The president of the Southern Baptist Convention said that local church autonomy does not excuse Southern Baptists from holding one another accountable in a mild rebuke of churches giving platform to a disgraced former leader accused of enabling sexual abusers.
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear advised churches to “consider” former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson’s 2018 firing for conduct “antithetical to the core values of our faith” before inviting the Conservative Resurgence co-founder to speak or preach.
“Southern Baptist churches must take our mutual accountability to each other more seriously than we have in the past,” Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, is quoted as saying. “If our system of governance means anything, it means exercising due diligence and heeding what those whom we put in positions of trustee oversight have reported about official misconduct.”
According to the article, Greer’s comment came in response to questions about recent controversy over two churches that invited Patterson despite his alleged mishandling of more than one instances of campus rape.
Fellowship Church in Immokalee, Florida, was criticized on social media for including both Paige and former seminary first lady Dorothy Patterson on the program of its Great Commission Weekend Feb. 7-9, prompting both speakers and sponsors to withdraw.
On his social media platform, Patterson shared news that Victory Baptist Church in Rowlett, Texas, presented him Jan. 12 with a “Defender of the Faith Award” plaque honoring “your fearless defense of the word of God and uncompromising faith.”
Patterson tweeted Jan. 21 that the award presentation “means more to me coming from this faithful church than it would from an entire convention.”
Victory Baptist Church in Rowlett is listed as a participating church by both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Its pastor, Terry Smith, was subject of a D Magazine story in 1988 headlined “God’s man: Savior or seducer?” involving allegations of adultery, sexual harassment and financial impropriety at a former church.
Reaction to Greear’s calling out of Patterson by name drew mixed responses.
Rachel Denhollander, a vocal advocate of SBC abuse survivors, said she is “very grateful someone took a stand.”
“Autonomy does not mean silence and lack of accountability,” she said on Twitter. “The most important thing we can do is speak the truth and push each other towards righteousness.”
Some saw the statement as conflicting with the Baptist tradition of autonomy of the local church.
“While is it fine that Dr. Greear has the opportunity to voice his opinion, it is interesting that he would make that opinion public since it is really none of his business what Dr. Patterson does or does not do,” said the discussion blog SBC Issues. “It is not Dr. Greear’s responsibility to tell churches what they should or should not do.”
Christa Brown, another survivor advocate, said if the SBC president can “advise” churches to keep an abuse enabler out of the pulpit, it raises the question of why the denomination cannot advise and inform Southern Baptists about independently determined but credible allegations of clergy sex abuse through a database.
“I’ve been asking this question for 15 years,” Brown said on Twitter.
Boz Tchividjian, an expert in the field, said talk by itself is cheap.
“Church leaders who speak empathetic words and make empty promises without substantive and self-sacrificing actions are exploiting and re-victimizing the abuse survivors who still have hope that the church will do ‘the right thing’” Tchividjian said on Twitter.
One survivor said “I’m not as quick to sing praises” of Greear, because Summit Church welcomes registered sex offenders with certain caveats and does not disclose their status to church members.
“Greear is condoning the very thing he is condemning Patterson for,” said blogger Jimmy Hinton.
Last February Greear named 10 churches that he said should be investigated for abuse allegations based on a series of investigative newspaper stories counting 700 abuse victims and roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers that faced allegations of sexual misconduct during the last 20 years.
The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News series titled “Abuse of Faith,” was voted No. 1 religion story of 2019 by the Religion News Association. In April it is expected to be in the running for a Pulitzer Prize.
Meanwhile, the pastor of a Texas megachurch being sued for $1 million over the alleged sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl at a church camp in 2012, was quietly removed from an advisory group to the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, is no longer listed as a member of the ERLC Leadership Network Council, a collection of pastors and leaders “who receive intentional investment from the ERLC and serve as ambassadors for the organization.”
Matthew David Tonne, former associate children’s minister at The Village Church, was arrested last year on a felony charge of indecency with a child. The lawsuit filed by the alleged victim’s mother, claims that Chandler downplayed the situation by not mentioning that it involved a former staffer and misled church members to believe that Tonne had resigned for alcohol-related reasons, when in fact he was under a criminal investigation.