“Where else can we go, Lord?
Where else can we go?
For you have the words of life.”
These lyrics, based on the response of Peter to Jesus’ question, have been running through my mind as a continual refrain. Each morning this week I awoke to hear a new part in the Houston Chronicle’s “Abuse of Faith” series (part 1, part 2, part 3 accessible here); each morning leaves me resonating with the responses of Al Mohler, Danny Akin, Russell Moore, and now Keith Whitfield: heartbreak over these sins, and anger at those who, by hiding sin, enabled future harm.
Though it is theologically impossible to be a lifelong Southern Baptist, such a position is my cultural reality. I grew up in First Baptist Church of Clarksville, TN and First Baptist Church of Norfolk, VA. I earned my Master of Divinity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (2011-2016); twice I have gone to the Convention as a messenger (2012 in New Orleans and 2014 in Baltimore). If Paul could call himself a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” I feel the same sense of internal identity with being Southern Baptist.
As such, I wrestle with my own response to the Chronicle’s report. I’m fighting the urge to minimize its significance: 380 individuals out of 47,000 possible communities of faith spread over 20 years? Treated as a statistical problem, the Chronicle’s report does not suggest an epidemic, but we can’t look at this report this way. An honest examination requires looking at this problem through the eyes, as much as we can, of Him who “knows every hair” on each head, whose “eye is on the sparrow.”
What happens after the scandal becomes known?
Trouble has been uncovered in the house of God; some of those entrusted with the responsibility of shepherding souls have been shown to be rapacious wolves. While many questions remain, the one I want to consider concerns the future: where do we go from here? As a convictional Christian, I will not leave the Southern Baptist church. I remain convinced that the Baptist framework is faithful to scripture. I stand with Peter who replied to Christ, “Where else would we go? For you have the words of life.” Three realities come to mind when thinking about positive change.
The first reality concerns the theological nature of the church. The presence of evil men in the leadership of Christ’s church does not disprove the message of the gospel. If the doctrines of sin, salvation, and resurrection are true, then they are true regardless of whether church leadership lives godly lives or not. The witness of the church is damaged in such moments, but the truth of the gospel is not. Jesus promised that “the gates of hell shall not overcome” his church. If false shepherds could destroy the church, this institution would never have lasted over two thousand years. Two things will endure into eternity: the human soul, and the community of believers.
While that theological reality is comforting, it does not negate the necessity of real change. As I read through Part 3 of the Chronicle’s report, I was struck by the lack of attention paid to the pasts of many of these sexual deviants. Several offenders were quickly placed into leadership roles with little care being given to the nature of their lives, their faith, or their doctrine. Mark Dever has sounded this alarm in reformed circles for years, both picking up an existent conversation and sparking responses. Here is a journal dedicated to the issue, an article by Nathan Finn from 2013, and another article on the issue from 1963.
The low membership standards and poor attention to the regenerate state of a church body combined with a progressive growth model of church life moves a church community to a position of pragmatism. When desires for church growth overrule caution in evaluating potential leaders, the potential for trouble rises. No method of pastoral candidate (youth or senior) interview is perfect, but one clear warning sounded in this report calls churches to far greater care concerning who they place in positions of authority.
Permit a brief digression for brethren outside the Baptist orbit. Many Christian denominations (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican) hold to a model of hierarchical authority where those above (bishops, archbishops, metropolitans, popes) oversee those below (pastors, priests, ministers). The Baptist ecclesiology (nature of the church) is different. We hold foundationally to the autonomy of each local congregation. Each congregation of believers (who, according to Hebrews, are all priests of God) calls their pastor and determines their own leadership model in accordance with Scripture.
This too is part of the confusion—when the Catholic scandal broke last year, the hierarchy provided a clear mechanism for who would address the horrors uncovered by the Grand Jury report. The Baptist world has no hierarchy who holds church leadership accountable. By definition, each church handles its own issues internally. While we group together for large financial concerns (missions and seminary funding), the Southern Baptist Convention has no authority to remove pastors. That responsibility lies with each congregation.
The third reality that the Chronicle's report calls for addressing is the model of youth ministry itself. Growing out of the wider American “youth culture” phenomenon of the middle 20th century, youth ministry may have seen its day in SBC life. Many of the men named in the Chronicle’s report used the structure of youth ministry to facilitate their sexual predation: gather all the young people around a slightly-older-than-them male figure, entrust him with the authority to declare God’s Word for the youth, and task him to cultivate a growing group based on experiences. This formula is a recipe for trouble.
Let me be clear: I am the son of a successful youth pastor. Done right, youth ministry connects mature Christians with young men and women who can then be mentored by those mature in their faith. But the prevalence of this kind of predatory behavior in the Chronicle suggests that churches should evaluate the theological necessity of youth ministry.
To my knowledge, Scripture considers people in wider communities and does not divide people based on age. If we have bad structures drawn from a secular America, then those structures will eventually harm rather than help the church of God. Perhaps the moment has come for churches to shift to a family ministry model oriented towards holistic community-based discipleship which calls youth to find their identity in the whole church, rather than isolating teens from older and younger generations.
“In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world.” Jesus is not surprised that wolves snuck into the sheepfold of hundreds of churches and caused suffering. The uncovering of sin within the community of faith should prompt our mourning, and our consideration. Suppose the Chronicle is not out for a hit job on the Southern Baptists; in that case, we have a problem. And the uncovering of a problem calls for change. How can we structure our churches to reduce the amount of harm caused by the misuse of spiritual authority? At the very least, change begins with recognizing that a real problem exists. The gospel is sufficient, and the church will persevere. Within that perseverance, however, lies our responsibility to act as wise stewards of the House of God.