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B21 panel: Protecting abuse victims central to mission

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — Protecting sexual abuse victims is central to the mission of the church, said a group of denominational leaders during the Baptist21 panel on June 11 in Birmingham, Ala.

Immediately after the panel, Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, addressed his church’s handling of a sexual abuse case as reported June 10 in the New York Times. The panel was held in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, June 11-12.

The panel featured Danny Akin, Albert Mohler, J.D. Greear, Jen Wilkin, Russell Moore, and Dhati Lewis, and was moderated by Nate Akin, the director of Baptist21. The six panelists addressed a broad range of issues, from sexual abuse in the church to complementarianism and racial reconciliation. B21 is a pastor-led network that focuses on addressing issues relevant to Southern Baptists in the 21st century.

J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he is often told that emphasizing the protection of abuse victims distracts from the mission of the Gospel. This mindset is “foolish,” he said.

“This is the mission,” said Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area. “The mission as a shepherd is presenting the church and the Gospel and everything that is attached to it as a safe place for the vulnerable.”

Learning how to deal with sexual abuse allegations is a “primary component” of training men and women for ministry, said Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, during the panel.

Small churches tend to be looser about abuse allegations because the accused are often beloved members of their communities, Akin said. But research indicates that abusers don’t look obviously dangerous and often seem like good people, making it that much easier to groom their victims. Abusers, Akin said, often look “just like us.”

“We are going to be the haven for the hurting that we should have been all along,” Akin said. “I believe God will honor this, but it’s not easy. It’s very difficult when the people that you have to expose … are family members or people that you’ve trusted or worked with for years. They were very good at hiding this.”

Some critics claim that complementarianism, the theological view that men and women have unique but complementary roles in the church and the home, makes churches and organizations more susceptible to sexual abuse and dysfunction.

According to Jen Wilkin, noted author and Bible teacher, there is no theological boundary line in sexual abuse cases. It exists in every theological camp and denomination, she said.

Yet the precise practices within complementarian churches are often insufficient, Wilkin said. Churches often misidentify abusive marriages as merely bad marriages.

“Complementarianism [can] become just as dangerous a place for people who are in systems of abuse as in any other theological environment,” she said. “Just because we have a theological position that we are deeply convicted of does not mean our practice is good.”

Chandler responds to Village Church allegations after B21 panel

Immediately following the panel discussion, Southern Baptist pastor Matt Chandler gave his first public statements in response to allegations regarding his church’s handling of sexual abuse.

That week, the New York Times reported that Chandler’s church had failed to respond appropriately to a case of sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by a member of Chandler’s pastoral staff. According to media reports, Matthew Tonne, who had been the church’s associate children’s minister, was indicted, charged, and arrested in connection with the case involving the alleged sexual abuse of an 11-year-old girl at a Village Church children’s summer camp. See related Baptist Press story.

Chandler answered questions from Nate Akin for 15 minutes after the B21 panel, stating that the church did not handle the case perfectly but did “the best we knew how.” According to Chandler, church leadership “double reported” the abuse — the church worked with the family to report the incident and the church also reported — to the police department and worked with the local authorities to inform all the parents whose children had attended that particular summer camp.

Church leaders were told by those working on the case that “there were things we could and couldn’t say,” and they were asked not to release Tonne’s name because it might impede the investigation, Chandler said.

“The New York Times article would have looked very different [if we had released the name],” Chandler said. “It would have been [about] how we actually obstructed the investigation.”

Chandler said he is in a “period of introspection” and noted, “We are an imperfect church with imperfect people. We make mistakes; I am painfully aware of my limitations. They are numerous. But when it comes to reporting as soon as we heard, taking our cues from the detective and family, I’m not sure how we could have done it differently.”

To see full interview with Chandler, go to https://baptist21.com/interview/2019/b21-interview-with-matt-chandler-from-sbc19/

The panel was held as Southern Baptists that week addressed the issue of sexual abuse during their annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala. See related stories here and here.