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SBC president says disgraced predecessor is unfit to return to ministry

Pastor Bart Barber speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., in June. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention this week denounced his disgraced predecessor, Johnny Hunt, who is planning to return to ministry after allegations that he sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife.

“I would permanently ‘defrock’ Johnny Hunt if I had the authority to do so,” SBC President Bart Barber wrote in a statement released Tuesday.

Hunt, who served as president of the SBC from 2008 to 2010, stepped aside from public ministry in May, after the assault allegations were made public. But a group of pastors announced last week that Hunt has been restored to ministry, less than six months after Southern Baptists passed changes designed to address a sex abuse crisis.

On social media, Barber called Hunt’s return “a repugnant act.”

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Barber was elected at the SBC’s 2022 annual meeting, where the delegates charged him with implementing changes to address abuse passed in the same session. His ‘defrock’ comment highlights the challenges he and the SBC, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, face in trying to address abuse; because the denomination’s churches are autonomous, no SBC official, including its president, has the authority to discipline Hunt.

But Barber also said the pastors who claim to have restored Hunt do not have that authority, either.

“The idea that a council of pastors, assembled with the consent of the abusive pastor, possesses some authority to declare a pastor fit for resumed ministry is a conceit that is altogether absent from Baptist polity and from the witness of the New Testament. Indeed, it is repugnant to all that those sources extol and represent,” he said.

The denomination’s institutions, however, have long been run by powerful pastors and their friends.

Celebrity pastors like Hunt, because they fill seats and offering plates, often act as what University of North Carolina historian Molly Worthen has called “pastor-warlords,” with little oversight or accountability.

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Tiffany Thigpen, an abuse survivor and longtime victims’ advocate, said Hunt’s return to ministry is a sign that the legislated policies have yet to change Southern Baptist culture.

“We are always going to have this network of powerful men who can do whatever they want and think they can get away with it,” she said. “And they are right.”

Hunt, like anyone, can be forgiven by God, Thigpen said, but that does not mean he should be given power and a platform in the church. She said pastors like the ones who endorsed Hunt dole out cheap grace to protect their friends.

“They don’t care,” she said.

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The allegations about Hunt came as a shock to his many admirers. The first Native American president of the SBC, he spent three decades as a popular speaker and pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., a prominent megachurch.

In 2010, after his term as president ended, Hunt took an extended leave of absence, citing health reasons. But a 2022 report commissioned by SBC leaders from Guidepost Solutions, an investigative firm, revealed that Hunt had been accused of sexually assaulting another pastor’s wife and had undergone a secret counseling process. The survivor of the alleged attack and her husband were pressured to forgive Hunt, according to Guidepost.

“We include this sexual assault allegation in the report because our investigators found the pastor and his wife to be credible; their report was corroborated in part by a counseling minister and three other credible witnesses; and our investigators did not find Dr. Hunt’s statements related to the sexual assault allegation to be credible,” investigators wrote.

Hunt did not inform his church of the incident in 2010, nor did he tell convention leaders, including leaders at the North American Mission Board, where he became a vice president after leaving First Baptist.

“Johnny Hunt is a serial liar, and he lied to every ministry he worked with for years,” said Griffin Gulledge, a Georgia pastor who has been outspoken about the need to address abuse in the SBC. “He told everyone he was morally qualified to be a pastor, and he was not.”

Gulledge said Hunt’s recent restoration was not credible, in part because the process was led by friends of Hunt — rather than First Baptist in Woodstock. “It’s infuriating,” Gulledge said.

Christa Brown, an abuse survivor and another longtime advocate for reform in the SBC, said she appreciated Barber’s comments.

“But so what?” she said. “Nothing has changed.”

Brown said that Hunt’s return, and a lack of action to hold former SBC leaders accountable for mistreatment of abuse survivors, shows “a gross inability to deal with the issue.”

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Brown wants printed copies of the Guidepost report available to every church and wants the denomination’s standing body, the Executive Committee, to be as vocal and diligent as she and other survivors have been in educating church members and the public about the threat of abusive pastors.

“Until I see that,” she said, “I won’t believe they are serious.”

Hunt is scheduled to appear in February at a “Great Commission Weekend” hosted by a Florida church. An advertisement for the event, posted on social media by the Rev. Timothy Pigg of Fellowship Church in Immokalee, Fla., features photos of Hunt, along with former SBC presidents Ronnie Floyd and Jerry Vines and SBC presidential candidate Mike Stone.

Floyd stepped down as president of the SBC’s Executive Committee when his efforts to control the scope and public release of the Guidepost report failed.

Pigg, Hunt and Stone did not respond to requests for comment.

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North Carolina pastor Bruce Frank, who chaired the task force that commissioned and released the Guidepost report, called the video about Hunt’s return “disappointing but not terribly surprising.”

That video, he said, showed no “fruits of repentance” and did not mention the hurt Hunt caused. Frank characterized the process as “just four friends spending a few months with him and now using platitudes saying he’s fit to proceed.”

He also called the decision to give Hunt a platform at a church conference “beyond unwise” and said it sent a terrible message to abuse survivors. Frank said that efforts to address the issue of abuse and to care for survivors will continue, despite challenges.

Particularly disturbing, according to Frank and other critics, was the restoration group’s likening of the situation to the Gospel parable of the good Samaritan, in which a man is beset by robbers, beaten and left by the side of the road. Religious leaders pass him by but a Samaritan rescues him.

“The wounded person on the side of the road is [Hunt’s] abuse survivor, not Johnny Hunt,” said Barber, “and she received no mention at all by this panel — she was passed by, in a way, by this quintet,” he said in his statement. “I do not know her, but I don’t want to be guilty of leaving her on the side of the road. I am praying for her, I have heard her, and I believe her.”

— Religion News Service