Repentance, Restoration and THE Report
But institutions rarely follow best practices when they are accused of abuse. When these reports surface, transparency and accountability are paramount. But an apology and promise to do better are not enough to earn an institution forgiveness. Until these things are accompanied by some form of action, whether that’s public accountability, reparations, abusers stepping out of the public eye, or following the principles of restorative justice to prevent future harm, no institution or individual is owed forgiveness.
The SBC’s Sexual Abuse Task Force (SATF) review will be released tomorrow via the SATF website. It’s going to be a very interesting next few days on Twitter, and I anticipate that the fracas won’t really begin to subside until after the SBC Annual Meeting in June and the new SBC President is selected. It will take years — possibly decades — for the consequences to be fully realized. We have to operate on God’s timetable with this, not our own.
Typically when things like this come out, everyone (including me) will react to it afterwards, and we should. This, sadly, isn’t the first time I’ll read a report on the institutional cover up of abuse by Christians, and I doubt very much it will be the last report I hear of. I’ve been reading case reports of sex crimes, including rape, since 2000 when it was part of my job at the time; it’s been a long time and is part of the reason these stories don’t surprise me the way that they do many. That being said, I want to jot some thoughts on what I expect to see and hear not just in the report but also in the news and on social media as it is released/published.
Before I jump in, I think it’s important to note that we aren’t discussing abstract principles here or random facts. Everyone mentioned on this report is created by God bearing His image of God and is a soul for whom Christ died. This report is specifically limited to actions taken by men and women who claim to be Christians, which should entail loving their neighbor. The horrifying stories potentially contained in the report aren’t just abstract stories or random facts verified by letters, emails, diaries, interviews, recordings, etc. They’re real stories of real people who have all been horribly treated (and typically re-victimized by the ‘principalities and powers’ within the SBC), and we shouldn’t approach it lightly. I would imagine that almost everyone who opens the report will need multiple attempts to read through it, not least because it likely contains information that will break hearts, damage reputations, and grieve those who read it.
Those are just some of the consequences for decades’ worth of mitigation, image control, stonewalling, obfuscation, silencing, and further spiritual / emotional / political / social / financial abuse of people who claim to be Christian. All of this is wicked and sinful, and it is a good thing that God has deemed fit to open our eyes to the evils committed within our midst by those who are evil.
This is not a game, nor is it an opportunity to score political points or agendas. This is the fruit of an investigation by the SBC into its’ own history and misdeeds. It’s time for a serious and hard look at the evils committed and covered up by some. It’s also a time to repent — to turn away from these evils, to reject the leadership of those who have played a role, and to clean the Augean Stables of the SBC. Tweeting is easy. Repentance is hard.
When confronted on sin in the midst of the nation, the prophet Ezra demonstrated true repentance. It’s recorded in his book (9:3–7, NET):
When I heard this report, I tore my tunic and my robe and ripped out some of the hair from my head and beard. Then I sat down, quite devastated. Everyone who held the words of the God of Israel in awe gathered around me because of the unfaithful acts of the people of the exile. Devastated, I continued to sit there until the evening offering.
At the time of the evening offering I got up from my self-abasement, with my tunic and robe torn, and then dropped to my knees and spread my hands to the Lord my God. I prayed:
“O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God! For our iniquities have climbed higher than our heads, and our guilt extends to the heavens. From the days of our fathers until this very day our guilt has been great. Because of our iniquities we, along with our kings and priests, have been delivered over by the local kings to sword, captivity, plunder, and embarrassment — right up to the present time…
“And now what are we able to say after this, our God? For we have forsaken your commandments which you commanded us through your servants the prophets with these words...“Everything that has happened to us has come about because of our wicked actions and our great guilt. Even so, our God, you have exercised restraint toward our iniquities and have given us a remnant such as this.
Many years later, Daniel — one of the victims of God’s wrath and an exile in Babylon — had a similar reaction to the reports of sin in his circles:
I prayed to the Lord my God, confessing in this way:
“O Lord, great and awesome God who is faithful to his covenant with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned! We have done what is wrong and wicked; we have rebelled by turning away from your commandments and standards. We have not paid attention to your servants the prophets, who spoke by your authority to our kings, our leaders, and our ancestors, and to all the inhabitants of the land as well.
“You are righteous, O Lord, but we are humiliated this day — the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far away in all the countries in which you have scattered them because they have behaved unfaithfully toward you. O Lord, we have been humiliated — our kings, our leaders, and our ancestors — because we have sinned against you. Yet the Lord our God is compassionate and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him. We have not obeyed the Lord our God by living according to his laws that He set before us through His servants the prophets. (Daniel 9:4–10)
This is the time to weep, to mourn, and to repent. It isn’t a talking point or an item on a checklist to mark off so that SBC congregations can “get back to business”. Someone who says that “This is done and we should probably rename ourselves or make some cosmetic changes or toss a bone to our victims into keep them off our back” needs to be noted as someone who either does not understand sin or who is working very hard to minimize the devastating wrong committed in our Lord’s holy Name, because they themselves are implicated or have enabled abuse.
I’ve been hard on the SBC, even though I’m not a member of it, because the actions and inactions taken by them reflect poorly on myself as a non-SBC Baptist. But that being said, it isn’t even about “Southern” or “Non-Southern” Baptist. It isn’t about Baptists at all — it’s about Jesus.
It’s about being a part of the Body of Christ or the Triumphant Church. What impacts one believer impacts us all (1 Corinthians 12:12–26).
It’s about the devastation brought by evil and quite possibly unsaved men and women on Christians whom they claim to love and be serving.
It’s about making sure that the church is holy and spotless.
It’s about making sure that sin isn’t being concealed by false shepherds.
It’s about making sure that the church isn’t a safe haven for hired hands.
It’s about the souls of those who were so horribly mistreated that they now struggle to participate in worship without re-experiencing their suffering and trauma.
It’s about the lives of those who chose suicide over living with their humiliation and shame.
It’s not about you, or the SBC. It’s about the Body of Christ.
And all of that leaves us with one massive question:
“Now what? Where do we go from here?”
Well, it’s up to the members of the SBC and the individuals named within the report. I have little hope that many of the men and women who are found culpable named in the report will actually turn and repent of their sins, but maybe God will be gracious to them and lead them to repentance. Given the social media of certain people I expect to be named in the report, many who should be shamed and distraught at their evil actions will not manifest any signs of true repentance once their deeds are exposed. At least one of these men can’t seem to recall any wrongdoing but somehow found it important enough to have his lawyer make a statement about it.
This phenomenon isn’t new — Jesus Himself discussed it with Nicodemus in John 3:19–21:
Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God.
John also discusses the nature of this battle in 1 John 1:5–10:
Now this is the gospel message we have heard from him and announce to you: God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with Him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth. But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
There will be people — possibly household names for some of you in SBC circles — who will do their absolute best to bury this report or to downplay it as politicized or biased. Do not listen to them. Listen to the report. Look at the facts. Talk with the people involved. THEN decide what’s true and act accordingly, but do not be surprised when they recoil from the truth like the dark creatures they are. Satan masquerades as an angel of light, according to Paul, so it shouldn’t shock us when his minions do the same in our own churches. By their fruits you will know them.
As for the rest of us, look to the example of some in Scripture. Here is a good example of someone to emulate from 2 Chronicles 35:19–21:
When the king [Josiah] heard the words of the law, he tore his clothes. The king ordered Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Abdon son of Micah, Shaphan the scribe, and Asaiah the king’s servant, “Go, ask the Lord for me and for those who remain in Israel and Judah about the words of this scroll that has been discovered. For the Lord’s great fury has been ignited against us because our ancestors did not obey the word of the Lord by living according to all that is written in this scroll.”
Sadly enough, the verdict of the Lord on the nation was clear: Judgment.
“This is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to bring disaster on this place and its residents, all the curses that are recorded in the scroll which they read before the king of Judah. This will happen because they have abandoned me and offered sacrifices to other gods, angering me with all the idols they have made. My anger will ignite against this place and will not be extinguished!’” (2 Chronicles 35:19–21)
But to the king himself, whose heart was in the right place and who was serious about his repentance, there was mercy:
Say this to the king of Judah, who sent you to seek an oracle from the Lord: “This is what the Lord God of Israel says concerning the words you have heard: ‘You displayed a sensitive spirit and humbled yourself before God when you heard his words concerning this place and its residents. You humbled yourself before me, tore your clothes, and wept before me, and I have heard you,’ says the Lord. ‘Therefore I will allow you to die and be buried in peace. You will not have to witness all the disaster I will bring on this place and its residents.” Then they reported back to the king. (vv. 24–28)
There’s no doubt in my mind that this report will be devastating and destructive. It may end up splitting the SBC entirely between those who love and desire power and influence and those who take the commands of God seriously. I don’t know…but remember what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:18–19:
For in the first place, when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must in fact be divisions among you, so that those of you who are approved may be evident.
The temptation for some, as they process the details of the SATF report, may be to give up, to throw their hands in the air and say that it’s hopeless. Some will bail out on Christianity or the church and for understandable reasons. I mourn all of those who have seen such evil in the church that they have no choice but to flee it.
Likewise, the temptation to return evil for evil by attacking those who did evil will also be overpowering and incredibly enticing — this is my own sinful inclination. But the solution to their evil isn’t retaliation, it’s repentance and reparation and restoration…so do not be overcome by those desires.
Grieve the stories, mourn whatever there is to mourn, and then be prepared to sit with the victims and anyone who is brokenhearted or mourning what they read.
May God have mercy on us all.
** updated **