Clergy Sexual Abuse and Church Polity

Matt Pinson

Recently my colleague Dr. Darrell Holley sent me a link to an article in First Things by Dale Coulter entitled “Evangelical Apocalypse.” The article is primarily about clergy sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention reported by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. It might be easy for our smaller, Free Will Baptist denomination to think we are immune to these concerns. But we need to pay attention.

What Hath Church Polity to Do with Sexual Abuse?

I found particularly interesting Coulter’s tie-in to church polity, or church government. This is of interest to me because of the differences between typical Baptist polity as it developed in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and traditional Free Will Baptist polity. Coulter points out that “local church autonomy present in Baptist polity has allowed sexual predators to move freely from church to church.”

Now before some readers get nervous, let me affirm local church autonomy as rightly considered historically by Free Will Baptists: the ultimate right of self-governance by a local congregation. This definition of autonomy—self-government—is the way Free Will Baptists have historically used the term rather than the typical way it is used: independence.

I have discussed these issues in my pamphlet, Free Will Baptists and Church Government. Free Will Baptists have typically held that every New Testament congregation is self-governing. Thus it has the absolute right to leave the conference or association of which it is a member and affiliate with another. [1] However, we have traditionally not viewed associational affiliation as an option for the local congregation, but as a mandate.

The Free Will Baptist Difference

That approach to church government is different from the one that developed in most American Baptist groups. (However, early non-Free Will Baptist associations like the Charleston or Philadelphia associations had a polity much like Free Will Baptists.) What is especially different about traditional Free Will Baptist church polity, which is still practiced in almost all associations today, is this: The examination, ordination, and moral and theological accountability of ministers is delegated by the local congregation to the presbytery (body of ministers) of the conference or association.

Furthermore, traditionally, Free Will Baptist conferences and associations were more concerned about the discipline of local churches. They cared about what went on in those churches. Yes, the congregation could disregard the conference’s counsel (which would usually result in the conference removing the church from fellowship). Yet the conference was concerned about local churches and felt free to ask questions and give counsel to local churches.

Passing Errant Ministers from Association to Association

How does all this relate to clergy sexual abuse? Coulter goes on in the article to say, “Another issue is how easily Baptist ministers are ordained. Since local churches ordain, one has only to secure the endorsement of any church in good standing with the convention, regardless of how small or remote it is.” Yet Coulter states that the problem is not just in the Southern Baptist Convention, because ministers accused of sexual abuse who are “dismissed from one denomination have simply gone to another for credentials. . . . These open networks for ministerial movement from one part of evangelicalism to another allow sexual abusers to escape judgment and start over.”

I have heard many ministers in the Free Will Baptist Church state something similar: Errant ministers often move from one conference to another within the denomination without repercussions. It is amazing to me how that, historically, Free Will Baptist conferences and associations were much more vigilant about checking out ministers who applied for ministerial credentials than we are today. This is despite the fact that trains, horses, and wagons were the only transportation rather than planes and automobiles. And the Pony Express, rather than telephone, email, and Facebook, were the only means of communication.

The Means at Our Disposal

We have tremendous means at our disposal today for keeping morally and theologically errant ministers from seamlessly moving from one area to another. What’s more, we have a built-in polity that is part of our tradition—still “on the books” in our denominational documents—that can, if consistently utilized, keep us from having the problem Coulter describes.

What happened traditionally when an errant minister attempted to transfer from one Free Will Baptist association to another? The presbytery or ordaining council would carefully check out his credentials. They would be proactive about it, even if the church he was ministering in did not request it. They knew that if they waited too long, they would lose the church. What if the minister refused to submit to the authority of the conference? The conference would state publicly that it did not recognize the minister as a Free Will Baptist minister. [2]

This approach would help us today. It would help us not only to deal with ministers whose doctrine is not in keeping with that of the Free Will Baptist Church, but it would also aid us in dealing with sexual predators and other charlatans or criminals. Like all biblical church discipline, it would make a statement to the world that the Free Will Baptist Church is not going to tolerate sexual abuse or any other deviation from Scriptural norms. [3]

Helping Local Congregations

Another positive mark of a stronger associational polity is that because congregations are more involved in each other’s lives, they know what is going on in each other’s congregations. So if there is a problem in a local church that needs the help of the other churches in the conference, the other churches typically will know about it. This type of polity also provides more organic resources to help local congregations’ lay search committees. With more help and counsel, lay committees are less apt to recommend a minister who falls short of the conference’s ethical and doctrinal standards.

Our wannabeism when it comes to the Independent Baptist movement (on the right) and the non-denominational megachurch movement (on the left) is coming home to roost. [4] These movements have eroded our commitment to our historic associationalism. This erosion has left us as isolated churches without the resources we need to maintain our theological commitments and the moral leadership of our ordained clergy.

Our traditional Free Will Baptist polity will help us guard against the sort of thing that has been happening with clergy sexual abuse. Furthermore, it will help us guard against morally and theologically errant ministers taking churches out of our denomination. Again, because we believe in the self-government of local congregations, nothing we do can ultimately keep a congregation from leaving if it is committed to that decision. Yet our polity will help.

Obviously, a stronger church polity is not in itself a foolproof method for discouraging and dealing with these problems. After all, the Roman Catholic Church has an extremely strong church government, but it has not done so. However, I believe there is a powerful argument that the balanced polity we have guards against the sorts of concentrated church hierarchy that has swept clergy sexual abuse under the rug. Our biblical church polity has just the right balance. This balance allows it to avoid the problems of the power of a church hierarchy vested in a few people, on one hand, and the lack of accountability that plagues the independent-church models on the other hand.

Renewing our Church by Retrieving the Associational Principle

What we must do is to recommit ourselves to the biblical church polity that is already at our disposal. This will mean renewing our churches and conferences through retrieving our tradition of biblical Free Will Baptist church polity. It will mean not yielding to the temptation to mimic the anti-associationalism and anti-denominationalism of the Independent Baptist and non-denominational megachurch movements. Those movements seem to have numerically larger and more successful congregations, and sometimes we are sorely tempted to sell our souls for numerical success. But recovering our internal resources will help us not to give in to that temptation.

I am witnessing the growth of a generation of younger ministers who are solid, conservative Free Will Baptists. These ministers believe in our traditional associational principle and are ready to bring renewal and life and biblical accountability back to our conferences and associations.

I pray that we middle-aged and older Free Will Baptists will not discourage them from doing that. If they succeed, it will strengthen our churches and denomination and our commitment to biblical truth. It will help keep our denomination and its distinctive theological witness from dying. It will also tell the world that we are not willing to tolerate sexual abuse and other immoral conduct that displeases our holy God and brings disgrace on the church and the gospel it proclaims.


Editorial Note: An earlier version of this post was published on Wednesday morning that was different, though only slightly, from the current version. This was done accidently by a site administrator. Our apologies to our readers. 

[1] Today, all local gatherings of Free Will Baptist churches are referred to as conferences or associations. So I am using these terms interchangeably. These have been the majority terms in our tradition for the past two hundred years. Yet historically they were used alongside other, less-used synonyms such as union meeting, connection, general assembly, general council, and district.

[2] This essay is not meant to suggest that Free Will Baptist polity is the only cure for the problems discussed herein, but an important part of a larger solution.

[3] The thrust of this paper is not to absolve lay pastoral search committees at local churches of the responsibility to check references and do proper checks on pastoral candidates’ backgrounds but rather to provide aid to local congregations without a pastor, many of whom unfortunately do not engage in extensive research on pastoral candidates.

[4] defines a “wannabe” as “a person who tries to be like someone else or to fit in with a particular group of people.”





  1. Would you know of any resources that could answer this question? Since Quarterly and District Associations do not carry insurance (at least none that I know of) what would be the liability when a Quarterly or a District gives a bad recommendation if the minister in question should then sue for defamation of character?

    1. Thanks to all of you readers for these questions and comments. It’s especially good to hear from my beloved brother, David Potete.

      Bro. David, regarding the legal questions, I would recommend checking with the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. In the current climate, church groups who are proactive in this matter are going to be in a good position in the legal community.


  2. Tha la for addressing this issue! While it is a difficulty topic to address, as church leaders we have a moral and Biblical responsibility to do so, as you point out. That said, I believe this to be a worthy workshop or seminar topic at the National Meeting this year. Brent

  3. Good topic and good presentation. The problem that I see is many churches see little or no value in being a part of an association. The first church that I pastored was disfellowshipped (years after my departure) for hiring a Southern Baptist pastor. When told they would be disfellowshipped over this their response was, what difference will that make? I tried to reason with some of the leaders about it, but they were both polite and stubborn as to their stand.

    1. Thanks for this comment, Brother Randy. You have been a tireless advocate and example to me of the importance of associationalism. I’m glad you’ve raised this question for discussion, because it gets to the heart of this matter. I’ve had lots of opportunities to talk with younger Welch graduates who are involved in revitalization committees in their associations, and this is a common theme. Just like anything, for the system to work, we have to be consistent and keep the “excitement” up about the association, otherwise, the primary purpose for it (ordination and moral and doctrinal accountability and encouragement of ministers and churches) goes away. This is really the only way to minimize the number of unparticipative churches.There have always been churches in our conferences that have been aloof and overly independent, and that will always be with us. But we’re making such aloofness into a virtue, and (I know you agree) becoming less associational and not making as “big a deal” out of our associational life as we did in the past, as a response to greater aloofness, just reinforces this. It’s a vicious cycle. The more we de-emphasize associationalism (maybe as an unconscious defense mechanism against the independency of our evangelical subculture), the more independent-minded churches we have that don’t participate in the association. And we roll over and play dead and act as if it doesn’t matter to us (maybe because it doesn’t). When we do this, it further engenders the notion that associations are really just an unnecessary appendage from the past that we don’t need. The result is that more churches become aloof. And when lay church leaders are aloof from an association, they will be more apt to get a Charismatic or eternal securitist interim pastor, because they don’t hang out enough with their brothers and sisters in the association to imbibe its values, to know instinctively that getting such an interim pastor is “not cool.” I think our default mechanism is that if people are getting tired of associationalism because it goes against the grain of modern consumer sensibilities, let’s just do it halfway and de-emphasize it. There will always be associationally lukewarm churches, but placing greater emphasis on our “life together” in associations, and letting that excitement spread, will cut down on the number of such churches. If we don’t do this, the number of unparticipative churches will increase, the number of doctrinally unsound pastors in their pulpits will increase. To do this is to continue seeing the shrinkage of the number of Free Will Baptist churches in the National Association (even though most of the churches we’ve lost over the last thirty years still have Free Will Baptist on their sign). If this trend continues, the death of our small, theologically distinctive denomination is on the horizon, and the Christian community will be the worse for it. So, in short, just like the Kiwanis Club and Rotarians, we must lean against the anti-associational tendencies of our age by doing what we used to do–acting interested, drumming up excitement, constantly revitalizing our associational life and activities to train people on things that are important, forging friendships not just with ministers (most of whom are going to move on to (but with lay leaders of member churches), etc., etc. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, Brother Randy. You’re one of our biggest advocates for these things, and thank you so much for raising this question.


  4. Timely article and worthy of consideration. The road ahead is growing dark with complicated challenges, not only on the clergy sexual abuse issue, but also with legislation in congress that criminalize our traditional stands on LGBT issues. Stronger associational ties and polity will prove to be valuable as we face end time pressure to capitulate to errant cultural mores.

  5. I agree with the premise that our denomination is not far from dissipating if we neglect the associations of our local churches.

    The local associations in Free Will Baptists are the makeup of our denomination in terms of doctrinal and pastoral accountability and cooperation for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Its purpose is similar: accountability on all fronts of Free Will Baptist doctrine and practice. However, it is also in place to govern those who seek ordination and office in a local Free Will Baptist church. When these purposes are upheld at a level of commitment and covenant, the denomination’s links, in its proverbial chain, become stronger, not weaker.

    Revitalization of our local associations is a vital aspect to our denomination’s health and continuance for generations to come. We cannot sit back and *only* focus on the good things happening. We also have to be realistic and understand that when we do not face the reality of our associations becoming less accountable and less doctrinal, we are watching their demise before our very eyes. Therefore, we need to take intentional steps for the purpose of revitalization for our associations. Why? Because we love our denomination and believe it is the best alternative to Reformed Theology that is out there right now.

    May the Lord raise up leaders in our local churches who love not only the church, but also love the Free Will Baptist denomination and the local associations of which their respective churches are a part and may He restore in us a love for our doctrine and our polity and our local associations.


  6. I wouldn’t pretend that what I am about to say is the most important consideration in seeking solutions to these very demanding problems. But I believe that cultivating a sense of denominational identity and appreciation for the Free Will Baptist distinctives and heritage is one thing that will contribute positively to the way we see our churches as part of the associations we belong to. One facet of this is knowing who we are and the things that shape us, as can be found in exploring our history. I am distressed at how little our people–yes, our ministers–care about our history. I research and write about our history, and Randall House tells me that my book, Little Known Chapters in Free Will Baptist History, has disappointing sales. There are all sorts of wonderful “chapters” or stories out there, waiting to be discovered and told. Our pastors, our churches, and our associations need, intentionally, to cultivate awareness and appreciation for our heritage. A sense of belonging to something will strengthen our commitment to it.

  7. This is a very interesting and timely appropriate article. Here we can see the value of associational beliefs and practices. Being part of only one association for twenty- five years, out of the twenty -seven years of ministry, provides a great understanding on issues like the ones exposed here. It also provides time to consider the importance to be prepared to help our churches during crisis.
    I have seen churches coming to our association seeking help, guidance, and support during difficult times. It has been extremely important for those churches to find a historical, biblically based, and non-compromising associational leadership ready to deal with such issues. In most cases, churches followed the association’s recommendations. It was always made clear that going against our guidelines will jeopardize the church’s membership in our association.
    Having a written document explaining the association’s position in handling pastoral immorality has been an asset as times and issues get more complicated.
    When the above historical and biblical recommendations are respected, the local church autonomy remains intact. At the same time, Christ church in general, local churches in the area, and the Free Will Baptist denomination as a whole maintain their purity and good name for the glory of God.
    A spirit of ultra-independence, where no accountability is required, will usually bring the loss of our identity and consequently the danger to accept individuals who are morally disqualified for the ministry.
    I am glad to see that some of our young ministers express a sincere passion to follow these historical and biblical practices, which differentiate us from other groups.

  8. This is indeed an important issue for our denomination as well. I personally know a FWB individual who was sexually abused as a child by a leader within one of our churches. I know of a church not far from us that called a gentleman from North Carolina who embezzled thousands of dollars from members of the congregation. He was caught because the banker in this small town knew the account holder and the church and called a deputy sheriff who was also a member of the same church. After investigating it was found that he had done something similar in NC and was under investigation by their police. He is presently in prison but a thorough vetting by the church and the association’s ordaining council could have prevented much of the damage. (After a number of years this dear church has still not recovered its testimony and image in the community.)

    I regularly hear questions from church folks (including some of my leadership) about why we are a part of an association. It is hard to answer that convincingly sometimes. I think you have provided some good help in that Dr. Pinson. Being a part of an association is important not just for mutual encouragement and partnership but also for accountability.

  9. When the news of sexual abuse perpetuated by pastors affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention broke some time ago, I made this same basic point in a conversation with a couple of fellow Free Will Baptist ministers and some ministers from other denominations. Specifically, I highlighted the strong associational nature of Free Will Baptist ordination practices (i.e. except in rare instances, the local church delegates the authority to ordain ministers to the local association). However, one minister involved in the conversation noted the increasing practices of local Free Will Baptist churches ordaining their own minister and then moving that his credentials be ratified by the association. I personally think this is a lamentable development. If the reason for doing this is to speed the process up, churches would do well to remember the words of Paul, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22). It is more likely the case that some Free Will Baptists just want to be like other Baptists or non-denominational churches, as you so keenly pointed out. How would you suggest a district/conference/quarterly handling a church that insists on ordaining its own minister and then transferring his credentials?

    Additionally, as part of that conversation, one Southern Baptist minister suggested local church requiring background checks for ministerial candidates. I think that is a good practice to encourage. However, I think this is something that Free Will Baptists in particular could latch onto. Perhaps local associations could require background checks for both ministers who are transferring their credentials and candidates for ordination. FBI background checks, while not indicative of what a person is capable of, reveal what persons have done. Presbyteries should be doing their due-diligence in regards to investigating the character of our ministers. Background checks are a modern, affordable way to do that. What would you say to background checks by associations?

    Finally, I am one of the young Free Will Baptist pastors that is working towards a renewal of our traditions biblical practices. I am thankful that I am not alone, and I think there is great hope for the future of our movement.

    Thank you for the post. There is much to chew on here.

    1. Some good points Josh. With the super low cost of background checks ($10-15 through a partnership with Lifeway) churches have no good reason not to do them. We started a few years ago at Calvary. To set the example all of the leadership went through them as well. The church people were very understanding of the necessity of this in our day and time.

  10. Looking back, I can see how my personal experience with such a matter caused a measure of discouragement for me, and especially for my family. A pastor we knew, from a neighboring association, left a church with some unexplained and undiscussed cloud over his head. I have no knowledge of how, but be was later at another church in another association. Some time later he was called to one in our association. When we received a letter from his last association, they would not give any answer on recommendation, except that we ‘would have to find out for’ ourselves.

    Were the churches and associations ‘too polite’ to expose problems and endure scandal? Were they unaware of proof and just wanted to be done with it? Were they just willing to expose others without warning? Several came away with the idea that the local association was a waste of time.

    Perhaps on a related note, I remember a time when our CONTACT magazine would publish names of those that were removed from the list of ordained ministers. Would such now be seen as a legal liability?

    Thanks for the great article. May it help us to refocus on the need and the use of our associations.

    Tony Tilley

  11. Congratulations to Dr. Pinson, a demonational leader, for having the courage to bring attention to this issue. I completely agree with everything he states in this article. Since I am, and have been, the moderator of our local district association for 25 years, we take this issue very seriously. We have employed everything Dr. Pinson mentions in this article to be doubly sure we are not contributing to the spiritual weakening and breakdown of the integrity of the local church, ministry, and the local district association of churches. Yes, employing these methods have made some people angry, and yes, we lost one church who withdrew from our association when they hired a new pastor because they knew his credentials would not be ratified through our Ordaining Board, and association. This does indeed hurt. It can be at times a lot of work and heart-wrenching. Yet, I think it is worth it, and I would do it all over again. Why? Just as he states in the article, we have helped to preserve the doctrinal and moral purity in our association. We have been good stewards of preserving the Gospel, the Holy Scriptures, and the good name of our beloved denomination. We have helped churches who lacked spiritual discernment to understand more clearly the Scriptural requirements of being a true Christian minister. We have helped to preserve the name of Christ and his Word to a fallen world! For that we give glory to our Lord!

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