The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has voted to disfellowship a Southern Baptist church in Midland, Texas, because the church was employing a lifetime registered sex offender as a pastor. The decision comes at the recommendation of the SBC’s Credentials Committee, which was repurposed in 2019 in order to better address problems arising when churches are not aligned with SBC’s “polity, doctrine, or practice.”
“We have spoken against matters of sexual abuse, and we have taken some major, demonstrative steps as a convention of churches,” said Ronnie Floyd, the president and CEO of the Executive Committee, according to Baptist Press News (BPN). “Also, churches are being equipped more effectively in matters related to sexual abuse…Today, we’ve seen this process in action with the disfellowshipping of (Ranchland Heights).”
The First Southern Baptist Church to Be Disfellowshipped
The SBC’s Executive Committee, which is composed of over 80 members, had a meeting in Nashville on February 17-18. During that meeting, the committee unanimously voted to disfellowship Ranchland Heights Baptist Church, reports Christianity Today (CT). The Credentials Committee’s specific words in its recommendation about the church were:
That the Credentials Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention recommend to the SBC Executive Committee that Ranchland Heights Baptist Church in Midland, Tex., no longer be considered in friendly cooperation with the Convention as outlined in SBC Constitution Article III.
Ranchland Heights is the first Southern Baptist church the SBC has disfellowshipped since it revised its bylaws and repurposed the Credentials Committee. According to the Tennessean, Credentials Committee chairperson Stacy Bramlett confirmed at a news conference that the church employing a registered sex offender was the specific reason for its disfellowshipping from the denomination.
The webpage where people can submit their concerns to the Credentials Committee says it “exists to provide individuals an opportunity to address concerns about whether a church that is currently identified as a cooperating church with the Southern Baptist Convention continues to meet our standards of faith and practice.”
In addition to incidents pertaining to sexual abuse, people can report racial discrimination, as well as “Other Concerns” they might have with how a church is relating to the SBC. Notably, it is not possible to submit anonymous tips through the portal. Bramlett said the reason why is that the committee needs to be able to communicate with someone as it evaluates particular churches.
The Reasoning of Ranchland Heights
In 2003, Phillip Rutledge was convicted of aggravated sexual assault charges against two girls, one 11 years old and the other 12 years old. Ranchland Heights hired Rutledge as a pastor in 2016, knowing his criminal background. The church told CBS 7 News, “Our administration knew about Bro. Phillip’s history before the hiring, and the vast majority of the church knew about it as well. We believe that God can change people, and we believe that God has forgiven Bro. Phillip as well.”
CBS 7 contacted the Southern Baptist church in 2016 after receiving a tip from a church attendee who had found out about Rutledge’s history via word of mouth. Deacon DJ Rambo told the news channel at the time that both the church and Rutledge were careful to make sure the pastor was never alone with minors. When asked if the congregation knew that Rutledge was a registered sex offender, Rambo said, “I can’t tell you that 100 percent of the people know, but the vast majority know.”
The church has until 30 days prior to the 2020 SBC Annual Meeting on June 9 to appeal the decision, but Bramlett said based on prior communications with the church she does not anticipate Ranchland Heights will do so. While Bramlett acknowledged that the process of evaluating concerns was “very difficult,” she said, “I do believe in what we set in place. I’m very confident it’s working.”
The SBC Dealing with Fallout
The disfellowshipping of Ranchland Heights is another step the SBC has taken in order to deal with the fallout from an exposé the Houston Chronicle published on February 10, 2019. The report described widespread sexual abuse and cover-ups within the denomination and resulted in SBC president J.D. Greear asking the Executive Committee to look into 10 churches named in the Chronicle’s article. The SBC cleared all but three of the churches within a few days.
Since then, the Southern Baptist Convention has been struggling with how to better address the problem of sexual abuse within its ranks, and the Credentials Committee’s reporting system has been one of its attempts to do so.
The system has its detractors, however. Victims advocate Boz Tchividjian has criticized the online portal, saying, “The reporting system is confusing at best and misleading at worst. It certainly doesn’t approach the issue from the perspective of a reported victim.” The limitations of the portal are something that Greear acknowledged in a speech to the Executive Committee on Monday: “From the beginning, I’ve said that the issues of sex abuse in our churches is not something addressed by the appointing of a task force or the adoption of a resolution or a change of bylaws, as important as those things are.”
The SBC president also said that the denomination still needs a “culture change.” Said Greear, “We’re not done dealing with the sex abuse crisis.”