Southern Baptist Beliefs about Gender and Power Contributed to the Sexual Abuse Scandal

By: Susan M. Shaw

September 25, 2019

The Role of Theology and Organizational Structure in Addressing Clergy Sexual Abuse

In February, the Houston Chronicle began a series documenting sexual abuse among Southern Baptist churches. In June, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) applauded itself for creating a committee to handle complaints against churches that do not address abuse properly but rejected a proposal for mandatory background checks and failed to set up a database of abusers.

Central to the Convention’s abuse scandal are distinct Southern Baptist theologies and polity that contributed to an environment in which abuse by pastors could proceed unabated. 

Patriarchal Hierarchy and the Subordination of Women

Fundamentalist Southern Baptists seized power from moderates in the Convention in the 1980s under the banners of biblical inerrancy and theological conservatism. Prior to the takeover, the Women’s Movement had begun to have an impact on Southern Baptists, with increasing numbers of women entering Southern Baptist seminaries professing a call to ordained ministry. Fundamentalists responded by amending Convention confessions and passing resolutions.

The Convention embraced a theology of hierarchy that placed women and children firmly under the control of men in the church and home. The Convention adopted a resolution in 1984 that excluded women from pastoral leadership (though the debate over women preaching just flared up again). In 1992, the Convention insisted God as Father is “central and essential” to faith and in 2000 added a statement to its confession that asserted wives were to submit graciously to their husbands. In 2018, the Convention affirmed “complementary gender relations.” Complementarianism claims women and men are of equal value before God, but God has defined distinct roles based on gender that require women’s submission. The Convention also helped launch the purity movement with its “True Love Waits” curriculum. The purity movement has notoriously placed responsibility for maintaining sexual purity (for both women and men) on women.

Pastoral Authority, Good Ol’ Boys, and Forgiveness

Even as the SBC moved to exclude women from ordained ministry, the Convention embraced “pastoral authority,” with the pastor as the “ruler” of the church. While Southern Baptist churches have always been led predominantly by men, as churches that supported the ordination of women left the SBC in the wake of the fundamentalist takeover, the denomination returned to an all-male clergy, and, as we’ve seen in the Catholic Church’s own abuse scandal, an all-male clergy contributes to the problem of sexual abuse.

Within this framework of pastoral authority and an all-male clergy is a good ol’ boy system that ensures denominational power remains in the hands of men. In this system, men support each other and believe each other rather than survivors. After all, they are steeped in a culture that distrusts women and blames women for men’s sexual weakness. This system, then, allows abusers to stay in place or to move from congregation to congregation.

Furthermore, Baptist beliefs about repentance and forgiveness make restitution for sexual abuse unnecessary. If a perpetrator claims he has repented, that confession is adequate for forgiveness by God, the church, and the male leadership of the denomination. No consequences are necessary, and, certainly, no recompense to the survivor is required.

To take abuse seriously and to take action would challenge Southern Baptist male power. Baptist churches are democratic, and, theoretically, each member has an equal voice in the congregation. But the embrace of pastoral authority has meant members have given up their power for fear of challenging the pastor (which in Baptist authoritarian thinking is like challenging God).

Theological Education

Most Southern Baptist pastors receive some theological education, and so the six Southern Baptist seminaries could have impact on this problem of abuse. The seminaries have recently agreed to make abuse prevention training mandatory. Given Southern Baptists’ beliefs about women, men, and hierarchy, however, the likelihood any curriculum produced by the Convention would actually address the underlying causes of abuse (male power and dominance, macho culture, gender stereotyping, children and women’s vulnerability, victim-blaming and credibility questioning) seems slim.

In fact, the seminaries have rejected psychology-based counseling in favor of “biblical counseling.” Biblical counseling relies on the “sufficiency” of scripture to provide whatever guidance is needed.

Reliance on the Bible alone hardly prepares seminary students to deal with the complexities of abuse. It does not prepare pastors to understand how abuse works, to address the consequences of abuse, or to disrupt the good ol’ boys system by confronting ministers who abuse.

Southern Baptist Polity

Polity should not stand in the way of effective reform in the denomination. Southern Baptists believe that each local church is independent and autonomous. The local church makes its own decisions, and the SBC cannot tell it what to do. That belief has been the cover for the Convention’s inaction on developing a registry for abusers. The Convention first rejected the idea of a database in 2008, citing local church autonomy. 

Creating a registry, however, would not interfere with local church autonomy but would provide a resource for churches to report abusers and to consult in the hiring process. 

While the SBC cannot direct local churches, it does have a great deal of influence through its resources for members. The Convention could use its educational materials, conferences, and events to promote background checks, encourage engagement with a registry, and educate about abuse. Unfortunately, as noted above, the denomination’s current ideas about women, children, power, and hierarchy would likely stand in the way of accurate information and effective teaching on sexual abuse.

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