Make the SBC Great Again

Charting the Way Forward 

“The Southern Baptist apocalypse. A criminal conspiracy.”

These were the words former SBC doyen Russell Moore said after the release of findings that detail abuse in SBC churches for over two decades. A 2019 joint investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News found that since 1998, there have been at least 700 victims of abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, a fellowship of more than 50,000 churches. Two-hundred and fifty leaders and volunteers have been charged with sex crimes, with nearly 100 currently serving time in prisons from the Gold Country in California to Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Moore’s words specifically targeted the SBC Executive Committee’s (EC) alleged role in covering up crimes and impeding multiple investigations. His letter to then-SBC President J.D. Greear along with audio, strategically leaked just after Moore announced his departure from the SBC, painted a grim portrait of systemic corruption in the EC. Moore accused these leaders of wanting him “to live in psychological terror” and fomenting “institutional terrorism.”

But that was simply not the case. Last week, the Biden Department of Justice’s year-and-a-half-long investigation into the EC concluded without bringing any charges. Executive Committee Interim President Jonathan Howe said that the DOJ notified its counsel that no further action will be taken in that specific probe. (However, according to the SBC’s legal counsel, the investigation of the SBC as a whole remains open.) This tracks with what SBC President Bart Barber said during testimony: the “Southern Baptist Convention has never made a mistake in terms of not reporting abuse.” All told, the EC has spent $2.8 million in legal expenses in the 2022-23 fiscal year and has had to lay off staff to remain solvent.

Especially in light of the results of the DOJ’s investigation into the EC, Moore’s exit looks to be possibly the most blatantly political maneuver undertaken by a Protestant leader in decades. On his way out, Moore attempted to inflict maximum damage on the SBC as a whole while appearing to be a morally pure leader who was above the fray. But the reality is that in trying to appeal to the sympathies of secular elites, he utilized the same underhanded tactics reminiscent of perhaps the most notorious leaker in Washington, D.C.: California U.S. Representative Adam Schiff. In the first podcast of the newly-opened Center for Baptist Leadership, William Wolfe and Jon Whitehead will be doing a deep dive into Moore’s unseemly gambit.

As with Moore and evangelical elites more broadly, American Reformer’s Josh Abbotoy notes that “SBC leaders allowed their moral compasses to be subject to dictates of the mainstream media.” They’ve tended to follow larger cultural trends concerning allegations of abuse. And they’ve generally worked within the moral paradigm set by the #MeToo movement, in which quick vengeance backed by the threat of online mobs masquerades as justice.

Whitehead, a lawyer and trustee at the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has written previously about how SBC leaders have habitually made “reckless promises” to victims that undermine the principles of Baptist ecclesiology. 

In the effort to right perceived wrongs, too many critics have been unable to distinguish between practice and principle. Key points of doctrine in statements such as the Baptist Faith and Message end up getting tossed aside for worldly concerns. The “solutions” many critics offer seem more akin to using C-4 to fix a crack in the Hoover Dam than a reasoned approach that secures justice for victims while preserving historic Baptist practices.

The question comes down to this: Does the SBC need to be razed and taken over by its critics or does it need to be renewed according to Baptist distinctives? This is the choice that SBC leaders confront as the 2024 SBC Annual Meeting approaches.

The aforementioned Center for Baptist Leadership, led by William Wolfe, was recently established to help revitalize the SBC in line with the latter approach. CBL’s mission is to cultivate “courageous and uncompromising Baptist leadership for the 21st Century” that is “grounded in Scripture, creation order, and historic Baptist commitments.” It seeks to create “antifragile Baptist churches and institutions” that are both a haven for congregants and a bulwark against the rampant “cultural insanity and civic breakdown in late-modern America.” 

In the Center’s inaugural piece, “The Path Forward on Abuse Reform in the SBC,” Abbotoy and Whitehead delve into how the CBL recommends that the SBC deal with issues concerning abuse in a distinctively Baptist context. They call for Baptists to elect leaders in Indianapolis who can forthrightly state that the claim that systemic abuse is rife within the SBC is a lie. These leaders should also approve measures like the Law Amendment, which honors the scriptural mandate that only qualified men should be pastors. 

These stances rest on the cornerstone of “Baptist accountability,” which 

naturally flows from the biblical and historically Baptistic principles that undergird the cooperation of autonomous local churches while preserving their direct accountability to God. This Baptist accountability, as G.K. Chesterton might say, hasn’t been tested and found wanting; rather, it has been deemed challenging and left unexplored.

Despite the efforts of activists who are attempting to weaponize compassion against well-meaning Baptists, Abbotoy and Whitehead write that the “SBC should never vote to accept responsibility for what it cannot legally or biblically control in local, autonomous congregations.” Since the SBC is not a denomination but a membership-based fellowship of independent churches, they rightly point out that it “has no authority over the conduct of local churches—and by extension, no legal liability either.”

Specifically regarding how to deal with abuse, Abbotoy and Whitehead argue for abandoning efforts that undermine the principle of Baptist accountability. The Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARTIF) needs to be scrapped, as it “has overpromised and under-delivered at every turn, missing deadlines and undermining our polity.” Same with the proposed Ministry Check database, ARITF’s centerpiece, which is not viable, because it would entail carrying out duties outside of the SBC’s areas of competence. They also strongly inveigh against establishing an Abuse Reform Commission, arguing that it would invite “the wrath of ten thousand judges” due to “the potential liability” issues should the database wrongly label someone as an abuser.

On offense, Abbotoy and Whitehead contend that the SBC needs to adopt “reasonable and appropriate efforts to better train and equip churches to prevent and respond to abuse.” Also, with the DOJ’s tacit exoneration of the SBC’s Executive Committee, along with previous findings of no fault in the Guidepost report, there is reason to trust the EC in this area. 

In a previous piece, Abbotoy focused on larger, systemic issues within SBC institutions that need to be addressed. These include boards filled with trustees of other SBC entities, a regular disregard of bylaws, little to no financial transparency, and tolerating actions that “would form the basis of litigation for breach of fiduciary duty in the context of a for-profit corporation.” And these are just the more egregious issues. 

A crucial part of revitalizing the SBC includes helping churches in historic Baptist strongholds of Appalachia and the South that are in decline. Employing a “cultural insurgency mindset,” Pastor Rhett Burns has put together a plan that’s aimed at building enduring fortresses that will not only withstand cultural pressures but also be outposts that can help reestablish a way of life conducive to Christian flourishing. His recommendations include connecting churches with like-minded institutions so that they can meet in their own buildings. Also, pulpits need to be filled with bold pastors who apply “all the Bible to all of life.” In addition to supplying congregants with solid preaching, this will attract those who understand the implications that orthodox Christianity has for the culture, thereby further fortifying these churches. 

Part of this project can be done through existing SBC institutions. Burns points out that the North American Mission Board (NAMB) “has half a billion dollars in assets” and collects over “$100 million each year in missions giving.” The potential effects of NAMB devoting far more of these considerable resources toward renewing these neglected areas of the country could be staggering. 

While I am not a member of an SBC church, improving the SBC is an effort that all Christians should gladly support. Baptists are undoubtedly the major bulwark in helping to keep orthodox Protestant Christianity afloat in the United States. Southern Baptists must work hard to reform the SBC, ensuring that it keeps to historic Baptist traditions and practices in the face of a determined array of foes who would love nothing more than to see it crumble. 

SBC members are also a key political constituency behind the effort to restore self-government in America. It is not hyperbole to say that America’s rise or fall depends upon the reassertion of a strong Baptist will in our national life.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Mike Sabo

Mike Sabo is a Contributing Editor of American Reformer and an Assistant Editor of The American Mind, the online journal of the Claremont Institute. His writing has appeared at RealClearPolitics, The Federalist, Public Discourse, and American Greatness, among other outlets. He lives with his wife and son in Cincinnati.

2 thoughts on “Make the SBC Great Again

  1. I’m not part of an SBC church, or even Baptist at all, but it seems to me like the SBC has gotten to a similar place that my own denomination, the PCA has, in terms of this stuff. Specifically, any proposed “reform” that doesn’t involve a whole lot of people losing their jobs will amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The problem isn’t with “the system”. It’s that far too many of the specific individuals making decisions within that system are cowards. If they aren’t willing to step up, repent of their prior cowardice, and start doing the right thing, then they have to go. Nothing else will make any difference.

  2. As a Southern Baptist Pastor, I believe this essay truly hits the ball out of the park, from the take on Russell Moore’s legacy, to the disastrous manner in which the SBC has mismanaged ChurchToo issues, to the need for NAMB to refocus on the South and West where the harvest mandate far exceeds the frontier mandate in terms of gospel impact potential in America. We desperately need more accountability and transparency in our agencies. The SBC has lost its way. It is time for us to reject the woke philosophies that are destroying us and start acting like Southern Baptists once again.

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