The Systematic Crisis In The Southern Baptist Convention

Jul 9th, 2022 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

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The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is in grave crisis.  In May, the SBC released  a report, the “Report of the Independent Investigation,” produced by a third-party investigator, Guidepost Solutions, and totaling almost 300 pages, which “alleged that the denomination’s top leaders had suppressed reports of sexual abuse, opposed proposals for reform, and denigrated and discouraged abuse victims who approached them for help.  One of the report’s most shocking revelations was the existence of an internal list of 703 suspected abusers, compiled by an employee of the denomination’s executive committee, its national leadership body.”  At issue is sexual predation by Southern Baptist pastors and the further abuse of victims by indifferent and hostile church officials.  According to the report, credible accusations of sexual abuse that came to Southern Baptist leaders were routinely ignored to avoid legal liability or were referred back to unprepared local congregations.  Survivors’ calls and emails, the report asserts, were “met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility.” When victims organized to draw attention to their suffering, some church officials treated them as instruments of Satan, intent on distracting the church from its real mission of evangelism.  The main responses of the SBC, described in the report, have been to minimize allegations and undermine victims. Some Executive Committee members have referred to survivors as “Potiphar’s wife”—the biblical character who makes a false accusation of rape about Joseph.   Columnist Michael Gerson reports that “In 2007, Frank Page, the SBC’s president at the time, wrote: ‘Please be aware that there are groups that are nothing more than opportunistic persons who are seeking to raise opportunities for personal gain.’ In a 2008 email, Paige Patterson, a former SBC president who at the time served as president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, referred to one survivors’ group as ‘just as reprehensible as sex criminals.’  In 2018, the report reminds us, ‘Dr. Patterson was fired by SWBTS after he was accused of telling a student not to report a rape in 2003 and, in 2015, of emailing his intention to meet with another student who had reported an assault, with no other officials present, so he could ‘break her down.’”


According to the report, an executive committee staff member compiled and maintained the list over the course of a decade, and shared it with D. August Boto, the committee’s former vice president and general counsel. Mr. Boto and the staff member both retired in 2019. Survivors of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and seminaries had pressed the denomination for years to compile and publicize a list of known offenders. Leadership insisted that because of its decentralized structure, they had no ability to take action.  The new report revealed that the most recent list contained the names of 703 suspected abusers, with hundreds believed to have been affiliated with the denomination at some point in time. Investigators found that nine people on the list appeared to have remained in active ministry, with two in Southern Baptist settings.  The SBC leadership has decided to release the names on this list.  “Promptly releasing that list is in our best interest, it’s important, it is of immediate concern to the public and to the survivor community, and we need to do it right away,” Gene Besen, the executive committee’s interim counsel, told committee members.


How serious is this report?  Is it indeed a crisis for the SBC?  Does it evidence deception and gross negligence on the part of the SBC leadership?  Russell Moore of Christianity Today makes these observations:

  • “The conclusions of the report are so massive as to almost defy summation. It corroborates and details charges of deception, stonewalling, and intimidation of victims and those calling for reform. It includes written conversations among top Executive Committee staff and their lawyers that display the sort of inhumanity one could hardly have scripted for villains in a television crime drama. It documents callous cover-ups by some SBC leaders and credible allegations of sexually predatory behavior by some leaders themselves, including former SBC president Johnny Hunt (who was one of the only figures in SBC life who seemed to be respected across all of the typical divides).  And then there is the documented mistreatment by the Executive Committee of a sexual abuse survivor, whose own story of her abuse was altered to make it seem that her abuse was a consensual “affair”—resulting, as the report corroborates, in years of living hell for her.
  • For years, leaders in the Executive Committee said a database—to prevent sexual predators from quietly moving from one church to another, to a new set of victims—had been thoroughly investigated and found to be legally impossible, given Baptist church autonomy. “My mouth fell open when I read documented proof in the report that these very people not only knew how to have a database, they already had one.  Allegations of sexual violence and assault were placed, the report concludes, in a secret file in the SBC Nashville headquarters. It held over 700 cases. Not only was nothing done to stop these predators from continuing their hellish crimes, staff members were reportedly told not to even engage those asking about how to stop their child from being sexually violated by a minister. Rather than a database to protect sexual abuse victims, the report reveals that these leaders had a database to protect themselves.  The true horror of all of this is not just what has been done, but also how it happened. Two extraordinarily powerful affirmations of everyday Southern Baptists—biblical fidelity and cooperative mission—were used against them.”
  • “Who cannot now see the rot in a culture that mobilizes to exile churches that call a woman on staff a ‘pastor’ or that invite a woman to speak from the pulpit on Mother’s Day, but dismisses rape and molestation as ‘distractions’ and efforts to address them as violations of cherished church autonomy? In sectors of today’s SBC, women wearing leggings is a social media crisis; dealing with rape in the church is a distraction.  Most of the people in the pews believed the Bible and wanted to support the leaders who did also. They didn’t know that some would use the truth of the Bible to prop up a lie about themselves.”

Michael Gerson: “This is not Christianity. It is a culture of brutal chauvinism that has grown up for generations around Christianity. When it comes to protecting abusers, the largest American Protestant denomination is in the same vile category as the Catholic Church. An utter failure to prioritize abused women and children is the largest crisis of institutional religion in the United States.  The Southern Baptist Convention must have realized it was dealing with highly explosive information. For years, it denied keeping a list of abusers. That turned out to be a lie. By August 2018, staff at the Executive Committee had a file of 585 possible abusers. But the purpose of that internal list was institutional self-protection from lawsuits.”

Correctly and astutely, Gerson offers two applications:

  1. There is a warning here for any organization — what might be called the irony of institutional identity. When the primary mission of an institution is to defend itself, it is at grave risk of losing itself. Self-serving moral compromises come easier and easier. The Nixon White House believed that saving the United States required saving its administration through increasingly bold criminality. The Catholic Church believed that its holy mission required the burial of grave crimes against the innocent.   “Their main concern,” the report says of the SBC’s leaders, “was avoiding any potential liability for the SBC.” Consider that for a moment. Their main concern was not women and children who were violated by sexual predators. It was the limitation of their legal exposure. What does that say about the content and quality of their beliefs?
  2. There is also a warning here specifically to Christian institutions. When pastors believe that the importance of their mission—reaching the lost, spreading the Gospel—somehow justifies the concealment of terrible crimes, they have crossed the line into heresy. The Christian message can never be advanced through strategic lies. Deception is its magnetic opposite. Often these justifications of sin in the cause of salvation are not really attempts to protect an institution from harm; they are attempts to protect the elites who run an institution from exposure.


Former SBC official Russell Moore calls the revelations in the report “evil and systemic.” “Those who deny the possibility that evil can be systemic must read this damning document.

Men who intimidate victims, cover up cruelty and blame survivors for their own abuse have shaped the values and ethos of a major Christian institution. This is much more than religious hypocrisy. It is the sign of a church that has lost its first love.”

See Ruth Graham, “Southern Baptists to Release List of Ministers Accused of Sexual Abuse” in the New York Times (24 May 2022); Russell Moore, “This Is the Southern Baptist Apocalypse” in (22 May 2022); Michael Gerson, “The report on Southern Baptist abuses is a portrait of brutal misogyny” in the Washington Post (23 May 2022).

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