The practice of discipline, whether of clergy charged with sexual abuse or of unrepentant members, is receiving new attention in evangelical churches and particularly the Southern Baptist Convention. Recent cases involving clergy sexual abuse among Protestant congregations are also reviving the debate about which kinds of church structures enable or discourage such crimes. The SBC is the most recent American denomination to feel the fire over clergy sex abuse, with several well-publicized cases being fought over the role of leaders in not protecting victims from abuse by pastors.
The Tennesseean newspaper (April 23) reports that SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is accusing Baptists of not taking strong enough steps to protect children and has called on the SBC to create an independent review board to act on reports of child abuse. Much of the criticisms center around the SBC’s congregational policy that lacks the central structure to impose procedures to deal with clergy sex abuse. Southern Baptist leaders say they are considering policy changes to deal with this problem, including creating a database of convicted perpetrators. While not directly related to sex abuse, there is also a trend toward enforcing greater discipline on the congregational level in the SBC.Baptists Today magazine (May) reports that increasing numbers of Southern Baptists have instituted a process of correcting and, if necessary, eventually dismissing members for public sins. The practice is taken from the New Testament, where the church was advised to reprove offending Christians for their sin in the hope of restoring them while those unrepentant would eventually be expelled.
The growth of Calvinism in the SBC seems to be the main factor in restoring disciplinary practices, with the Southern Baptist Seminary and its president Albert Mohler being its main proponents. Mohler blames the lax standards and worldliness of today’s churches on the loss of disciplinary practices. The manner in which the process is carried out varies, but usually offending members are confronted by other members privately; if the member refuses to repent the matter is taken before the whole congregation.
The offenders are publicly identified as is their sin, and then the church votes on whether they should be dismissed. In most cases, discipline never advances to the point of dismissal, because most people repent earlier in the practice. [It will be interesting to see how the many megachurches in the SBC, which stress non- confrontational ministry to the unchurched and seekers, will respond to this development and whether it will add to the divisions in the denomination]
(Baptists Today, P.O. Box 6318, Macon, GA 31208)