Mohler: Southern Baptists churches must be ‘first refuge’ for abuse victims
Southern Baptists should not “circle the wagons” amid recent controversies, but instead must become “the first refuge for anyone who is seeking help,” argued R. Albert Mohler Jr. during a recent discussion about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. He referenced a months-long slew of firings and resignations within Southern Baptist entities, most for reasons of moral or ethical failure.
“What would be wrong right now is for Southern Baptists to close ranks and act like nothing has happened,” he said. “We’re the people of the truth. We don’t want untruth. We want to know what the truth is. We’re not trying to avoid dealing with what is our responsibility to deal with. … We’ve got to overcome the embarrassment of saying, We’d rather not talk about these things. Right now, that’s not responsible.”
Mohler addressed the topic as part of a panel discussion about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention between him and Steve Gaines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention last week in Dallas. At the time, Gaines, whose term ended at the close of the Dallas convention on June 13, was still president. The panel happened June 11 at the SBC Cooperative Program stage, and was moderated by Jonathan Akin, who works for the North American Mission Board.
The direction of the panel in part came from an essay Mohler published ahead of the annual meeting in Dallas in which he writes that “the last few weeks have been excruciating for the Southern Baptist Convention and for the larger evangelical movement” and refers to these events collectively as the “humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
“We’ve been humiliated,” Mohler said during the panel. “That’s the word I chose intentionally because in the last few months because Southern Baptists have been in the press for very different reasons [than usual] and it’s not just about any one occasion. We’ve had significant cases of moral failure at the height of the SBC. We’ve had pastors. We’ve had professors at our seminaries who’ve had to resign. We are now part of this #metoo moment, not by our choosing but by our humbling.”
He suggested that what he called the “#metoo moment” within the Southern Baptist Convention offers two paths forward: one that tries to save face and one that recognizes the value of the truth and makes changes in light of it. Mohler pointed to the pedophilia scandals in the Roman Catholic Church as an example of the former.
“We’ve got to say, We’re not hiding anything,” Mohler said. “The Bible tells that we should pray that the things that are hidden would be brought to the light. … What we saw in the Roman Catholic Church is a hierarchy close ranks and a conspiracy of silence. What we’ve got to make certain is we do not have a disorganized conspiracy of silence. We’re not just trying to protect ourselves here. We’re not just trying to protect the Southern Baptist Convention. God will vindicate the Southern Baptist Convention. But we’ve got public massaging that’s got to be real clear about the gospel.”
Gaines suggested changes in this direction will require individual leaders to “welcome” accountability.
“We have to welcome accountability,” he said. “We need to be accountable ourselves. We need people who are not impressed with us who will ask us difficult questions and hold us to a high standard. I welcome that.”
The two answered questions specifically about the firing of denominational leader Paige Patterson as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which quickly became the highest profile incident of the recent Southern Baptist-focused national headlines.
Gaines, who said he drew criticism for taking too long to comment on the controversy surrounding Patterson, did not comment publicly until he met with Patterson in person multiple times to hear his perspective.
“A lot of time, if you don’t put it out on Twitter, if you don’t tell everybody every move you’re making, you get accused of doing nothing,” Gaines said. “But I think the bottom line is we’re supposed to do things more like Matthew 18: Go to the person, deal with him, then deal with the issues.”
After those meetings, Gaines publicly condemned all abuse of women and offered an apology “on behalf of the SBC” to any woman hurt by the Patterson controversy.
Mohler commended Gaines’s leadership during the past three or four months, specifically on his handling of the Patterson situation. He added that Southern Baptists, and the broader world looking on, need to differentiate from “public messaging” and the processes in place to handle persons and personnel within the convention. He mentioned specifically the relationship between a seminary president and his board of trustees, noting he thinks it would be inappropriate for him to speak publicaly to what how a sister seminary proceeds with its business.
But that does not diminish, Mohler said, the importance of making stances clear to the on-looking public.
“Public messaging is really important,” Mohler said. “[We've] got to make really clear what’s not acceptable to say about women or the vulnerable or anyone who is subject of abuse.
“The church of the Lord Jesus Christ should be the safest place for anyone vulnerable to come and seek help. We ought to be the first refuge for anyone who is seeking help, in an abusive marriage, in a situation of sexual harassment or sexual abuse, any kind of abuse — whether children or women or anyone vulnerable. Our testimony to the Lord Jesus Christ is at stake in how we respond to every one of those cases.”