Baptist leaders claim they have no authority over autonomous churches to police clergy who sexually abuse children.

“We believe in the autonomy of the local church,” wrote Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “[T]he local church is where accountability must be enforced.”

When asked about a preacher accused of sexually abusing a child, a Florida Baptist Convention spokesperson, Barbara Denman, said it was “a local church matter.” She said the state convention did have “theological guidelines for churches that cooperate with us.”

Former SBC president Jerry Vines said the issue of predatory preachers was a “genuine concern” of leaders of the 16-million member body. He added, “The denomination has no authority over local churches.”

Augie Boto, general counsel and a vice president with the SBC Executive Committee, said the denomination was not neglecting the protection of children, before shifting responsibility to the local church.

“The Southern Baptist Convention structure leaves the responsibility for such matters in the hands of those most motivated and capable of addressing it,” Boto said, “the members of the local churches.”

Local church autonomy is a historic Baptist principle that says churches are self-governing bodies. They operate “under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes,” according to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message statement (the 1963 statement had similar wording).

Local church autonomy as a noble principle and an earthly practice are not the same things, however. As a practice, Southern Baptists have a noted record of violating the principle.

The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina adopted a policy last November that enabled the body to investigate reports of autonomous churches that endorse or affirm homosexuality.

Fundamentalist Baptist leaders were highly critical of an Arkansas Baptist church in the 1990s for not expelling a member, President Bill Clinton, over his relationship with a White House intern.

Other fundamentalists rejected the moderate Baptist claim in the 1980s that local church autonomy allowed them to ordain women, that the matter of ordination was best determined by the local congregation.

Not only do Southern Baptists violate in practice the principle of local church autonomy, they are far more connected in principle and practice than the language of autonomy by itself suggests.

Autonomy is not the only definition for the local church. Both the 2000 and 1963 faith statements have almost identical paragraphs on “Cooperation.” Those paragraphs say associations and conventions “have no authority over one another or over the churches” and that “churches should cooperate with one another in carrying forward the missionary, educational, and benevolent ministries for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom.”

Cooperation is a defining principle, like autonomy.

Southern Baptists cooperate in a host of practical ways. Churches join together to work on mission projects. Churches pool their money to hire shared staff (convention employees, for example), to underwrite communication efforts (state papers and public relations offices) and to pay for educational programs for clergy and laity.

Clergy ordinations often include an ordination council composed of ministers from different congregations. Seminaries require students to have an official endorsement from their local church. Seminaries represent to local churches their graduates as having a stamp of approval.

State conventions have offices of referral that provide resumes of approved ministerial candidates to churches and work with churches seeking ministers.

Opportunities for clergy career advancement to larger, wealthier congregations depend on a spirit of cooperation. Appointment to special convention committees and election to convention offices depend on church leaders cooperating with SBC leadership.

The best Baptists hold in balance the autonomy and cooperation of churches, core matters of faith and practice that have idealistic and realistic components.

That is why Southern Baptist leaders are being disingenuous when they hide behind the shield of local church autonomy to avoid taking needed actions to protect children from predatory preachers. They are making a false statement about theological and functional church polity.

These leaders are well aware of the centrality of cooperation in their statements of faith and how the system functions. They know about the official connectivity of churches and the unofficial web of clergy connectivity.

Rather than throwing up the false wall of protection around denominational accountability, leaders would do much better to seek new ways to ensure that the powerful (clergy) do not harm the powerless (children).

If local church autonomy is biblical, so is protection of the weak. The former biblical concept should not override the later. In fact, protection of the powerless gets far more biblical ink than local church autonomy. All professions protect their own. Doctors protect doctors. Police protect police. Clergy protect clergy, even at the expense of harmed children.

Let’s stop hiding behind the false wall of local church autonomy. Let’s acknowledge the reality of connectivity and cooperation, both stated and unstated.

Truthfulness is a good beginning point for social change. That may be the first needed step to figuring out how to protect children in churches from preacher predators and keeping them out of pulpits.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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