The SBC in a Crowded Theater

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September 19, 1902, thousands were jammed into Birmingham’s Shiloh Baptist Church to hear Booker T. Washington. Two men tussled over space, and a woman cried out, “Fight!” The crowd heard “Fire!” and folks headed for the exits. In the hubbub, a man up front shouted “Quiet!” and, again, they heard “Fire!” A stampede began, and 115 died, trampled and suffocated in the panic. It grimly illustrates the wisdom of the old maxim, “Don’t cry ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.” (PSA: Even if the danger proves genuine, use your prudent inside voice to help folks sort things out.) Otherwise, lives are ruined, and establishments can suffer lasting damage, both to their structures and reputations.

As I look back on the fulminations, prostrations, and recriminations preoccupying the SBC since the Houston Chronicle splashed the faces of our alleged sex abusers before the world in 2019, I think of the tragic “fire” stampede that’s run roughshod over much that is dear to us. From the get-go, it struck me that there was something hinky about those articles and the reaction of our leaders. So, in 2020, I spoke to the matter in a piece I called “An Unwarranted Denominational Perp Walk,” and in subsequent postings in 2021, 2022, and 2023. Alas, my reflections suffered the fate of philosopher David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature—that it ”fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction, as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.” Or to put in Middle Eastern terms, “The little dog barked and the caravan moved on.”

Mercy, did it move on!

At the 2021 meeting in Nashville, SBC leaders, with the SBC president in the lead, visited upon the convention a stunning show of contrition and sweeping legislation. A spokesman on the big screen stood beside an alleged victim (whose account has not aged well), and he subsequently enjoyed return hearings while cautionary voices came up short on mic time. SBC leaders succeeded in persuading the SBC messengers to shun the counsel of SBC attorneys, to cast aside key legal rights, and to submit to the scrutiny of clear-eyed, dispassionate adepts from the outside world. Easy-peasy when words of caution or dissent could be cast as abominably callous.

Not surprisingly, a lot of good people have gotten caught up in this lurching crusade, and, yes, some not very good people have delighted in the spectacle. As we try to make sense of where we’ve been and are, let me pitch in the suggestion that we take a look at ways the SBC theater has been crowded. I think it’s been jammed with at least five decisive elements.

Five Elements in the Hall

1. Admirable Disgust

Yes, for sure, sex abuse, particularly of minors, is a stomach-turning abomination under God. It makes you want to reach for a baseball bat. And, on this matter, it doesn’t take much to stir us to holy, hot indignation. That’s just who we are. But we have to remember that, despite the deeds of some malefactors, none of the SBC’s tens of thousands of congregations would dream of affirming pedophilia, other sexual predation, or their indulgence. We’re glad to read of the ways in which creeps have been exposed and brought to justice and to see that fresh, preventative material has been forthcoming. “But surely, we must do much more!” Well, what more do you have in mind? And are you certain it’s called for?

2. “Special Pleading” (aka “One-Sided Assessment”) and Argumentum ad Temperantium

The former is a classic rhetorical tactic hostile to circumspection. In making out your case, you fail (or refuse) to walk around the matter, giving gainsayers their due. It’s a failure to exercise or exhibit due diligence. And it’s not as though contrary evidence were unavailable; it simply didn’t fit the SBC leaders’ narrative.

When I looked at the numbers, I was struck by how crazy-tiny the extent of abuse was. The Chronicle first claimed to identify 218 culprits over a twenty-year period, and a quick look at the charges showed that many of those were unpaid volunteers. The paper went on in the weeks ahead to add another 45, bringing the total to 263 out of the 28,000,000 who were members of SBC churches in that same time frame. Do the math on convictions (an incidence of 0.00000939). Make comparisons (e.g., Texas is roughly the same size as our cumulative, two-decade membership, but with a hundred thousand registered sex offenders; a 2018 grand jury study of six Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses, with 3.5 million adherents, turned up 300 sexually abusive priests out of fewer than 2,000 clerics.) Anecdotes can be appalling, but we can’t ignore frequency.

Very likely, you’ve not heard the name Allen Jordan. He’s a Southern Baptist layman who’s done yeoman service in analyzing the Chronicle’s hit job. With extensive experience in accounting and business, he became the CFO for Buckner International, the vast, 150-year-old, Texas Baptist-affiliated social service organization, which began as a home for orphans. In this capacity, Jordan happened upon the investment practices of the Arizona Baptist Foundation and was instrumental in exposing their Ponzi scheme. (Jordan’s role in exposing the fraud is recounted in a February 19, 2002, Wall Street Journal article.)

Adept at rat-smelling, he picked up on an odor from the Chronicle series. So he pulled out his accountant’s pen and got to work analyzing their claim that there had been “a decade’s long systemic, rampant, burgeoning CSA crisis and cover-up in many of the 47,500 SBC churches.” I’ve found that Jordan’s name-by-name research (spelled out in three, 10,000-word documents) is well worth reading. He concluded that only 72 cases credibly involved “SBC clergy or bi-vocational lay leaders,” By his count and explication dozens of others on the Chronicle list were volunteers with no formal role or authority in the church and scores were not even affiliated with an SBC congregation. Some of the plea bargains may have involved innocents who didn’t want to face the scourge of litigation. And, again, Jordan detailed the outcomes—trial results and church actions handled at the local level. (And all for free, in contrast with exorbitant cost of the lame Guidepost report, which came in at $1.7 million.)

He’s been sending his painstaking takes on the articles to SBC leaders since 2019, and the responses, when he’s gotten them at all, have been along the lines of, “Take it up with the paper.” Apparently, his counsel hasn’t served the narrative coming from the SBC’s officers and their media outlets.

We’ve been assured that the list “only scratches the surface” or is “just the tip of the iceberg.” In Anaheim, the Sex Abuse Task Force chair assured us that even conservative estimates say that only 3% of abusers are convicted. I’m not clear on how you’d prove this. But, even multiplying by 33, you still have an incidence of .0003. Still, if true, it would suggest that counselors and police need to up their game to bring culprits to justice—not that the SBC must establish parallel mechanisms to prove those folks to be slackers.

In 2021, the newly elected SBC president appointed an Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force to ensure that the juggernaut for which the Chronicle supplied the faulty lumber kept rolling. (Indeed, SBC president elected in 2022 told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes that his perception of the urgency of this project was “the reason [he’s] the president of the Southern Baptist Convention.”) Announcing a new initiative, the ARITF chair urged that we not grow weary in our crusade, and he called out what he sees as the irresponsible fringe: “In extreme cases, some of us like to pretend like we never really had a problem at all.” Well, actually, nobody says there’s no problem. One poorly addressed case of abuse would be a problem. What we “extremists” are saying is that the problem is not so great as to sabotage our polity, expose ourselves gratuitously to litigation, and divert untold millions of missions/ministry dollars in search of a cure for our dubious affliction.

This week, I read a pastor’s column taking to task those who “disregard abuse,” who’ve “never really taken these problems seriously and only want to get back to business as usual,” who “lie about the existence of the crisis so as to keep their power,” who “have tried to move too quickly past this revelation and make it seem like there is no big deal,” who have “minimized the crisis” and shown themselves “corrupt,” and who stand condemned by God since they “won’t describe a situation as it is.” A very ugly bunch, these extremists.

He also criticizes those who magnify the problem for selfish purposes, and then he commends to us his reasonable middle way, a measured response. Of course, that’s what we all do—we posit crazies or brutes to our left and right—and then stand for the sweet center. It has a decent pedigree. The KJV urged Philippians to exhibit “moderation” before the world (ESV, “reasonableness”; HCSB, “graciousness”; NIV, “gentleness”). And, before Paul was born, Aristotle said that virtues lay between extremes (e.g., courage between cowardice and foolhardiness). But it’s not a slam dunk if you can name outliers. You don’t want to say occasional adultery beats out frequent or no adultery. And you don’t want to misconstrue those who aren’t on board with your agenda as deplorable nuts just to make yourself look good. When you play this game (say, at Allen Jordan’s expense), you’re guilty of the old fallacy of argumentum ad temperantium (for the Latin for “restraint”), where your stance in a contrived middle can muddle things.

3. Murky Motives

Judging motives is tricky business, but it’s tricky business to disregard the possibilities, too. I think of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) head who’d prompted pushback from the Executive Committee (EC) over his irresponsible rhetoric in the press. Mike Stone was the EC chairman and also a candidate for the SBC presidency, and, through leaked letters, the ERLC leader weaponized accounts of his own righteous stand on the matter to demean the shabby souls from the EC who dared to differ.

In 2008, politico Rahm Emmanuel urged Democrats to “not waste a serious crisis” in gaining advantage. A corollary would read, “Don’t waste the opportunity to generate or fabricate a useful crisis.” You can aggregate a lot of power and get a lot done if you persuade folks that you’re the answer to some horror or other. Of course, you may, in fact, be the answer, but you need to also demonstrate that it’s a true horror and that you can fix it without doing more damage than it’s worth. Neither has been proven in our SBC case.

Then there’s the face-saving motive should the crisis prove less than horrifying or the responses to it ill-fated. As that occurs, the managers may continue serene, stalwart, or even contemptuous on the surface, but, like ducks, they may well be paddling furiously down below as they try to keep things going their wrong-headed way.

4. Trust in the Neutrality of the Press and the Wisdom of Our Leaders

One of my high school teachers gave us a guideline for judging the reliability of newspapers: “Read an account of something you know a lot about and see if they get things right.” In my experience, hardly a day passes without seeing this sort of media shortfall. And there are other useful templates, e.g., Is the language saturated in euphemisms or loaded labels? What do they puff up, what do they smear? What are they not saying that needs to be said?

In 2022, Gallup asked folks to rate occupations for their honesty and ethics. Journalists were ranked “very low” more often than car salesmen, but less often than telemarketers. Clergy ranked much higher overall, up around police officers. So, what business did our leaders have in giving that Houston paper carte blanche in setting our frenzied agenda? And why do we need to continue down the path set forth by that journalistic jeremiad?

5. Embarrassment

None of us enjoys being humiliated. And, as our leaders have assured us, cultural stigmas are toxic to ministry. When, in 2021, we tried to pointedly repudiate the absurd CRT/I Resolution 9, hustled upon us in 2019, the committee chair served up a pious abstraction and then pressed us to chill out, saying that the “world is watching.”

I was the Public Relations VP for the Executive Committee in the early-to-mid 1990s, and, yes, we watched the secular coverage. But we never rolled over when they didn’t like us. Our aim wasn’t ingratiation. Rather, we just wanted for them to get things right, like it or not. I’m not persuaded we’ve gotten that from our spokesmen this time around—no pushback to the Chronicle and its cheerleaders. And so, our crowded theater has been more jammed with shame than the facts warranted.

Nashville-Based Predators?

Yep, the ‘Preds’ are Nashville’s NHL team, and we honor them by calling our town Smashville. All around the city, you see Predators caps and jerseys, and that’s fine. But our current SBC leadership has been fitting the denomination for SBC-Based Predators jerseys, to be worn as hair shirts for self-mortification.

In Anaheim in 2022, the Sexual Abuse Task Force chair implored us successfully to take our response to yet higher levels. He called it a “Kairos moment,” one in which we’d “choose between humility or hubris . . . between genuine repentance or continually being passive in our approach to sexual abuse . . . between doing the best for the glory of God and for the good of people, or [choosing] again, business as usual.” Mercy! You wouldn’t dare look God in the face if you didn’t vote his way.

For us “extremists,” it seemed more a “Panikos moment” (named for the Greek god Pan, who’d sometimes terrorize folks who wandered into his woods or fields). And so the ruinous stampede ensued. Isn’t it time we stopped with the celebrated but ill-conceived self-flagellation that’s been visited upon us and get back to work. And, so, the stampede continued . . . and will continue until someone dares to say “quiet” there is no “fire.” For only then, when the stampede stops stamping, can we return to the business of the convention—to bring the gospel to a lost and dying world!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Mark Coppenger

    Mark Coppenger (BA, Ouachita; PhD, Vanderbilt; MDiv, SWBTS) retired in 2019 as Professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics at SBTS. He’s also taught full-time at Wheaton and MBTS, and covered adjunct courses at Vanderbilt, Elmhurst, and TIU. He’s served as senior pastor for churches in Arkansas and Illinois; held denominational posts in Indiana and Tennessee; and retired as a USAR infantry officer in 1998. He currently is a member at Redemption City Church in Franklin, TN, where he volunteers in a number of roles. A selection of his writings is found at markcoppenger.com.

Mark Coppenger

Mark Coppenger

Mark Coppenger (BA, Ouachita; PhD, Vanderbilt; MDiv, SWBTS) retired in 2019 as Professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics at SBTS. He’s also taught full-time at Wheaton and MBTS, and covered adjunct courses at Vanderbilt, Elmhurst, and TIU. He’s served as senior pastor for churches in Arkansas and Illinois; held denominational posts in Indiana and Tennessee; and retired as a USAR infantry officer in 1998. He currently is a member at Redemption City Church in Franklin, TN, where he volunteers in a number of roles. A selection of his writings is found at markcoppenger.com.