One of the most essential and non-negotiable beliefs for a Christian is that we confess, as the Nicene Creed instructs us and Christians have done since the New Testament, that “we believe in one holy catholic [Latin for “whole” or “universal”] and apostolic church”. Just as there was one singular and collective people of God in the Old Testament, there remains one singular and collective Church, which has received the same Spirit and is united to the same Christ. Though we are spread out by geography, cultural differences, and permissive secondary theological differences, and though it may be pragmatic and helpful at times to refer to specific “churches” or “church” along those lines (or to distinguish, as John does, from true churches and false churches), these are only subdivisions of a singular body, all of which are connected to the same Head.
Earlier this week, America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, held it’s Annual Meeting, and thousands of Southern Baptists from across the country gathered to vote on, among other things, a new President for the convention and several other significant issues. It is not possible to cover everything that took place there this week, especially if you are unfamiliar with SBC polity and procedures, but the most essential piece of information is this: in an absolutely surprising turn of events, the overwhelming majority of voting members (of an estimated 13,000-15,000 individuals present) voted to begin a fully transparent and independent 3rd party investigation of it’s most powerful committee, the Executive Committee, for it’s mishandling and cover-up of sexual abuse allegations in SBC churches and for stonewalling necessary reforms to keep it’s churches safe. A new President, one who had the overwhelming support of sexual abuse survivors and advocates, was also narrowly voted in after a runoff election with the leader of the SBC’s hyper-conservative faction – and one of the Executive Committee members under investigation. In short: the SBC took historic steps towards addressing sexual abuse in its midst, and enabling the right people and organizations to investigate how the SBC has failed to take care of those who have been abused, determine who is responsible, and what needs to be done moving forward.
The SBC is not an ecclesiastical authority for all Christians. It does not represent Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and the like. However, as the largest American denomination and likely a significant presence in your community (depending on what part of the country you live), the shock waves of what happens in the SBC can often be seen and felt in the midst of it’s adjacent denominations or theological traditions. It is not possible or profitable to keep your ear to the ground on the workings or trends of every denomination, and your local context will always carry a greater proximate influence and impact than any national/executive events or trends. However, if you are in America and could pay attention to what is going on in one sector of American Christendom, it would likely be wise to choose the largest and often most public denomination in the nation to keep an eye on – especially if, like me, you’re in a context where you may have to care for the souls of men and women who have left the SBC for a non-SBC church.
Paying attention to other sectors of the church is not only pragmatically useful, but it is also theologically necessary. If we belong to “one holy catholic and apostolic church”, as the orthodox faith has always maintained, then what happens in one part of the body impacts us all. The wolves of the SBC – the men and women who have sexually violated and abused those made in the image of God, and the leaders and ministers who have aided in suppressing and covering up these shameful deeds done in darkness – are not simply the wolves of the SBC, but are the wolves of the entire body of Christ. If you have ever had to care and counsel a brother or sister who left a church due to abuse to join a church of another tradition or denomination, you know this all too well (and if you have not, I pray you never have to). But if the wolves of one camp threaten to devour us all, the inverse is also true: the repentance and sanctification of one camp benefits the the entire body of Christ. The SBC’s decision to begin the long and agonizing work of investigating its sinful shortcomings, identifying deeds done in darkness, and repenting from these sins is something that benefits the entire church, not simply by virtue of the size and public presence of the SBC, but by virtue of the fact that we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. As Paul said, “if one members suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26), and regardless of which sector of American Christianity you find yourself or how adjacent to the SBC you might be, we ought to rejoice that those who were silenced and shamed and suffered were honored, and to look forward to the exposure and defeat of the wolves that have bitten and devoured with no consequence for far too long.