Not all that long ago in America the ministry was a respected profession. Now trust in pastors as people of moral character is at an all-time low. High profile scandals involving sexual misconduct by clergy have contributed to the gradual erosion of public confidence. Yet too often these bad examples have been passed off as exceptions that prove the rule that churches are safe and ministers can be trusted.
The explosive series of articles on clergy sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention published in 2019 by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express has shown that these public stories are merely the tip of an iceberg that has inflicted grave damage on the second largest religious group in the U.S. But the SBC is not alone in this moral crisis. Cooperative Baptists know all too well that the same challenge threatens churches in the Fellowship.
For far too long Baptist denominational leaders have hidden behind the claim that “local church autonomy” protects them from responsibility for sexual misconduct by congregational ministers. That defense is currently under legal challenge. Yet even if the appeal to autonomy is not legally overturned, the crisis of abuse demands serious theological reexamination of this claim. Contrary to these denials of connection, local congregations and their members are in reality spiritually joined to one another and to the wider church. This is the too-often-forgotten principle of association.
Every time we baptize someone in the gathered community, they are joined into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13). And every time we observe the Lord’s Supper we share fellowship with one another in the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16-17). To put is simply, we are one with each other in Christ, joined together in his body, the Church. It is not surprising, then, that the apostle Paul admonished the Corinthians that failure to discern their life together in the body is the reason they are sick and dying (1 Cor 12:28-29).
We are suffering today because we have failed to discern our life together in Christ’s body. We have not sufficiently protected the weak and vulnerable from harm and abuse in our congregations. We have not shown that our churches are safe nor that our ministers can be trusted, and we are witnessing the awful results of our neglect.
Thankfully the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Baptist Women in Ministry commissioned a Clergy Sexual Misconduct Task Force that has produced the Safe Church resource materials. It is now important for every congregation and every partner organization connected in the Fellowship to begin implementing these policies, procedures, and practices into their organizational structure.
The habits and patterns formed by generations of congregational independence are hard to break. But we must learn new ones that recognize our interdependence. Congregations that seek to face this crisis alone endanger the vitality of their shared existence. If we were to learn that we had cancer, how many of us would tell our doctor, “Thanks for the advice, but I think I will try to find a solution on my own.” The Safe Church resources are by no means a cure for our sickness, but they are certainly a step toward ecclesial health. No congregation or organization, no matter how seemingly strong, can risk going it alone.
Last semester the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School invited representatives from the Safe Church Task Force to lead a workshop for our faculty, staff, and students. The presentations stimulated meaningful conversation and reflection, but it only began to scratch the surface of what needs to be done.
What if all theological schools in the Fellowship were to hold similar training opportunities? Better yet, what if Safe Church education were to be incorporated into our curricular and extracurricular programs? And what if every student in our schools was given the opportunity to be certified in that training, and what if Safe Church certification were required for every ordination? Even better, what if every ordained minister and organizational leader in CBF were to be competent in Safe Church policies, procedures, and practices. Imagine how that might begin to change our Fellowship.
But integrating these materials into our organizations is not enough. It will demand the transformation of the entire culture that is our life together. To put it simply, our Fellowship must be born anew. Such a conversion cannot an instantaneous event. It must be a dynamic process, and it must begin with repentance—changing our ways of thinking and seeing ourselves and others in our Fellowship, especially the weak and vulnerable among us.
Curtis W. Freeman is research professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University Divinity School. He is the author of Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists and Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity.