How Southern Baptists finally took steps to stop sexual abuse in churches

·3 min read
Pastor Ed Litton, of Saraland, Ala., answers questions after being elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Pastor Ed Litton, of Saraland, Ala., answers questions after being elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

More than 20,000 Southern Baptists descended on Nashville, Tennessee, last week to gather for our annual convention. The church representatives, called "messengers" in the Southern Baptist tradition, faced the election of a new president and votes on how to handle challenges such as sexual abuse claims and racial reconciliation.

So, tensions were high.

News media outlets from around the world joined us in covering every minute of the gathering, from inspiring preaching and worship to motions, resolutions and elections.

For people who are not Southern Baptist, the way we organize ourselves can be confusing. We are the largest Protestant denomination, with 45,000 churches and millions of members. We have large institutions that serve churches and communities around the world, including the third-largest disaster relief operation in America.

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Yet, the strength and power of Southern Baptists is not in back rooms in Nashville but in big and small congregations around the country. Each year, messengers show up at the national convention to make their voices heard on a host of issues and to make important, binding decisions that hold SBC leaders to account. This year was no different.

Heading into Nashville, Southern Baptists were debating leaked letters and recorded conversations that revealed serious systemic issues related to the handling of sexual abuse claims in churches.

Would the convention take these issues seriously? The answer: The largest gathering of Southern Baptists in two decades overwhelmingly demanded a third-party investigation of its executive committee, overseen by a task force appointed by the new president.

Convention affirmed necessity of racial reconciliation

Southern Baptists also arrived at the convention torn by conversations about race. Yet, they overwhelmingly voted both to reject toxic ideologies and to affirm the biblical imperative of racial reconciliation.

On both issues, the convention voted to strengthen and clarify governing procedures that allow ejecting churches that refuse to take claims of sexual abuse seriously or that discriminate on the basis of race.

And to lead us, we elected a soft-spoken conservative local church pastor, known both for his theological convictions and his desire for unity.

SBC decision-making can be messy

Given our uniquely democratic polity, it can be hard for outsiders to understand the organized chaos of the SBC. In Southern Baptist life, the strength is in the individual churches. Anyone can make a motion or draft a resolution.

In a room of thousands of representatives, every voice can be heard, which means you get motions about things like the air conditioning and the enneagram. But it also means local pastors can rise and move the room to do important things on issues of consequence. This bottom-up governance can be both messy and beautiful.

Of course, a successful convention doesn’t mean every issue has been ironed out in our family of churches. We need to make good on the decisions we made. We have a long way to go to live up to the Scriptures to which we so desperately cling. We are tempted by the same sins and prone to the same divisiveness that seduces our neighbors.

We are imperfect people who serve a perfect God.

And yet Southern Baptists can go home and be confident that despite deep disagreements, we’ve reaffirmed our commitment to why we partner together: Obedience to the Great Commission and to the Great Commandment.

And those watching can be sure that while the headlines dominate the conversation, in every community in this country, you will find your average Southern Baptist doing two things: Talking about Jesus and finding ways to help their neighbors.

Daniel Darling is senior vice president of communications at National Religious Broadcasters and the author of several books, including "A Way with Words: Using Our Online Conversations for Good." Follow him on Twitter: @dandarling

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Southern Baptists finally got it right in addressing sexual abuse

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