Friday, November 19, 2010

"That's how you get a Jim Jones"

November 18th marked the 32nd anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. Over 900 people lost their lives when Rev. Jim Jones exhorted his followers to “die with dignity.”

By faith and by force, hundreds swallowed the cyanide-laced Kool-aid that was served up by the leaders of Jones’ church.

It was an event that left a permanent mark in our lexicon with the expression “drink the Kool-aid.”

Nowadays, people almost always describe Jim Jones’ church as a “cult.” Yet, what is often overlooked is that, for years, Rev. Jones was actually a very politically-connected preacher. It’s not as if he wore a sign saying “wacko.”

To the contrary, as reported by longtime religion writer Terry Mattingly, Jim Jones carried the credibility of being “a minister in good standing of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), an absolutely normal denomination….”

The Disciples of Christ are a denomination with congregational polity, similar to the polity of Baptists. But after Jonestown, the Disciples of Christ saw the importance of plugging the safety gaps in their polity, and they took action.

The people of Jim Jones’ congregation weren’t fools. Many were highly educated. Yet, when things turned terribly wrong, the sheep couldn’t rein in the shepherd. And no one in denominational leadership intervened.

It was only after 900 people died that Disciples of Christ leaders saw how their lack of clergy oversight made them vulnerable to horrific abuse perpetrated in the name of faith. So they created a process by which a regional body can consider the continued “standing” of ministers who carry the Disciples of Christ name.

One ordained Disciple explained the change this way: “In the dark light of Jonestown, it’s hard to argue that you can go back to an entirely decentralized structure with a general identity. That’s how you get a Jim Jones.”

Yet, that’s what Southern Baptists still have. Despite their shared general identity, they have a decentralized structure, and their leaders refuse to plug the safety gaps.

Baptist historian and religion scholar Bill Leonard describes Baptists as having a “radical congregationalism.” (Baptists in America, 2005, p. 153) I think those are apt words, not merely in theory, but also in practice.

When a faith group places the perfection of its man-interpreted polity above the protection of kids against clergy predators, then yes . . . they have stepped into the realm of being “radical.”

When a faith group fails to meet the standard of care that is now found in virtually every other major faith group in the country through the use of outside review on clergy abuse complaints, then yes . . . they have stepped into the realm of being “radical.”

Many people in the pews make the erroneous assumption that, because they share a “general identity” as Southern Baptists, the denomination provides a measure of safety. But with its “radical congregationalism,” Southern Baptists don’t prioritize safety. They afford no denominational system for effectively dealing with those who abuse the trust of the shared identity.

Thirty-two years ago, the congregationalist Disciples of Christ put in place an accountability process to try to plug the safety gaps in their own decentralized system. When over 900 people lost their lives, leaders saw the power of faith as a weapon, and they realized that the denomination itself carried a moral responsibility to intercede.

It’s a moral responsibility that Southern Baptist leaders still haven’t recognized.

For another account of what happened at Jonestown, read “Town without Pity,” by Charles A. Krause, a journalist who was shot while trying to cover the story there.

Note: Parts of this post were from a prior 12/1/08 column, "Jonestown Anniversary."


Unknown said...


I've not argued that Baptists should totally change their form of governance. What I am suggesting, as I said on, is that local church autonomy shouldn't be lifted up as the highest doctrine in Baptist life even above the safety of children in Baptist churches.

Obviously any system of church governance can be misused. What we've been talking about is how autonomy is misused. And of course episcopal systems can be misused too. But there is a lot of ground in between the Roman Catholic goverance system and local church autonomy. It isn't a black and white choice.

But for any group to place their system of governance above protecting churches and children is a huge problem no matter how the church is governed.

IMHO it wasn't the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has a heirarchy that was the problem. It was the choices the heirarchy made. The same can be said for autonomy. If autonomy is misused to ignore problems or for denominations to bail on have responsibility for churches then something should change.

Jesus did make a form of church governmance the be all and end all of the church.

Christa Brown said...

Note from CB: I deleted a comment here because every time I clicked the person's linked website, it froze the computer.

Christa Brown said...

Below is the substance of the comment that was left by "Fredericka," which I deleted:

"The church that had a major, system-wide problem with pedophile priests, the Catholic Church, has a form of church government which is the polar opposite of congregationalism. This centralized, top-down church, when faced with angry local congregations accusing the local priest of molesting their children, shuffled the offender off to a different parish. In that system, the priest does not have to answer to the local congregation, and the people he does answer to are part of a closed guild to which he also belongs. Why should the Baptists abandon their congregational system, when that system might very well have served as a bulwark against child abuse? If the Catholic pedophile priests had stood without a protector before the anger of a congregation of parents of molested children, that scandalous outrage would never have gone on for so long nor extended so far. The Baptists would be foolish to change their form of church government to something closer to the Catholic pattern, when this hierarchical form of church government was very likely part of the problem. Since it was part of the problem, how can adopting it be any part of the solution?"

Christa Brown said...

My response to "Fredericka" (who could just as likely be a "Fred" sitting at SBC headquarters in Nashville):

No one is asking Baptists to abandon their congregational system. Nor is anyone suggesting that Baptists should adopt a hierarchical form of church government. (Besides, according to renowned religion scholar Nancy Ammerman, Baptists are already "hierarchically functioning.") We're asking Baptists to plug the safety gaps in their system, in ways similar to how other congregationalist faith groups and other Protestant faith groups have already done. The Baptist system has NOT served as a bulwark against clergy child molestation, and nor has it served as a bulwark against cover-ups. To the contrary, because Catholic canon law requires record-keeping, and because Baptists refuse to keep records (and claim that's because of their religion), it makes cover-ups a lot easier for Baptists. Noted Penn State religion scholar Philip Jenkins has observed that some of the worst cases of persistent serial child sex abuse have actually been among Baptists and Pentecostals. And in 2007, the Associated Press looked at insurance company data, which revealed that Protestants likely have every bit as big of a problem as Catholics. There is absolutely no data to support the notion that Baptists have less of a problem with clergy sex abuse and cover-ups than do Catholics. And it would be very foolish for anyone to imagine that this is "just" a Catholic problem. To do so is to leave countless kids and congregants at risk . . . which is exactly what Southern Baptists are doing with their 16.4 claimed members.

Anonymous said...

Can you give an example of one denomination that does have a better safety system in place, and tell how that system seems to work much better? And is there a way to duplicate that in the Baptist system or not?

Christa Brown said...


Presbyterians are widely considered to be doing better than most with this. Also the United Church of Christ, which has a form of congregationalist polity, has nevertheless managed to implement regional review boards that can serve for assessing clergy abuse complaints. Both provide for the possibility of a safe place that clergy abuse survivors can report to, whereas Southern Baptists essentially tell abuse survivors to go to the church of the accused perpetrator. It's like telling bloody sheep to go back to the den of the wolf who savaged them. (And that assumes the survivor can even find the minister's current church, since the guy may have church-hopped and/or state-hopped several times since the survivor was a kid.) Most abuse survivors simply won't do it (because it's too frightening and they recognize how futile it would likely be), and those who do try almost invariably wind up seeing their worst fears realized -- i.e., they are wounded all the more. So the first thing that's needed is simply a safe regional or national denominational office that is staffed by trained professionals with the background and experience to understand the usual dynamics of clergy sex abuse and to communicate with survivors with compassion ... and then to assess abuse reports with a measure of objectivity and care.

Southern Baptists could certainly use the systems that other faith groups have already implemented as guidelines for shaping their own system. They don't have to reinvent the wheel. Most other faith groups also include the possibility of yanking a minister's credentials, or "defrocking" him, as part of their clergy accountability system, but no one has asked that from Southern Baptist denominational officials. (In effect, we've asked them to do LESS than what other major faith groups already do.) We've asked Southern Baptists to provide a denominational system for more objectively assessing abuse reports, for informing congregations about those assessments (so that congregations might have a better chance at making good decisions), and keeping records on abuse reports. It's not that Southern Baptists can't do this; it's that they won't. They haven't yet mustered the will. As Southern Baptist pastor Wade Burleson said: "A database is only information. What a church does with that information is their decision."

A few other fast links:
News articles that show some of what has happened in other faith groups (this is a minimalist sort of page, but there's still a bit of info there):

One of SNAP's earliest letters to SBC officials, pointing out to them the Presbyterian model:

Autonomy page, showing some examples of how Baptists work around the doctrine and/or engage cooperative efforts when they choose:

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for the info. I did read the links. And have these review panels, etc. run into difficulties, or have they worked well for victims and also helping to stop predators-as far as you know?

Junkster said...

The Disciples of Christ church actually don't have a congregational polity like Baptists churches; they have a presbyterian (lay elder led) polity. But they do have a strong view of local church autonomy, like Baptists. And they have, as you indicated, found ways to increase clergy accountability within that framework. Baptists could do the same if they wanted to.

Anonymous said...

What you say about the Disciples of Christ may be so but they have a long way to go. My dad is a preacher in their denomination and I was sexually abused by him. Every atempt I have made to make this thing right, they have knocked down. They said I wasn't the only one in their denomination with the same story and said they would be there for me. However when I finally took them at their word one lady couldn't be there because she was back to working with the ethics committee and the other was to busy. They only wanted info. They had lawyers and I had no one. The closest thing I got to an apology was that they were sorry I felt I had been mistreated by them...But nothing has been done according to what they promised. So when I read this I hurt wondering, what good is the Disciples polity?