High profile US pastor Johnny Hunt was restored to ministry despite serious allegations of sexual misconduct. What happened to permanent disqualification, asks Beth Allison Barr. And what does it say to the women in their congregations?
Actions speak louder than words.
Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) approved a resolution to “permanently” disqualify perpetrators of sexual abuse from holding the office of pastor.
“It’s very important for Southern Baptists to speak unequivocally and in a way that everyone can understand”, said Nathan Finn, the vice chair of the 2021 SBC resolutions committee. “We believe that sexual abuse is a disqualifying factor for anyone who would serve in church leadership.”
The case of Johnny Hunt
Yet, less than two weeks ago, four pastors (including two from within the SBC) declared that Johnny Hunt, a well-known speaker, leader, veteran pastor, and former SBC president, as fully qualified to resume his ministry. Last May, Hunt was accused in the Guidepost Solutions report on sexual abuse of being a prominent sexual abuse perpetrator.
The report alleged that, on July 25, 2010, after the completion of his second term as SBC president and while on staff as senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, Hunt sexually assaulted a pastor’s wife.
Recounting the findings of the report in a statement released this week, Bart Barber, president of the SBC, reminded the world of Hunt’s actions: “That report disclosed the details of a pastor’s wife’s account of an incident in which Johnny Hunt aggressively approached her for a sexual encounter, including his pulling down her pants, pinning her down, pulling up her shirt, and sexually assaulting her with his hands and his mouth.”
He added that the investigation “found the pastor and his wife to be credible” and that their report was corroborated by ”multiple witnesses who had first-hand knowledge of Hunt’s involvement in events that ensued after the assault.” In contrast, Barber added, investigators “did not find Dr. Hunt’s statements related to the sexual assault allegation to be credible”.
Male pastors are more interested in protecting their friends than protecting women in their congregations
Hunt is accused of using his position of power to manipulate and attack a woman 24 years younger than him. He also lied, telling Guidepost investigators in May that he had “no contact whatsoever” with the woman. Yet two and a half weeks later, he was backtracking, admitting in a letter to his congregation the “awful sin” of infidelity, but still justifying it as entirely "consensual”.
Despite some fellow leaders knowing what Hunt had done twelve years ago, he was subsequently promoted to a prominent role within the SBC and continued to speak and lead. It was not until the release of the Guidepost report that he was eventually forced to step down from ministry.
After the four pastors triumphantly declared God’s grace sufficient to restore Hunt to ministry, Barber tried to intervene, releasing a statement to remind Southern Baptists of their pledge to disqualify sexual abusers from pastoral office. But the SBC is a network of autonomous churches and so, despite Barber proclaiming that he would “defrock” Hunt if he could, he is powerless to actually do so.
Barber’s heartfelt words did have some impact, as criticism of an invitation for Hunt to speak at a church conference in Immokalee, Florida, followed his statement. “I did not in wisdom allow enough time to pass before inviting Dr. Johnny Hunt,” wrote Dr. Timothy Pigg, pastor of the Southern Baptist Fellowship Church in Immokalee, in a letter to his congregation just a few days later. But, although the invitation may have been retracted for now, the language of Pigg’s statement makes it clear that he doesn’t agree with Barber that Hunt should be “permanently disqualified.”
What women hear
I don’t think Timothy Pigg really heard Bart Barber’s words.
I don’t think women can hear them either.
What women hear is the 1250 Southern Baptist (mostly male) leaders who thought it more important to stand against women as pastors than to stand against pastors who abuse women.
What women hear are male pastors more interested in protecting their friends than protecting women in their congregations from men like Johnny Hunt.
What women hear is the cacophony of churches that care more about supporting male pastors and male headship than helping female victims.
What women hear is that men like Johnny Hunt matter more than we do.
While I appreciate Bart Barber’s words, I hope he - and all the male pastors like him - hear me when I say that their words are not enough.