I had a troubled family background and was sexually abused as a child and in high school. But I went off to college and, in that first summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I found Christ at a Southern Baptist youth camp. Actually, Christ found me and saved me, and I began walking with him daily.
I didn’t understand what it all meant to follow Christ, but I knew to go to church on Sunday. So that first Sunday back to college in Virginia, I attended the local Southern Baptist church. I later made an appointment to see the pastor to get counsel and ask questions. He shut his office door, pulled his chair up next to mine, and began stroking my arm. I moved my chair away. I came back for a second appointment, believing I had misunderstood, and it happened again. I left his office and left that church. The next Sunday I went down a block to the Black church and found a haven.
The following summer I joined a Southern Baptist college team to help build a Baptist church in Colorado. (In reality, the college men did the building, and the college women did the cooking and cleaning.) At the end of that summer, the church’s middle-aged youth pastor, under the pretext of driving me to the airport, took me to an empty house and tried to rape me. Eventually, I was able to get away, but I still had to ride with him to the airport.
Both of these stories are vivid in my mind. I also knew instinctively that no one would believe me, and I needed to keep these to myself. Who knows how many young women suffered after me? And now all these years later, the Southern Baptist Convention releases a report of rampant sexual abuse, including a secret list of 700 accused pastors.
The underlying value of the previous executive leadership of the SBC was...not to demand Christ-like character as the highest aspiration of church leaders, but to protect those leaders from litigation and financial fallout. Click To Tweet
How did this happen? Primarily, denominations who create a culture of maleness over humanness distort the very image of God. When being a male means “boys will be boys” and “women are so tempting,” it is clear that the church culture is formed by the world and not Christ. When women are excluded from partnership and leadership in the church, because theologies say women are weak and are not designed for leadership, the church will plummet again and again into a hell of its own making. Thus, an entire denomination of 13.7 million members for decades perpetuated heinous abuse that was hidden and ignored. When being a male means “boys will be boys” and “women are so tempting,” it is clear that the church culture is formed by the world and not Christ. Click To Tweet
Christ continually rebuked religious leaders and religious systems that privileged their success over character. The foremost sign of a Christian is their Christlikeness, not their baptism. Baptism is a sacrament, but it must be lived out daily with the cleansing power of Christ’s presence to ever guide one toward purity and wholeness. Otherwise, it is an empty ritual. The foremost sign of a Christian is their Christlikeness, not their baptism. Baptism is a sacrament, but it must be lived out daily with the cleansing power of Christ’s presence to ever guide one toward purity and wholeness. Click To Tweet
Christ continually lifted up and released the captive, gave sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. In other words, the mission of Christ was to bring life, not to fill pews. Sunday sermons, offering plates, baptisms, and communions mean little if sitting in those pews are persons oppressed by the church’s leaders. And then when executive leaders dismiss the cries of the oppressed to protect their power and wealth, that is not the body of Christ—that’s a business.
I am lamenting such ugliness in the church, in any church, existing for so long. I do applaud Southern Baptist leaders for releasing the report and for moving to take care of victims and change the culture. When executive leaders dismiss the cries of the oppressed to protect their power and wealth, that is not the body of Christ—that’s a business. Click To Tweet
However, the woes of the Southern Baptist church can also be the woes of any church or denomination. This is not a sin peculiar to Baptists. It is a sin pandemic to Christian leaders everywhere. So, what to do?
Every Church Should:
- Have a clear churchwide policy to describe sexual abuse and to address any infraction, even small ones such as the pastor who was stroking my arm and sitting too close. Sexual abuse often begins with small seemingly innocuous steps. Put together a team of people from the church that includes social workers, therapists, teachers, or school administrators who have had training and would know how to research and create a sexual abuse policy for the church. Then train everyone—leaders and members—regularly, not just once.
- Hold leaders, both volunteer and paid, to the highest standards of character. Have accountability systems and support systems. Leadership is tough. We all wobble at times. We all need pathways of support to hold us accountable. This is the holy task of elders. No leader should ever be his or her only accountability system.
- Have transparent systems for reporting offenses. I should have had a safe way to report the youth minister, and he should have been removed from his position. Transparency is not about airing dirty laundry; it’s about being tough on creating a safe place at God’s table for everyone.
In the end it is important to remind ourselves that these are messy processes. They take time and are disruptive. There are no quick fixes. Occasionally there are false accusations or exaggerated events. Churches are full of fallen people. Leaders do get attacked. Tread always with grace for the offender and the offended. In the end, we are all dependent on the Holy Spirit to guide us into Christ’s perfect likeness and to be his bride.
I pray no other child or person experiences what I did. Thank you, Southern Baptist leaders, for your courage. Now the hard work begins.