In Atlanta, law enforcement authorities are investigating a controversial mortgage scheme that allegedly preyed on financially troubled homeowners. Two Baptist mega-church pastors are linked to the scheme.

As reported by CBS Atlanta News, a company called Matrix Capital promised to lower people’s mortgages if they paid a $1,500 upfront fee. Police say “thousands of homeowners paid Matrix Capital the money,” but rather than getting their mortgages lowered, “most of them ended up in bankruptcy and losing their homes.” Just before Christmas, some started asking whether their own pastors were the ones who had let the wolf in the door.

Southern Baptist pastor Gary Hawkins was “the face of the company’s promotional video,” and he “vouched” for the man behind the company, Fred Lee, even though Lee already had a “questionable history.” Now Lee is “accused of stealing” from members of Hawkins’ Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated church, Voices of Faith in Stone Mountain, Ga. With 11,000 members, Voices of Faith is one of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s fastest growing churches.

Many of those who forked over $1,500 – and who eventually lost their homes – had attended a Matrix Capital seminar at Hawkins’ Voices of Faith church. People say they trusted Matrix Capital because they trusted Hawkins, and because the sales pitch was made “in the sanctity of their local church.”

Independent Baptist pastor Eddie Long also allowed Matrix Capital to present seminars at his 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga.

Now, CBS Atlanta News is asking why these two Baptist pastors invited this company “into their churches to prey on their flock.”

Police say that Southern Baptist pastor Hawkins was “less than forthcoming with records that would have shown if payments were made” either to him personally or to the church.

Independent Baptist pastor Long is the same pastor who is also embroiled in civil lawsuits alleging clergy sex abuse. Four young men have accused him of using spiritual authority to coerce them into sexual acts when they were teen church members.

When news of the sex scandal first broke, some Baptists tried to distance themselves by questioning whether Long was really a Baptist – despite the fact that his church is called New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. They pointed to the fact that Long uses the title of “bishop.” Though the “bishop” title is unusual in Baptist life, Southern Baptist pastor Hawkins also refers to himself as a “bishop.”

Other Baptists tried to distance themselves by pointing out that Long’s church was not affiliated with any Baptist denominational entity – as though denominational affiliation might automatically protect against such scandals. For example, in writing about the Long scandal, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Al Mohler, proclaimed that independent congregations “lack the discipline of a denomination.”

But where is the denominational discipline in the Southern Baptist Convention? What exactly was Mohler talking about?

The people in Hawkins’ Southern Baptist church were no better protected than the people in Long’s independent Baptist church. They lost their money and their homes just the same as those in the independent Baptist church.

If someone in Hawkins’ church had wanted to seek denominational intervention before hundreds lost their homes, where could they have turned? What denominational office would have even heard a complaint about Hawkins? The reality is that, within the SBC, the “discipline of a denomination” is nonexistent.

Though they are denominationally affiliated, Southern Baptists share the same problem as independent Baptists. They lack any effective system for clergy accountability.

In every church, the pastor is usually the most powerful and trusted person. Yet, among both Southern Baptists and independent Baptists, churches engage the delusion that a pastor’s own colleagues and congregants can exercise effective oversight. They can’t.

Despite their denominational structure, Southern Baptist officials refuse to implement the sort of disciplinary processes that other major denominations now have (including American Baptist Churches – USA). Southern Baptist officials reject even the possibility of providing churches with the resource of a trained review board for objectively assessing complaints about clergy and for relaying information to congregants. Even this lesser form of denominational accountability is too much for the SBC.

Without accountability, power corrupts. We have repeatedly seen this truth manifested, both in the context of financial shenanigans and also in the context of clergy sex abuse. And we have repeatedly seen it manifested among both Southern Baptists and independent Baptists.

The root of their shared problem is a systemic lack of accountability. This is the root that so desperately needs a remedy.

After a 25-year career as an appellate attorney, Christa Brown is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Iliff School of Theology. She is the author of “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang.” She also maintains the website.

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