The Southern Baptist Convention is in the throes of a bitter struggle that seems likely to determine its future, for better or worse. On the one side are the many survivors of sexual abuse within the ranks of the SBC, who successfully petitioned the convention to call for a fully transparent investigation into a culture of cover-up. On the other side is the Executive Committee, which has so far refused full transparency, refusing to heed calls to waive attorney-client privilege in the investigation. The EC’s unprecedented refusal to honor a vote passed by SBC messengers has sent shockwaves through the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and is hurling the convention towards some sort of breaking point.
Now, the heads of all six Southern Baptist seminaries have spoken out against the Executive Committee’s lack of action, calling on the group to fulfill the will of the SBC messengers and launch a full, transparent investigation.
“From my vantage point, the present situation is inexcusable and unacceptable,” tweeted Adam W. Greenway, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, agreed, tweeting “This is beyond disappointing and potentially damaging to the trust essential to the SBC.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, released a statement saying that “the only real decision is how to comply fully with the mandate of the messengers, not whether.”
It’s a rare show of interdenominational tension from a convention that prides itself on unity, but these are strange times. For years, victims of sexual abuse have been calling on SBC leadership to take their cause seriously, attending national conventions as a group in an attempt to force leadership to address the issue. Finally, last summer, SBC messengers were nearly unanimous in their vote for a full, third party investigation into the failures to protect victims and bring abusers to justice.
Historically, the SBC’s bottom-up leadership model means that this vote would be the final authority, but the Executive Committee has so far refused, insisting that some communications must be kept private. Subsequent attempts to resolve the Executive Committee’s concerns have been fruitless, with executive leadership insisting that full transparency could be destructive and attempting to launch a narrower investigation. “We are confident that the intent of the messengers to the 2021 annual meeting can be accomplished without risking unnecessary damage to the Southern Baptist Convention,” the Executive Committee said in a statement. The committee has argued that waiving attorney-client privilege could lead to expensive lawsuits and insurance might refuse to cover such damages.
But the Executive Committee has long been plagued by accusations of apathy or even outright hostility towards survivors of sexual abuse in their convention. Recorded communications from closed door meetings and several leaked letters from prominent SBC members exposed a lack of concern for the wellbeing of sexual abuse survivors among leadership and a culture that prioritized a happy donor base over justice.
In 2019, former interim president D. August “Augie Boto” wrote in an email that those advocating for survivors were part of “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”
Bruce Frank is a pastor and leader of the SBC task force charged with hiring an outside firm to conduct the investigation. He has acknowledged that waiving attorney-client privilege carries financial risk, but noted that “it is impossible to follow the will of the Messengers and avoid this risk.”
But it looks like refusing to follow the will of the messengers may carry its own financial risk. Multiple large and influential Southern Baptist churches have released statements threatening to redirect funds to other ministries should the Executive Committee continue to drag its heels. The South Carolina Baptist Convention said as much in its own statement. Similar calls for the Executive Committee to buckle have come from at least 18 different Southern Baptist state conventions from Louisiana to Texas to North Carolina to California, representing a potential loss of funds that runs well into the tens of millions.
“We have listened respectfully to the [Executive Committee’s] rationale,” the Texas statement reads. “We are not persuaded.”
“We consider as unacceptable any investigatory agreement that does not include waiving privilege and a complete, unredacted report of the investigation’s findings,” wrote the Tennessee Baptist Pastors.
“If we’ve done some things wrong that require restitution, then we need to make restitution,” said Akin. “If we’ve done things wrong and need to apologize, then apologize. We need to do the right thing for the right reasons and live out the faith we profess and trust that the Lord will provide for us and bless us if we do what is right.”
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.