The church’s handling of abuse and the #MeToo moment were major topics prior to the SBC’s Annual Meeting and at two panel discussions adjacent to the convention itself. Within the official meeting, actions were limited to passage of two resolutions on the role of women in ministry and an apology to abuse victims, some explanation in reports from seminary presidents, and a motion from the floor asking if a woman could be elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
All this comes on the 100th anniversary of women first being elected as voting messengers to the annual convention, and more important, following weeks of controvery surrounding the handling of abuse cases on two SBC seminary campuses, and remarks about women by former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson. Also former President of Southeastern Seminary where some of the allegations arose, Patterson was first removed from the SWBTS presidency by the full board of trustees, which promoted him to president emeritus with salary and benefits. A week later, as more allegtions emerged, the seminary trustees executive committee fired Patterson from that role and withdrew the offer of housing on the Southwestern campus.
Against this backdrop, messengers arrived in Dallas to find the topics of women and abuse allegtions handled mostly in ancillary panel discussions.
“You need to be trained in this like you’ve never been trained in this,” Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas cautioned ministry leaders at a luncheon sponsored by B21. “Most of these men who’ve done this are narcissists and are going to come off as great guys,” he warned. He warned that pastors should make what is meant by submission clear in their sermons. “Every time you talk about submission you need to add the caveat about spiritual, physical, sexual, emotional abuse, because these guys are using this.”
In the B21 panel discussion and another by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the debate assumed a theological position of complementarianism, meaning men and women serve complementary roles in marriage and leadership.
Southern Seminary President Al Mohler said, “If you want to be a patriarchal abuser, complementarianism is an idiology you can grasp onto… Let’s just own this.” Mohler condemned “the distortion of complementarianism to justify predatory and abusive behavior (as) heresy and sin.” He also stressed that complementarianism doesn’t mean every woman is supposed to be submissive to every man.
At the same session, James Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church in metro Atlanta said, “I don’t know of anything that Scripture prohibits within our denomination that a woman can’t do,” he said. “A woman can be president of the Southern Baptist Convention…. I don’t know of any position a woman cannot hold biblically. Outside the position of elder, I don’t know of any position of authority a woman cannot hold in the church.”
Merritt noted, “I think sometimes we complementarians go into a Pharisee mode of going beyond what the Scriptures teach, and I think it’s a good wake-up moment for us today.”
Southeastern Seminary President Danny Akin told B21 attendees his school did something historic by electing a woman to chair the trustees. “Becky Gardner is one of the most godly, competent women that I’ve ever met. There’s no sense in which you can make a biblical argument about it. She’s not serving as an elder, a pastor, or an overseer. She’s serving as an administrator.” Gardner is the wife of Joe Gardner, an IBSA zone consultant and director of missions at Metro Peoria Association.
But there’s much the local church can do.
Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, said to be careful when using spiritual language such as grace and mercy. “In almost every abuser in a church context I’ve ever seen…[he] wants to identify himself as King David and says we need to forgive this, and move on, ‘I need to continue on the same place where I was before.’”
Moore said the church needs to be bold and say, “That is not what grace is as defined by the gospel of Jesus Christ. You cannot use the grace of God in order to harm and to destroy Jesus’ flock.”
Several of the panelists noted that some churches fear public reports of abuse can ruin their witness in the community. “This is not a public relations issue to be managed,” stated Moore.
“Jesus does not need you to rescue his reputation by covering up sin.”
Kimberlee Norris, sexual abuse attorney with Ministry Safe, said background checks are not enough. She recommended adding to the background checks “training, screening, and appropriate policies that address grooming behaviors.”
Some of the most poignant advice come from ERLC Outreach Director Trilla Newbell, herself a survivor of sexual abuse. She appeared as a panelist at both events. Newbell advised pastors and churches to think ahead about how to handle such incidents. “It is incredibly important that we have (reporting) procedures already developed so that women in your midst, and men, know that they are already safe,” said Newbell, “so that they know you have already been thinking of this. So that they know that they will be loved.”