SBC claim of church autonomy challenged

The SBC has claimed for years that it has no control of the operation — and sometimes criminal behavior — of Southern Baptist churches because they are autonomous entities; they are not franchises, that is, but independent freestanding organizations which ‘cooperate.’

Whether or not this is a valid claim, or a chintzy rhetorical dodge of responsibility, is hard to say. The SBC can declare a church with LGBTQ sympathies out of cooperation and disfellowship it, and does the same if a church calls a woman pastor, but has so far failed to discipline churches which fail to respond appropriately to claims of sexual abuse at the hands of its pastoral staff. So, theology that doesn’t pass muster with the whole of the Convention is cast out, and criminal behavior is not.

A Virginia lawsuit may soon decide the question.

“I have some concerns about potential liabilities,” Joe Knott, a North Carolina lawyer, told fellow Baptists at an executive committee meeting in Birmingham, Ala., where the country’s largest coalition of Baptist churches was conducting its annual gathering in June.

The national spotlight was on the SBC as it debated how to protect its flock from sexual abusers. But Knott was also worried about a proposal for an SBC committee to conduct “inquiries” into how churches handle abuse allegations.

Such a proposal, he warned, could weaken the SBC’s argument that it has no control over its member churches — an assertion that leaders have said gives the SBC immunity in sexual abuse lawsuits.

[ … ]

“This idea that everyone’s completely autonomous is a facade and it’s self-serving,” said Kevin Biniazan, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case.

In an attempt to counter the claim that the SBC has little oversight of its churches, the lawsuit states the SBC has had no problem exerting authority over churches when it wants to, pointing out that churches that “endorsed homosexuality” were kicked out of the convention.

Meantime, more and more cooperating churches refuse to use the word “Baptist” in their name because the brand-name has been wrecked by the SBC’s resolute ignorance, fundamentalist-leaning theology, and sympathetic-to-Trump political activism.

The SBC is in decline, and deserves to be. My guess is that it won’t be worth suing long before the courts settle whether it can be sued.

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