PANAMA CITY, Fla. (BP) – Hiland Park Baptist Church has released a response to an inquiry from the SBC Credentials Committee via social media. In a three-page response to the committee, the church’s leadership not only makes statements but asks questions.
The issue stems from former SBC President Johnny Hunt preaching at the church on Jan. 15. Allegations of sexual assault against Hunt connected to a 2010 incident were deemed credible by Guidepost investigators in their May 2022 report to the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force.
Indiana pastor Todd Benkert reported the church to the SBC Credentials Committee on the basis of them allowing Hunt to speak. He also reported New Season Church in Hiram, Ga., for hosting a men’s conference led by Hunt.
Benkert serves as the senior pastor of Oak Creek Community Church in Mishawaka, Ind. He is also a member of the SBC Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force.
Hiland Park leaders say, “…there is no proof whatsoever that our recent guest speaker has ‘committed sexual abuse.’”
They also call the credibility of Guidepost into question.
“Furthermore, we as a church believe the credibility of Guidepost, as an investigatory body to render moral verdicts that are consistent with biblical categories and definitions regarding sexual behavior, to be highly questionable. Guidepost, as an organization, advocates for and celebrates sexual sin directly in violation of the biblical ethic our church firmly holds to,” they write.
“We are not aware of any evidence, any proof, or any legal charges against our guest speaker. This remains an anonymous allegation regardless of the conclusion of one investigatory body. It falls far short of a legal accusation,” wrote the church in regard to the investigation related to Hunt.
While Hiland described the accusation as anonymous, Guidepost wrote, “… their report was corroborated in part by a counseling minister and three other credible witnesses; and our investigators did not find Dr. Hunt’s statements related to the sexual assault allegation to be credible.”
In the letter, the church leaders ask the Credentials Committee to respond in writing if they “formally and officially” claim that when they “hosted Pastor Johnny Hunt they hosted a speaker who has ‘committed sexual abuse’?”
Messengers voted in 2019 to amend the SBC constitution to specifically state that mishandling sexual abuse is grounds for a church to be deemed “not in friendly cooperation” with the convention. In 2021, messengers adopted a resolution stating: “Any person who has committed sexual abuse is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor … [W]e recommend that all of our affiliated churches apply this standard to all positions of church leadership.”
“The SBC messengers made clear statements about how we expect churches to respond to abuse,” Benkert told The Tennessean.
The church disagrees. They write, “… it is worth reminding the committee that resolutions, by their form, are not governing documents.”
They go on to say, “… using a resolution as an enforcement mechanism on a local church violates every historic norm of our understanding of SBC resolutions and local church autonomy. We reject an insinuation that we are bound by a resolution passed by a body of messengers gathering at a given meeting.”
In a written response to Baptist Press on Feb. 16, the Credentials Committee said, “The committee communicates directly with churches under inquiry. The committee does not release the name of any church under consideration unless or until the committee has formed an opinion that a church should no longer be considered a cooperating church of the Convention, at which time it makes a recommendation to the SBC Executive Committee for consideration.”
In an email shared with The Tennessean by Todd Benkert, the SBC Credentials Committee acknowledged placing two churches under inquiry.
Per the SBC’s policy, the committee says they only provide inquiry updates to the submitter upon request. In this case, the submitter was Benkert.
Hiland Park church leaders say they are continuing “to discuss this matter with our own counsel in pursuance of all of our legal recourses.”