Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Doctrine of Personal Infallibility

The second article in the Houston Chronicle investigation into sexual abuse and cover-up in the Southern Baptist Convention has been posted.  It's another harrowing read, this time delving more specifically into the pattern of predators being able to move between churches and continue the pattern of abuse.

One recurring refrain comes from the predators who refuse to acknowledge they did anything wrong and the congregations who similarly swayed.  The ability to be deceived to the point of ignoring warning signs. Or to turn a blind eye to consequences and allow a quiet and quick exit once the "impropriety" can no longer be ignored.

In my opinion, part of this problem comes from the obsession with being "right" and not being wrong that runs deep in our society and in the church, particularly within Evangelical denominations.  To go to the "right" church, with the "right" people, who believe the "right" doctrine and the "right" programs, with no room for doubt or questioning.

This obsession in and of itself is dangerous.  It's another adventure in missing the point.  Even at its most benign, it's the pharisee asking "who is our neighbor" or asking how many times to turn our cheeks.

The focus on being "right" is one of the most detrimental instincts in the church.  It is at the root at a number of church splits that we have seen, preventing God's universal Church from getting along with each other.    It's what puts doctrine over discipleship.   It's why the Calvinist and the Arminian cannot partake in the sacraments together despite little practical difference in their implementation in their adherents' lives. It's why Baptist have closed communions or why we'll fight over the type or importance of baptism.  While those are worthwhile discussions to have regarding identifying what you believe and why, and understanding the scriptural basis, it's something far different when it becomes the basis for exclusion from Christian fellowship or as the basis for decrying another group as heretical.

Far worse, any number of horrors can be justified under the banner of being "right."  The Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, the propagation of the "curse of Ham" doctrine were all believed to be "right" and scriptural by their specific generation.  We can look back on them now and shudder, identifying them to be the twisted and mangled interpretations of scripture that they are, but that is cold comfort to those affected by their practice.

In a recent Patheos blog article, James F. McGrath discusses a variation on this idea.  He looks at a statement that his Facebook friend, Lars Cade made regarding a variation on the doctrine of papal infallibility.  Papal infallibility is the Catholic doctrine that states that the Pope is preserved from even the possibility of error "when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church."  Put simply, it is the idea that the Pope can never be "wrong" regarding Catholic doctrine.  Even the possibility of him being wrong is impossible.  Cade takes this doctrine a step further.  Into the Doctrine of Personal Infallibility.

"I often look at it as the unspoken doctrine of personal infallibility.  Many Christians think something like this: 'The Bible is True.  I believe the Bible.  Therefore, everything I believe is true.'

... With such a mentality, it simply does not occur to people that they may be wrong."

A broken syllogism that allows us to uphold our beliefs and customs through the guise of agreement with the scriptures. A byproduct of selling the Bible as a book that has an answer for every situation, hammering everything into black and white scenarios, instead of admitting that the Bible often raises more questions than answers.  That it can be tough to reconcile and can be a struggle to read and comprehend.  That there will be times and situations where there is no clear answer, that God is silent.  And that we should be seeking the Author who gives us wisdom and knowledge instead of treating His book only as an answer sheet.

McGrath would sum this phenomenon like this, "Is this your experience of what is at work in fundamentalism - that the reason for being concerned to defend the authority of the Bible is ultimately to defend the rightness of one's own views and those of one's community?  To be sure, the claim is always that it is one's own beliefs that are being conformed to the Bible rather than vice versa.  But that only works because, despite all the praise heaped on the Bible and its importance, the average conservative Christian does not know the Bible well enough to appreciate its diversity, reads it in a translation that hides discrepancies and differences from them, and knows only (or at least knows best) those parts that can be interpreted as supporting their stance."

We can see the doctrine of personal infallibility in the sexual abuse scandal and in its cover up.

The Chronicle released a video to accompany the series entitled The Abuse of Faith.  The Destruction of Innocence.  It's a disturbing video, but necessary.  It balances the video testimony of a seven year old girl, with prison interviews of convicted pastors, deacons, and volunteers, including an interview with her assailant.  I couldn't really hold it together when hearing her answer to the question who had seen or touched her private areas - "The church man," which was compounded with the descriptions provided from his testimony and interview regarding the "reasons" for his "temptation" and actions.

It devolves from there, as the assailant, Steven Livingston, a former deacon and volunteer, tries to paint himself as a victim in the end of his interview.  "All I did was touch and that was it.  She wasn't going to tell anybody.  She wasn't going to.  I'm the one that told the detective.  Stupid me.  It didn't matter that I had brought 400 or 500 people to a saving faith, or that I worked in the church for so many years.  I went through three churches, three churches and never had any complaints.  No complaints at all.  But in this one community, in 2007, things began to go wrong.  I just feel like I was the victim.  Is that fair?"

Personal infallibility.  To Livingston, he did so many other "right" things.  Surely that allows him to downplay this incident, right?

Dee Parsons, of  the Wartburg Watch has been documenting disturbing trends in the church, including sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention and churches, since 2009.  She wrote in her reflections on the Chronicle article, "Most predators are not interested in learning that they have done something horrible because they don't believe that they did anything wrong."

And they are able to con others into believing it as well.  "Sexual predators don't "groom" only their victims to gain their trust.  They groom everyone around them so no one suspects a thing."  Wayne Spring, Medina County Investigator and father of one of the victims of John McCay at First Baptist Church in Hondo, Texas.   "They don't want to ever believe that they were manipulated into this thing.  Some of them don't ever get over it."

In his investigation, he found that in Hondo and the area, no one would say anything bad about McCay.  But when they left Hondo and went to other locations where McCay had served, the story changed.  "Once we started going into his past we started finding people that would tell us what he was like."  Often, the first question he would get when he asked someone from a previous location was "What did he do now?"

"That's the thing about sex offenders, they thrive on trust."  Scott Holden, Assistant District Attorney of Anderson County.  And in a position that is placed often in the highest trust that people hold, we see it can provide ample opportunity for a predator to thrive.  The Chronicle article has a map of several of the offenders who were able to move churches and congregations.  Some were suspected of misconduct but were allowed to leave quietly and work elsewhere.  Others had been arrested, had criminal records or even had to register as sex offenders but later found jobs at Baptist churches.  That's right, registered sex offenders were hired despite that information being known and or publicly available.  One church even went as far as barring children from the worship services where he was preaching due to the terms of his probation not allowing him around children.

It's infuriating that we seemingly have not and cannot do anything about this because of our "autonomy."  Parsons puts it, "SBC churches that have hired female pastors get booted .  We know that hell would rain down on any church which hired an LGBT affirming pastor.  But kicking out a church which has covered up for a known predator is impossible.  Why?"  For examples of the female pastor issue see the articles here, here, and here.  And for the LGBT issues, see articles here, here, and here.  Just a few examples.  But they beg the question Parsons raised - why can't we kick out and make examples of churches that cover up for known sexual predators?  That hire convicted sex offenders? That deliberately do not report abuse within their church, to maintain the churches reputation?

Are female pastors and LGBT inclusion that much more "wrong," to where we have to plant our flag and make sure people know we're on the "right" side of those issues?  Or are they that much more politically expedient?

Do we really fear the damage to our reputation so much that we'd rather be seen as clean than to actually do the job of fighting for the oppressed and abused and have that be our reputation?

Is the pastor shortage so deep that we are really willing to turn a blind eye to such serious faults just to have someone in the leadership role?  If so, that's a failing on the Church as a whole for its members not stepping up and being committed to the specific mission that God has for each of us.

Do we really think that forgiveness means a complete removal of consequences and a complete restoration as if nothing ever happened?  Do we think that it's un-Christian to say that such an offender should not ever be in such a position of high trust ever again?

Is this some form of patriarchy and misogyny, since most of the perpetrators are male and the victims female and children?  Or is there some code of secrecy between leaders in the church that is fostering this? In listening to a discussion on the Catholic cover up scandal, a culture of secrecy was discussed.  How every priest may have a secret that they didn't want out, though the levels of the secret were not all the same.  For one, the secret and shame might be the molestation of boys in their charge. For another, it might just be a mutually consensual sexual relationship with an unmarried woman.  Because both are forbidden (though not to the same degree), the secrets were a bit of mutually assured destruction.  If a priest threatened to reveal the abuse, then the abuser might threaten to reveal the other's sexual relationship, and so on and so forth, leading to the expulsion of both.  All secrets then were kept then essentially for self-preservation.

I'm really struggling to understand why our collective response has been a shrug and a sweep under the rug and I'm not really coming up with any justification.

We've got to start valuing being holy over being "right" and understanding the value of admitting "we don't know".  Of seeking wisdom together.

We have to be more concerned about actually fighting abuse and oppression even internally, instead of being concerned with being perceived as a Church that is squeaky clean and put together.

We have to stop misusing forgiveness to perpetuate a cycle of abuse.

We have to encourage transparency and openness.  To demystify the pastor and remind everyone in the church of their humanity.  Their fallibility.

Pastor search committees have to start including criminal background checks and sex offender registry checks as part of their selection process.

We have to create the database of known convicted offenders and those with credible allegations against them.  Ideally maintained by a neutral third party and paid for by the Southern Baptist Convention to prevent undue influence or tampering.

And that's just the minimum.  That's the start.

We have a long way to go.

"Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.  What will you do on the day of reckoning when disaster comes from afar?  To whom will you run for help?  Where will you leave your riches?"
Isaiah 10:1-3