Top 10 takeaways from the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group Report

June 8, 2019

In response to the revelations of a sexual abuse crisis in American society and recognizing that such abuse has occurred within our Southern Baptist churches, Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President J. D. Greear commissioned a Sexual Abuse Advisory Group. He tasked the group with considering how Southern Baptists at every level can take discernable action to respond swiftly and compassionately to incidents of abuse, as well as to foster safe environments within churches and institutions.

The Advisory Group today released the report that is the product of that inquiry. As a part of the report, the Advisory Group listened to and learned from hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse, church leaders, and national experts in this field. The report includes the personal words and testimonies of many of those survivors. And the report aims to begin to educate Southern Baptist churches on the abuse crisis, equip Southern Baptist churches to care well for survivors, and to prepare Southern Baptist churches to prevent abuse.

The purpose of the report is to convey the key findings that have emerged from this effort in a way that reflects on the realities of the past, recognizes the challenges of the present, and resolves to embrace the opportunities of the future.

We encourage everyone to read the report in full. Pastors and church leaders will find a number of helpful resources for you and your church. Here are 10 takeaways from the report to get you started:

1. The report laments that sexual abuse and assault have been widespread in Southern Baptist churches. In all too many cases, the abuse was committed by pastors themselves, violating their sacred duty to care for their flock. In others, pastors covered over and protected abusers, harming survivors all over again. Southern Baptists lament that these grievous wrongs have happened in our churches.

2. The report gives voice to survivors of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches. Rather than simply telling the stories of survivors of sexual abuse, the report’s pages allow survivors to tell their own stories in their own words with their own voices. The report includes testimonies and stories told by Susan Codone, Jenn Greenberg, and Megan Lively, along with a number of other stories published anonymously or under pseudonyms.

3. The report acknowledges that the crisis of abuse within Southern Baptist churches is neither a new problem nor a simple one. The report recognizes that sexual abuse crisis in Southern Baptist churches has been festering for decades and that working toward healing and restoration will take time and significant effort from a spectrum of Southern Baptist leaders. The release of this report is the beginning, not the end of this process.

Russell Moore affirmed the need for a sexual abuse advisory group:

“Sexual assault and sexual abuse are Satanic to the core, and churches should be the ones leading the way when it comes to protecting the vulnerable from predators. […] We owe it to our pastors and churches to come together and provide the very best resources and recommendations possible to address this crisis.”

4. The report acknowledges that failures in responding to sexual abuse have occurred in many ways, including:

5. The report tackles the difficult problem of so-called “consensual affairs” between pastors and congregants. According to the report, “The power and spiritual influence that a member of the clergy wields over their congregants essentially renders consent impossible. Clergy can be especially effective at the grooming process, breaking down appropriate boundaries and manipulating their victims. They often get the benefit of the doubt as spiritual leaders, can leverage their positions of power to manipulate others, can play the victim card if they are caught, and can spiritualize the situation to minimize personal responsibility.”

6. The report acknowledges the way the Southern Baptist doctrine of church autonomy has been misunderstood and misapplied. According to the report, a structure of autonomous churches “should be utilized to allow each church to provide the justice and healing needed to stop abuse, turn perpetrators over to the justice system, and provide safe havens for victims. Instead, leaders in some churches have provided cowardly cover for perpetrators and have claimed to be dispensing mercy while withholding it from victims, and instead allowing injustice and evil to flourish.”

Russell Moore speaks incisively and convictionally about why this is so dangerous:

“Moreover, church autonomy is no excuse for a lack of accountability. Yes, in a Baptist ecclesiology each congregation governs its own affairs, and is not accountable to anyone ‘higher up’ in a church system. And yet, the decisions a church makes autonomously determine whether that church is in good fellowship with others. A church that excuses, say, sexual immorality or that opposes missions is deemed out of fellowship with other churches. The same must be true of churches that cover up rape or sexual abuse.”

7. The report acknowledges that some Southern Baptist churches have prioritized institutions over the vulnerable. “In the past, some Southern Baptist churches and leaders have been most concerned with protecting the reputation of their ministry and the church when abuse comes to light. Thus, they have failed to protect the survivors of sexual abuse themselves and failed to prevent future victims.”

Boz Tchividjian, former prosecutor, sex crimes expert, and founder of the ministry GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), writes, “Why do so many churches fail to do the right thing when they learn that one of their own has been accused of sexual abuse? All too often it’s because the victimized are repeatedly overshadowed by the need to protect a ‘righteous’ reputation. I’m afraid it’s a rationale embraced by so many church leaders because it’s convenient and sounds so ‘godly.’”

8. The report points out that sexual abuse is not only a sin, but a crime. The report acknowledges that often, “church leaders receive reports or outcries that involve child sexual abuse or peer sexual abuse and respond as if the behavior is simply a sin, like premarital sex or a spouse having an affair. The church then attempts to address the matter only through steps of repentance, reconciliation and restoration.”

The report also quotes MinistrySafe founders and sexual abuse attorneys Gregory Love and Kimberlee Norris. They write, “When church leaders fail to report, the impact on the child, the family, and other victims cannot be overstated. Not only is the child harmed, justice is not served and the abuser continues to move freely to groom and molest again. Every church leader should know the state-specific reporting laws, prepare a reporting plan, communicate that plan to all ministry stakeholders. When in doubt, report.”

9. The report reckons with the fact that the perpetrators of abuse within our churches are among us. According to the report, “the majority of survivors of sexual abuse know their abuser. The Department of Justice found that 3 out of 4 female adult victims knew their offender. Additionally, 90% of child victims of sexual abuse know their perpetrator. . . . Time and time again, as survivors bravely come forward, an all-too-common refrain is heard: ‘We never thought it could happen in our church or our community.’”

10. The report provides next steps for pastors and church leaders. The report lays out a straightforward and clear process for churches to follow when a survivor of sexual abuse discloses the abuse to church leaders and encourages churches to engage with law enforcement immediately and allow the authorities to do their jobs. The report also recommends proactive steps churches can take to prevent abuse before it occurs and ensure the church is a healing place for survivors of sexual abuse. These steps address issues of training, safety, recognition of grooming, volunteer screening, among others.

Take the Caring Well Challenge

The Report also highlights the Caring Well Challenge, which is a unified call to action on the abuse crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention. This is a 12-month, eight-step process of listening, learning, assessing, and launching needed initiatives to ensure that your church is safe for survivors and safe from abuse. It provides churches with an adaptable and attainable pathway to immediately enhance their efforts to prevent abuse and care for abuse survivors. Each church that takes the Caring Well Challenge would commit to these eight steps—Commit, Build, Launch, Train, Care, Prepare, Share, and Reflect.  

Visit caringwell.com to learn more and commit to the challenge.  

Phillip Bethancourt

Phillip Bethancourt is Senior Pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas. Before he was called to pastor Central, he served as the Executive Vice President of the ERLC team. He completed an MDiv and PhD in Systematic Theology at Southern after attending Texas A&M University. Phillip and his wife, Cami, have been married since 2005, … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24