The Houston Chronicle newspaper is not done with the Southern Baptist denomination, this time linking church autonomy to sexual abuse.
The newspaper announced in February it has compiled a list of SBC church leaders and volunteers convicted of sex crimes going back 20 years, and now the target of a new Sept. 5 article is church autonomy.
Why that topic? Because the numerous and tragic examples of abuse, the newspaper suggests, can be traced back to churches that operate with great independence and hence the ability for sexual predators to remain in the pews and the pulpit.
There is a financial angle, too. After noting that SBC churches pool approximately $11 billion annually for missions and social services, and other gospel-related causes, the article insinuates that church autonomy helps shield Southern Baptist Convention from financial liability.
Dr. Robert Jeffress, who pastors the mammoth First Baptist Church in Dallas, says the churches mentioned in the Books of Acts were local churches.
“The Book of Revelation was sent to the seven pastors of seven individual churches,” he says, “not to the bishop of Asia Minor.”
The church evolved over time into a local, autonomous body of believers, he adds, “and that’s how Southern Baptists have chosen to operate.”
Writing about the Chronicle story at the sbcvoices.com website, a semi-retired pastor points out a new legal issue: a lawsuit in Virginia, filed by boys allegedly abused by a youth minister, have named SBC leaders at the local and state level, and the Convention itself, as defendants.
The writer, William Thornton, credits the Chronicle story for digging into the legal issue of negligence, since stories of abuse mirror the Catholic Church scandals that have bankrupted numerous dioceses.
“Lawyers love this stuff,” Thornton writes, “while SBC leaders, pastors, and laypeople don’t know and have little interest in such things.”
According to Jeffress, the current SBC leadership is overreacting to the newspaper's coverage, which found 780 tragic abuse cases stretched out over two decades among 50,000 churches.
“The Executive Committee can certainly give churches advice, and help in handling these cases,” he says, “but it has to be up to every individual church.”