The Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, the two largest religious bodies in the United States, are both embroiled in a crisis of trust.
For years the public has learned in horrific detail the abuses by Catholic priests who preyed on parishioners and the bishops who covered it up.
It is now clear that for decades, the Southern Baptist denominational leadership has systematically ignored, suppressed and denied the right of sexual abuse survivors to be heard. Rather than addressing this problem, church leaders hid behind the excuse that congregational autonomy precludes denominational oversight.
While plenty of new details, based on court documents, published accounts and public records, have been unearthed in the past week, this sordid tale has been an open secret for decades. Southern Baptist leaders disregarded warnings and dismissed reports.
Even more troubling is that the more than 300 ministers and lay leaders identified in recent news accounts are only the tip of the iceberg. That’s because many survivors of abuse have never felt free to tell their stories, and the church’s power structure shielded countless abusers from facing the truth of their actions.
Southern Baptist clergy, like other Baptist and non-denomination ministers, lack accountability beyond the local congregation that ordains. Clergy are poorly vetted before being ordained and are rarely evaluated after ordination. Sometimes when an abusive minister is forced by a congregation to resign, he is not prevented from serving in another congregation because, unlike many other professions, there is no cumulative list of abusive ministers. It is a structure easy to exploit and abuse.
But Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists have something else in common. Each is controlled by all-male leadership and power structures that exclude women from decision-making and oversight. Only men can be Roman Catholic priests and bishops. And only men can be Southern Baptist pastors. It should not be surprising then that men dominate the oversight processes that could demand accountability and honesty.
In 1964, Addie Davis was ordained to Gospel ministry by the Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham. She was the first woman minister to be ordained in the Southern Baptist Convention, or SBC, and her ordination opened the door for other women as well.
But those continuing challenges to the gender barrier were eventually viewed as a threat to theological purity, and the SBC amended the Baptist Faith and Message, its doctrinal statement, to affirm that “the office of pastor is limited to men.”
But the issue was never just about who could be ordained. The theology of male leadership, also known as complementarianism, provides justification that underwrites the all-male leadership structure that marginalizes women’s voices in the churches.
The cracks in that theological outlook became visible for all to see this past summer as the SBC faced its own #MeToo moment. Trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary voted to dismiss their president, a staunch supporter of the theology of male-only church leadership, because of how he mishandled sexual assault allegations by a former student. His statement that he wanted to meet with the student so he could “break her down” was widely seen as symptomatic of the toxic culture that fosters the abuse of women.
There are hopeful signs that SBC leaders want systemic changes that prevent abusive behavior in the church. One step toward disarming the power structures is to break up the male monopoly in church leadership. Women must be free to serve in roles of oversight.
Those in leadership must put systems of accountability in place so churches can be sanctuaries of safety and protection for all. This means lay and ordained leaders must be carefully vetted.
Sexual abuse must always be reported. But perhaps most important, those who have been harmed by church leaders must be heard. Only by allowing the truth to be told can genuine healing begin.