The Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee once again launched shockwaves through the convention by refusing to follow the will of its messengers and waive attorney-client privilege for a sexual abuse investigation. SBC “messengers” made their will clear at an annual session, voting in favor of a fully transparent investigation into the coverup of sexual abuse within the ranks of the SBC, but on Tuesday, the executive committee (EC), made it clear they will not be doing so. It’s the second time in as many weeks the Executive Committee has made such a move which, prior to this, appears to be without precedent.
Southern Baptist policy has long relied on a “bottom-up” style of governance, in which the denomination’s true authority starts among the lay. In theory, this is intended to protect the SBC from hierarchical abuse. However, the EC’s refusal to follow the will of the messengers upends this model, and it’s not at all clear what’s next.
In 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a shocking report on the stories of 700 survivors of sexual abuse in the SBC, and detailed the extensive cover-up that went into keeping them quiet. The report motivated numerous sexual abuse survivors into action, calling for a transparent investigation into the SBC.
In June, SBC messengers were nearly unanimous in voting for a motion calling for just such a third party investigation which would include a waiver of attorney-client privilege. The investigation would specifically look into the actions taken (or not taken) by the Executive Committee in handling abuse cases over the last 20 years. Typically, such a vote by the messengers would be final.
Executive Committee members have balked however, citing fears of voiding their insurance, though others have noted that the investigation may include some of its own members. So, in essence, the Executive Committee is refusing follow through on orders to launch a full investigation into itself.
It’s a remarkable decision that was met with widespread criticism across social media. SBC President Ed Litton released a statement saying he “remains prayerful that the Executive Committee will ultimately choose to take the necessary steps of waiving attorney-client privilege and demonstrate that its commitment to full cooperation is more than mere words.”
Other prominent current and former members of the SBC didn’t mince words.
SBC exec committee, it will be a mistake not to have stood by survivors of the rampant sexual abuse within your own system. You have abused them again today.
Have your privilege, dudes.
But you have no honor.
— Beth Moore (@BethMooreLPM) September 29, 2021
Never thought I’d see the day when the EC would hire lawyers & spend a substantial sum of money, in order to work in direct opposition to a overwhelming majority vote of the SBC. Absolutely astonishing & breathtaking to fathom&watch. We may be watching the dismantling of the SBC.
— Dwight McKissic (@pastordmack) September 28, 2021
Who could have predicted that using denominational machinery to seize control of the SBC decades ago would result in people using denominational machinery to seize control today?
— hannah anderson (@sometimesalight) September 29, 2021
My fellow Southern Baptists, one of our entities has willfully gone rogue by continuing to reject the officially expressed will of the Convention. This is unprecedented. And if it is allowed to stand, it will lead to the fracturing of the SBC.
— Nathan A. Finn (@nathanafinn) September 29, 2021
What does it tell us that the only parties in SBC leadership who have first-hand knowledge of what is covered by attorney client privilege are willing to risk everything to make sure the rest of us do not find out?
— Griffin Gulledge (@griffingulledge) September 28, 2021
The EC just voted 39-35 against waiving attorney/client privilege and rejecting the will of the Convention. This is beyond disappointing and potentially damaging to the trust essential to the SBC.
— Daniel Akin (@DannyAkin) September 28, 2021
What’s next is anyone’s guess. Several churches have announced that they plan on redirecting tithes to other ministries until the SBC agrees to follow the mandate of the messengers. Money may speak louder than votes here but, for the time being, it appears the Executive Committee feels it is above its own rules.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.