Justifying Inaction

July 02, 2007

Gary Ledbetter, editor of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention's newspaper the Southern Baptist Texan, has a column entitled "Only churches can stop Baptist predators." The piece argues that because of church autonomy there is nothing that conventions can do to stop ministers who abuse children. The piece is in response to the efforts of some Baptists calling on the Southern Baptist Convention to establish a public database of predators. The other state convention in Texas, the Baptist General Convention Texas, has already started posting the names of predators online, which is likely why the SBTC needed to justify its inaction on the issue.

However, there are a couple of serious problem with his argument as he tries to hide behind local church autonomy. He wrote:

Here's the bottom line at the top: neither the Southern Baptist Convention nor any other Baptist denominational entity has any standing, any power or any official business intervening between a local church and even the worst minister they employ.

... The denomination does not direct churches or control ordination, as would be the case in many denominations.
He is correct about Southern Baptist autonomy, but there are a couple of problems with his application. The first problem is that a database does not represent a top-down control or the forcing of churches to do anything. All it would do is provide churches with enough information to make the wisest decision possible. Yet, Ledbetter attempts to make this into an autonomy issue so as to justify inaction. We can respect the autonomy of local churches while also exposing those who prey on our children.

The other problem is that his claim of respecting local church autonomy seems quite weak. Last year, the SBTC kicked out a church for supposedly welcoming and affirming homosexuals (see previous posts here and here). Wait, what happened to the claim that they respect church autonomy? What happened to the claim that they are not "intervening" in a local church's business? What happened to the claim that they do "not direct churches"? At the time, SBTC board chairman Joe Stewart claimed:
When we sign an agreement to be a part of the SBTC, we have those theological parameters that we live and abide through and that is part of what makes us unique and distinct.

... The door is still open for them to reconcile if they will just agree to abide by the theological parameters of the SBTC. ... Although we want to reach out to people caught in sin, at the same time we can't affirm the lifestyle.
So, the SBTC will kick out a church for accepting homosexuals but sit by and claim their hands are tied when a pastor abuses children. What is going on? It should be quite obvious that the latter is the much more serious issue. Having a database will not violate local church autonomy. And even if it did, the SBTC has already shown that they do not always allow such autonomy. If they kick out a church for accepting homosexuals, then why not kick one out for covering up for a predator? Sadly, they seem to be more interested in hiding behind a supposed belief in local church autonomy in order to justify their inaction than taking serious actions to prevent further abuse.