In yet another bizarre turn of events at SBC Voices — a place for Southern Baptist News and Opinion — I have found myself in the strange position (I’m in good company) of not only having my own comments deleted, but also the comments of others based upon my original comment that got the ball rolling, as it were. The comments, which I’m so relieved were deemed not “sinful or evil or anything,” were nevertheless deleted because I asked questions that were apparently uncomfortable for some at Voices. So, “based on advice” (from who we do not know), the editor of Voices, Dave Miller, decided to delete multiple comments because “they took the discussion in a direction it does not need to go.”
I thought I was offering discussion on a post by Mr. Miller, “An Update on William Birch.” Some will perhaps remember William “Billy” Birch, the Southeastern Seminary student and “up-and-coming” Southern Baptist blogger who was a self-identified Arminian. As late as November 2011, Birch was writing posts warning of Calvinists in our midst, the same type of “warning” that he began decrying when Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index, penned his now infamous opinion piece, “The Calvinists are here.” Others will remember Mr. Birch for his arrest on sex assault charges this past March.
In a rather detailed update, Mr. Miller wanted his readers to be aware of what has transpired in Billy Birch’s life since his arrest in March. Much of the post dealt with the issues of repentance, God’s grace, forgiveness, and restoration. This last term, restoration, was never clearly defined by Mr. Miller. Did it include restoration into a right relationship with God? Was it a restoration to fellowship within the church? Was it restoration to a leadership role within the church. This issue of restoration to leadership was the impetus for my comment and questions:
I would wholeheartedly agree with what others have said regarding God’s grace and healing power being available in William’s life as well as the life of all those who fall into sin. None of us is beyond temptation to sin. I’m not sure many would disagree that we should follow the example of Jesus in showing “grace, kindness, and a forgiving spirit” to those who confess and repent of their sin.
However, what separates this case from others is that Mr. Birch was arrested, confessed, and entered into some type of deal with the State that reduced the original charge from a felony sexual assault to a misdemeanor sexual battery. That is certainly good for Mr. Birch, as a felony conviction would most likely render him a registered sex offender for the rest of his life. While we all would agree that God can and does restore those who have fallen into sin, what does that restoration look like in terms of leadership within the church? In light of the serious allegations that continue be uncovered regarding sexual abuse in our own Convention as well as in other Protestant and Catholic groups, is someone like Mr. Birch, who was charged with felony sexual assault and agreed to the lessor charge of misdemeanor sexual battery, eligible for leadership within the church ever? After a certain amount of time? I hope by asking that I am not running afoul of Dave’s warning, but these questions arise out of Mr. Birch’s case as well as other cases that continue to occur throughout the SBC. Restoration to fellowship is one thing. Restoration to leadership is something different. Thanks and God bless, Howell
Not only did Mr. Miller challenge my understanding of the legal process, but he did not address the key concerns of my questions, namely whether anyone with a criminal sexual assault or battery on their record (through either a conviction or some type of plea agreement) — including, but not limited to William Birch — is ever eligible for leadership within the church. That line of questioning, particularly as it regards restoration to leadership, was deemed off-limits in the discussion and was subsequently deleted (along with all other comments related to my original comment). I would not have even had to ask the questions had Mr. Miller been more clear as to William Birch’s intentions regarding future leadership roles within the church. However, as I re-read Dave Miller’s comment in response to this little kerfuffle, I am actually more disturbed than before. After all the off-limits comments were deleted, Miller wrote:
Here’s the fact, which I did not share immediately. William has no plans to ever be involved again in the SBC in ministry or leadership or anything. (emphasis added) Once he gets through this healing process, his intent is to go to another denomination to do whatever God leads him to do. (emphasis added)
Take just a moment to digest the import of that statement. William Birch, who admitted to sexually assaulting a fellow student at SEBTS and is now on three years probation because of that crime, has no plans to remain a Southern Baptist. Instead, according to Mr. Miller, he will go to another denomination “to do whatever God leads him to do.” What would this be? Why would he leave the SBC? We don’t know, but we do know enough to ask the question whether a person in Mr. Birch’s position (and there are scores of them both inside and outside the SBC) is ever eligible to serve in a leadership role within the church. That continues to be the pink elephant in the tent of the Southern Baptist Convention. Discussing the restoration of clergy sex offenders to leadership roles within the church should never be off-limits, even if some don’t like the direction that discussion takes us. To not ask these questions is to invite the elephant to make a bigger mess, not just inside the tent, but in the lives of the victims of clergy sexual abuse.