Southern Baptists are by no means completely southern anymore. In fact the largest Southern Baptist church is located in the state of California. Think about that. Over the years there have been efforts to change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention but none have been successful. This massive, voluntary fellowship of churches has held high the banner of an inerrant Bible and evangelism. Many feel that the name SBC has come to be recognized for its theology more than for its place of origin.
Recently the SBC has been dealing with charges of sexual abuse against some of its pastors and other members. In response to the charges, the SBC’s Executive Committee engaged an investigative agency, Guidepost Solutions, to study the issue. The agency reported that for the past two decades key leaders (pastors, Executive Committee members, etc.) had covered up the extent of the abuses. In a 205-page document, the SBC Executive Committee released the names of over 700 convicted or “credibly accused clergy sexual abusers.” Thirty-eight pastors on the list were from Georgia.
For some perspective, there are 3,400 SBC churches in Georgia. Many of those churches have multiple pastors, youth ministers, children’s ministers, etc. Thirty-eight offenders are thirty-eight too many but the numerical findings, if true, do not suggest that Southern Baptists are beset with the abuse problem which the Baptist News Global network (not affiliated with the SBC) or The Tennessean newspaper (published in Nashville where the SBC is headquartered) either outright or subtly claims.
A central question in the issue is that of who should and can be held accountable. Is the full SBC responsible for local church abuses or abuse cover-ups? Whom can and should accusers sue? The answers to these questions are not murky, but they do require an understanding of Southern Baptist polity.
A “fellowship of congregations” is probably the best and most precise characterization for the 14 million people and the 47,000 plus churches that comprise the SBC. With no pope, bishop, conference superintendents or such, the SBC is a conglomeration of Baptist churches that subscribe to its “Baptist Faith and Message” and contribute to its Cooperative Program, the mechanism that supports missionaries, colleges, a press and publishing arm, and six theological seminaries. Each Southern Baptist church is totally autonomous and independent of all other churches. There is no hierarchy of any measure.
These facts regarding polity, of which most non-Southern Baptists are understandably uninformed, have led many to misrepresent the SBC and to speak of it in ways that are distinctly unfair. Since each church is totally autonomous, that church and not any other, is totally responsible for its own actions. There is no board or any other entity that lays down the law, punishes, or directs the local churches, each of which hires its own pastor and is self-governing. What then unites them?
What unites them is their strongly held belief in the Bible as the inerrant Word of God which has led to their equally strong emphasis on personal evangelism, missions, and church planting. Southern Baptists are now in all 50 states.
The largest protestant group in America, Southern Baptists do have an annual meeting (“convention’) every summer, usually at a major city. At this convention is where “messengers” (not technically delegates) vote on issues regarding their churches and the culture at large. This vote has no hold on local churches but is considered a reliable read of where Southern Baptists stand on the issues voted on.
This past week in Anaheim, California the newly elected president of the SBC, Bart Barber from Texas, declared that “the tables have turned on sexual predators.” He was responding to the convention’s overwhelming vote to implement safeguards to protect members from sexual abuse. Since action on the sexual abuse safeguards was the centerpiece of the annual meeting and since the vote was so overwhelming, SBC congregations are no doubt eager to resume their main mission which is to spread the Gospel and their accompanying task of being one of the largest disaster relief organizations in the country. We can be sure that the SBC will also continue to speak to a culture gone crazy with sexual chaos, crime, and suppression of religious freedom.
Georgia Baptists and the SBC have been blessed with many leaders like Marietta’s well known former pastor Nelson Price and Kennesaw First Baptist pastor Perry Fowler. These community-minded men, along with thousands like them, are not about to let a difficult, though important, issue stay them from their appointed task which is to serve God and point others to Him.