My sweet brother:
Welcome to the Big Leagues, by which of course I mean the politics of the nation’s largest protestant denomination. To be sure, this isn’t your first exposure to the ugly side of evangelicalism. You got a taste of it when the sitting president of the convention helped orchestrate the nomination of your predecessor, Memphis-area pastor Steve Gaines. Despite garnering a plurality of the votes on the first ballot in a three-way race — and a nail-biting second ballot that saw neither you nor Gaines win a majority — you withdrew in a show of unity that allowed Gaines to become convention president.
Flash forward two years and there was a fairly clear sense among SBC churches that you would be elected without challenge. Until, that is, the state executive in Louisiana decided to use the convention’s resources to underwrite the campaign of an opposition candidate. Did I mention to you that before he was a state executive he officed for 10 years down the hall from Augie Boto in the Nashville headquarters? Or that both men were trustees of the Executive Committee when they were hired?
Denominational jobs have a funny way of opening up like that for insiders, but I digress.
You found out along the way that not everyone who comes toward you with a big cheesy grin and a back-slapping word of affirmation is sincere. Some of those polyester prophets act like they are a friend — or feign neutrality in a denominational election cycle — but they end up giving nomination speeches against you. In fairness, though, you’ve probably learned they didn’t aim for duplicity in their ministries. They just get co-opted along the way.
In the past couple years, the denominational politburo has thrown everything at you they could. For the anti-Calvinists, they saw in you their favorite bogeyman. But you’re a former IMB missionary who served in the most populous Muslim nation in the world. I remember very clearly when we learned back at seminary that riots had broken out in your city, and that Muslim extremists were protesting outside your apartment and demanding that you be turned over by the local police. Those were some scary times.
And then, some of your detractors have taken issue with the worship style at Summit Church, or the community-wide Christmas program you host in Durham, or the fact that your congregation worships the last Sunday of the year in their homes with their families. Some criticize Summit’s multi-campus model (though you hardly pioneered it), or your preaching style. There are still some who probably don’t like that you wear sneakers on the platform, or don’t tuck in your shirt, or avoid pocket squares and silk stockings and other fussy sartorial embellishments.
But now you find yourself in the eye of the storm, and you’ve drawn the ire of some denominational bureaucrats and the pastors who aspire to become one. And why have they come for you?
Simple. You’ve exposed the rot in the soul of the Southern Baptist Convention. You’ve determined to stand with victims of abuse, to take the shaming that has too often been directed at them, to stand and take the blows and accusations and chastisements they’ve been taking alone. In this, you’ve made the tent of your presidency far outside the camp, and the powerbrokers don’t like it.
One week ago, I sat in the auditorium on the second floor of the SBC headquarters in Nashville listening to your speech. Danny Akin, the president of our alma mater, sat across the aisle from me. There was tension in the air, but also hopefulness that something was about to change.
The room was filled with the mostly old, mostly white, mostly male crowd that has comprised the Southern Baptist Convention’s power base for its entire history. They sat in their swivel board room chairs, leaning back, gently rocking with arms folded and hands resting on their chins while you did the unthinkable.
You called for accountability.
They didn’t like that very much did they?
And so, within hours of your address, they were gathering in little rooms all over the convention office to put the quash on your initiatives, weren’t they? They called you in and sat you down and tried to give you a lesson or two. Phones were ringing. Text messages were flying. Presiding over the meeting was a pastor who’s served on three different trustee boards, including chairman of one before he resigned for moral failure.
But Jesus predicted times like this would happen in ministry, didn’t he? “When they haul you before the synagogue, before rulers and authorities, do not worry about what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you what you should say.”
There is now great pressure on you to back down. Doubtlessly, the machine is frustrated that you aren’t playing nice. That you aren’t singing from their song sheet. That you aren’t reading from the playbook they’ve been using for years.
You see, J.D., some Southern Baptist preachers (and a few denominational lawyers) evidence themselves the very hypocrisies they denounce from their pulpits. For more than a decade, they’ve been busy figuring out how the Southern Baptist Convention can give the appearance of concern for abuse survivors, but never really do anything about it. They say all the right words, but those words mean nothing.
As one public leader has said, “all talk, no action.” Or to borrow from the Epistle of James: “Do you see a bylaw workgroup that has a concern for victims?”
I think you get my point.
More than once in recent days I’ve talked to Southern Baptist pastors who see what’s happening in Nashville and at some churches in our convention and they say, “We have to be weary of wolves that come in sheep’s clothing.”
When I hear that, I can’t get the late Justice Scalia’s masterfully written dissent in Morrison v. Olson out of my mind: “This wolf comes as a wolf.”
Indeed, the wolves are coming for you, J.D., and they aren’t trying to mollify you anymore because they realize you’re not like all those shepherds who came before you. You’re not contenting yourself to enjoy the perquisites of convention office. You’re not offering the tired laments about declining baptisms, and you’re probably not fighting the “culture war” enough to satisfy them. Oh, and you’re probably not on FOX News enough either.
No, you’ve been listening to the cries of victims. Your ear has been tuned to the sound coming out of Ramah, mourning and great weeping for children who are no more. For too long those tears have been met with indifference, and in some instances, outright disdain. To our great shame, we have built our seminary chapels and installed our stained glass windows (some of which honor men who’ve concealed abuse for decades) and walked past the protesters outside our convention meeting with equal parts amusement and scorn.
I remember years ago at the annual meeting in St. Louis when the protesters left the outside curb, dressed like church messengers, and came into the convention hall during the address by then-president James Merritt. In the middle of his message, they stood up and began walking forward, shouting at Merritt until they were arrested at the front of the convention and dragged out of the room. One woman protestor was screaming all the way out.
I remember laughing, and my laughter haunts me. Sure, some protestors are merely seeking to be disruptive. Some use the platform of injustice to pursue their own unjust ends, harnessing public sympathy to get themselves a spotlight.
But that’s not what’s happening now, is it? You’ve met with the victims. You’ve heard their stories. They’re not looking for a spotlight, and most of them are scared to speak. Their wounds are still fresh, and probably always will be.
One night in late April 2018*, I received a call from Oklahoma. The pastor told me of an abuse victim who had been raped on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary by a fellow student. He read me her story — written in the form of a blog post the pastor was preparing to publish online.
After a long discussion, we both agreed that her story was too important to be subjected to the easy dismissal it would receive if published on one of our blogs. So we reached out to a few people, and within days I was on the phone with two reporters from the Washington Post. The rape victim — who did not want to be named — was willing to tell her story. And so she did, and the Post published it.
Very quickly the machine went into overdrive. Confidential student records were accessed, copied, and distributed in an effort to discredit her. Her name was released without her permission. She was dragged, painfully and publicly, like Hester Prynne, into the public square by religious leaders who thought they were doing God a favor. But all they were doing was further harming the weak to protect the strong.
God had other plans didn’t he?
Today, on the campus of Southwestern Seminary are walls of stained glass designed to honor the man at the center of her story. There are other men in those windows, some of whom have now been publicly named in nation-wide stories for their mishandling of abuse cases in their churches. Some have been accused of abuse themselves.
Here’s my point, J.D. You are at a defining moment in your life. Probably even more defining than the days you spent in Indonesia while a Muslim mob torched cars and demanded your arrest. What you do now — what you say and how you respond — has the chance either to do justice and love mercy or it will reinforce a broken system that serves to perpetuate cycles of abuse.
If you choose one path, you will likely invite even more hostile criticisms, more accusations about your character and motives, and probably endless hours of meetings and phone calls with men who either attempt to seduce you or threaten you to tow the party line.
But if you choose the other, you may get yourself on a stained-glass window somewhere.
Insofar as you choose the former, I am with you in the storm.
*After publication of this open letter, I was contacted by the victim and told it was early May 2018 and not late April 2018 that she began speaking with reporters from the Washington Post. In the interest of absolute accuracy, I am footnoting the letter post-publication.