We now know that the Catholic Church is not the only one dealing with a flood of sexual abuse issues. As if we really needed anyone to tell us.
The three-part expose in the Houston Chronicle exposes the proliferation and cover-ups surrounding abuse and assault in the nation’s largest protestant denomination.
A myriad of causes resulted in these assaults and the stomach-turning episodes of sweeping them under the rug, all while guilty ministers shuffled from church to church and ministry-to-ministry. Lack of oversight, preparation, knowledge or understanding, clear policies, and a naïve belief that “This could never happen here” appear to be on the list.
One cause of this that should be obvious, even as Southern Baptists deny it, is bad theology, based on questionable interpretations of Scripture.
Southern Baptists have long trumpeted two theological concepts that are contributing factors to these scandals: the authority of the pastor, and the inferiority of women. Keep in mind that these are far from the only cause, but they may well be primaries in this recent revelation.
In the late 1970s, these doctrines became hallmarks for those who believed in the “inerrant, infallible Word of God.” Pastoral authority, while not an official policy, became standard practice among the surging fundamentalist movement.
In reality, it goes without saying. The pastor is at the center of the sanctuary in your standard SBC church. The spoken word and interpretation of scripture is paramount. Pastors may be revered or despised, but they are always the center of attention in an SBC congregation.
But in the “Conservative Resurgence” that fully bloomed in the 1980s, this doctrine became all but official policy among the SBC leadership. Oh, it was not written in stone, but it was overwhelming nonetheless.
At the same time, the doctrine that pastoral authority belongs to males alone became all but official policy. The SBC codified this 20 years ago, with changes to the Baptist Faith & Message in both 1998 and 2000.
In fact, some Southern Baptists did not believe that this doctrine went far enough, saying that women should not even teach men.
So what does this have to do with 700+ victims of sexual abuse?
Here’s the thing: When the prevailing doctrine says that men (and often ONE man) is an ultimate authority, it is far too easy to sweep damaging sins under the rug. While church leaders might acknowledge it, they can easily brush it aside to keep from actually dealing with it.
After all, if a man is “called of God” then we must protect his status at all costs. Protecting the called is our task, and to question this is the same as questioning the Triune God himself (and, of course, His inerrant, infallible Bible).
In a system that establishes singular authority over and above accountability, corruption will have an opportunity to thrive. You cannot have transparency in a theology that grants a pastor or any other person “divine right” that is beyond reproach.
Accountability is even less likely in a system that denies full humanity to 50% of the population. No matter how you dress it up (complementarianism, Biblical authority, God’s design, etc.), such a system makes women less than, supposedly by divine declaration.
By definition, this ingrained view of female inferiority makes them more vulnerable, even within the supposedly “safe space” of the church. It allows for victim creation, blaming, and shaming rather than addressing the perpetrators and predators.
Let us be honest here. Sexual abuse occurs in traditions that are liberal, fundamentalist, and anywhere in between. Sexual predators and abusers will find opportunities in any possible location. This issue is not limited to fundamentalist traditions or those that limit female leadership.
However, it is entirely possible that such predators find a much more fertile field when they will go unquestioned, with unfettered access and no fear of accountability.
A plethora of SBC ministers and leaders are now coming forward to confess their sins, as well they should. However, none of them are seriously addressing these two disturbing doctrines. Some are even advocating the protection of these doctrines as essential, even as the denomination struggles to find solutions.
There is also the convenient excuse of “local church autonomy” as a reason why they cannot exercise any accountability over local congregations or pastors who protect pedophiles and shame victims.
Selective application of this ideal simply creates plausible deniability, in another lame attempt to hold no one accountable for a heinous crime.
The Body of Christ is called to work together, with all members being fully accountable and essential to one another. This Biblical and theological principle of God’s work in Christ and through the Holy Spirit should be the standard. We have to advocate for this over and above ineffective and inaccurate concepts over male superiority.
Until the Southern Baptist Convention decides to stop hiding behind the Bible and church polity, the crimes and cover-ups will continue. Until the SBC and its member churches get honest about their theological and doctrinal issues, accountability will be the exception rather than the rule.