By Todd E. Brady
Vice president for university ministries, Union University, Jackson
After the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention recently in Birmingham, Ala., I returned home grateful, encouraged and even more eager to invest in the next generation. Southern Baptists are not a perfect people, for I am one.
However, our denomination is seeking to be both convictional and compassionate in our mission — ensuring that our actions are indeed congruent with our proclamations. This year, in particular, our leadership has provided excellent guidance concerning the importance of our mission, the clarity of our vision and the integrity of our practices.
Ronnie Floyd, the SBC’s newly elected president and chief executive officer of the executive committee clearly and boldly called over 40,000 churches to a passion for the gospel, an emphasis on evangelism, a celebration of God’s work, a lifestyle that loves others like Jesus and a prioritization of generosity.
In our pursuit of these things, we will avoid generational segmentation and pursue diversity. As we prepare next year for the 175th anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention, Floyd said, “We’ve played it safe long enough.” Speaking of our work, he said that the SBC “must have the clear vision of becoming the most multigenerational, multiethnic, and multilingual denomination in the United States, committed to presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in the world and making disciples of all the nations.”
Heading into Birmingham, the media focused much on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. Already a high-profile issue in last year’s convention, SBC president J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in North Carolina, formed an advisory group to draft recommendations on how to confront this horrendous problem.
Several months after the formation of this group, the Houston Chronicle’s February 2019 story entitled “Abuse of Faith” exposed grievous reports of sexual abuse within the SBC over the past 20 years. This intensified pressure by highlighting this real, horrible and lamentable tragedy.
Acknowledging the problem of sexual abuse and seeking to take decisive and practical steps in response, the more than 8,000 church representatives overwhelmingly voted to amend the SBC’s constitution to say that a church could be expelled from the Convention for mishandling or covering up sex-abuse cases. A standing committee was established to review questions of sexual abuse. A resolution was also passed condemning sex-abuse crimes as “evil” and calling on government authorities to review statutes of limitations for prosecuting perpetrators.
Some will criticize the SBC’s actions as a good step, but only a small step that is not enough. It’s a step that is long overdue, certainly needed and indeed a step in the right direction.
As Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post has said, “The SBC challenge is in some ways, opposite that of the Catholic Church: unlike the Pope and the massive hierarchy governing and sometimes thwarting action in the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention is decentralized, with no hierarchy or governing leadership.
Individual churches are autonomous so, “disfellowship,” or removal from the convention ranks, is the primary internal enforcement mechanism.” The constitutional amendment is the strongest action possible that could have been taken with words. In addition to this measure, we also set up practical procedures and groups for taking action in the future.
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has led the Southern Baptist Convention to create the Caring Well initiative which trains and guides church officials and members to respond rightly to perpetrators, victims, and accusations of sexual abuse in their churches.
SBC president Greear summarized things and said it well when he said, “We cannot change our past, but we can shape our future.” Too many have been hurt in our churches. One incident of abuse is one too many. People have been wronged and are hurting. We must do all we can do to ensure that wounded victims are well cared for and that instances of sexual abuse do not happen again in our churches.
Is the Southern Baptist Convention perfect? No. Is the Southern Baptist Convention seeking to do what is right? Yes. Southern Baptists can be assured that our leaders are seeking to do the right things in the right ways.
I returned home thankful and encouraged that SBC leaders are leading well and seeking to approach this particular issue with the right heart, the right statements, the right partnerships, the right training, the right resources, the right governing documents, the right ministry-screening processes, and the right unified call to action. B&R