Over and over again, the words “congregational autonomy” have been flung in my face to explain why Southern Baptist leaders cannot take action against ministers reported for sexually molesting kids.
“Each entity in Southern Baptist life is autonomous and separate.”
“We have absolutely no authority.”
“If sexual abuse is covered up, then that is the responsibility of the particular church.”
Or my personal favorite: “Our hands are tied by denominational polity.”
That’s just a sampling. I’ve heard the “congregational autonomy” excuse in every possible permutation.
Over and over again, I have wondered how any decent person could possibly imagine that those words would be sufficient to relieve moral obligation. Do they serve to protect others? Do they reach out to the wounded?
Yet, as senseless and insufficient as those words seemed, the one thing they had going for them was consistency. Congregational autonomy was the explanation, and by golly, Baptist leaders were sticking with it.
Until last Tuesday: That’s when this nation’s second largest state Baptist group, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, gave itself the authority to investigate churches that accept gays as members. So as it turns out, congregational autonomy does not preclude a convention from investigating its affiliated churches. That’s nice to know.
Almost two months ago, I delivered to SBC leaders in Nashville a letter from SNAP, an organization whose membership is comprised of more than 7,000 clergy-abuse survivors. We made specific requests for action to rid the denomination’s ranks of clergy predators and to better protect kids.
Our first request was that the SBC establish an independent review board to investigate reports about ministers accused of sexually abusing kids. No one bothered to respond to us, but an SBC spokesperson told the press there was an “apparent misunderstanding” about Baptist structure. There it is again, another permutation of “congregational autonomy.”
But now seeing what North Carolina did, I’m more puzzled than ever.
If congregational autonomy doesn’t preclude a state convention from investigating churches that merely accept gays as members, then why does congregational autonomy preclude conventions from investigating churches that retain in the pulpit ministers who are reported for sexually molesting kids?
North Carolina convention president Stan Welch justified the convention’s investigatory power by noting that, even though they had an anti-gay policy, “it did not have teeth in it.” The convention needed something to say “We’re going to act on this,” he explained.
So, when a Baptist convention really wants “to act,” congregational autonomy doesn’t stand in the way. That raises the question, why don’t Baptist leaders want “to act” to rid the denomination’s ranks of clergy predators?
Perhaps an answer lies in a recent posting on the BaptistLife.com forum. When I first heard the North Carolina news, I posed online the question of this inconsistency in the application of congregational autonomy.
In response, a reader pointed out that removing gay-friendly churches “is going to be an easy and popular thing,” because they are “most likely already at odds” with Southern Baptists.
“Your issue of sexual abuse … is not the same,” he said. “These churches … are not on the fringes of SB life. They may well be well-connected, well-thought-of churches in the convention … There would be a good amount of discord in shunning” them.
Sadly, I believe this reader has spoken truth with refreshing candor. Southern Baptist leaders do not choose “to act” to investigate ministers reported for sexually abusing kids, or the churches that retain them, because those churches may be “well-connected” and “well thought of” and “there would be a good amount of discord.” So rather than risk “discord,” Baptist leaders choose by their inaction to leave kids at risk.
That explanation doesn’t speak well for the moral courage of Baptist leaders, but no one has offered any better explanation.
Congregational autonomy–a defining feature of Baptist polity–has been degraded to serve as little more than a ready rationalization for religious powerbrokers who choose to leave kids in harm’s way rather than take action to oust colleagues who prey on them.
Jesus would weep. He was less concerned with the powerful and a great deal more concerned with the young, the wounded and those “on the fringes.”
Christa Brown, a retired appellate attorney, is the author of “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang.”