Sexual Sin and the Ministry

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Today’s guest author is Wesley Handy. Wes is happily married to his wife of over five years, Zhanara (‘zh’ pronounced like the ‘s’ in measure). They have two children, Odelia and Isaiah, and are expecting their third this Spring. Currently. Wes serves as an Assistant Registrar at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is also a Ph.D. student in Applied Theology with a concentration in Christian Missions. He is a member of First Baptist Church, where he has served as a lay person since Fall 2000. For the past three years, he has been co-leading mission teams into the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan, cooperating with a local indigenous church in their missionary efforts among their own countrymen and beyond.

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Lest you think this post is intending to be a shock and awe, grab your attention with a naughty topic kind of post, please keep reading—this is a serious issue. In the past year, several Southern Baptist ministers and seminary students have been revealed publicly as sex offenders. In the past month, the community around Southeastern Seminary has been rocked by the alleged crimes of a student. Right now, do a Google search on “Baptist minister sex scandal” and peruse the results.

It is sickening.

Well, it’s really not that surprising though, since we’re all sinners whose natural number one priority is self-gratification. The fact that these things happen does not invalidate the gospel or irreversibly scar the image of Southern Baptists. The Bible tells us that we are this way, and it provides the means to overcome the problem. I don’t mean to overlook the pain caused by sexual sin, but even those victimized by sin can find healing in Jesus. Only when we fail to respond with attention to God’s love and holiness do we dishonor Jesus and our other Christian brothers and sisters. We need to learn how to deal with these issues rightly.

On her website “StopBaptistPredators.org: Shining Light on Clergy Sex Abuse,” Christa Brown leads a charge for exposing what she thinks is a systemic problem among SBC churches. Bob Allen, in an article posted this 12/31/07 on EthicsDaily.com, highlights the number of sex scandals among Southern Baptist ministers in the past year. Allen also reports on the apparent spitting contest between Christa Brown along with SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and the SBC Executive Committee.

[One must note that Ethics Daily is produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics which, though independent, states on its website the following:

“BCE is a freestanding, nonprofit organization. BCE’s financial support comes from a variety of organizations. These have included the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Baptist General Association of Virginia and Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. The state Cooperative Baptist Fellowships in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee have also provided funding, and a growing number of churches are placing BCE in their mission budgets” (emphasis added).

In other words, it is not sympathetic to the SBC.]

In another article, Allen reports that “Brown, a survivor of clergy sex abuse, and SNAP have been calling for the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics, to develop a denomination-wide policy to eradicate sexual predators similar to one adopted by Catholic bishops in response to a pedophile priest scandal five years ago.” But if you are a Southern Baptist you notice a problem. Southern Baptist churches are autonomous and local, whereas the Catholic Church is unified and hierarchical. No SBC entity, including the Executive Committee, much less a neighboring church, could enforce this database on another Baptist church. A backward, ignorant church could hire a sex offender if they wanted to, and it would be their own fault. This doesn’t make it right, but it is a reality of the relationship between Baptist churches. Therefore, something else must be done.

Before we come to that something else, let us first applaud the efforts of Christa Brown and SNAP. Never, no never, should we sweep under the rug the sexual sins of our pastors and leaders. Go to her website and read a little about her life. She was abused by her youth minister; then the pastor knowingly offered the minister to quit or be exposed. In other words, he allowed the fiend to save face, while a young woman was kept quiet and thereby SHAMED. What a backward situation!!! Christa found that minister was still a pastor years later.

I Timothy 5:20 “But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning.” Then Paul exhorts Timothy to “keep these instructions without partiality.” Why? Because it is easy to be partial to a respected leader. We should never give a leader an easy sentence, because “those who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). I know that is out of context, but I think it applies.

Here’s the problem, because Baptist churches are local, autonomous, and thus largely independent, it has become easy for sexual predators to slip from congregation to congregation unawares. The conclusion of Brown and SNAP is to promote nationwide databases; here’s the beginning of one for Southern Baptists. Such a ministerial database would not be useless, and kudos to Wade Burleson for making a motion to investigate such an endeavor. (But I think it might be illegal to blacklist folks who were only credibly accused. You might find yourself on the wrong side of a huge lawsuit. Furthermore, what does credibly mean? Also, by law, a person is innocent until proven guilty. If you want to change that, then you better not have many enemies…) Though one can understand why someone might be offended when Frank Page and others called the project a “moot point,” a database falls way short of what is needed in our convention due to our polity. On her website, Christa Brown attacks the “autonomy excuse” by pointing out the instances that State Conventions have “disfellowshipped” churches for other doctrinal issues. Though the ability to break fellowship exists, such an action would be too little, too late. In other words, you can only disassociate from a church after something has happened; the abuse would have to have already taken place. On top of that, you are punishing an entire church for the actions of one or a few among the ranks. Then the church becomes a victim, and the ones devastated by the abuse become double victims. It would be a different story if a church knowingly hired a sex offender as ministerial staff. Furthermore, breaking fellowship with a church does not violate that church’s autonomy. Life in the church can go on as before. So, I don’t buy her claim that “local church autonomy” is a smoke screen excuse. Southern Baptist churches are not the Roman Catholic Church. We can have 10,000 databases, but local churches have to take the steps, not just the convention. There is some truth to the adage that the SBC exists only three days out of the year. That being the reality of Southern Baptist life, what should be done? Note: these are not listed in any particular order:

First, pastor search committees should do background searches on all prospective ministerial candidates; contact every church the pastor has served in the past. (The burden of which would be greatly reduced if ministers were raised from within, but that’s another post on another day.) If such a database ever comes into existence, it should be standard procedure for churches to check it. Here’s a tidbit from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC website :

“The church can do a much better job making sure they do not call an immoral minister. Churches must check out the minister before extending a call. They should run references, talk to directors of missions, check with former church members, and question other ministers who know the prospect. Don’t hesitate to ask any question about the prospective minister. Listen carefully to what the reference may tell you.”

Second, other staff or church members should never take sexual sin lightly. If a pastor has been involved in any sexual sin in the past, he has been forever disqualified from the ministry (I Timothy 3:2). Note, I’m not saying he is not a Christian. In Christ, there is forgiveness and healing; but a sex offender has qualified himself to be a car or insurance salesman, not a minister. Let him live the gospel, God will raise other leaders.

Third, when a pastor or staff member has committed sexual abuse, he is subject to the law. Do not be merciful and protect him from justice; rather, be loud. The lost world is more amazed at our silence on the issue than the fact it happens (FYI, in our sex-crazed culture, it happens everywhere). If he is convicted, proclaim that Christ does not condone such actions. Tell of the Law; repeat that “the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Then, preach the gospel. You have the world watching and listening. Let us not be silent any longer. Let not the media have the last word.

Fourth, actively and passionately comfort the afflicted. How many homosexuals are there in the world who may come to Jesus if they only find the healing salve of the cross? How many people tainted by sexual sin, lack only the comfort of the Holy Spirit? But that would require that we love people. I think we may love our image more than we love people and that more than we love Jesus. How many people are ready to quit Christianity in light of these tragedies? Let us not give them silence and deepen their grief and sorrow, let us give them hope!

Fifth, Church Discipline, need I say more?!

Finally, databases should be kept not only on the National Convention level, but also on the Associational level and State Convention level. If these databases were maintained and used, it would be harder for people with previous records of sexual sin in the ministry to slip from church to church.

Please feel free add more to this list in the comments.

Friends, because of who we are as Southern Baptists, for us to make progress, this has to happen on the local church level. We should support the creation of databases, on the Associational, State Convention, and National Convention levels, but each church has the responsibility to care for its health and well-being by thoroughly screening its prospective ministers as well as responding to possible situations with the heart of the gospel—love and holiness.