‘What we prayed for’
SBC responds to sexual abuse
June 18th, 2019 / By: David Roach | TEXAN Correspondent / comments
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Addressing sexual abuse among Southern Baptists was a major focus at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala.
Every session of the June 11-12 meeting at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex included discussion of sexual abuse, with planned and spontaneous testimonies offered by abuse survivors and prayers for healing.
Among SBC actions related to abuse, the 8,183 registered messengers adopted a resolution “on the evil of sexual abuse” and strengthened the SBC’s stance against abuse by approving amendments to the convention’s constitution and bylaws. Additionally, the SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Study presented a report.
SBC President J.D. Greear cited repeatedly a LifeWay Research finding released in May that 10 percent of U.S. churchgoers ages 18-34 have stopped attending a church because they felt the congregation did not take sexual misconduct seriously.
“There are survivors” of sexual abuse “throughout our churches and our communities,” Greear said. “We owe it to them and to the Savior who shed his blood to redeem them and save them to do all that we can to protect them from those who would abuse them in his house.”
Governing document changes
Messengers gave the first of two required approvals to an SBC constitutional amendment stating sexual abuse is grounds for a church to be deemed “not in friendly cooperation” with the convention. The SBC Constitution will be amended if messengers approve the change again at next year’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla. Even without the amendment, the convention can disfellowship a church over sexual abuse.
Messengers approved an amendment to the SBC bylaws repurposing the Credentials Committee into a standing committee to review information and make recommendations “when an issue arises whether a church is in cooperation with the convention.” The Bylaws amendment does not mention sexual abuse specifically, but addressing abuse claims is within the committee’s assignment.
Applause and cheering erupted in the meeting hall following votes on the constitution and bylaws amendments.
“I believe this is a very, very significant moment in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention,” said Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC Executive Committee, adding, “May this world know that the Southern Baptist Convention stands against all forms of sexual abuse.”
The sexual abuse resolution stated messengers “condemn all forms of sexual abuse,” “lament any and all instances of sexual abuse, particularly in a church setting” and “express our appreciation to journalists, victims, and survivors who have brought to light the sexually immoral rot that has existed within churches.”
The resolution “implore[d] sexual abuse victims to contact civil authorities, to separate from their abusers, and to seek protection, care, and support from fellow Christians and civil authorities as they are able.”
A separate resolution “on local church autonomy” “warn[ed] those who would misuse local church autonomy as a license for sin that God will judge both shepherds and wolves who abuse the vulnerable sheep in the flock.”
Sexual Abuse Study
During the Sexual Abuse Advisory Study’s report, Greear called Southern Baptists to additional action.
The Executive Committee and the Committee on Nominations should perform “screening and background checks” on all potential members of SBC boards and committees, Greear said. The Advisory Study will continue its work, “exploring possibilities in a range of areas from databases to additional resources to legislative solutions.”
The Advisory Study is a fluid panel formed by Greear last July in response to a 2018 motion by SBC messenger Phillip Bethancourt, executive vice president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The panel worked in collaboration with the ERLC and conducted interviews with hundreds of sexual abuse survivors, as well as church leaders and national experts in sexual abuse.
Greear urged every Southern Baptist church to take the Caring Well Challenge in the next year, “an eight-step process” explained at CaringWell.com “that will bring your church up to speed in your awareness, prevention and care practices.”
“As Southern Baptists, we need to be honest with ourselves and recognize that we have failed in a number of ways,” Greear said. Those failures include lack of adequate training on abuse, lack of care for survivors, lack of consistent reporting to police, “not taking disclosure seriously enough” and “not easily enough believing the survivor.”
ERLC President Russell Moore told messengers, “Those who would use religion to prey on those who are looking to hear a Word from Jesus are more than just criminals, although they are certainly that. They are those who commit spiritual rape of the most incestuous and violent kind. And we, the people of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, will not stand for it for one minute.”
Moore invited Southern Baptists to attend the 2019 ERLC National Conference which will have a “comprehensive focus” on sexual abuse. The meeting is set for Oct. 3-5 at the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine, near DFW airport.
The Advisory Study’s report included a 14-minute prayer time, which featured repentance, lament and petitions for abuse survivors. During the prayer for survivors, Greear asked sexual abuse victims who were comfortable doing so to stand, and people stood across the meeting hall.
Mary DeMuth, an abuse survivor and advocate from Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas, led the convention in prayer for sexual abuse survivors.
“May your Holy Spirit fill this room with healing and comfort and peace,” prayed DeMuth, who protested Southern Baptists’ treatment of women outside the 2018 SBC annual meeting in Dallas, according to NBCDFW television. On behalf of this year’s convention, she asked forgiveness “for not valuing our children enough to protect them. Forgive us for neglecting to report sexual assault in our congregations to the governing authorities.”
Three days before the SBC convened in Birmingham, the Advisory Study issued a 52-page printed report calling for abuse education and prevention in Southern Baptist churches and providing guidance in caring for survivors.
A new motion by Bethancourt requested that each SBC entity provide an update on its efforts to address sexual abuse and its cooperation with the Advisory Study.
ERLC abuse panel
The ERLC hosted a June 10 panel discussion on “sexual abuse and the Southern Baptist Convention.” Panelists included Bible teacher Beth Moore, attorney and victim advocate Rachel Denhollander and Mercer University School of Medicine associate dean Susan Codone—all sexual abuse survivors.
Beth Moore said she feels “relief that we are talking about” sexual abuse in the SBC. “I’ve heard so many people say, ‘It’s just more talk.’ No, no, no ... We do have some things happening right now that I have never seen happen.”
Denhollander said abuse survivors are “used to hearing a lot of words. We are used to hearing, ‘Abuse is terrible.’ We are used to hearing placations about what we have experienced. What we’re not used to seeing is actions.”
Codone shared for the first time publicly her story of being sexually abused 35 years ago as a teenager by both her Southern Baptist pastor and youth pastor.
Participants in a panel discussion on “the value of women in God’s mission” praised the convention’s actions regarding abuse. Author and speaker Jen Wilkin said women had been sending her text messages stating, “This is what we prayed for.”