Content warning: This post addresses endemic sexual and spiritual abuse within Southern Baptist churches. No graphic descriptions are given, but please care for yourself if this content could be triggering.
Many of you have at least seen this week’s headlines about the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Southern Baptist churches are loosely autonomous, but united under the SBC and the same understanding of doctrine. The SBC and its organizations range from church planters in the States (North American Mission Board—NAMB), to missionaries and church planters overseas (the International Mission Board—IMB) to the Southern Baptist Seminaries and State conventions of cooperating churches in most of the 50 States.
If you have read the news this week, you have learned of the horrific extent to which spiritual leaders have abused those under their care. Those who were meant to be shepherds, instead of caring for their people have directly abused them or covered up for those who did. Not every pastor or every church has been implicated, but the shocking numbers from a third party report indicate that many more of us have been touched by this egregious sin that we would like to believe. If you would like to read the full report, you can find it here, as well as the actions proposed by the investigation team.
I have a particular stake in this endemic abuse. While I have not been sexually assaulted by a Baptist leader, I have been in the petri dish that provides a nurturing environment for abusers. I have both experienced great abuse and brokenness within the SBC, and great healing and care. If you are tempted to breeze past these headlines, to wonder why they’re important to you beyond this week, I want to tell you. If you have experienced abuse and lived in the dark with it, I am so very sorry. I want to speak up with you and stand by your side when you cannot speak.
Too often, to our shame, abuse survivors are pushed to the side. Their stories are silenced or muffled, or worse, discredited and ignored because their words are ‘divisive’ or ‘hyperbole,’ or perhaps because they’re seen as a radical whose beliefs do not align with most Baptists. If my experiences and my history mean anything to you, if they help you sympathize with abuse survivors or recognize the lifelong consequences of abuse, I will share them. If the platform I stand on helps you listen or understand, I will use it.
I was born to Southern Baptist parents, and even after multiple moves I have only ever been a member of Southern Baptist churches. SBC summer mission camps led me to follow the Lord to the mission field overseas and in the States. I have faithfully attended, volunteered at, spoken, and taught in these churches, and worked for nearly 6 years overseas with the IMB. But more than those facts can show, Baptists have been home for me. They have prayed for me, fed me, paid my salary, and been my family. They have discipled me and held me while I healed. I have come to know the Lord and follow him in obedience through a Southern Baptist lens.
But I have experienced sexual harassment and mild assault while performing my job with the SBC, and many of my claims were ignored or handled poorly. I was asked not to speak openly about these experiences for a variety of reasons. I have experienced specific instances of discrimination from IMB leadership, both as a woman and as an unmarried person. I suffered sustained emotional and spiritual abuse from IMB leadership, and experienced retaliation and reprisal as a result of reporting this abuse. And while some of my concerns were heard and responded to in the end, the hurt and trauma are not erased.
I bear these emotional scars, and they run deep enough to affect the rest of my life. Like Paul when he ‘foolishly boasted’ to the Corinthians, I share these facts not out of pride or desire for respect or notoriety. I foolishly speak of these things to this end: I wish for you who read this to understand that my words are written here not out of a spirit of malice or a desire to sow disunity. I want you to know that my eyes see the decaying roots in the SBC, my experiences help me to understand it, and my memories still feel the rot.
I still have tremors in my hands when I walk into a church. The part of me before who could speak freely and movingly to a congregation has been quieted and replaced by a dry-mouthed and fumbling speaker, unsure and shrunken under the gaze of men and women whom my mind will no longer allow me to instinctually trust. I have questioned many times whether I should leave my work in the hands of others and abandon what feels like a sinking ship. I have fought with my conscience time and again over the ethics of my paycheck. And I have stood my ground with the support of other Southern Baptists to leverage my experiences for the sake of repairing that sinking ship.
What This Means for Survivors
To any of you who have left the SBC denomination because it is no longer safe for you, to any who have stepped aside from churches at wide because they have not healed from damage and hurts, to any who see the apostasy, hypocrisy, or corruption of the SBC and their consciences will no longer allow them to stay: I understand and stand with you. I sympathize and empathize. The Lord will give us all convictions, and obedience and self-protection can look different for each of us.
But to those of you who stay, you need to understand what an abuse survivor may have experienced. Unfortunately, sexual abuse is part and parcel of power abuse at large. Believers still sin, and those far from the Lord and walking in sin can fall into patterns of abusing whatever influence or control they hold. This love for power is the same root underneath racism, sexism, discrimination, spiritual abuse, and emotional abuse in our churches. And if any of you are completely shocked that such abuse could happen here—in our fellowship halls or youth rooms—you have not been listening to the voices of your brothers and sisters with different shades of skin who have cried out about the mistreatment they’ve experienced from behind our pulpits. You’ve chosen to look aside from the smaller paycheck the women or divorcees on church staff receive compared to others. You’ve failed to recognize when singles are understood to be less spiritually mature than married individuals on principle.
If you have missed these signs of abuse or neglect, there is plenty of time to open your eyes to them and recognize that they are not accidental or isolated incidents. You have plenty of time to turn your eyes to your wounded brother on the side of the road instead of walking by. These reports show clear patterns of abuse across our denomination, and the safe assumption right now is that you know other church members who’ve been abused, and that your church could do better in preventing or caring for abuse victims.
To let these headlines pass you by without evaluating your actions is tantamount to what David did for Tamar. After David’s illicit sex with Bathsheba (arguably rape), it took him some time to see his sin. When he did, he repented and married her, but that was not enough to bring her husband back from the dead, or to save their baby from death. Later on in David’s life, his greater love for his sons, or his own hesitancy to hold others accountable for mistakes he felt capable of making himself, kept him from caring for his own daughter Tamar when she had been raped by his son. That sin festered all the days of their lives. Tamar lived alone and abandoned. Her rapist was murdered by a half-brother who’d fruitlessly urged David to take action. And the half-brother murderer soon claimed David’s throne for his own and exiled his father, before the son’s tragic death and David’s overwhelming grief. Abuse festers. When we are tempted to ignore it, only exponential hurt can come from that path.
Because of the manipulation inherent to abuse, many survivors like myself still struggle to tell their story without still wondering, in their heart of hearts, if it wasn’t their fault. And telling their story can be painful, often because in the SBC environment we live in, the risk of not being believed and the consequences that would follow are just too great. Will they be fired from their jobs? Lose their standing in the church or community? Will they be blamed for disrupting peace? Will they lose their church family altogether and be looked on with mistrust until they finally leave the church voluntarily?
Those are all fears and consequences we have in our hands to change. By denouncing abuse openly, we set minds at ease who fear revealing it. By aligning ourselves more with the kingdom of God than any political or administrative kingdom, gender or skin color here on earth, survivors can trust us more to treat them with the compassion and healing Jesus would. By openly expressing support for abuse survivors, over the SBC or a particular leader or ideology, we show our value for people made in the image of God. If we truly value each person made in the image of God the same, we owe abuse victims the dignity of valuing them with urgency when they have suffered so great a spiritual, physical, and psychological blow.
Many abuse victims, myself included, have been answered with the subtly destructive phrase, “let’s keep the main thing the main thing,” or its variation of “We need to put the gospel first.” But recognize with me, church, that the gospel is not just a message of Jesus on a cross and heaven eternal. The gospel message was embodied in Jesus, whose kingdom values compelled him to welcome women as well as men in his closest circle of followers. The gospel compelled Jesus to provide care for his marginalized mother even as he was dying on the cross. The gospel compelled Jesus to stop his teaching and welcome little children to him. The gospel compelled Jesus to stand between a woman accused of adultery and to take on her case and shame in the eyes of her accusers. Jesus himself said he came to call out good news to the poor, to release prisoners, give sight to the blind, and set free the oppressed. And those weren’t metaphors or solely spiritual realities. Who else are victims of abuse but the poor in spirit, those blinded in the dark by their isolation, prisoners of lies, oppressed by their abusers?
Church, the gospel IS the main thing, and it compels us with every fiber of our being to be a balm to the hurting. And that includes those abused in our church buildings and by our pastors and leaders.
Where I Stand
So how am I with all of this? This week has been a hard one. With every next piece of news, both my mind and body have to process through tension, grief, anger, humiliation, helplessness, devastation, and so many more emotions. The grief is so fresh and deep that some days I feel like I’m right back in the middle of what I experienced. Many others who have suffered church abuse are experiencing the same things. Plenty of you have reached out to listen and encourage, and I have been more than happy to talk with many of you as you process and understand what this means to and for you. I still have plenty to learn myself. But for now, I feel convicted to stay with the dumpster fire and help put out the flames. Having been burned a few times myself, maybe I’ve learned how to help suffocate the fire in the process.
This very Sunday as I stood trembling in church, praying for the Spirit to overpower my anxiety and help me to worship and learn, the congregation started to sing “He Leadeth me.” In the few churches or groups I’ve spoken to since I’ve been stateside, the ones who’ve reacted most powerfully to what they have heard were the ones I told my personal story to. When I revealed some of my deeper hurts and how the Lord sustained me, others connected to stories of their own and the Spirit connecting us was a strong encouragement. As I sang that song in church, I sank into my seat and fell into a silent prayer. I recognized that the Lord had led me to and through my experiences. He led me out the other side not quite the same Caroline who went in, but with a story to tell and a burning desire to see the church comfort her abused and broken brothers and sisters.
Later that same Sunday the news broke about the SBC investigation, and the Lord had already answered my questions for me. I will stay and be a safe person for others to come to. I will keep in dialogue with those with IMB and SBC already hard at work to help things change. For now and until I hear otherwise from the Spirit. I’ll be the man Jesus healed who was told to stay and tell his story to his village. I’ll be the woman at the well who took a risk and shared her shame so that others could come to know the Lord.
I do not believe that our southern Baptist theology and beliefs necessarily end in abuse. Many Baptists on my path toward healing have proved otherwise. But I do believe that our cultural identity at this point does lend itself to abuse. We have to roll up our sleeves and return to the Word to see how Jesus honors the dignity of the vulnerable and oppressed. We have to keep pressing our doctrines and theology until they meet our practice and show through in all the ways we interact with women, men, and sexuality in our churches; until the pages in our Bible reflect the pages of our lives as leaders humbly shepherd, and use their influence to protect and nurture instead of tear down or feed their own egos.
What this Means for You
Those are my convictions for now, and I plan to continue evaluating to make sure I obey the Lord. You might not land in the same place I do, and that’s okay. But for what it’s worth, my opinion is that further involvement with the SBC should be a choice instead of inaction. If you stay, if you move past this news, please do so with the knowledge of the hurting around you. Do not turn your eyes away from them. If you stay, stay with a task and a calling to learn, to rebuild, to comfort, and to change.
If you have caught yourself wondering if this affects you, it does. If your body is diseased, the whole system is compromised. Even a small infection can multiply and damage the whole body. In the same way, a disease in your church, however subtle, affects whether or not your body of believers worships in spirit and in truth. If your church’s handling of this causes even one of the little ones who would come to faith to stumble, it would be better for a millstone to be hung around your neck before you’re thrown into the ocean. Jesus is SERIOUS about protecting his sheep, and he is serious about those in power who could cause them to stumble, or mislead them, or even make the gospel unwelcoming and turn away those who could become little children in the faith.
If you believe this sin is only at higher levels in your church or organization, the same applies: a pattern of sin unchecked at any level is dangerous. As Paul says, an eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you,’ and the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you.’ God put the whole body together, and there should be no division within it. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If we Southern Baptists align ourselves together and understand each other to be a part of the same body of Christ, we cannot ignore a destructive habit in one part of the body and assume it has not manifested in the DNA or cellular level elsewhere.
If you don’t believe that you are contributing to these problematic abusive patterns, you are most certainly enabling them. I say that not to condemn, but to point out that these patterns that allow abuse are ingrained even at the smallest levels. If you are not knowingly and actively working against them, they will continue on, unchanged. If you are not advocating for transparency and safety in your church, if you aren’t praying for the integrity of your leaders, or advocating for their accountability, you are contributing to a pattern in the same way that the religious leaders left the wounded man on the side of the road because they assumed he wasn’t their problem and would be more trouble than he was worth.
If you are one who wants to give grace in situations like these, please recognize the nature of grace. In Ephesians 3 and 4, Paul writes about how we are all united by the same faith and the same baptism. If we believe that, we believe that any Christian is united with any other through the same Spirit of God who lives in them. Paul says that he became a servant of the gospel by God’s grace, so that he could make the gospel known to others and it would unite them. Grace unites and makes whole.
God’s grace isn’t something that spares us from judgment: our judgment still exists, and Jesus suffered it in our place. Grace from God is that Jesus suffered to redeem us to live rightly before God. Grace redeems and restores; it does not turn a blind eye to sin. Grace in the case of abuse holds an abuser accountable so that their sin has consequences and they can learn to live more fully like Christ. And grace for an abuse survivor restores them and treats them with the dignity they have as an eternal bearer of the image of God. As Paul says to the Ephesians, “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” To truly show grace, we must speak truth both to abused and abuser. We must recognize that if sparing a legal consequence of pain for one member causes ungracious suffering for an another in the present or future, it is not grace we show.
The emotional scars that I bear most likely will not go away in this lifetime, before I see my redeemer face to face. Be mindful that there are similar scars in your congregation. Whatever his reason, the Lord has given me the privilege to see many of my own scars begin to heal. He has given me a community of faith that supports me and reminds me through their own actions how the Lord loves and restores. So as often as I can, I intend to wear my scars as a badge of honor to glorify the Lord. Jesus proudly showed his scars to his followers to testify to the Lord’s power over death. Let my own scars show that, as deeply as sin can wound, the Lord can heal even deeper. As much as my scars may ‘disfigure’ my experiences in church or with spiritual leaders, their dull ache will always remind me of the hope I have in a Lord who will heal all wounds and dry all tears.
If you have experienced sexual abuse, please reach out to safe people around you for help, or go to this website for resources or to file a report. You can also call the national sexual assault hotline 24/7 at 800.656.4673. If you have experienced abuse of any kind connected to the IMB, you can call the confidential hotline at 855.420.0003 or email email@example.com .
- An early article overviewing the SBC sexual abuse reports by Russell Moore
- The full report of the investigation
- The investigators’ recommendations for change
- My previous blog on brokenness in the Southern Baptist Convention
- Previous blog on how Scripture addresses spiritual abuse
- Previous first person account on how spiritual abuse affects survivors
- Previous blog on Job and some of my spiritual scars
Practical steps: A few simple actions to take in response
- Talk with your church to clarify how to report abuse.
- Confirm your church’s procedure on what to do in the instance of an abuse report.
- Develop a plan or procedure if your church does not already have one.
- If you work for a faith-based company, educate yourself on their HR procedures and policies.
- Urge your church or workplace to develop a more formal HR department or procedure to ensure that complaints and accusations are taken seriously.
- Encourage your church to vet ministers they hire by following up on their references.
- Help your church plan a service where they address abuse and make their commitment to stand with survivors clear. Your congregation should hear loud and clear that your church is committed not to make it more painful for them to speak up than to stay silent.
- If an abuse victim should speak with you about their ordeal, do not treat their confidence lightly. Believe, support, and report.
- Give survivors safe time and spaces in which to process and to have holes in their faith.
- Educate yourself on spiritual abuse so you can understand how an abuse survivor has been made to believe that God himself sees and treats them the way their abuser did.
- If someone in your life has been vocal with his or her story of abuse, listen to them and hear their perspectives and experiences.
- Verify that your faith-based workplace has HR policies for responding not just to sexual abuse, but also to spiritual, physical, and emotional abuse, and advocate for policies if there aren’t any.
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