Abuse in the SBC: Why It Happened and Where We Find Hope

As a fierce advocate of women and children, I’ve followed the sexual abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention for years. One of my first articles investigated John MacArthur, a reformed Baptist, who told Beth Moore to “go home” after speaking at her church on Mother’s Day. Moore, a three-decade member of the SBC until 2021, had been a squeaky wheel in that organization, frequently forwarding the taboo topic of abuse in forums that preferred her silence. 

Indeed, “Go home” has been the desire of many in the SBC as well when it comes to such secrets.

On Sunday, those secrets came out of the house. A report by an independent third party has brought the abuse to greater light, and the findings were shocking. "Survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action," the report discovered, "even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation."

This conclusion is mindboggling, especially considering that the recent report was in response to an explosive, six-part series by the Houston Chronicle published in 2019. I wrote in a previous article that this investigation “uncovered an ‘Abuse of Faith’ that spans 20 years, involved 380 male church leaders and volunteers, and affected 700 victims in the Southern Baptist denomination. There were 220 convictions or plea deals made. This bombshell of a story has rocked the denomination to its core. With such a large pool of abused women in a single corner of Christianity, the problem is systemic.”

Without question, the system failed to protect women and children in the SBC. 

The Magnitude of This Discovery Cannot Be Overstated

Still, many refused to give the results of the original investigation by the Houston Chronicle the weight they deserved. It took this independent third party to bring the proper perspective, and now the Department of Justice is getting involved.

"This is huge. Many told us we were wrong to say that sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention is a crisis,” said Russell Moore, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He resigned from that position and, like Moore, left the SBC in 2021. "This report reveals that crisis is too small of a word. This is an apocalypse, an unveiling, a meltdown."

Spiritual Abuse Brought Christ’s Harshest Warning

Many hearts are grieved by this unveiling. My heart certainly is. So many women and children have been silenced and ignored. I cannot help but think that a denomination that denies women a voice, a seat at the table, can be ripe for such an outcome. 

Scripture is insistent on the protection of the vulnerable. Some of Christ’s strongest words were reserved for those who failed to heed this call.

“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.’” John 17:1-2

Nothing can cause a believer to stumble more than abuse from someone in spiritual authority. Woe to those who abuse such authority.

Why Does This Keep Happening?

Yet another blight on the church leaves so many questions.

Recently, I spoke with a friend who pastors a new church in Virginia Beach about the string of scandals rocking the evangelical world. There are so many. Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Hillsong, Christianity Today, Willow Creek, Mars Hill, and Grace Community Church have all shown that where there is concentrated power, especially without transparency, there is a grave propensity for abuse. The perpetrators are protected, and the victims are hung out to dry.  

This type of abuse isn’t a new development in human nature. History is littered with egregious examples of abuse from governments and dictatorial leaders. But tragically, we also see this propensity in the church. This reality is a sucker punch to the gut. The very place we go to escape the harsh realities of the world, the place that ought to be a haven, a place of healing, can become a hurt locker.

My pastor friend and I wondered if a large organization, Christian or otherwise, could ever operate without abusing the power that accompanies the positions at the top. Our man-made institutions seem doomed to fail, even the religious ones.

What Does the Bible Say about Power?

Indeed, the epic story of Babel’s tower in the Old Testament warns against concentrated power. With the memory of a worldwide flood fresh on their minds, these ancient people set about to build a tower reaching the sky. It was the first skyscraper, and this man-made life raft would certainly guard against future calamity.

But God discerned a sinister outcome when man erects institutions to save itself. He said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” Genesis 11:6

So God confused their language because He knew that concentrated power was dangerous for the people of Babel. It is still dangerous today. It is dangerous in governments and in corporations. It is dangerous in political parties and universities. And it is dangerous in the church.

God Is Emphatically Concerned about Justice

When our leaders get it wrong, we can be comforted in the fact that our Holy Book does not. God’s foundational concern for justice is seen throughout the Bible. At a time when Homer was writing about “heroes” who fought over the spoils of war or war prizes, who happened to be women, God had a lot to say about the mistreatment of the vulnerable. 

“Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” Psalm 82:3

“Learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and please the widow’s cause.” Isaiah 1:17

The very first justice warriors, the original human rights activists, were the Old Testament prophets. They talked about justice constantly because God is intensely concerned about justice. So was Jesus. The concern over abusive power is seen in both Testaments, but power that hurts those who are vulnerable, those who are seeking God, was one of Christ’s greatest concerns.

What Did Jesus Say to Those with Religious Power?

Jesus’ harshest words weren’t reserved for the Romans, who ruthlessly ruled the New Testament world. Those austere words were rightfully given to the Pharisees and those who taught the law, who Christ called a “brood of vipers.” To these abusive religious leaders, Jesus said:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Matthew 23:27-28

Christ’s words provide the foundation for Lord Acton’s prolific conclusion: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The type of power doesn’t seem to matter. As Christians, we’d like to think that those who wield power within our hallowed halls will do so justly. But Jesus told us otherwise. 

And we must never forget that Christ was crucified by the religious leaders of his day. We can rest assured that our Savior understands the abuse of power. 

Where Does Our Hope Lie?

Where can we turn to find hope amid yet another abuse scandal in the church?

To be completely honest, my faith in the Department of Justice is on par with the SBC. Recent scandals in that organization have rocked the faith of many Americans. Charging this institution to lead an investigation feels a little like the fox guarding the hen house. Nevertheless, it is good that the SBC is being investigated. 

But ultimately, our hope doesn’t lie in man’s justice. 

I’m reminded of a popular phrase that, coincidentally, I first heard in a Beth Moore Bible study. Others have said it as well. The sentiment is comforting in such times. That is, “Justice delayed is not justice denied.” 

Sometimes justice is a long time coming in this world. Sometimes it eludes us altogether. The one thing that Scripture promises us is that justice will come. It will. If not in this world, it will come in the next. 

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” 2 Cor. 5:10

We can trust God’s justice will prevail when man’s justice fails. While we wait, we can pray for the victims to heal and receive the justice they deserve.

Please join me in this prayer:

“Heavenly Father, we know that you care about justice. You care about the harm inflicted on these precious women and children. Bring justice to each and every person harmed by abuse in the church that bears your name. Purify our places of worship. Heal those who are hurting. Comfort, renew, restore, and resurrect them. Expose the perpetrators and cleanse your house in Jesus’ Name. Destroy our man-made institutions and build a church that looks like you.”

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/DedMityay

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Catherine Segars is an award-winning actress and playwright—turned stay-at-home-mom—turned author, speaker, podcaster, blogger, and motherhood apologist. This homeschooling mama of five has a master’s degree in communications and is earning a master’s degree in Christian apologetics. As host of CHRISTIAN PARENT/CRAZY WORLD, named the 2022 Best Kids and Family Podcast by Spark Media, Catherine helps parents navigate through dangerous secular landmines to establish a sound Biblical foundation for their kids. You can find Catherine’s blog, dramatic blogcast, and other writings at www.catherinesegars.com and connect with her on Facebook.

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