Thursday, February 28, 2013
Last month, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote a letter to President Obama.
Whew. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? But that’s what it says on the letterhead: “Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The Commission maintains offices at Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville and also on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
Richard Land, who is the head of this lofty-sounding commission was writing to the President to tell him that “we would like to take this opportunity to add our voice to the discussions” on gun control.
He used that word “we” quite a lot. So who exactly is the “we” and by what authority does Land speak for the “we”?
After all, this is a denomination that claims it cannot possibly create a commission to consider clergy sex abuse allegations – as numerous other denominations have done -- because the Southern Baptist Convention has no authority to tell local churches about their ministers. Or so they say. They claim that Baptists’ professed belief in local church autonomy precludes such a thing.
Yet, obviously, this is a denomination that has no problem with creating a commission to consider political issues and to tell others – including even the President – what the Commission deems to be “sensible proposals.”
In fact, “the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission takes positions on a broad array of moral and social concerns.” For example, the Commission recently helped to sponsor an ad in USA Today, urging that Boy Scouts should refuse to allow gay people into their membership.
These public acts of position-taking are paid for with dollars pooled from local Southern Baptist churches, who contribute to the functioning of denominational offices through their “Cooperative Program” giving.
So here’s what I don’t understand.
If Southern Baptists can create a denominational commission for taking public positions on social issues and for telling others what they think is “moral,” why can’t Southern Baptists create a denominational commission for responsibly assessing abuse allegations against their own Baptist clergy and for telling Baptist congregants about their conclusions? Why can’t Southern Baptists create a denominational commission to offer “sensible proposals” to churches – proposals such as “this man should not be allowed to remain in ministry” – just as they now have a commission that offers “sensible proposals” to the President?
If Southern Baptists can create a commission empowered to tell others who they think should and should not be allowed into the Boy Scouts, why can’t Southern Baptists also create a commission empowered to tell their own churches who they think should and should not be allowed to stand in Southern Baptist pulpits? Why can’t Southern Baptists create a commission that could tell their own Southern Baptist churches about ministers who have substantiated sex abuse allegations?
If Southern Baptists can create an Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission – and can even allow it to have a second office on Capitol Hill – why can’t Southern Baptists also create a Commission for Ministerial Accountability? Why does “local church autonomy” allow for the first Commission but preclude the second?
It is as though Baptists are saying that their religion allows them to eat red potatoes but not russet potatoes. It makes no sense.
This nonsensical inconsistency makes apparent that there is neither reason nor religion behind the Southern Baptist recalcitrance on clergy sex abuse.
Most clergy molestation claims cannot be criminally prosecuted. This is a big part of the reason why many other faith groups have begun implementing denominational commissions to assess clergy abuse allegations. Even if denominational leaders cannot put such men in prison, they can at least keep records on the allegations, warn congregants, and inform churches. They can take away the clergy-predator’s weapon of unsuspecting trust.
No doubt it may be easier for Southern Baptists to tell others what they think is moral, but what is much needed is for Southern Baptists to turn a mirror on themselves. They must create a Commission by which their own clergy may be made denominationally accountable so that they cannot so easily church-hop.
Posted by Christa Brown at 4:46 PM