'In this moment': Greear urges repentance, strong Southern Baptist response to abuse allegations

Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear addresses the SBC Executive Committee last fall in this file photo. In tonight's SBC Executive Committee gathering, Greear spoke on the recent reporting of sexual abuse in the SBC and steps to address it through an advisory group formed last July. MORRIS ABERNATHY/BP

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With heavy language pointing toward remorse and a new emphasis on prevention, Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear’s address to the Executive Committee tonight set a new tone for a denomination-wide call in addressing sexual abuse.

“If we don’t get this right, our churches will not be a safe place for the lost,” he said. “That’s not something I’m okay with, and I know it’s not something you’re okay with.”

Advisory group

Last July, Greear announced the formation of a Sexual Abuse Advisory Group. That group consisting of survivors, advocates, activists, pastors, denominational leaders, counselors, law enforcement, and attorneys both inside and beyond the SBC will “show us how we can move forward,” he said.

The group, he added, consists of “the most qualified experts in the country, over half of which are women, and will serve to analyze the SBC “system, structures, and church culture on where we’ve been missing the mark.”

Those group members are:

  • Rachael Denhollander (survivor, attorney, advocate)
  • Mika Edmondson (pastor and church planter)
  • Brad Hambrick (pastor, counselor, and seminary professor)
  • Samantha Kilpatrick (attorney, former prosecutor, victim advocate, and church advisor)
  • Diane Langberg (psychologist - trauma and abuse specialist)
  • Chris Moles (pastor, ACBC and IABC certified biblical counselor specializing in batterer intervention)
  • Andrea Munford (police officer and lead detective on Larry Nassar case)
  • Karla Siu (Licensed Clinical Social Worker)
  • Darby Strickland (counselor at Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, specializing in domestic abuse)
  • Leslie Vernick (former Licensed Clinical Social Worker and author focusing on destructive relationships

A free 12-lesson 20-minute training resource by the group, “Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused,” will become available to every type of ministry leader.

“Our strategy is to make this kind of training standard for all entities that wear the name ‘Southern Baptist,’” Greear stated. To that end, all six SBC seminaries have committed to integrating the training as mandatory curriculum. In addition, “all 41 state conventions representing all 50 states as well as officers of the SBC Associational Leaders have committed to integrating training on how to care for survivors into their ministries, employee practices, and church resourcing.

Those interested in the training can go to churchcares.com and sign up for an email reminder when the curriculum becomes available. The advisory group, Greear added, will be funded by the Executive Committee and SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. 

‘Words with actions’

In his opening comments to the Executive Committee, Greear addressed the diversity of nominees for the SBC Committee on Committees and strong Cooperative Program giving of churches represented by the nominees. He then moved into calling Southern Baptists to be known for the Gospel, embracing evangelistic causes such as church planting, and reaching the next generation in addition to the “Who’s Your One?” initiative.

The last portion of his address focused on the SBC and sexual abuse.

“I think we recognize, with brokenness, that our culture needs to change when it comes to our response to sexual abuse,” he said. “For years, we have passed resolutions making clear how we feel about abuse. And with nearly 50,000 churches and numerous associations and conventions, some of our membership have taken their responsibility seriously.

“But brothers and sisters, there is a problem.”

... our culture needs to change when it comes to our response to sexual abuse.”

In short, he added, “It’s time we back up our words with actions that demonstrate our commitment to this. … Our goal is for our response to abuse to match the Gospel we proclaim with our mouths. Brothers and sisters, we serve a God who laid down his life to protect the vulnerable. How dare we proclaim that Gospel with our mouths and turn a blind eye when the vulnerable in our midst cry out for help?”

The role of a pastor, he reminded others, bore a particularly heavy weight for those abused. “What would make someone fall away from the Gospel more than experiencing abuse at the hands of those who taught them the Gospel?” he asked.

To change a culture

Greear called on Southern Baptists to respond to some initial recommendations of the study group, beginning for repentance or decades of inaction.

“I’m calling for a season of lament, sorrow, and repentance," he urged. In particular, Greear pointed to those who have aided and abetted in abuse. Furthermore, he called for repentance of a Convention-wide culture “that has made abuse, coverups, and evading accountability far too easy.”

Vigilance in reporting abuse must be championed and blaming victims ended. And biblical teaching on grace, he stressed, didn’t include giving an abuser a second chance to prey on the vulnerable. Also, cooperating with law enforcement must replace steps meant to avoid embarrassment and keep abuse situations out of the public eye.

The repentance needs to include one of pride, Greear stated. Sexual abuse isn’t a problem relegated to the Catholic church, liberal theology, or Hollywood, he noted.

To that end, Southern Baptists must stop using the issue of autonomy as a way to mask abuse prevention.

“Yes, we believe in autonomous churches, but we cannot practice that in a way that allows safe harbor for predators.”

Seminaries, conventions, associations’ involvement

Greear announced that all six SBC seminaries, officers of the SBC Associational Leaders, and all state convention have agreed to three Statements of Principles on Abuse documents. Click here for the statement regarding seminaries, here for the one on SBC Associational Leaders, and here for the statement by state conventions.

Policies and procedures should factor heavily on placing ministers and volunteers working among children, he stated.

“Our study group is actively preparing resources and recommendations for strengthening policies and practices and will make those available by our time together at the Birmingham convention,” said Greear, pointing out that background checks are “a bare minimum.”

“I understand that there would be expense involved in this and I understand that there would be issues on the floor of the convention possibly, but we need to figure this out. Our goal is to be able to say to survivors that we want to be as vigilant as possible to prevent the inclusion of predators at any level within our structure.”

Importance of ordination

Reassessing the ordination process needs to also happen. “Ordaining a pastor is serious business, and our ordination councils should not come with rubber stamps. Why is it that our background check and screening processis often more rigorous for children’s ministry volunteers than people being ordained? This is a sacred responsibility and we have to take it seriously, ensuring each candidate lives up to the standards set out by the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 3.”

Greear further called on state conventions and LifeWay to add questions for Annual Church Profile reports related to sexual abuse and prevention policies. At the SBC annual meeting in Birmingham, he added, a time of “prayer and lament” will be held Wednesday from the main stage. In addition, a study group report will become available, and Monday night the group will partner with the ERLC to host the event “Sexual Abuse and the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Resources on sexual abuse will be made available throughout the meeting, he said.

Database, disfellowshipping churches

The topic of a database of offenders, Greear noted, “has been discussed for years and interest in a solution is swelling across the SBC. I want to be clear that our study group is putting every option on the table when it comes to addressing abuse and this is just the initial phase.”

A database, he explained, would take time to adequately evaluate. Sources such as abuse survivors, advocates, and experts on other options have been consulted. And while plans of a database aren’t being announced now, that doesn’t mean it’s not being considered.

From there, Greear addressed the cases of churches connected to sexual abuse.

“Based on existing constitutional authority, I am calling us to do our due diligence regarding churches among our convention who may well have already demonstrated a lack of good standing on this issue,” he stated.

“Strengthening our language is important, but words will not matter unless action comes with them.

“We need to be honest with ourselves. If news stories had listed a number of our churches who were alleged to have changed their position on homosexuality, we would rightly begin to ask questions and potentially take steps to cease cooperation, because our position on this issue is clear.We must take seriously that our position on abuse is clear too.”

If news stories had listed a number of our churches who were alleged to have changed their position on homosexuality, we would rightly begin to ask questions and potentially take steps to cease cooperation, because our position on this issue is clear.

Citing media reports over the last week, Greear questioned those churches mentioned as being in fellowship with the Baptist Faith and Message. Stating the seriousness of disfellowshipping a church, he nonetheless urged Executive Committee members to not dismiss allegations. “The stakes are simply too high,” he said.

Those churches, he charged, in some cases “were alleged to have directly acted in a manner that was negligent at best and malicious at worst. If the alleged reports are correct, we’ve had churches that operated out of alignment with Gospel practices articulated by our Baptist Faith and Message.

“In the interest of being above reproach, we should perform due diligence to verify whether or not these churches are indeed operating with a faith and practice that upholds the Baptist Faith and Message, specifically Article XV, which says that we should seek to provide for the abused.

I urge the bylaws workgroup of the administrative committeeto take the necessary steps to determine whether the following churches meet the standards of having a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith as outlined in Article 3 of the SBC Constitution:

  • Arapaho Baptist Church, Garland, Texas
  • Bolivar Baptist Church, Sanger, Texas
  • Brentwood Baptist Church, Houston, Texas
  • Cathedral of Faith, Houston, Texas
  • Eastside Baptist Church, Marietta, Georgia
  • First Baptist Church, Bedford, Texas
  • Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas
  • Sovereign Grace Church, Louisville, Kentucky
  • Trinity Baptist Church, Ashburn, Georgia
  • Turner Street Baptist Church, Springdale, Arkansas

Greear stated that those churches are not being called upon “for disfellowshipping … at this point but these churches must be called upon to give assurance to the SBC that they have taken the necessary steps to correct their policies and procedures with regards to abuse and care for survivors.”

The goal, he reiterated, is to never disfellowship but urge correction.

‘Magnitude of a horrific sin’

Though the media’s light has shined bright and hot on the SBC over the last week, Greear thanked them for exposing “this evil that so many have been posting about and speaking about for decades.”

“I, along with the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group, would like to thank the media shining a light on the magnitudeof this horrific sin. As the counselor Paul Tripp said, “We cannot grieve what we do not see, we cannot confess what we have not grieved, and we cannot turn from what we haven’t confessed.”

In turn, Greear urged Southern Baptists, “Brothers and sisters, it is time for change. The world is watching. People are waiting. And God is going to hold us accountable for how we respond to this moment.”

Executive Committee, J.D. Greear, SBC annual meeting, sexual abuse