As reports regarding sexual abuse began surfacing from within the Southern Baptist Convention and several Christian ministry outlets starting covering the subject, the news still remains hard to hear and even harder to process. There are several questions that remain in light of this information such as are the perpetrators truly Christians, can someone who conducted a crime of this measure be restored to ministry after counseling, how were victims rehabilitated if they even had help offered, etc. We'll analyze these responses, Church discipline, and profiles of human trafficking in this article.
Southern Baptist Convention Sexual Abuse Cases
On May 31, sexual abuse reports began surfacing from within the Southern Baptist Convention after 55 years in secrecy thanks to the SBC committee. The report consists of a 205-page list detailing close to 700 counts of sexual abuse by pastors, Sunday school teachers, camp counselors, missionaries, bus drivers, and music ministers. 400 of these cases are tied to SBC churches from Alaska to Alabama.
This uncovering was part of a multi-million dollar investigation on how SBC leaders dealt with abuse launched by Guidepost Solutions in 2007. SBC Executive Committee staff worked at determining whether a victim's church was apart of the SBC and began tracking convictions. These names were then given to a staff lawyer, August "Augie" Boto, who spent years trying to hide the identities of the perpetrators. An executive committee boardmember who remains nameless began an initial search for Baptists who had been accused of sexual abuse. Their search resulted in 66 names of deacons, youth ministers, and pastors of Baptist churches who were either arrested or were the subject of a civil suit regarding sex crimes with minors.
An Oklahoma Pastor, Wade Burleson, proposed an idea of an offender database to the SBC committee at its annual meeting in 2007. However, this idea was later rejected by the SBC executive committee. One can be led to believe the committee wanted to erase all existence of the abuse.
"My goal was to prevent guilty SBC ministers from transferring to another church or denomination to only re-offend," Burleson admitted in a blog post (Ministry Watch, 2022).
For years, victims remained silent out of fear of retribution and retaliation as pastors and other board members were not appropriately dealt with and were simply moved churches, allowing corruption, unaccountability, and victimization to spread like cancer while victim numbers grew steadily. One pastor in Indiana recounted his treachery over 20 years ago as he committed adultery with a 16-year-old girl in his office. The victim's brother came forward many years later testifying that the girl was found in bed with the pastor, led to believe this account was not statutory rape and could have been forced or coerced.
More information detailing the abuse, including churches involved in the sexual abuse, can be found on Ministry Watch at their recent article "Southern Baptist List Includes Hundreds of Cases of Abuse, Beginning in the 1960's" at https://ministrywatch.com/southern-baptist-list-includes-hundreds-of-cases-of-abuse-beginning-in-the-1960s/
The pastor's confession of adultery with the 16-year-old girl can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIHssLH4DLs where it has been covered by Wretched Radio, hosted by Todd Friel.
Statue of Limitations
The previously mentioned account above is covered in some states, like Indiana where it occurred, under the Statute of Limitations law. However, if the pastor was to move states where no statue of limitations exist for rape or murder (i.e., Alaska) or the statue of limitations is less than 20 years, he could be arrested, prosecuted, and tried for statutory rape, child sex abuse, endangerment of a minor, sex trafficking (since all staff are paid) among other crimes.
As for the SBC committee, their silence and inability to effectively manage this crisis cost them more than their dignity and positions as several hundred victims now have to live with sin inflicted upon them at the hands of people they were meant to trust, within church walls that were meant to be places of healing and restoration. Instead, it became their agonizing prison for several long and exhaustive years.
Statue of Limitations for rape or murder, in any degree, in any state, allow offenders to escape without accountability to past actions by the law and should be eradicated. Their existence has cemented the trauma for all victims involved with churches that exist within states who still hold Statue of Limitations laws for rape or murder.
Sheep and Wolves: Separating God's People from Satan's Wolves
Trying to make sense of this report and its aftermath leaves several questions that need answered, including whether the perpetrators were truly Christians. Trying to differentiate where salvation begins and false conversion begins or vice versa remains difficult and tricky for us since we are all fallen humans who abide in a sin nature although Christ defeated the eternal consequence of sin and restored a way back to Him. The horrible reality is Christians are just as capable of conducting heinous crimes as unbelievers.
David committed adultery with Bathsheba and became a murderer when he had his friend, Uriah, killed in battle to cover up his initial sin. The prophet Nathan was sent to David to invoke David to confess his sins with Godly sorrow and repent since David's sin displeased God.
Sheep and wolves are both inside and outside the church. The sooner we learn how to recognize signs of imposters, the sooner we can protect the sheep within the congregation.
As a punishment, God told David through the prophet Nathan that their son would die. David was later restored after this treachery. He was never able to hold a position in clergy, however, due to his adultery and many wives.
God's justice is final, holy, and perfect. It is a force unable to be reckoned with. God has orchestrated the foundation and operation of law ordnances through police to maintain order and bring justice to crimes committed. The pastors, other clergy members, and staff involved in these sex crimes may be able to seek restoration and forgiveness, but God will not allow their sin to go unchecked. Godly sorrow leads to repentance and if there is no Godly sorrow over their sins, their salvation should be reevaluated. As God's people, we are called to be salt and light. When that salt has lost its saltiness it is of no use but to be trampled underfoot. Therefore, committees should remove these offenders from ministry and turn them over to police since justice is in the hands of God Himself.
Profiles of Human Trafficking
Several types of human trafficking exist including forced labor, bonded labor, debt bondage and involuntary servitude among migrant laborers, involuntary domestic servitude, forced child labor, child soldiers, sex trafficking and prostitution, child exploitation for commercial sex, child sex tourism, etc (U.S. Department of State). Recognizing signs of abuse, including spiritual abuse, within the church is critical as abuse from leaders in any field can lead to human trafficking and can put victims and their families at risk.
Signs of Spiritual Abuse Within the Church
One of the agonizing realities in our world upon dealing with a fallen sin nature is spiritual abuse at the hands of church leaders and is often overlooked, hidden, or disregarded by the church "elite". Knowing signs of abuse and having an established standard operating procedure with dealing with offenders and abusers and promoting police intervention is a must for any church to protect victims and families.
According to Pastor Allen Par of The Beat, spiritual abuse is defined as "when a spiritual leader uses their authority, charisma, position, and persuasion to manipulate those who follow them for their advantage and to the follower's detriment" (How to Identify Spiritual Abuse by a Spiritual Leader, Allen Par, YouTube, March 2021). These offenders use several tactics to harm others.
Tactic 1: Manipulation. This tactic includes public shaming or humiliating one person and includes directly or indirectly using their name. This creates fear and group thinking, changing each individual's psyche.
Tactic 2: Punishing others who disobey or disagree with the spiritual leader. A culture of fear is created with this tactic with their followers that instigates punishment in the form of limiting access to spiritual leader, getting put on a blacklist without the followers knowledge, inability to use spiritual gifts in a ministry of choice, or taken off of a committee. Questions from followers that question the spiritual leaders stance will often be seen as motives of an impure spirit or motive and discourages others from challenging the organization or spiritual leader.
Tactic 3: Twisting Scripture to demand unequivocal obedience. Many times, spiritual leaders will use Scripture such as Hebrews 13:7 or Hebrews 13:17 out of context to justify complete and total blind obedience without question with is in violation of other Scripture below:
Tactic 4: Labeling people as "rebellious" or "out of order" if they disagree with a spiritual leader. Godly humility does not exist in this tactic and often the spiritual leader will cause divisiveness or "gaslight" others and will encourage others to ostracize the victims. One well known psychological phrase that is used by offenders is "I don't want yes men or women" however, in practice, challenges or difference of opinions are ostracized.
Tactic 5: Preying on someone's desire to have a relationship with the spiritual leader so manipulation can be extended. This tactic usually always leads to further abuse beyond spirituality. In the case of the SBC sexual abuse reports and Ravi Zacharias's multiple sex scandals, this tactic was used to instigate further abuse such as sexual abuse and almost always the actions of the spiritual leader are overlooked because they are idolized beyond Biblical proportions. One cover up story that we have seen is discipleship that is done with impure motives (either with private opposite sex counseling or group discipleship where a spiritual leader needs to know personal or very pertinent information about those being discipled) which leads into the next tactic.
Tactic 6: An unhealthy desire to control someone else's life. In more senses than one, this leader will take on the role of the Holy Spirit and try to force conviction where there is no need for it or instigate a problem where none exist. This can be in the form of unhealthy discipleship relations, peer pressure, gaslighting, forcing people to stay in ministries they don't feel convicted to be apart of, requiring people to check in with the spiritual leader for advice, forcing volunteering on followers, and/or using passive aggressive means to satisfy wants that creates an unhealthy codependency between spiritual leaders and followers. Often spiritual leaders will use instability in families to prey on victims and will use inside knowledge obtained through unhealthy relations.
Tactic 7: requiring an unhealthy level of service without proper consideration or concern for followers wellbeing. Spiritual leaders using this tactic will use guilt that they then use as coercion imitates a master-slave relationship. They will use phrases such as "this is your reasonable service," "this is your job," "you need to be sold-out for Christ," "you aren't doing enough as a follower of Christ," "are you a true Christian if you aren't serving in these ministries," etc. Almost always a ledger is kept by the spiritual leader with follower's information and is not used for "connecting to those who attend class or counseling sessions."
Many more tactics exist, but for time and space sake, we've highlighted 7 common tactics.
All the above tactics are taken from an unhealthy understanding of the Law and bestowing upon others a yoke they cannot carry and one that has been abolished by the blood of Christ. If you see any of these tactics being used by spiritual leaders, pray, confront the leader respectfully, and if the issue is not addressed or fixed at the lowest level, raise the concern to other church leaders. If the concern is still not addressed, it may be time to move churches.
If any tactic above is used with sexual coercion, pray, address this issue with other church leader, and inform police for the safety of others. Sexual coercion can be linked to inappropriate favors and can start with improper relations or secret meetings.