The Southern Baptist Convention has been in turmoil for much of the past year. The organization — the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., claiming about 14.1 million members — is trying to reckon with a horrifying history of sexual assaults. Some of the sexual assaults were committed by some of the top members of the organization.
Now that the veil of secrecy these men created over themselves has been lifted, it is clear that self-denial was only a tool they used to control their fellow Christians.
Change is slowly but surely. The denomination’s leadership was at war with its churches until last week. They demanded an accounting of the abuses and the actions taken to stop them. Ronnie Floyd, the convention’s chief executive officer had supported his powerful colleagues who wanted to limit an inquiry into widespread misconduct that occurred as Floyd and other conservatives rose up the ranks of the organisation. But delegates (or “messengers“) from the member churches refused to let Floyd control the investigation, prompting him to resign last week.
Floyd’s resignation comes two years after the Houston Chronicle identified at least 700 victims who had accused some 380 church leaders and volunteers of sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to rape, over two decades. The investigation’s authors wrote that many of the victims were teenagers who were molested and sent explicit photos or text messages, were exposed to pornography, photographed naked, or were repeatedly raped or abused by youth pastors.
The Chronicle reported that more than 250 of the people who had been accused had been charged with sex crimes, with 220 offenders convicted or in plea deals at that time. Many of those who were released from prison went back to their pulpit.
The revelations struck at the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention: For half a century, the leaders of the denomination were only those who believed in the most conservative version of Baptist theology — especially that same-sex relationships were sinful by definition and that women were unsuited to positions of authority that placed them over men.
To add to this, men in leadership were self-denying ascetics and asked only as much from their congregants than they were willing. The sexual abuse revelations prove that these leaders weren’t hypocrites according to their own strict standards. They committed offences against the law as well as common decency. Yet, the leaders preached a strict legalism. It’s not enough to care for and love your partner; you must be married to them before you lose your virginity, they must be cisgender and of the opposite sex, in many churches neither of you can ever have been divorced except for infidelity or abandonment, and you must have as many children as you can. You must pray for your husband if he hits you. You must forgive your husband if he sexually harasses or molested you. If you’re gay, you must remain celibate until it makes you straight. Transgender people cannot change. If your child comes out of the closet, the church must ostracize them.
These are difficult rules, and it doesn’t take much to understand why. These rules are, it hardly needs to be said, difficult rules. But if Christians believe them to be God’s will — as I did — they feel the sting from the lack of worthiness even more. The great lie of these conservative teachers, and the lie that animates much of the rage their congregants and dissident leaders feel toward them, is that while Christianity is a hard road, it is one that the leaders and their followers walked together. We can now see that the secrecy they wore over themselves was only a tool they used to control their fellow Christians and gain the power to satisfy their greed and lusts.
Two of the most important figures in this story are Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson, who led the Southern Baptists’ “conservative resurgence” — the takeover of the denomination’s leadership by a faction of social conservatives — beginning in the 1970s. Patterson served as president of the convention from 1998 until 2000 and was president of two major Baptist seminaries; Pressler, a Republican operative and former director of the convention’s International Mission Board, was an appeals court judge in Texas.
Patterson and Pressler styled themselves modern-day Martin Luthers and saw their movement as “The Southern Baptist Reformation.” Under their leadership, one of the convention’s seminaries even commissioned stained-glass windows of them.
In 2017, both men were named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by Gareld Duane Rollins, a former member of Pressler’s youth group. Rollins said that, beginning in 1979 when he was 14, Pressler had raped him repeatedly, telling him that “no one but God would understand,” and that Patterson’s negligence had made it possible for the abuse to continue for many years. As the Chronicle’s investigation snowballed the following year, two more men came forward to allege that Pressler had assaulted and harassed them. (Pressler has denied wrongdoing, as has Patterson. )
Meanwhile, other parishioners and employees came forward to complain about Patterson’s management and raise concerns about the quality of his teaching. Patterson had told battered wives to pray for their husbands; he had told congregants from the pulpit that a teenage boy making a lewd remark about a teenage girl was “being biblical.” When he was fired for mishandling sexual abuse claims, he allegedly took a confidential donor list and other financial documents from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to fundraise for his own nonprofit organization (Patterson disputes this). Their willingness to confront clerical abuse and upend the entire authority structure is encouraging.
The convention’s executive committee initially rejected the calls from member churches for an independent inquiry about the extent to which Baptist leaders participated in — and mishandled accusations of — sexual abuse, but eventually hired a third-party investigator, Guidepost Solutions, to determine the extent of the rot. The old guard has fought them every step of the way, and the debate over whether investigators would be allowed to view communications between the committee and its lawyers was intense. The committee resigned earlier this month. It voted to give investigators access to privileged files, precipitating Floyd’s departure.
Southern Baptists are probably not going to start blessing same-sex marriages anytime soon, but their willingness to reckon with clerical abuse by upending the entire authority structure of the denomination is an encouraging sign. Floyd was a conservative and was open to interference in church leadership after the Chronicle reported that sexual predators were moving between churches within his denomination. Now, at least, the stained-glass windows will be removed.
Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in New York. With Alissa Wilkinson as film critic, he is the co-creator of Young Adult Movie Ministry. His writings have been published in The Columbia Journalism Review and Talking Points Memo, Variety, and Variety. In 2017 he was a political consultant for Comedy Central’s “The President Show. “