point, I would imagine that those of us who are not directly impacted by this grievous report are grateful that we are not. Herein lies a subtle temptation of the Enemy.
It is human nature to measure ourselves by other humans. For example, Cain’s frustration when God chose Abel’s sacrifice over his own led him to murder his brother (Genesis 4:1–8). From then to today, we feel inferior to our superiors and superior to our inferiors. (For more, see my latest personal blog where I describe an illuminating encounter I experienced over the weekend.)
As a result, when we learn of people who commit sins we are not committing, we are tempted to overlook the sins we are committing. But this is like learning that your neighbor has heart disease and then ignoring your cancer.
When an Englishman named John Bradford saw criminals being led to their execution in 1553, he reportedly stated, “There but for the grace of God go I.” When you and I learn of the sins of others, we should say the same. But rather than presuming on such grace, we should also admit the sins we are committing with genuine repentance, contrition, and a desire for transformation.
Wisdom from A. W. Tozer
I fear that our culture’s continued slide into unbiblical immorality has conditioned many of us to sidestep personal sanctification. We are tempted to feel we are better than many whose stories we read daily, so we must be good enough. We also live in a compartmentalized culture that separates the spiritual from the secular and religion from the “real world,” so biblical holiness feels more like a Sunday sermon than a Monday requirement.
However, Scripture is clear: “As he who called you is holy, you also must be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15, my emphasis). To this end, let’s close with an observation from A. W. Tozer:
“I look back and remember a day when it was common for men and women to come to an altar of prayer and kneel there, shake, tremble, and weep in agony of conviction over their iniquity. We do not see it now because the God we preach is not the everlasting, awful Holy One who cannot look upon iniquity. When we get a vision of the Holy One as he desires to reveal himself, this will come back as a mighty power to change us into his likeness.”
Tozer then quotes this hymn by Charles Wesley:
Lord, incline me to repent; Let me now my fall lament, Deeply my revolt deplore, Weep, believe, and sin no more.
Would you join me in making these words your prayer today?