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Dear Southern Baptist Pastors, Please Stop Saying “We Didn’t Know”

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We now know that Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders hid, covered up, and ignored hundreds and hundreds of cases of sexual misconduct by SBC pastors, worship leaders, teachers, evangelists, youth leaders, missionaries, deacons, and college professors. The published list of the offenders is but the tip of the iceberg. It is likely that thousands of allegations of sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape, and other sex crimes were not investigated or taken seriously. Add to this number stories about preachers who used their position of authority and power to take sexual advantage of (primarily) women or were garden variety adulterers and fornicators, and it’s hard not to conclude that the SBC is many things, but it is definitely not Christian. We are not talking about a few bad apples here.

Several years ago, my wife and I, along with our children and grandchildren picked four thirty-gallon trash cans of apples from our trees. Due to Polly having serious bowel problems that resulted in her having major surgery and spending several weeks in the hospital, one of the cans of apples remained unprocessed. The apples sat in the can for weeks, and as they rotted, we could smell their sweet, alcohol-like aroma in the kitchen as the fall air wafted through the windows. Eventually, I dumped the apples on our compost pile. I view the current state of the SBC much like I do that rotting garbage can of apples. Sure, there were some unrotted apples in the can, but the decaying apples around the “good” apples made them unusable. I have no doubt that many SBC pastors are good men with character and high moral standards. However, in the midst of these good men are violent predators who used their positions of authority to prey on vulnerable children, teenagers, and women (and yes, boys and men too).

It is these “good” preachers I want to address. It has been fashionable of late for “good” Southern Baptist preachers to express outrage over the current sexual abuse scandal, often saying WE DIDN’T KNOW! It is to these preachers I say BULLSHIT! Don’t tell me you didn’t know. I know better. I was an Evangelical pastor for twenty-five years. I knew a number of Baptist pastors, missionaries, and evangelists. I attended numerous pastor’s fellowships and conferences where preachers would get together for preaching, food, and fellowship. And what else did we do? We talked about rumors. We were the gossips we preached about on Sundays. I heard countless stories about preachers committing crimes, having affairs, and all sorts of immoral behavior. We knew, yet, for the most part, we did nothing.

While I did my best to deal with such misconduct within the churches I pastored (and deplatforming preachers I heard rumors about), when it came to these things happening in other churches, I did what many SBC pastors do now, I said “that’s a local church problem.” I hid behind my ecclesiology, saying that it was up to an offending pastor’s church to deal with his misconduct. When such things happened in the churches I pastored, I didn’t hesitate to call law enforcement or child protective services. Sadly, when I heard about similar behavior by preachers, deacons, and leaders in other churches, I took a “not my church, not my problem” approach. Oh, I might distance myself from an offending preacher, but I never went the extra mile by reporting these so-called men of God to the authorities or passing on what I had heard to their churches. I was taught at Bible college that a preacher should never meddle in another church’s problems. While that is generally good advice, when it comes to knowing that a preacher is engaging in criminal or harmful behavior, it is always right to say something. Of course, doing so could cause all sorts of problems and loss of friendships. Sadly, some churches don’t want to know if their pastor is engaging in immoral and unethical behavior. In their minds, protecting the church’s “testimony” is more important than rooting out predatory preachers.

So, to the SBC preachers saying “we didn’t know,” I say, yes you did. You heard the rumors; you heard the gossip; you saw and heard things that troubled you; you had suspicions. You had enough knowledge that you should have demanded the SBC executive committee do something. You knew enough to demand that your state convention or area missionary get rid of the rotting apples in your midst. While you can’t do much about the past, you can, going forward, stand with and protect victims. You can, and you must, demand that predators be removed from their churches, local church autonomy be damned. When asked to choose between theological beliefs and vulnerable people, you must choose the latter.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    amimental

    They’re only conscious of what looks good. They want to appear pious and act like they’re doing something about it.
    But they knew. They knew and did nothing. Looked the other way. If the problem hadn’t become public, they’d still be saying and doing, NOTHING. And you can bet the congregations are being told not to talk about it, too.

  2. Avatar
    Augustus

    At least you could process apple wine or apple cider from rotting apples. What could be extracted or processed from a rotting church is beyond me.

  3. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I grew up in the SBC and was in the denomination until I was 24 years old. We had a pastor who suddenly was ousted from our church. My grandfather was chairman of the deacons at the time, and he wouldn’t tell me what this pastor did to be suddenly ousted. I was a teen at the time, and rumors abounded – everything from alcohol abuse to porn. My friend told me this pastor showed up at her house one night drunk, screaming at my friend’s mother that she was an improperly submissive wife because she brought her kids to church every Sunday and was active in church but the husband didn’t attend church (doofus, the husband worked on Sundays at a car dealership, that was his job). Apparently, you’re a bad wife if your husband works on Sunday and you take the kids to church. There were also rumors that he was having an affair, some rumors that it was a woman at church. I never learned the truth.

    There was also a man at church who always wanted to hug the girls. My friends and I found him super creepy and tried to avoid him at all costs. We didn’t know if we could trust adults with that information. Fortunately, my mom and grandparents fully supported my stance against hugging people and would tell anyone who protested the fact that I didn’t want hugging to leave me alone.

    The narrative was always that Christians are superior in morality, and that church members could be trusted. YET my family had a secret code – if someone was Mr. Bruce or Ms. Polly, they could be trusted; if they were Mr. or Mrs. Gerencser, not necessarily.

  4. Avatar
    Troy

    I think the first clue that they are evil is right in the name. Why “southern”? It (and the time of their formation in 1845) belies their schism over slavery (and later civil rights), and of course they were on the wrong side of that one. So don’t expect courageous moral positions and deeds from them. I suppose they exist to reflect the attitudes and moral of their membership and make it into policy. I’m not sure what value there is in this, but I’d add that there also is a strong undercurrent of controlling the political levers of power. On one hand I can see the lawyerly machinations to avoid policy on clergy sexual abuse. When there is a policy and membership the lawyers are going to go where the money is, right to the top, but it is also an acknowledgement that there are enough rotten apples and it is absurd that nothing can be done.

  5. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    The SBC saw nothing, heard nothing, did nothing. So did any number of Roman Catholic parishes and dioceses. (I know about that all too well.) And other Christ-based churches. And Orthodox Jewish and Amish communities. Like Yogi Berra said, it’s deja vu all over again.

    Troy–You make a great point about the SBC’s history, Similar things can be said about other denominations: They were founded, or at least steeped themselves in, the ruling classes’ belief in their right to suppress other people. In other words, they had authoritarian roots, or found authoritarianism expedient for them. (I think, for example, of Pope Nicholas’ V’s bull that said it was the duty of European Catholics to enslave Africans and Saracens.) As long as a church (or any other institution) is based or run on a self-appointed ruling class, its leaders can’t, won’t or don’t hear their “subjects,” whomever they are.

    In other words, a church never will know about abuse within its ranks–until it’s forced to.

  6. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Well, Bruce, I tend to lean towards the church being well aware of what goes down in Jesus’ name… As MJ, Troy and others say here, what is being ‘accomplished’ is in the design of the church and a book is quoted every Sunday and more to support it all. Who better to look after the church ‘business’ than believers! That way the autonomy of the church stays intact and nothing changes much except the names of the victims, new ones being added all the time.

  7. Avatar
    John Arthur

    Of course, the Southern Baptist pastors knew of special predation going on I their churches. There used to be a website called Stop the Baptist Predators which detailed many of these cases. If I, as an Australian, knew of this website surely many Southern Baptist pastors would have known of it.

  8. Avatar
    Chikirin

    They just dismiss the whistle blowers as divisive and malicious busybodies sent from the evil one. They are trained to think any criticism is an attack of the enemy.

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Bruce Gerencser