Churches need to stop thinking about sexual abuse as a public relations nightmare and start making ministering to victims a core part of who they are, said the head of a major Southern Baptist organization at the denomination’s annual meeting.
This year’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Dallas comes just after the fall of one of the convention’s most longstanding leaders, Paige Patterson, over the mishandling of sexual abuse allegations. Two formal events were dedicated to sexual abuse in the church on Monday, the day before the event’s official start.
One overarching theme from both events: Not only should church leaders confronted with abuse allegations go directly to authorities, but churches also need to have proactive plans in place to deal with abuse.
And this: Abuse is not a public relations problem.
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“Jesus does not need you to rescue his reputation,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said at an evening panel to overwhelming applause.
Southern Baptist leaders advised churches to discuss abuse from the pulpit. Be aware that one in four women are statistically victims. (And, said Kimberlee Norris of Ministry Safe in an interview with the Star-Telegram, one in six men.)
Put church resources in the church bulletins and in restrooms. Pastors should speak directly to abuse victims, reminding them that the church is a safe space. Staff should be trained in the proper reactions to abuse (Step one: law enforcement).
“We need to get out of react mode,” said Beth Moore (no relation to Russell), a leading Bible teacher and thinker in the Southern Baptist world.
And always, she said, have a female victim advocate in the room with a female victim no matter what.
Panelists emphasized that the Bible should not be used to minimize abuse. The teachings of grace and mercy in particular, Russell Moore said, cannot be separated from biblical justice. Abusers cannot use the concept of grace to be forgiven and silence victims.
In a denomination that emphasizes sexual purity, some victims may feel an extra layer of shame over what happened to them.
“There is a long, long shot of difference between sexual immorality and sexual criminality that we have to get straight,” Beth Moore said.
Both she and Trillia Newbell, a consultant for women’s initiatives at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and herself an abuse survivor, emphasized the importance of having conversations with your children and making sure they know that home is a place where they can be believed. Age-appropriate sexual education, Newbell said, should start at home.
“God created sex. And we can celebrate that,” Newbell said.
As Southern Baptists are confronting how their churches have handled abuse, some in the denomination are reckoning with how their churches treat women. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The majority of Southern Baptists are complementarians — meaning men are in leadership roles and women are in largely supporting roles. But that does not mean total subjugation of women, several panelists emphasized. If it does, it isn’t biblical.
“A woman can be the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. I don’t see anything in the Bible that prohibits that,” said James Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Georgia.
Before the last event of the night, Gospel Sexuality in a #MeToo Culture, David Bowie’s “Changes” played through the speakers at the Dallas Omni. It seemed an appropriate theme song.
“God seems to be revealing something deeply sick,” Russell Moore said in an interview with the Star-Telegram. “I’m noticing a mood of great gravity and weightiness and sadness and I hope it leads to something good."