The SBC's "Title IX" Recommendations on Handling Abuse
In newsletter #49 I discussed the importance of defending institutional integrity. The first plank of this was “trusthworthiness,” that is, operating with baseline morals and ethics. As I put it, “You would think this would be a simple baseline element of institutional leadership, but alas apparently not. The number of churches and other Christian institutions with a variety of moral, ethical, operational, and even criminal problems is absurdly high.”
Unfortunately, one of the areas with severe failings has been in responding to abuse. The Catholic abuse scandals get the most press, but there’s a ton of Protestant ones too. At the same time, I pointed out that in the Protestant world, outrage over abuse is curiously selective and often associated with political attempts by activists to insert themselves as the leaders of the institution being accused. I said with regards to this:
This is why, although even accusations by enemies that are true need to be strongly addressed, you should never give any sort of position of authority or oversight of your organization to people making accusations against it. You’ll note that they frequently agitate for this such as by demanding that some allied organization be retained for an investigation, calling for the board members to be replaced (naturally by people of which they approve), etc. But just because I point out that an organization has some conflict of interest, for example, that doesn’t mean I or my buddies should be assigned any role in running or overseeing its finances.
I want to examine the recent Southern Baptist Convention abuse report through this lens. I didn’t go into any detail on the investigation itself and the findings. Sadly, I have no doubt that there are many cases of abuse, and many cases in which incidents of abuse were poorly handled.
The SBC is a huge denomination with nearly 14 million members. Clearly, any group this large will have lot of bad things happen within it. Demographer Lyman Stone suggested that the report shows the SBC has lower levels of abuse than we would expect. Even if that’s true, it certainly doesn’t excuse the evildoers or those who failed to correctly act in positions of authority. Judgment begins with the household of God. The Protestant house has not been in order on abuse.
Rather than the allegations themselves, I want to look at the report’s recommendations for action. There are about 30 pages worth of them, including 17 executive committee recommendations (along with two alternatives) and 16 credentials commmittee recommendations. So even in the recommendations, I cannot do a detailed analysis here. But I will give a big picture look.
Creating a Title IX Style Adjudication System in the SBC
Before getting into the recommendations, it’s important to note that in baptist church polity, each congregation is completely autonomous. Unlike other denominations like the Episcopal Church or the Presbyterian Church, where the denomination provides a lot of oversight and control over congregations, baptist denominations do not have authority over their churches. Basically, the only membership requirements are very low baselines, such as giving assent to the broadly evangelical Baptist Faith and Message statement. The SBC is more of a cooperative association than a denomination per se.
The abuse report recommendations start to change that in two key ways:
It proposes creating an “administrative entity” that will be similar to a Title IX style tribunal in investigating allegations of abuse.
It proposes turning the credentialing committee (which basically determines whether or not a church is affiliated with the SBC) into a more expansive accrediting committee that can kick out any churches that don’t comply with the Title IX style entity, or who are otherwise not perceived as following the party line from the report recommendations on abuse.
Given that this report is about some of the some heinous felonies on the books - sexual assault and sexual abuse - it’s remarkable how few references to the criminal or civil legal system there are in the recommendations. Apart from references to mandated reporting - cases where churches are legally obligated to report suspected abuse to the police - I only saw one reference to criminal justice in the recommendations, a note that the Title IX style entity might hire people from law enforcement backgrounds.
As in higher education, we see that the authors here are allergic to law enforcement. It is a felony to lie to a policy officer or lie under oath. Criminal and civil procedures have due process for the accused, standards of evidence, the ability to compel testimony and evidence production, and are open to the public.
People can and have gotten in big trouble for bringing false accusations. Look at what happened to Jussie Smollett, for example. Or examine the Duke lacrosse hoax, which resulted in the prosecutor getting disbarred. In the civil realm, look at the recent Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard civil suit. Whatever the results of that trial (unknown at press time), the case resulted in us getting to hear Heard admitting on tape to physically abusing Depp.
Here, as in colleges, we see at that the report writers don’t seem to want the legal system involved. Rather, they recommend creating their own entity to adjudicate accusations, which afford none of the protections of the legal system and for which there are no consequences for making false statements. And in which there is no provision for guaranteeing its processes are transparent or public.
The heart of this new entity is a register called the “Offender Information System” (OIS). Its purpose is “to alert the community to known offenders.” How does somebody get put on this registry? All it takes is an accusation. A person can be registered as an “offender” for “having been credibly accused…of acts including sexual abuse or those established to have aided and abetted in the cover-up of such conduct.”
What does it mean to be “credibly accused”? It is defined as any allegation that is not “manifestly false or frivolous.” You will also notice copious references in the recommendations to being “trauma-informed.” Taken together, this is basically code for treating all accusations as credible unless they are impossible on their face. Indeed, we have in fact seen pastors turfed out simply on the basis of accusations, without any real corroborating evidence. NB: The slogan of the #MeToo movement was “believe women.”
You can start to see why I say this is a Title IX type entity.
There are a variety of other things this entity is supposed to do, including developing “Letters of Good Standing” and creating a “Code of Conduct.” As we’ve seen elsewhere, codes of conduct are always pushed by progressive activists. We see that they never contain objectively defined standards of conduct to be applied evenhandedly. Rather, they exist to be cited as justification for taking action against the politically disfavored. For example, a prominent Youtuber named Ethan Klein recently said someone should “bomb” the NRA meeting. That’s a clear violation of Youtube’s terms of service. Yet nothing will be done. Like others, he’ll be allowed to say he was joking or that his words were taken out of context. Whereas those with disfavored politics can get permanently banned for minor transgressions.
We can actually test this right now with regards to the recommendations in this report. Will SBC megastar pastor Matt Chandler get put onto the OIS registry? It has been alleged - in the New York Times, no less - that he and his church covered up abuse. The victim sued the church for a million dollars. She was represented in this suit by Billy Graham’s grandson Boz Tchividjian.
How does Matt Chandler not go on the list in the very first round?
We’ll see what happens should this entity be created, but I would be very surprised to see Chandler included. If somebody raises the matter, as with Ethan Klein and Youtube, there can always be some hair-splitting rationale given for not doing so. However, should Chandler start causing problems for various activists, or disagreeing with their approaches, at any point they could bring back up this incident, put him on their registry and destroy his ministry forever. He’ll be completely and perpetually under their thumb.
But this is true for anybody, basically. The OIS is de facto a privately run sex offender registry. Being added to it will likely end the ministry career of anyone, whether inside or outside the SBC. Since it would only require an accusation to be labeled an “offender”, SBC pastors would rightly come to fear falling afoul of this entity, even if they haven’t committed or mishandled abuse.
Kicking Out the Non-Compliant
Beyond the Title IX style entity that targets individuals, the recommendations also want to reshape the SBC credentials committee into an accreditation body targeting non-compliant churches.
Again the SBC does not control individual churches, so the report stress the “voluntary” nature of its recommendations. But they give the game away when they say, “Each SBC entity, state convention, local association and church should voluntarily play a part.” Note “each” (that is, every church and entity) “should” (that is, stressing obligation) play a part. This certainly makes it sound less than truly voluntary.
The credentials committee is supposed to determine whether or not a church is in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC. The very first bullet point of things they are supposed to consider is, “Retention of a pastor, minister, church leader, staff member or professor who is a convicted sex offender or included on the SBC Offender Information System.” In other words, the purpose is to discipline or boot churches that don’t go along with the Title IX style entity.
The credentialing committee (along with the abuse oversight committee to be chartered with setting up the Title IX style entity) is recommended to be constitutionally mandated to have gender balance and include members with “trauma” experience. So not only the machinery itself is to be created, but it is to be stacked with people who share particular perspectives.
The report also recommends extending the tentacles of its efforts throughout the SBC, including setting the editorial parameters of the Baptist Press (“should consider increasing their publication of articles to highlight the sexual abuse crisis in the SBC”), and even the church calendar and liturgy (through the creation of a “saint’s day” called “Survivor Sunday”).
In summary, the recommendations in the report essentially represent a progressive takeover of the SBC, utilizing the same pattern of of Title IX style administrative control used by progressives in higher education (and elsewhere). As in secular society, accusations of wrongdoing are being leveraged for the purposes of seizing control of an institution. The mechanisms embodied in these recommendations not only create a basis for asserting control themselves, but are also easily self-expandable to greatly grow in the domains in which they claim authority over time.
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I am reminded of Doug Wilson's talking about the separate spheres for church, family and civil government. Adjudicating and punishing crime falls under the purview of civil government, rather than church, and it seems like this provides a good example of why.