Saturday, December 19, 2009

Local church autonomy: Theory or Reality?

“All Baptist churches are autonomous.”

That’s the line that Baptist officials hide behind to avoid taking action against clergy predators in their denomination.

It’s a good-sounding line, but is it a true line? Or is it just talk?

It’s a line that has allowed state and national Baptist entities to avoid legal responsibility for a whole lot of years. But is it true?

Let’s take a look at what Dr. Nancy Ammerman says about Baptists’ claim of local church autonomy. Ammerman is a professor in the School of Theology and Department of Sociology at Boston University. (That’s her in the photo.) Ammerman’s book, Baptist Battles, was named the 1992 distinguished book of the year by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. In it, Ammerman points out that Southern Baptists have been “among the most tightly-knit, hierarchically functioning denominations in America.” (Baptist Battles at 270)

So . . . according to Ammerman, while Southern Baptists claim to be non-hierarchical, they are in reality “hierarchically functioning.”

What does that mean? It means that, in reality, Southern Baptists are “45,000 autonomous churches choosing autonomously to do exactly what Nashville tells them to do.” (Thanks to a reader for bringing us this quote from Ammerman’s public speeches.)

In Baptist Battles, Ammerman explains the “how” of this “hierarchical functioning.” The Cooperative Program, she says, means that all funds go through one channel, and that almost all churches shape their identities and activities in a denominationally-prescribed manner.

Ammerman discusses a scale that three sociologists developed for quantifying denominational differences in local church autonomy. The results were reported in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1983. Here’s how Ammerman summarizes what that study said about Southern Baptists:

“Sociologists…have developed a scale with which to measure the degree of parish autonomy that exists in a denomination. But even their questions illustrate the difficulty in making clear distinctions between local and nonlocal control. Of the fourteen questions on their scale, Southern Baptists clearly submit to nonlocal control on only one, the requirement of yearly demographic reports. On five items, power is in local hands (ordination, accounting procedures, the legal officers of the corporation, and the like). But on eight items decisions sometimes (or always) are made in consultation with nonlocal entities. Even the disposal of property, for instance may not be a purely local matter if the church has a loan underwritten by the Home Mission Board. If the church receives Church Pastoral Assistance, it is not in full control of its pastor’s salary (or even choice of pastor). And churches always depend on local and state denominational officials for pastor search help. Beyond the everyday ways in which the denomination shapes local church life, even in these legal and personnel decisions, Southern Baptist congregations are not always autonomous entities.” (Baptist Battles at 260)

Okay . . . so Baptist churches aren’t really so autonomous after all. But what difference does it make? Why is this polity-stuff important?

Is that what you’re wondering?

Here’s the answer.

By now, Baptist officials have demonstrated that, until they are forced into it, they will not implement the sorts of institutional safeguards that other faith groups have for the protection of kids against clergy-predators. Until the law forces them to accept legal responsibility, Baptist officials will not recognize their moral responsibility.

But their steady drone of a mantra -- “all Baptist churches are autonomous” -- is what has allowed denominational entities to avoid legal responsibility. That’s the wall they hide behind, and until the law sees how thin that wall actually is, kids in Baptist churches will not be made safer.

Judges and lawyers must begin to understand that this wall functions as little more than a stage-set. It lets Baptist officials put on their play of “all Baptist churches are autonomous,” but at the end of the show, the set comes down and the churches “do exactly what Nashville tells them to do.”

In reality, the denomination is “hierarchically functioning.” If Baptist leaders wanted to, they could easily use Cooperative Program dollars to establish review boards for the responsible assessment of clergy abuse reports. The fact that they don’t is not because “all Baptist churches are autonomous.” It’s because Baptist leaders are blind to the reality of moral responsibility.


Dr Who said...

People and websites who EXPOSE these kinds of issues and other issues like those written at,, wartburgwatch,, fbcjaxwatchdog, newbbcopenforum, ministerswatch. ministersexposed, and others sites concerning today's Church,......are my heroes. Seriously.

Thank all of you for having the courage to bring issues to light concerning those with the Baptist Mafia and others who use GOD to further personal causes and agendas. And there are many!

It does make a difference and I personally, along with many others I know, appreciate you!

AJC said...

I agree with Professor Ammerman that the SBC is "hierarchically functioning."

Although, I have a hunch that Ammerman would also be willing to recognize that there is a real difference between having a hierarchical polity and functioning like a hierarchy.

Theoretically, the SBC could in fact set up a review board. But since the SBC has no legal hierarchical arrangement with its affiliated congregations, it could not force those affiliated churches to submit to the review board. Of course, the SBC could threaten to disfellowship such a church. However, the church could very well choose to disaffiliate (rather than be disfellowshipped) and then what?

Obviously, the Methodists and Catholics are in a different situation, legally.

There are obviously many steps that the SBC can take - steps that they have thus far rejected. I tend to think though that IF Southern Baptists find the conviction to address clergy sexual abuse; they will have to do so differently than other organizations that do in fact have a legal hierarchical structure.

I also tend to wonder whether a top-down strategy in to combat abuse is the best approach to take in Baptist life. Denominational leaders may never accept moral responsibility. A grassroots effort may be more effective. Granted, there might not be a groundswell of support for a bottom-up strategy but this might be the only strategy that has potential for success. Don't look for real leadership from Nashville. And at the end of the day, without a grassroots effort, it will be blogs like this one and the Bob Allens of Baptist journalism who are making a real, meaningful effort.

Christa Brown said...

"But since the SBC has no legal hierarchical arrangement with its affiliated congregations, it could not force those affiliated churches to submit to the review board."

I don't see it as a matter of "force." I see it as a way to provide clergy abuse survivors with a place to which they can safely report abuse to trained professionals who will receive them with compassion and who will provide at least some reasonable expectation that their reports will be responsibly considered. As things now stand, Baptist clergy abuse survivors have literally nowhere to turn when their claims are outside the period for criminal prosecution, which most are. I also see the review board, not as a way of forcing congregations "to submit," but as a way of providing congregations with a valuable resource -- both as a resource for expertise and as a resource for information.

You're right in saying that a church could still choose to keep a pastor who was credibly accused of sexual abuse and could even choose to disaffiliate from the Southern Baptist Convention if it wanted. That's exactly why the creation of a denominational review board wouldn't interfere with local church autonomy. But if a review board found that the pastor was credibly accused of sexual abuse, at least the congregants would be warned, and other churches would also have that information in the event the pastor tried to move to a new congregation. Furthermore, if a church's pastor was found to have been credibly accused of sexual abuse, and the church chose to keep him anyway, I expect the church's insurance carrier might also put some pressure on the church (i.e., by refusing coverage or making their coverage a lot more expensive).

"Obviously, the Methodists and Catholics are in a different situation, legally.

Actually, I wish this reality were a whole lot MORE obvious. A lot of people seem to think that because they see more Catholic cases in the news, it means there are more Catholic clergy perpetrators. But it doesn't. People are more aware of Catholic cases because their overt hierarchical structure makes lawsuits much easier, which means that more lawsuits get pursued, which in turn provides the media with something they can write about. Meanwhile, people simply don't hear about most Baptist cases because the cases don't get pursued in civil lawsuits, and even when they do, they typically settle out very fast before there is media coverage. With Catholic cases, the media can also write about the institutional decisions of Catholic review boards, which again is a possibility that just doesn't exist in Baptist life, and so Baptist cases stay more hidden.

Anonymous said...

Theory!Then why did they not let local authority govern issues made in 1993?