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Why the Southern Baptists Won't Solve Their Abuse Problem

The most effective solution to evangelical abuse is for young people to empty the pews

It's time for young people to empty the pews

For those who have eyes to see, the problem of child sexual abuse and misconduct in evangelical Protestantism has been visible for a long time. In 2007, unfortunately to little fanfare, the Associated Press revealed that the three major companies that insure Protestant churches received more than 260 reports of sexual abuse of minors annually. That exceeds the annual rate of abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and the release of the AP report, as Kathryn Joyce noted in a 2017 exposé of horrific abuse of young girls over decades by Donn Ketcham, a missionary doctor stationed in Bangladesh. Though the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism was aware of Ketcham’s misconduct as early as 1967, the organization worked to cover it up for decades. 

Many, probably most, people who grew up evangelical or some other type of Christian fundamentalist can tell similar stories. My Christian high school world history teacher and chess club faculty sponsor, Larry Myers, was charged with two felonies for sexually abusing a 14-year-old student. In addition, a man who attended one of my early childhood churches and was well respected there stands accused of sexually abusing young female patients as a medical missionary in Panama.

Despite never having been sexually abused myself, I could adduce still more instances of abuse involving people in the evangelical community I grew up in, and for those seeking yet more stories, #exvangelical Twitter is full of them under hashtags like #ChurchToo, #ExposeChristianSchools and #ExposeChristianHomeschooling. Evangelical subculture is pervasively authoritarian, and any time an arbitrary social hierarchy is imposed and defended, violence follows. Authoritarianism is inherently abusive, and where it reigns, abuse—physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual—will be pervasive.

With this context in mind, none of us should be surprised at the sheer scale of sexual abuse and cover-up in Southern Baptist churches that was recently exposed by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, in which journalists documented 700 victims over a 20-year period, including more than 100 cases of youth pastors being charged with sex crimes. As in Catholicism, abusers were often able to quietly transfer to another church. But while the scale of the scandal should not surprise us, the series of articles detailing these abuses does represent a milestone in journalism, as evangelicalism’s abuse problem has until recently largely flown under the radar due to the decentralized nature of evangelicalism in comparison with centralized Catholicism. Documentation and wide exposure of systemic abuse is critical to formulating any kind of effective response.

But while Southern Baptist leaders are grappling with the problem, I will reiterate here my call to #EmptyThePews. The most effective solution to evangelical abuse will be for young people—and people of conscience of all ages—to continue to abandon the SBC and other evangelical denominations. The rot goes to the core, and the internal responses are destined to fail.

Evangelicalism’s abuse problem has until recently largely flown under the radar due to the decentralized nature of evangelicalism in comparison with centralized Catholicism.

What makes me so sure of this? In a nutshell, the SBC (and white evangelicalism writ large) continue to cling to (white) Christian supremacism and patriarchy, which they justify with reference to a doctrine of “biblical inerrancy” that just happens to function primarily to uphold straight white male authority over women, children, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. To give credit where credit is due, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Russell Moore and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Albert Mohler are both suggesting that victims of abuse should report their abusers to the secular authorities, and that it might be possible to make individual churches’ membership in the SBC contingent on refusing to hire known sexual abusers, in the way that adherence to conservative theological orthodoxy is required for membership.

It is astounding that this possibility is only being floated now, however, and the continued insistence of each of these men on conservative theological orthodoxy and Christian supremacy further erodes confidence. In a New York Times op-ed, after noting that abuse happens everywhere, including the church, Moore states, “The church is to be the place that previews for the world a picture of what the kingdom of God is like,” a statement that makes it clear that he still thinks that Christians, if they are “Christianing” properly, are going to be better than “those people.” Evangelicalism’s insistence in this matter de facto leads to the valuing of appearances more than people’s well-being and to a sense of superiority that weakens empathy for members of othered groups.

Of all the responses of SBC leadership to the abuse revelations so far, perhaps the most telling is that of Keith Whitfield, a professor and dean at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, which he published in First Things. Whitfield does not hold back in praising the “Conservative Resurgence” in the SBC, a putsch that between the late 1970s and the 1990s transformed America’s largest Protestant denomination into one in which Christians of good will who accept pluralism and support universal human rights, Christians like President Jimmy Carter, no longer had a spiritual home. In recent years, two major architects of this conservative takeover, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, have both faced their own sexual misconduct scandals. Patterson is known to have advised a woman who was beaten by her husband to remain in her abusive marriage, and stands accused of covering up sexual assault in his capacity as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Paul Pressler stands credibly accused of a decades-long pattern of molesting boys. And yet Whitfield would have us believe that the SBC’s conservative takeover itself is perfectly healthy, and can simply be supplemented with a “moral resurgence” now? If you buy that, I’d like to sell you some beachfront property in Colorado Springs.

To be sure, Whitfield calls misogyny “evil,” but to grasp what he means we have to know that his definition of misogyny is a very narrow one, one that must be compatible with the doctrine of so-called “complementarianism,” which, unlike best practices in response to sexual abuse, is required of churches to retain membership in the SBC. Complementarianism teaches that God created men and women with distinct roles, roles that include “male headship” over the family and that entail female submission. The SBC does not allow women leadership roles over men. So excuse me, therefore, if I consider Whitfield’s criticism of misogyny merely a resounding gong and a clanging cymbal. As long as it refuses to examine the culpability of its explicitly patriarchal theology in fostering abuse, the SBC’s systemic abuse problem is going to remain unsolved.

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Christopher Stroop
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