Over the last few years, we have witnessed a barrage of news stories emerge within the Southern Baptist Convention that point to sex scandals, misconduct, and abuse. In 2019, the Houston Chronicle report rocked the SBC world. It revealed 700 cases that spans over a 20 year period.
Although I am no longer a pastor of a church within the SBC, I speak as a pastor who spent many years in the SBC and feels the tension growing rapidly. In short, the criticism I provide in this article comes from a heart of concern.
The 2021 SBC messengers approved to allocate funds from the Cooperative Program for a large scale investigation into the allegations and claims of sex abuse cases. Guidepost was hired as an independent investigative firm, and the SBC is prepared to use up to $4 million dollars on this entire investigation. This is the largest of such investigations in the history of the SBC.
On Sunday, May 22, 2022, the report from Guidepost was published and made available to the world. Needless to say, it was a lengthy detailed bombshell report containing harmful stories of abuse victims and accusations against public figures and well known pastors within the SBC. Since the report was published, there have been many different responses. Obviously, pastors and leaders within the SBC are trying to process this news just a few weeks prior to a decisive presidential election in Anaheim, California.
At this crisis moment, the SBC can make the right choices to move in the direction of biblical sufficiency or the Convention can choose to walk down the pathway of pragmatism. That one decision could change the future of the SBC.
The SBC and Pragmatism
The SBC has a long historical commitment to pragmatism. Not only is the SBC the largest Protestant denomination in the United States with some 47,000 churches, it’s also the most pragmatic denomination. In 1954, the SBC adopted a growth campaign under the slogan ‘Million More in 54’ and the results were extremely harmful. The idea was to grow the SBC by one million members, but the tactics were program driven and pragmatic which led to false conversions. That’s why the SBC witnessed an overflow of unconverted church members rebaptized through the years following that explosive era of church growth models.
Pragmatism is the philosophy that encourages people to make decisions based on whatever will give them positive results. In other words, if it works—do it. Pragmatism originated in 1870s and continues to be a popular means of evaluation and assessment. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that – very broadly – understands knowing the world as inseparable from agency within it. This general idea has attracted a remarkably rich and at times contrary range of interpretations, including: that all philosophical concepts should be tested via scientific experimentation, that a claim is true if and only if it is useful.
Like anabolic steroids offer instant muscular growth to athletes, pragmatism offers church growth success at a much faster rate than a model that is centered upon the Bible alone. Once leaders taste this instant success, they become slaves to it. Rather than focusing on the Scriptures, they begin looking outside of Scripture to arrange their worship services in ways that will attract people to their local church—regardless of what the Bible says.
In 2010, Andy Stanley was invited to address the pastors during the annual Pastors’ Conference of the SBC. Andy Stanley told the story of Chick-fil-A, which originated south of Atlanta. As Stanley tells the story of Chick-fil-A leaders who were trying to figure out how Chick-fil-A could grow faster, he explains how company founder Truett Cathy pounded on the table and said, “I am sick and tired of listening to you talk about how we can get bigger. If we get better, our customers will demand we get bigger.” The entire session was devoted to how pastors could learn from corporate America in making their churches better which would result in the community responding to make their churches bigger.
I recall being there in that session and looking around at a room filled with SBC pastors. What those men needed at that hour was more Scripture and less talk of corporate America. Yet, at every turn the SBC continues to turn to feed pastors pragmatism while promising them good results. It’s put on display and platformed at the SBC Pastors’ Conference and modeled through SBC leadership, Convention programs, and resolutions.
In the wake of the Houston Chronicle report, Beth Moore entered the conversation with an argument that women needed more women in places of leadership so that they could find help in moments of crisis. Moore spoke in Dallas at the ERLC’s Caring Well conference:
In much of our world, complementarian theology is now conflated with inerrancy. Case in point: Notice how often our world charges or dismisses egalitarians by saying they have a low view of Scripture. Because unless you think like us about complementarian theology they do not honor the Word of God.
While she admitted that it wasn’t the fault of complementarian theology, but rather a sin problem that precipitated the sexual abuse scandal, she goes on to suggest that abused women need other women to turn to within the ranks of SBC churches and seminaries. Beth Moore said:
Far too many SBC congregations and SBC seminaries so few women are in any visible area of leadership that when women who are being abused by the system itself, or within it, by people that are in places of power, don’t even have a female to turn to. They don’t even know where to go.
This is a prime example of pragmatism driving theology rather than a firm commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture. As the intensity continues to grow following the release of the recent Guidepost investigation, some voices are urging that the implementation of more pragmatism is the answer. Grant Gaines, the son of Steve Gaines who was named in the Guidepost report, tweeted out his support for an SBC abuse database.
Not only is this a bad idea from a legal standpoint (a simple Google search for “SBC sex victim report” will reveal ambulance chasing law firms who are publishing ads seeking to gain clients in the wake of this investigation), it’s also a bad idea from a church government standpoint. Theology matters. It’s another example of pragmatism driving theology and it will do more harm than good in the SBC.
At this dark moment in the history of the SBC, the churches who represent the SBC and the leaders of the Convention are at a crossroads where they can take the right turn to embrace the sufficiency of Scripture. This is the moment for honesty and repentance. Yes, there needs to be repentance for how specific individuals handled or mishandled sexual abuse victims, but there needs to be a call to repent for the SBC’s longtime commitment to pragmatism.
An honest evaluation of the social justice crisis in the SBC will reveal that it was a foundational commitment to pragmatism that opened the gates of the SBC to the social justice train and allowed it to unload various deadly ideologies within the ranks and institutions of the SBC. The fact is, the SBC cannot afford another pragmatic move. John MacArthur observes:
Wherever pragmatism exists in the church, there is always a corresponding de-emphasis on Christ’s sufficiency, God’s sovereignty, biblical integrity, the power of prayer, and Spirit-led ministries. The result is a man-centered ministry that attempts to accomplish divine purposes by superficial programs and human methodology rather than by the Word or the power of the Spirit.1John MacArthur, Religious Hedonism in Our Sufficiency in Christ, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991), 152.
The Sufficiency of Scripture
The SBC has a longtime history committed to the inerrancy of Scripture. As I grew up in the SBC circles, I was not only discipled by pastors who took the Bible seriously, but I was likewise educated at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at the very end of a long battle on biblical inerrancy. I’m grateful for the SBC’s commitment to biblical inerrancy. However, if we’re honest, however successful the Conservative Resurgence was, it didn’t go far enough in the right direction. While the SBC won the war on biblical inerrancy, the war on sufficiency was never engaged.
A firm commitment to biblical sufficiency will have a far reaching impact upon the SBC for the good of local churches. A commitment to biblical sufficiency will impact how local churches approach church membership, church polity, worship, and the practice of church discipline. If the Scriptures are sufficient for all of life and worship, it goes without saying that if a group of churches returned to the Scriptures during this crisis moment and committed themselves to prayer and submission to God’s Word—this moment could be a turning point for the SBC.
In the Scriptures, we find that God has instituted both the church and civil government to govern his people. In the church, we hold one another accountable and engage in church discipline in cases of perpetual sin. In cases where members of a local church refuse to repent, they are to be excommunicated from the church. In cases where crimes are committed and people are abused or harmed in some way, the civil authorities are to engage and seek justice in a court of law. God has ordained both the church and civil government to serve his purposes. We see this clearly in the pages of Scripture (Matt. 16; 18; Rom. 13).
However, creating an internal SBC police department responsible for updating a database with convicted and accused church leaders will not solve the problem. Is the local church capable of engaging in such situations with a responsibility to properly report abuse to the civil authorities and exercise biblical church discipline? This is a classic example of a failed philosophy of ministry. It’s not the role of the Convention to police local churches. It’s the role of the local church to return to a firm commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture which will result in a proper response in all areas of sin. However, the need for a top-down approach of ecclesiastical policing is indicative of the reality that the majority of SBC churches do not engage in church discipline.
Pragmatism is self-centered rather than Scripture-centered. A commitment to pragmatism leads people to believe that the answer to the problem is within their ability to think up creative approaches to ministry and implement them for the purpose of growth and health. This mindset turns people away from Scripture rather than toward the Scriptures for solutions.
While any accusation of sexual abuse within a single local church is horrific, I find the Guidepost report to be harmful as well. Not only is it a tragedy that $4 million dollars of money given by SBC churches had to be used to form such a report, it’s not a step in the right direction. If the SBC commits to trial by independent investigation reports rather than pointing back to the local church and the civil authorities as the God ordained means of accountability, discipline, and justice—it will not end well. Logic tells us that if we allow anonymous accusers to remain anonymous in public reports that make public accusations against public figures, this methodology will feed the monster of the #MeToo movement and it will be disastrous. This is the pathway to build an ecclesiastical power structure with a hierarchy devoted to self-police that will transform the Convention of autonomous local Baptist churches into something other than autonomous Baptist churches.
The reality is, this report contains real stories of real women who were abused or assaulted. It’s tragic. It’s painful to read. However, the real answer is found in the pages of Scripture and does not require the implementation of new methods, programs, or policies. Women and girls within local churches need to know that men, pastors, and the church as a whole is committed to obeying the Scriptures which address matters of abuse, sin, assaults, and sexual misconduct. As we pray for healing, justice, and the truth to be revealed, we must likewise pray for a resurgence and commitment to the sufficiency of God’s holy Word.
The Scripture is sufficient.
|1||John MacArthur, Religious Hedonism in Our Sufficiency in Christ, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991), 152.|