700 people (mostly women) have been targeted, groomed, sexually abused and victimized by more than 400 pastors and volunteers in Southern Baptist churches across the country since 1998. As a woman, a youth pastor, a church leader and a mother I have asked the same question repeatedly to myself (and to others), “How could this happen?” This article is a response to this question.
The SBC, not surprisingly, is not asking the same question I am asking. Russell Moore is asking a different question and herein lies the problem.
“Southern Baptists, we have reached our age of accountability,” said Russell Moore, who heads the SBC’s public policy arm. The vital question before us today is: What do we do next?” (Source)
I agree that the SBC has reached their long overdue “age of accountability.” Two decades is a disastrously long time for this type of abuse to go on and be covered up. However, I believe that Dr. Moore and the other SBC leaders are asking the wrong question.
Instead of asking, “What do we do next?” perhaps they should pause to consider how they got here. How did this culture of silence develop in their churches in the first place and how it has been so successfully sustained over such a long period of time. This is a church culture issue.
It is not, as some have suggested, merely an individual sin issue. In many of these abuse cases, the abuser was dismissed from the church staff or volunteer team only to continue his abuse in other churches and other places. The SBC should not be so hastily looking forward to “What do we do next?” and instead should be looking to the past and present moment to ask “How did we get here and how could this happen?” As with any systemic or cultural reform, we cannot move forward until we understand how we got here.
So, what about the SBC church culture allowed for this kind of abuse and cover-up? In Scot McKnight’s recent webinar on “Goodness Culture within the Church,” he points out that there is not one theology that leads to a healthy church culture or a toxic church culture (terms that McKnight employs in his upcoming book A Church Called Tov). I agree with him and I am not suggesting that the theology of the SBC churches is the sole factor contributing to the culture of silence created. However, I do believe that theology is one contributing factor that leads to a church culture’s health or toxicity.
There is one theological common denominator in all of these SBC churches that I would be remiss if I did not point out (and I am certainly not the first to point this out!). All of these SBC churches align with a theology that silences and marginalizes women under the “headship” of male superiority. They call it “complementarianism.” All of these churches are led primarily, if not exclusively, by men. Men occupy the pulpit, the top positions of leadership in every ministry area and every elder seat at the table. Could it be that the systemic (and theologically reinforced) silencing of women from all areas of leadership is a contributing factor to the silencing of women in abuse situations? Could it be that a theology that insists that men lead and women submit contributes to a culture that continually overlooks gross abuses of power by men?
Could it be that the systemic (and theologically reinforced) silencing of women from all areas of leadership is a contributing factor to the silencing of women in abuse situations? Could it be that a theology that insists that men lead and women submit contributes to a culture that continually overlooks gross abuses of power by men?
How is a culture or system changed? Scot McKnight points out that the only way a culture changes is by people “at the bottom,” acting in micro ways against the “toxicity” of the culture. In the case of these SBC churches, members and leaders must begin to evaluate the hundreds of ways that women are silenced, marginalized and left out of decision making, policy forming and theological conversations. These micro practices of exclusion must be interrogated in light of these 700 victims.
This is about more than just who preaches, although that certainly needs to be a part of the conversation. Church members and leaders must demand transparency and accountability for every person in leadership, especially men at the top.
Church leaders must begin to listen to the voices of those who have been silenced in their congregations, soliciting their opinions and broadcasting their stories. The SBC has prioritized the voices (stories and perspectives) of men over women since the beginning.
This is one factor that has shaped a culture in which hundreds of young women have been being abused and then be quietly dismissed. All of these church cultures share the same complementarian theology. To address the culture of silence and abuse without addressing the theology is like treating the symptom and ignoring the disease. To look forward to what is next without looking back to how we got here is like continuing a road trip with four flat tires on your vehicle. It is time for the SBC to interrogate their theology as one contributing factor influencing the culture of these churches.