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Train tracks beside a lit sign for the Community of Faith church.
The Southern Baptist Convention faces a massive sexual abuse scandal, initially broken by the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle. Community of Faith Church is based in Houston.
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The sexual abuse scandal rocking the Southern Baptist Convention, explained

America’s largest Protestant denomination covered up a sexual abuse problem for decades.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A new report summarizing an independent investigation into the history of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) details decades of gaslighting and cover-ups.

The SBC is a collection of loosely affiliated member churches, boasting just under 15 million members. It has no firm, established hierarchy; it doesn’t even have a central headquarters. In theory, individual churches can preach or believe whatever they want, but the larger “convention” can remove member churches that don’t toe certain lines. Representatives of these churches meet each year at an annual event — also called a convention. At the 2021 convention, member churches voted to conduct an internal investigation of sexual abuse within the church.

Complaints about sexual abuse and sexual assault on the part of pastors were sent to higher-ups who then kept those accusations quiet. Though the report, by Guidepost Solutions, was only commissioned to study the cover-up from the years 2000 on, it found incidents of sexual abuse and warnings of the same going back to the 1960s. In all, Guidepost found accusations leveled against people at all levels: church volunteers, staff, and leadership, including those at the top of the church’s ladder. Those accusations were made by people of different ages and genders, and they include allegations of child sexual abuse, the grooming of adolescents, and the sexual assault of adults.

These findings were not unprecedented. A major investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, published in 2019, first brought many of the accusations against church leadership to light. The publication of that report galvanized a grassroots drive by individual Southern Baptist churches to hire a firm to conduct an investigation.

What the Guidepost report has shown is the sheer enormity of the problem, beyond the already staggering scope the Houston and San Antonio newspapers had revealed. Russell D. Moore, formerly the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission until he resigned both from that post and the SBC entirely in 2021, called the report the “Southern Baptist apocalypse” in a column for Christianity Today.

“It is horrifying. I expected to be the last person surprised by anything,” Moore said of the report, “and there were sections that were stunning even to me. It’s a horror, a sense of grief. It makes me contemplate the fact that I don’t even know a thimbleful of what must be being experienced by people who have survived these horrific acts of abuse in church settings. That weighs heavily.”

“Whatever vindication there is here for us, it very much goes hand in hand with grief,” said Christa Brown, the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang. “I know the stories that are behind the names of these pastors [named in the report]. I know the people. I know the decimation in their lives. I know the human cost of what it has taken to get this truth out into the open.”

There’s a natural comparison point for these incidents: the scandal that ensued when the Catholic Church’s cover-up of its knowledge of priests who were child sexual abusers came to light, most prominently in a 2002 report by the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe. In this situation, too, the work of dogged newspaper journalists uncovered a scandal that the SBC was finally forced to step up and acknowledge.

The path forward to actually effecting change within the SBC is fraught with its own difficulties, however. Chief among them is the SBC’s structure — or lack thereof. Where the Catholic Church boasted a rigid hierarchy for parishioners and journalists to inveigh against in the name of justice, the SBC is loose and almost structureless. That will make reforming it very difficult indeed.

What’s more, the SBC’s theological underpinnings will make elevating the voices of those accusing pastors of abuse difficult because it privileges the voices of those pastors over those of their parishioners, especially women parishioners. In short, once a charismatic man becomes the leader of an SBC church, it can be very hard to punish him in a meaningful way.

Yet the SBC isn’t the only institution with a charismatic man problem. Those institutions litter the entirety of American evangelicalism and America itself.

Why the structure of the SBC poses unique challenges to reforming it

Let’s start with one thing that may not be immediately obvious: The SBC publicly releasing both the Guidepost report and a list of accused abusers that it kept secret for years is an unprecedented move for the denomination. Moore sees some hope in the fact that the report exists at all.

“Before the [Texas newspapers’] report, I would have to spend a lot of time convincing congregations that this was a problem that could happen to them,” he said. “There was often this sense of screening out predators by vibe. People would often think, ‘Well, we know people [in our congregation], so we know we don’t have any problems like that.’ I noticed a big shift in that after the Houston Chronicle report. This investigation happened because grassroots Southern Baptists came to the convention last year and demanded that it happen over and against much of their leadership.”

The most obvious parallel to this scandal is the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal. However, where these two scandals differ lies in how differently the Catholic Church and the SBC are structured.

The effectiveness of the Catholic Church’s response to its scandal is highly debatable, but the church’s hierarchical structure (priests report to bishops report to cardinals report to the pope) meant that parishioners and the media had several pressure points they could push against in the process of trying to understand what had happened. Abuse survivors could also sue individual dioceses to receive financial restitution.

The SBC lacks a similar hierarchy. It doesn’t see itself as a formal denomination but, rather, a loose association of churches that believe similarly. This structure gives individual churches under its banner lots of leeway to handle matters on their own. If your church’s pastor is misbehaving, it’s not always clear whom to report him to, especially if you don’t believe anyone in the church’s membership will do anything. But it’s not as though the SBC was unaware of the abuse problems within its ranks, despite its lack of traditional hierarchy.

“When it comes to addressing sexual abuse, up until now, they have claimed that because of their church policy, they don’t have the authority to track abusers and hold local churches accountable,” said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University and the author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. “But in the report we found that they had, in fact, been tracking abusers in their churches and had been maintaining a private database for their own protection. They had not in any way reached out and tried to prosecute those abusers to keep people safe.”

In addition, while lawsuits can be brought against individual churches or clergy members, the lack of anything like a diocese within the SBC means that any lawsuits will necessarily target either the smallest units of the organization or the organization as a whole. There isn’t really a good middle ground. The convention does have an executive committee, which possesses a fair amount of power to set the stage for what is considered acceptable within the SBC, but very little fills the gap between that executive committee and individual churches.

The difficulty of seeking legal restitution and the lack of a strong hierarchy combine to explain why finding justice for survivors of sexual abuse in many Protestant denominations could prove very tricky.

“It’s not just an SBC thing,” Joshua Pease, a pastor who has also worked as a journalist covering sexual abuse in the evangelical church, said. “There are multiple different denominations that have very loose affiliations or very loose organizational structures. And then there are nondenominational churches that genuinely have zero denominational structure to them, where it literally is just one church, all on its own.”

The SBC report is a decided anomaly, simply because the SBC does have a hierarchical structure, no matter how loose or decentralized. If the pastor of a nondenominational church is sexually abusing congregants, the only authority a victim might be able to turn to is law enforcement.

SBC’s history highlights a schism that may have led to this moment

A term that comes up a lot in writing and discussions about problems with sexual abuse within the SBC or the evangelical church more broadly is “complementarianism.” In brief, complementarianism is a kind of theology that holds that men and women are created by God with inherent strengths and weaknesses, and that those differences should be not only embraced but baked into society. It’s at the root of many of the evangelical church’s struggles to recognize women in positions of authority, for obvious reasons, but it’s also at the root of many of the church’s problems with queer people.

Complementarianism holds that “there is a hierarchical order. Man is the head of the woman, and so women should not aspire to do what men are able to do. Women should be primarily focused on home and children,” said Molly T. Marshall, president of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. “The complementarian notion is separate roles. I would say it’s not equal roles.”

As a theology, it does not explicitly say, “Don’t believe women and children who accuse men of terrible things,” but it creates a power structure where a man who is accused of terrible things by those this theology views as beneath him is given often endless benefit of the doubt.

The SBC does possess some institutional weight that it can use to punish offending churches. The few times it has, however, it has used that weight to prop up complementarianism, rather than punish churches harboring abusers.

Via a process called “defellowship,” the SBC member churches can remove other churches from the convention entirely. That allows the SBC to maintain some degree of theological consistency across a vast, mostly decentralized organization, which in some cases is important to the church’s mission, according to Moore. As he explains, an SBC church that suddenly started preaching polytheism would no longer be practicing Christianity as any denomination understands it. But defellowship is also used to legislate issues of who gets power and recognition within the church, and who does not.

“If you tried to ordain a woman or someone who’s gay, your church would be kicked out of the convention instantly,” said Pease. Yet this process was not used to remove churches where pastors were accused of abuse.

Southern Baptist Convention 2018
Various people protest sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention in 2018.
Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Complementarianism was also at the core of one of the most significant events in SBC history: the Kansas City convention of 1984. At that convention, a religious conservative drift within the SBC was solidified as the closest thing the SBC has to a doctrine, and that meant no women pastors. More progressive Southern Baptist churches either changed their views to more closely conform to that doctrine or more often left the SBC entirely, starting new fellowships of Baptist churches.

“I wouldn’t say that the Southern Baptist Convention was affirming of women in ministry so much [before 1984] as there were people and pockets within the Southern Baptist Convention that allowed more freedom for congregations to make those choices,” said Meredith Stone, the executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry. Stone’s organization was formed in 1983, and she has long wondered if its very existence played some role in the Kansas City convention of 1984.

Marshall also found herself at the center of those events. She was the first woman to attend the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and she was working there at the time of the resurgent conservative movement within the SBC. She was later pushed out of her job as a professor at Southern, despite tenure, because her views were no longer in line with those of the SBC.

“In my time as a professor at Southern Seminary, there were horrible pressures to fit into this complementarian modality, which always subjugates women. I would not put up with that, which is why I was run out of town,” Marshall said. “I was undaunted in my claim that women had equal authority in the church and were called to pastoral work, as would be any man that felt that calling.”

The events of 1984 are central to the modern SBC’s understanding of itself, but as Moore points out in his Christianity Today column, the two architects of that moment have been exposed as hypocrites by the revelations about sexual abuse problems within the church. Moore writes:

Those two mythical leaders are now disgraced. [Paige Patterson] was fired after alleged [sic] mishandling a rape victim’s report in an institution he led after he was documented making public comments about the physical appearance of teenage girls and his counsel to women physically abused by their husbands. [Paul Pressler] is now in civil proceedings about allegations of the rape of young men.

Complementarianism’s centrality within the SBC led to a heavily patriarchal institution, which Stone said created an environment in which sexual abuse could happen and be covered up as extensively as the Guidepost report said it was. And as such, she said, simple systemic fixes ultimately won’t be enough to reform the SBC. Instead, theological changes will have to be made, and they will be ones the SBC won’t want to make.

“The underlying systemic issues within the Southern Baptist Convention have to do with a theology that said some people are favored by God, some people have more power, and God supports them having that power and exerting it over others,” Stone said. “That in no way diminishes the culpability of individuals and the decisions that they make to act in an abusive way against another person. But I think when they are in an environment that says God supports power over saying God is about love and inclusion, it makes those actions more palatable.”

Yet the problems within the SBC aren’t just the problems of the SBC. They’re problems within evangelical churches more broadly — and within America.

The evangelical church is obsessed with charismatic guys who are leaders. But that’s not just true of the evangelical church.

Culturally, the structure of most evangelical churches makes it very hard to imagine reprisal for a powerful, popular leader. Complementarianism doesn’t just place men at the center of the church but also of the family unit; it also defines “man” in a very specific way.

Andrew Whitehead, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and co-author of the book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, has found in his research that the evangelical conception of God is aggressively gendered. Yes, evangelicals are more likely than any other religious group to say that God is definitely a man, but they’ve also turned him into an incredibly masculine man, one who fulfills traditional gender roles, which are then meant to be reflected in the church.

“When you have men at the top with very little accountability and essentially blinders on, they can’t see all the different aspects of a situation,” Whitehead said. “So when things like this pop up, [evangelical men] tend to be absolutely ignorant of it or tend to protect their own, and not listen to those voices that might threaten what they see as their God-given right to be in control.”

The Houston Chronicle’s 2019 report was one major reason the SBC launched an internal investigation.
Loren Elliott/AFP via Getty Images

Du Mez said this contributes to a culture that can, readily and easily, excuse sexual abuse. In her research, she has found that evangelical churches very often suggest a kind of gender essentialism in how men and women approach sex, with men seen as naturally lustful and testosterone-driven and women seen as naturally pure and non-lustful. The woman’s job is to protect purity; the man is often not at fault for giving in to his urges. Couple that outlook with a culture that generally practices deference to leaders, and you have an environment rife with the opportunity for abuse.

“When a case of sexual misconduct surfaces, it is more common than not that women are going to be blamed. ‘What did you do to seduce him?’” Du Mez said. This belief system suggests, she said, that “men just have such a hard time controlling these needs that if they aren’t being met, they’re going to find an outlet. So it’s the woman’s fault, or it’s his wife’s fault, because clearly, if he was looking outside of his marriage relationship to fulfill his sexual needs, she was not meeting them.”

Changing that culture will be difficult for many reasons. Moore suggests that the most lasting changes may have to be grassroots ones. He points to a shift within individual churches in the last few decades that has now spread across almost the entirety of the SBC. In the past, there was little oversight of the process by which parents left their children at church nurseries during services. Over time, individual churches put in place safeguards that led to making sure children were never left alone with a single nursery worker and the introduction of a system in which only people who are authorized can see the child or leave the nursery with them. That reform was introduced at a handful of churches; that it has now spread so widely through the SBC suggests one possible way for micro changes to become macro ones.

What’s more, the church can certainly make broader, more systemic changes and could adopt the recommendations within the Guidepost report. Those would all be major, concrete steps taken to reform the SBC and its culture, and they would lead to an environment where abuse would be less likely.

Brown, the author of This Little Light, remains skeptical. Yes, the SBC could set up bodies to which those being abused could appeal, it could provide protection for other whistleblowers in the organization, and it could set up a restitution fund. Those steps, however, would have to be through groups that were independent from SBC leadership and had authority that existed outside the organization, steps she said the SBC would be unlikely to take. Instead, she fears these problems will be handled within their local churches, the very place many of these survivors suffered abuse.

“They must get past this notion of telling survivors to go to the local church,” Brown said. “All that does is send bloody sheep back to the den of the wolves who savaged them, and people are horribly wounded in that process.”

While it’s tempting to look at the problems facing the SBC as directly tied to complementarianism, requiring an overhaul to a more progressive form of theology, Pease is careful to remind me that churches are uniquely susceptible to the problem of being led by a charismatic man who is allowed to get away with things because he’s seen as guiding the church successfully. That problem applies equally to all denominations, regardless of their larger politics.

But that’s not exclusively a problem of religious organizations, either. It’s a problem with every aspect of American life — from the tech industry to academia to Hollywood to your local church.

“Any institution is going to become a little bit insular, and probably the strongest leader is going to rise to the surface. There’s always going to be a tendency then for abuse,” Pease said. “How do we intentionally build cultures that counteract that? That’s something as a society we’re still figuring out, because we bought into the myth of the charismatic leader so deeply, and we’re paying such a heavy price.”


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