The Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Dallas may have had only one fifth of the messengers as the previously largest SBC convened in the Texas stronghold, but when messengers unanimously passed a resolution on abuse, they failed to note lack of a clear position on clergy-penitent privilege and counseling. The Resolutions Committee chairman offered a clarification and said there were no exceptions intended. Still, in a #MeToo social media moment, is the firing of an SBC leader over alleged bad advice and failed reporting of abuse – and a non-binding resolution – enough? Or should other leaders and entities explain their action or lack of action in regards to promoting those who are accused of abuse, covering abuse, asked to testify in abuse cases, or promoting or offering a system which provides controversial or questionable counseling for victims of abuse.
DALLAS (June 26, 2018) – For many at the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas June’s meeting was a victory lap of sorts with one of the youngest presidents in the history of the SBC elected, younger leaders celebrated at the helm of its mission organizations and at least half its seminaries, and a well-branded, if somewhat tarnished, image.
For others, it was like watching taps at Arlington Cemetery, a noble and yet sad image of what once was great but is now lost — with former leaders firmly ousted — and state conventions, missionary agencies, and local associations all but dying on the vine along with Baptist state newspapers, accountable boards, and civility.
And in the midst of it all, #MeToo expressions like “misogynist,” “rapist,” “sexual assault,” “workplace harassment,” and “domestic abuse,” were thrown into a confusing mix of denominational politics which diluted meaningful discussion over the role of women in the denomination.
What might have at one time been a healthy discussion over women’s roles in church and in ministry positions turned into an ugly fight that threatens to label complementarians as “misogynists,” and egalitarians as liberals – while the world is expected to interpret ecclesiological and theological terms lest Southern Baptists be inaccurately defined.
Somewhere in the middle are hurting men, women and children who have seen the #MeToo movement hijacked by what amounts to a political movement rather than a social cause to help hurting people.
The Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas follows a year of disappointing losses in ministry leaders as a result of moral and personal failures — and other reasons not disclosed.
Those most recent high profile resignations include Frank Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee; Alvin Reid, senior professor of evangelism and student ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.; Christian George, curator of Midwestern Seminary’s Spurgeon Library in Kansas City; and David Sills, professor of missions and cultural anthropology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
The termination of Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth and a key player in the Conservative Resurgence of the denomination, grabbed most of the headlines, however, and prompted a resolution at the SBC in Dallas condemning “all forms of abuse.”
The statement on abuse renounced “all abusive behavior as unquestionably sinful” and called for decisive action to report abuse allegations to law enforcement authorities. It also offered compassion to abuse victims, “being careful to remind the abused that such injustice is undeserved and not a result of personal guilt or fault” (Baptist Press).
The initial charge against Patterson was that he used an illustration in a conference years ago advising a woman to stay with her abusive husband. After that initial charge, which was assigned a #MeToo identity on Twitter, further accusations were lobbed at Patterson about how he dealt with an alleged rape at a seminary where he’d served as president. His lawyer, Shelbey Sharpe released a statement about these charges.
The resolution that ultimately was passed unanimously by messengers in Dallas, ironically omits any reference to “clergy-penitent privilege” however, a claim used by Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, in a court case reported in 2004 in Louisville’s Courier-Journal.
A Sunday School and choir volunteer who also worked at a school operated by Highview Baptist Church, where Ezell was then pastor, had been accused of sex crimes he later confessed.
News articles report that when Ezell was subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, he invoked the clergy-penitent privilege. The former teacher later, after being charged with additional crimes, pled guilty to sexually abusing seven boys in the 1970s and early 1980s and is still listed in the Kentucky sex offender archive.
A subsequent blog noted that Ezell told the Louisville Courier-Journal the leaders of the congregation (one of the largest in the state) did not plan to tell members of the congregation about the predator’s arrest or conviction.
The chairman of the 2018 SBC resolutions committee, Jason Duesing of Missouri, in an
interview June 13 said it was not the intention of the committee to provide exception clauses.
“If they’ve been asked to testify, they should testify,” Duesing said when asked generally about pastor/clergy exemption clauses, even in the course of Christian or church counseling. “It’s the spirit (of the resolution) that if somebody is aware of something they need to report it and take action on it.”
Boz Tchividjian, founder and executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), shared a similar opinion in 2013 after Sovereign Grace Ministries – embroiled in a civil lawsuit alleging it had covered up numerous cases of child sexual abuse over a several decades period – said it was practicing its First Amendment right to religious freedom.
SGM wrote in a 2012 statement it had the right to provide confidential pastoral counseling free from government infringement.
“SGM believes that allowing courts to second-guess pastoral guidance would represent a blow to the First Amendment that would hinder, not help, families seeking spiritual direction among other resources in dealing with the trauma related to any sin including child sexual abuse,” wrote Tommy Hill, SGM’s director of finance and administration, according to an article in Christianity Today. The referenced statement has since been removed from SGM’s website.
Tchividijian conceded he did not have all of the facts at the time, but, as the former prosecutor for child abuse cases in Florida, he said he was in disagreement with a view that clergy-penitent privilege should be invoked to avoid testimony.
“Quite frankly, any time an institution—a Christian institution—responds or defends its behavior as it relates to sexual abuse allegations with quoting laws and hiding behind constitutions, it causes me concern,” said Tchividjian, a law professor and the grandson of the late Billy Graham. The GRACE website notes with alarm the fact that SGM leaders kept members in the dark about the the wide-spread sexual abuse of children, calling it “staggering.”
Too often, those within the Church have been uninformed about the complexities of child abuse,” the website reads. “This has compounded its damaging effects on individuals, families, and faith communities with inappropriate and even negligent responses to signs and disclosures of abuse. Our collective failure as Christians to properly care for the most innocent and vulnerable among us has often been staggering.
In 2014 Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville cut ties with the pastors college of Sovereign Grace Ministries, ending a two-year relationship between the two organizations. Two months previously, popular author Joshua Harris resigned from The Gospel Coalition after testifying in court about the role of the leadership of the SGM flagship church – Covenant Life – in suspected covering up of crimes. He served as pastor of Covenant Life from 2004 until 2015, when he left to attend college. Harris had followed C.J. Mahaney at Covenant Life.
Mahaney, the founder of SGM, also stepped down from The Gospel Coalition in 2014, after being named in a 2012 class action lawsuit on allegations of a conspiracy to cover up sexual abuse. That year he stepped away from the T4G (Together for the Gospel) conference he co-founded in 2006 with fellow evangelical Christian leaders Mark Dever, R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Ligon Duncan.
This year, Mahaney, pastor of the SBC-affiliated Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, which he founded in 2013, again stepped away from the T4G conference following new exposure related to the SGM controversy. Rachael Denhollander, the former Olympic gymnast whose testimony against Larry Nassar went viral, addressed the allegations of abuse at Covenant Life Church in interviews and on Facebook.
In late January Denhollander said the SGM situation is “one of the worst, if not the worst, instances of evangelical cover-up of sexual abuse” and “one of the most well-documented cases of institutional cover-up I have ever seen.”
Sovereign Grace Churches (formerly SBM) issued a statement in February calling Denhollander “mistaken in her accusations” against the church and Mahaney.
In a March 1 Facebook post, “Response to Sovereign Grace Churches,” Denhollander defended herself by more fully outlining the SGM situation and providing a provocative look at methods, evidence, court limitations, and rationale.
That same month, Hershael York, newly promoted dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary and a professor of Christian preaching there since 1997, commented on Denhollander’s post:
I am in awe of your graciousness, your relentless pursuit of truth, your commitment to the Gospel, and your willingness to do the uncomfortable thing. Only the grace of Christ could account for your balance. You have helped me think more clearly on this issue and I am grateful. Count on my continued prayers and support as you call Christian leaders (among whom I count myself) to face and embrace the truth wherever it leads us. As followers of the One who is Truth, how can we do any less?
In an exchange which followed, Dennis Hulick, whose Facebook profile says he lives in Raleigh, N.C., asked York if he “might work toward ending Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville’s involvement and affiliation with the SBC and SBTS.
“I hope that you might encourage and expect that the President of the SBTS would end his public involvement with CJ Mahaney as that would speak volumes to those that where abused and then unprotected by a number of leaders within the SG church association,” he wrote.
York’s response was short: “You need to share your opinions with the people and entities that you have mentioned. My feelings are already public and I have no more influence with anyone than my candor and honesty, which I have already given.”
A few weeks after Denhollander’s comments, Christianity Today’s editor in chief Mark Galli wrote an insightful review and timeline of the SGM “scandal” calling for an independent investigation.
We call for a fresh and thorough independent investigation not because we believe those accused are guilty of every one of its critics’ charges. We are as bewildered as anyone and simply don’t have enough information to make a confident judgment on the matter. We see, however, that SGC, churches current and former—and pastor C. J. Mahaney (founder and former president) in particular—are under a cloud of suspicion.
In May, Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville published a Facebook note: “We were Rachael’s Church.” In it the church confessed to being “sinfully unloving,” and pledged to “discontinue inviting (SGM) leaders to minister to our church.”
More than two months following Mahaney’s departure from T4G and on the day Patterson’s resignation was announced, Mohler abruptly released a declaration: “The Wrath of God Poured Out – The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Like Christianity Today’s Galli, Mohler calls for an independent investigation for churches, denominations or Christian ministries engaged in a pattern of mishandling charges of abuse – but unlike Galli, does not target a specific ministry in his actionable comments, and qualifies his statement by saying a “public accusation” requires such an investigation.
Also like SGC in a response to Denhollander’s accusations Feb. 13 called irresponsible the “horrific” comparisons made between its churches and widespread abuse, Mohler said “The SBC is in the midst of its own horrifying #MeToo moment.”
In a sweeping statement focused on “public humiliation” and concern for “our public credibility,” Mohler delivered a treatise granting credibility to break-away moderates’ criticisms about the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence, of which Mohler was a part, saying their “prophecies had some merit after all” without admitting his culpability in the failures. He wrote:
The liberals who left have kept marching to the Left, in theology and moral teaching. The SBC, solidly conservative theologically, has been revealed to be morally compromised.
Shifting from Southern Baptists in the last few paragraphs of his lengthy essay, Mohler asserts, “The MeToo moment has come to American evangeicals,” before ending with the rhetorical, “The Southern Baptist Convention is on trial and our public credibility is at stake. May God have mercy on us all.”
Mohler, however, failed to mention SGM or Mahaney in his commentary.
A few days after Mohler’s commentary, Heath Lambert, a faculty member at Southern Seminary since 2006, the Executive Director at the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, and the new pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, released a statement, “A Time for Choosing.”
In his own declaration of alleged abuse at the hand of his parent, Lambert opined about Patterson’s re-telling of a story about a woman’s abuse years ago, and spoke of “standing with God himself” against the “victimization of the weak.”
It’s “a clear time to choose,” he wrote. “[T]he world is watching.” Lambert announced ACBC would not be holding its 2018 meeting at the campus of Southwestern Seminary. Interestingly, commenters on a blog “Cry For Justice,” opining about a 2017 talk he hosted on involving controversy over counseling and domestic abuse, said ACBC has only recently begun to speak about domestic abuse.
Lambert, in “95 Theses For An Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling,” presents the current practice in biblical (neuthetic) counseling at ACBC and SBTS.
SBTS moved from “pastoral counseling,” including teaching by the former professor of Christian psychology Eric Johnson, to what Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission refers to as “biblical counseling.”
In a series of affirmations and denials, Moore in 2010 when he was serving as provost and dean of SBTS, wrote a comprehensive defense of the seminary’s new direction in his, Counseling & the Authority of Christ: A New Vision for Biblical Counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Moore wrote that the changes came about after Mohler was elected as president during the “Conservative Reformation” and the curriculum was found lacking:
The CPE/pastoral care model of the Southern Seminary tradition was indeed founded on a theological worldview and on a ministry paradigm inconsistent with the theological worldview and conversionist outlook of the new era.
In his 16-page e-book, Moore wrote that psychotherapies should not be seen as medical practice.
We deny that psychological research, personality theories, and psychotherapies
should be viewed as “objective science,” as that term is usually understood. Neither should they be seen as extensions of medicine and medical practice.
Lambert earned his undergraduate degree in biblical studies and political science, and his graduate and post-graduate degrees in Christian ministry and biblical counseling. Moore earned his undergraduate degree in political science and history, and his graduate and post-graduate degrees in biblical studies and systematic theology.
Rickard Marks, now a former pastor of family ministries at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, where Lambert now serves, and vice president of Jacksonville based Live the Life Ministries, this month made a comment on social media about biblical counselors.
In a June 15 Tweet, Marks wrote:
Neuthetic counselors should be held liable for negligent counsel just like their professional counterparts. Your lack of training in areas of abuse, eating disorders, clinical depression, etc, will harm others. Know your limitations.
Marks holds graduate and post-graduate degrees in Marriage and Family Therapy, and psychology and counseling, in addition to a graduate degree from Southwestern Seminary in Religious Education. He is a licensed professional counselor and an ordained minister.
In addition to the SBC resolution on abuse, other declarations by SBC leaders and groups followed in the wake of the SBC annual meeting in Dallas.
— The International Mission Board of trustee president Rick Dunbar said about a new policy on abuse released during its meeting June 10-11, “If anyone ‘sees or suspects something, they need to say something.”’ He said of the IMB it is its policy to investigate all cases (of abuse) regardless of when they occurred.
— The North American Mission Board of trustees meeting in Dallas June 11 made revisions to its Employee Guidelines and Operating Procedures. A spokesperson for NAMB has not yet released a review of those changes to this writer, however.
— Newly elected NAMB trustee Willy Rice, in a blog May 31, wrote about a family experience which happened 25 years ago in which the IMB and a local Baptist association “stonewalled” them after their two daughters had been sexually assaulted by the Director of Missions in that association.
Rice, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Fla., and a former president of the Florida Baptist State Convention, concludes his painful story with these words:
Finally this question, is a man truly a shepherd when he allows the wolves to devour the lambs because he is afraid of the consequences of confrontation? Isn’t it the very definition of a shepherd that he stops the wolves, that he protects the sheep, and that he guards the flock? When we fail to protect the innocent because we are more interested in protecting the reputation of institutions we serve, we not only fail those very institutions, we fail the sheep and fail the Chief Shepherd.
We have failed too often. There are too many stories like this one and too many scars that have never been able to heal. Let them be told. Let us repent. Let us learn to be shepherds again. God help us.