Sunday, October 30, 2011

Kentucky ouster contrasts with denominational inaction on clergy sex abuse

A Kentucky Baptist association “convened a special session” to withdraw fellowship from a church that “allowed a local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays to use its building for meetings.”

“Parents, families and friends.” A Southern Baptist church was allowing these people to meet on church premises. Oh my. This was such a grievous offense that the church got booted out of the regional denominational organization, the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association.

So, not only are gay people themselves “otherized” in Southern Baptist life, but now we see that even the “parents, families and friends” of gay people are “otherized.”

The vote for ouster was 242 to 24. It wasn’t even a close call.

Stories such as this may illustrate at least part of the reason for why this denomination is in decline. Many individuals would feel a measure of dismay at such cold-hearted treatment of people whose only purported offense is in being “parents, families and friends.” But groups will sometimes behave in ways that are far more immoral and discompassionate than what ordinary individuals would. Therein lies one of the major problems of the Southern Baptist Convention. In the name of religion, it has effectively institutionalized an incivility that ostracizes and marginalizes too many.

Not long back, in the face of headlines about teen suicides after anti-gay bullying, Southern Baptist seminary president Al Mohler addressed the role of churches and spoke of how such teens “need to know that they are loved and cherished for who they are.” It sounded nice, but I think most teens are savvy enough to see right through such easy talk. Actions speak louder than words, and those teens are looking at that 242-24 vote for ouster of a church that allowed “parents, families and friends” to even sit in the church’s chairs.

How should such teens imagine that they are “loved and cherished for who they are” when even their “parents, families and friends” give offense by their mere presence?

Sadly, in Southern Baptist life, there was nothing very unusual about what this Kentucky Baptist association did. At the national level, the Southern Baptist Convention ousted a church in 2009 for nothing more than its “perceived toleration of gay members,” and various statewide conventions have made similar ousters.

Yet strangely, though Southern Baptists seem to have no problem with denominational ouster for churches that don’t tow the line on gays (or even on “parents, families and friends”), Southern Baptists claim denominational powerlessness in the face of churches that harbor clergy predators. Then, “local church autonomy” becomes the doctrinal rallying cry that rationalizes denominational inaction.

But stories like this one in Kentucky reveal just how incoherent that Baptist doctrine has become.

If local churches are not autonomous enough that they can choose to allow a meeting space for “parents, families and friends,” then why are local churches so radically autonomous that they can choose to allow an admitted or credibly-accused clergy predator in the pulpit?

If a regional denominational body can have a “credentials committee” to assess the soundness of a church’s theology and can convene a “special session” because of the urgency to oust a church that allowed “parents, families and friends” to meet, then why can’t a regional Baptist body have a “credentials committee” to assess the safety and trustworthiness of pastors reported for sexual abuse? And why can’t a denominational organization convene with the same level of urgency because of the need to protect the safety of kids and congregants?

Consider the parallel of another regional Baptist association. The first church shown on the membership roster for the Denton Baptist Association, Bolivar Baptist, is a church with a pastor who admitted to conduct constituting sexual abuse of a teen girl and who was eventually court-ordered to pay child support for her baby. Another church in the Denton Baptist Association, Southmont, is a church that gathered a $50,000 “love offering” for a pastor who resigned in the face of a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse of a 14-year-old, and after he admitted that “proper boundaries were not kept.” And still another church in the Denton Baptist Association is the prominent megachurch, Prestonwood, whose executive pastor recently acknowledged that the church had known about allegations of sexual abuse against one of its ministers, and yet the church simply allowed the minister to move on to another church. That minister is now under indictment for multiple alleged child sex crimes in Mississippi.

None of these churches have been ousted by the Denton Baptist Association, or by any other denominational body. No matter how unconscionable and reckless a church’s conduct may be with respect to clergy predators, the denomination doesn’t interfere.

But let a church exercise hospitality toward the “parents, families and friends” of gay people, and that’s a different story. Ouster!

No comments: