Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention held its Caring Well Conference, an attempt to right the denomination regarding its response (or lack thereof) to sexual abuse occurring inside its own walls. Among the speakers was Boz Tchividjian, founder of GRACE, professor at Liberty University, and grandson of Billy Graham. Tchividjian, who has been openly critical of the SBC’s response to abuse and subsequent cover ups, did not mince words as he addressed the group in person. Not only was he critical of the fact that it appeared to take an exposé in a major newspaper for the denomination to acknowledge its abuse problem, he also criticized the denomination’s ongoing refusal to listen to and learn from certain abuse survivors who don’t fit a certain mold.
“The very fact that there are survivors who still might be willing to speak to the church amazes me after the hell most have experienced inside of it,” Tchividjian shared. “Even then, we push them away unless they fit into what I call ‘our acceptable survivor box’, which is usually someone who still loves the church, believes in Jesus, is attracted to somebody of the opposite gender, most likely votes Republican.”
Tchividjian acknowledged right at the beginning of his 13-minute speech that he was not going to make many friends by telling the group their “system is broken.” Tchvidijian, whose GRACE organization advocates for victims of sexual abuse in a church environment, said if kids were being murdered inside churches and a newspaper wrote an exposé about it, “either the entire denomination would implode or the entire system would have to be dismantled—leadership, beliefs, and polity.”
The Good-Old-Boy System
Decrying the “God-old-boy” system that is apparent in the SBC, Tchividjian said this broken system “all too often places a greater value on public and private relationships, book sales, and conference invitations than confronting evil and advocating for the abused.” The only way to fix the problem of abuse in churches, he argued, is to do away with such a system.
Alluding to recent events that have seen the denomination appear to care more for the person being accused of wrongdoing than the person wronged, Tchividjian said: We can talk about how horrific abuse is until “it’s some leader’s friend in a church or an organization, and suddenly now, we’re not talking about it.” Contrast this example, Tchividjian urged the group, to Jesus, who sought out those that were abused and marginalized and listened to them. As a result of such empathy, Tchividjian said, Jesus didn’t have many friends.
Women in Leadership
One of the problems Tchividjian sees in the SBC that is contributing to the problem of abuse is a lack of female leaders. “A system that excludes one entire gender from leadership—something wrong with that,” Tchividjian said, to much applause from the crowd. While he didn’t get into the theological reasons he believes a lack of women in leadership is wrong, he said he’s happy to have a theological debate on that topic with those who are interested.
In a video of Tchividjian’s speech (which was recorded by an attendee of the event), it sounds as if Tchividjian said “If more women were in leadership positions and making decisions, “we would have gotten rid of the whole issue—trust me.” However, on Twitter Tchividjian clarified that particular point and wrote: “it would not have completely taken care of the issue, it would have significantly helped.”
Tchividjian emphasizes he is not simply asking men to go talk to their wives when they get home. Sure, go talk to your wife, Tchividjian said, but there are also so many others that need to be a part of the conversation. On Twitter, he wrote, “Having women in leadership decision-making positions would have provided much greater insight, wisdom, and perspective in confronting this horror.”
Risking even more offense, Tchividjian derided the denomination for claiming to have “little authority against abusive churches and pastors,” yet mustering up authority if it needs to confront an SBC church that has “ordained a woman or a gay man.”
Treating Survivors Better
Using the parable of the Good Samaritan, Tchvidjian says that while it may be easy to see the survivors of sexual abuse as the person lying in the ditch needing help while the church walks by, there is another way to interpret the parable in the current situation. “It is the church—including this denomination—that is laying on the side of the road, gravely sick. And those who have been abused inside our churches, those are the Good Samaritans.” These survivors are the ones who are able to bring the healing and transformation so desperately needed in our church, Tchividjian argued. However, these survivors aren’t always treated well. He explained:
All too often certain survivors are seen by pastors, denominational leaders, and many others inside our churches, as unwanted Samaritans instead of reflections of Jesus. If they don’t believe as you do, or if they’re openly and consistently critical of you, what happens? They’re marginalized, vilified, not invited to speak here (I probably won’t be invited back…), and they’re accused of wanting to destroy the church. Perhaps they want to destroy the church that turns its back on abuse, and we should celebrate that.
These invaluable individuals must be welcomed and heralded as those who have something to teach us about the darkness inside of the church. It’s time to start listening to all survivors, not just the ones we deem “safe” or “approved.” Let’s stop just talking at these denominational conventions and national conferences and press interviews and start doing the hard work. The doing means listening, lamenting, and learning from the very lives of those who this church has decimated.