"Kids in Baptist churches would be a great deal safer if denominational leaders would recognize that, whether or not they have any legal obligation, they have a moral obligation to congregations and to the public to investigate and disclose admitted, proven and credibly accused child molesters hiding among the ranks of Baptist clergy." -- From Christa Brown's Stop Baptist Predators web site
This post brings together the issue of clergy sexual abuse and the time-honored Baptist doctrine of local church autonomy. Organizations like SBP and SNAP have brought the problem of sexual abuse by clergy to the forefront -- and well they should. This is a very real problem, and unfortunately, one that has been pushed to the background and even covered up by some Baptist clergy, churches and institutions.
The problem. Sexual abuse by the clergy may take at least two forms -- (1) child abuse, in which the victims are under legal age of sexual consent, and (2) abuse of adults who are vulnerable because of the pastor's authority/power. Both are moral issues. And both can be legal matters. The first, child abuse, is obviously so. The second may depend somewhat on and vary by state laws. For example, in the state of Texas, a clergymen can be guilty of sexual exploitation as a "mental health services provider" (Chapter 81 of the "Civil Practices and Remedy Code") and "a sexual assault under Subsection (a)(1) is without the consent of the other person if...the actor is a clergyman who causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person's emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman's professional character as spiritual adviser..." (Texas Penal Code sec. 22.011).
Doing something to stop sexual predators that have themselves in pastoral, youth, music and other "ministries". Evidence indicates that many times the perpetrators, once exposed, simply move on to another church in another area. Often victims do not have the power or resources to stop them. The perpetrator may be in a position of power and the church may have great trust in him. Churches may not believe the victim, may not have the fortitude to deal with the issue, think forgiveness is the ideal, or handle it in a variety of other ways.
Where the two issues come together. Exposing clergy sexual abuse and local church autonomy sometimes seem at odds with one another. To those who want Baptists to organize at the national level against abuse by the clergy, local autonomy may be seen as an excuse to do nothing. Robert Parham (of the Baptist Center for Ethics) called local church autonomy, in regards to preacher predators, a "smoke-screen behind which fundamentalists hide, covering the dark reasons that they wish to skirt moral responsibility." This is strong language. A bulk of complaints is directed against the Southern Baptist Convention, I suppose since it is by far the largest Baptist group. Those like Parham believe SBC leaders "override local church autonomy when they want to enforce doctrinal and political power" and simply won't do anything about the abuse issue. On the other hand, Art Rogers writes, "...the SBC does not have the privilege of oversight and governance among local congregations." And that is the hard fact. I am not in the SBC and have no intention of defending its structure (which I really don't like). But I believe that most sincere SBC folks believe that their structure and practice maintains local church autonomy and they try to approach it consistently (regardless of how the rest of us see it).
Much energy can be expended condemning the SBC for inaction. More energy can be expended hammering against Baptist polity (local church autonomy) and seeking to change or undermine it in order to fight clergy sexual abuse in Baptist congregations. But Baptist polity has been in place as long as there have been Baptists, and Baptists are likely to think about abandoning local autonomy, much less actually changing it. It seems to me that a better approach is to come up with ways to deal with the problem WITHIN existing Baptist polity rather than trying to change that polity. Such a solution might be more universally implemented, since all Baptists (not just SBC) share this belief in local autonomy.
In combination with some better ideas that others might have, I believe a return of Baptists to apostolic practice in the following five areas could prove helpful.
1. Replace the single pastor model with a biblical plurality of equal elders. In addition to following New Testament precedent, this will diminish the authority/power/prestige element that perpetrators use to their advantage to molest and cover it up. Even large churches with more than one minister nevertheless have a top-down hierarchy.
2. Lessen the "clergy-laity divide". The clergy-laity divide in Baptist churches is greater than in the New Testament priesthood of believers. Also, the power and authority of pastors is somewhat "out of control". In some cases a single pastor or senior pastor may be theoretically answerable to his congregation yet practically answerable to no one.
3. Expect God to raise up ministers from our midst. Other than itinerants like the apostles, the New Testament ministers seem to be raised up from the church's own ranks. We may not always know those we think we know as well as we think we know them. But this eliminates the "normalcy" of ministers traveling across the country to new pastorates with their wicked deeds left safely behind.
4. Promote "simple church" in place of the monstrous business-like structures most Americans call church, including house churches with smaller more intimate fellowship where the blight of clergy abuse might be harder to cover up, more likely to be found out, and less likely to be tolerated. It is sometimes a charge that churches are frozen to inaction by a fear of lawsuits. Therefore a church might act in the best interest of their "holdings" rather than the best interest of a victim. I cannot verify or deny the truth of such a charge, but I believe having few assets could help remove the fear of losing them.
5. Return pastors to giving Biblical counsel, rather than being counselors who are "mental health providers". First, pastors should give Biblical counsel. Second, most pastors are not qualified to be "counselors" of the modern "head-shrinking" variety. Third, more people need to hear what the Bible says and think less about how they feel about what the Bible says. In my limited experience I have found many who want to talk to the preacher are looking for some "out" rather than actually wanting find out what the Lord says.