In a recent op-ed for the U.K. Sunday Times, Douglas Murray observed that the reason the wheels have come off the #MeToo movement is that it discredited itself by overstating its case and conflating unmistakable instances of abuse with messy adult entanglements. “The MeToo movement had some cases that were very clear-cut. Others were not,” he wrote. “And the insistence that a historic reckoning was occurring made the line between the two uncomfortably easy to breach.”
The same line-blurring could describe what is happening in the second-largest religious denomination in the U.S. (and the largest Protestant denomination). Known for its theological conservatism that includes reserving the pastorate for men, the nearly 15-million-member Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is currently undergoing what many major media outlets are characterizing as a reckoning over sexual abuse.
Indeed, some go further, with ex-SBC leader Russell Moore calling it an “apocalypse” and evangelical pundit David French calling it a “horror,” proof the denomination does not merely contain some bad apples, but is, in fact, a “diseased” orchard.
While purple prose has been flowing freely in regards to the SBC, little of it has bothered to detail what the apocalypse looks like in hard statistical terms. That’s likely because, according to the recently released report generating all the coverage, a total of 409 accused abusers were found over the course of 21 years in approximately 47,000 SBC churches.
Lyman Stone, demographer at the Institute for Family Studies, told me the actual data contained in the abuse report, the result of an eight-month investigation by Guidepost Solutions, does not come close to meriting the hyperbolic terms that are peppering coverage in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN.
“Statistically speaking,” he said, “there were not that many cases. This is not actually that common of a problem in this church body.”
Stone went on to estimate that there are about 100,000 to 150,000 staffers in SBC churches, but many thousands more volunteer in their ministries. Of all the allegations that Guidepost investigators reviewed, they found only two that appear to involve current SBC workers.
“If you wanted to argue that based on this report, executives of the SBC mismanaged the cases that were brought to them, then fine,” Stone said. “But if you want to say this shows that [the SBC] is corrupt, hypocritical, and rife with sexual abuse — the report doesn’t demonstrate that.”
Stone added that he was shocked that Guidepost investigators only found two current cases, given how many exist in the general population. “I mean, if I had been betting beforehand, I would have bet for a couple of hundred,” he said. “Because if you’re talking about 100,000 to 150,000 people who are disproportionately men, just your baseline rate of sex offenders tells you, you should have gotten a couple thousand sex offenders in there just by random chance.”
He concluded that while the report may show the need for reforms in responding to allegations, it does not show an endemic problem of sexual abuse, adding, “It is important to distinguish these.”
Advocates like attorney and Larry Nassar victim Rachael Denhollander have argued that misconduct within the SBC isn’t just a question of numbers. They also take issue with the executive committee’s resistance to creating a public database of the “credibly accused,” assembled by third-party investigators like Guidepost. But a deep dive into how Guidepost handled the most prominent allegation of abuse in its SBC report should set off alarm bells for anyone interested in maintaining a biblical standard of justice.
From the broad outlines of Jennifer Lyell’s story, it’s easy to understand why the members of the executive committee might have felt some hesitation to unquestioningly label her as a victim of abuse.
In 2004, Lyell was a 26-year-old master of divinity student when she met cultural anthropology professor David Sills, who is 23 years her senior, on the Louisville campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Shortly after, she became close with the entire Sills family, including David’s wife, Mary, as well as his college-age son and teenage daughter. She alleges that it was on a mission trip with Sills and his daughter that Sills first “sexually acted” against her.
That incident, she says, began a pattern of abuse that lasted 12 years until she was 38, continuing even as she moved to Chicago in 2006 and, later, Nashville, to further her career in publishing. During the time that Lyell was a publishing executive, she often worked with Sills, contracting with him for books, and, arguably, holding more power over his career than he did over hers.
In essence, Lyell was claiming that Sills was able to continue committing acts of sexual abuse against her even after she’d left the state because she would return to visit the family.
In 2018, at the height of the #MeToo movement and two years after her contact with Sills had ended, Lyell told her boss, Eric Geiger, at the Christian publisher Lifeway of the allegedly abusive relationship. Geiger, in turn, arranged a meeting with Southern Seminary’s president, Dr. Albert Mohler. In short order, Sills’ employment was terminated. A year then passed before Lyell provided her account to the Baptist Press for an article she hoped would present her as Sills’ victim.
As the house media organ of the SBC, the Baptist Press (BP) falls under the authority of the executive committee. When committee members read Lyell’s account, which did not contain any concrete description of violent behavior, in a March 2019 BP draft, they had doubts about framing it as she wanted, in part because they feared Sills might sue. They asked BP editors to replace the word “abuse” with “morally inappropriate relationship,” though the story retained a quote wherein Lyell accuses Sills of “grooming and taking advantage” of her. The editors informed Lyell of the change shortly before going to print.
Once the story was published, commenters on BP’s Facebook page criticized the fact that Sills had lost his job while Lyell had not, prompting her to demand BP restore the term “abuse” to the article or link to a statement from her rebutting their word choice.
Months of sporadic back-and-forth communications followed, in which committee members weighed options for coming to terms with Lyell. Then, at an October 2019 SBC conference on sexual abuse, Denhollander recounted Lyell’s story from the stage, identifying Sills by name and calling Lyell a “survivor of horrific predatory abuse” who was “cast away” by BP editors and the executive committee. Almost immediately after, Denhollander threatened the executive committee with a defamation suit on Lyell’s behalf.
Executive committee sources who agreed to speak with me anonymously say that the SBC’s insurance agency did not want to settle with Lyell, believing she did not have a strong case. But already facing bad press over Denhollander’s conference comments, committee members feared further fallout from dragging the issue out. In May 2020, the same sources say the committee paid Lyell just over $1 million, thinking that would be the end of the matter. It wasn’t.
When Guidepost issued its report on May 22, Lyell was by far the foremost accuser in it.
Again and again in the 35-plus pages that feature her case, Guidepost investigators claim Lyell’s version of events is “corroborated.” What that would mean in a police investigation is that witnesses offered other evidence against Sills. What it appears to have meant to Guidepost is that Lyell told her story to Geiger and Mohler, and both men said they believed it, according to the Baptist Press. In fact, Geiger, the first person to whom Lyell revealed the alleged abuse, told me Guidepost never even asked him to provide statements or evidence.
The report does briefly mention testimony from unnamed employees at Sills’ missions agency and his former pastor — referring to Dr. Bill Cook — but both Guidepost and the task force refused numerous requests to provide me with the agency staffers’ specific comments. And Dr. Cook told me that in his case, once again, all “corroborate” means is that he found Lyell’s story credible, not that he had any additional evidence to offer.
Guidepost defends its choice to refer to Sills as an “abuser” rather than an “alleged abuser” by noting that they didn’t find any evidence that “indicated that the interactions between Ms. Lyell and Professor Sills was anything but sexual abuse.”
Perhaps that’s because they weren’t looking very hard.
No Record of Sills or Lyell
Lyell has never publicly disclosed specifics about her allegations, mostly, it seems, because in an atmosphere in which asking for proof equates to retraumatizing victims, she hasn’t had to. To that point, immediately following the release of the report, Denhollander argued on Russell Moore’s podcast that asking for a “significant, high level of detail” about accusations represents a “voyeuristic engagement with sexual abuse.”
But an investigation into Lyell’s claims suggests the executive committee had good reason to maintain at least some level of skepticism.
If Lyell had multiple pastors and seminary administrators willing to tell Guidepost investigators they believed her version of events, David Sills, too, has associates in SBC and ministry circles willing to say the same about him.
His former colleague, Old Testament professor Russell Fuller, was not especially friendly with Sills, but he recalled thinking, before Lyell’s accusations came to light, that their relationship appeared both intimate and consensual.
“I remember seeing the two of them eating and laughing with their heads very close together in the lunchroom at Southern Seminary,” Fuller said. “They were so public you almost thought, well, guilty people wouldn’t be that public. They would be more careful.”
I spoke to three men in ministry who have known Sills for decades — all told me they could never conceive of him behaving violently and have even chided him, at times, for his tendency to be passive.
When I asked Pastor Thomas Winn, who has been friends with the Sills family for 40 years, about Lyell’s claims that Sills threatened to shoot both her and Mohler, he burst out laughing. “Wow. That’s just totally bizarre,” he said. “That just totally shocks me. I could never imagine David doing something like that.”
Tom Nettles, who worked with Sills at Southern Seminary and has known him on a personal level for 30 years, felt the same. “This building up of David as some sort of an aggressive, vicious villain, threatening people and all that is completely out of line with what I’ve always known about him,” he said. “It’s just a complete absurdity.”
Unlike Sills’ other friends, missionary Mike Boyette first learned the details of his history with Lyell not from the newspaper or a faculty meeting, but when the two men grabbed coffee together after the Sills family moved back to Jackson, Mississippi, in an attempt to leave scandal behind.
“He was like a whipped dog,” Boyette said of Sills’ demeanor. “But he was quick to tell me very vaguely about the incident, why he wasn’t teaching anymore. And I didn’t press anything. But he was very humble about the whole thing and acknowledged that he let the relationship go too far. Then he cut it off.”
There are other indications that Lyell’s initial account may not have been entirely truthful.
A sentence in the contentious BP article reads, “Lyell told BP she has attempted to contact the Louisville Metro Police Department’s Special Victims Unit.” In a 2021 video obtained by The Daily Wire, she repeats this claim and adds that Mohler was so concerned Sills might leave their confrontation and immediately drive to Nashville to hurt Lyell, he, too, contacted the authorities to have them track his whereabouts.
Except, Louisville PD told me they have no records pertaining to Jennifer Lyell or David Sills. And Lt. Glen Parcus, commander of the sex crimes unit, could not find any cases matching Lyell’s description.
When I spoke to Lyell, she was not willing to provide details about her allegations on the record but said that Baptist Press had made a mistake and that she’d actually reported Sills to the Jefferson Town, Kentucky, authorities. However, their department, too, told me they were not able to locate anything on either Sills or Lyell in their system.
Perhaps the most significant reason Guidepost investigators did not find any evidence to suggest Sills was not an abuser was simply because they didn’t ask him. Sills, who has declined all requests to speak to the media, relayed through an intermediary that, as far as he knows, Guidepost never tried to contact him.
While Lyell’s allegations have resulted in numerous stories that portray her sympathetically, Guidepost’s assertions of Sills’ guilt have now led to reports that claim he not only committed crimes, but confessed to them. For example, Religion News Service reporter Bob Smietana incorrectly reported on May 27, “[Sills] resigned in 2018 after admitting to abusing a former student.”
Sills relayed through intermediaries that he has never admitted to sexual violence or assault, yet because his name is associated with abuse rather than simply infidelity, he has been unemployable in his field. The typical process of ecclesiastical discipline that might have restored him to being able to obtain a job in some form of missions work is unavailable to him.
“I believe many, including Guidepost, have failed to deal with this in a biblical manner according to 1 Timothy and Titus,” Winn said. “I’m grieved over this report and I want to see restoration and reform in our local churches. But this is not biblical.”
Conflicts of Interest
In May of 2020, the Department of Education introduced new regulations to Title IX that prevent college campuses from depriving students (mostly men) who have been accused of sexual misconduct of due process. One of the key provisions of those reforms is that investigations cannot be conducted by administrators who have any bias or conflict of interest. This was done, in part, to address administrators who had approached investigations with the mindset that supporting victims was more important than pursuing truth.
With the manner it went about investigating the executive committee, and the kind of campus-style reforms it now plans to adopt, the SBC is in danger of doing the same.
Though Denhollander is not a member of a Southern Baptist Church herself, she has played an outsized role in how the denomination has approached abuse reforms. Three key motions led to the creation of the task force and set the parameters for investigating the executive committee. Denhollander helped craft all three.
Pastor Grant Gaines, who was a co-sponsor of the motion to form the task force, told me Denhollander offered him advice on how to make sure the investigation would be thorough, including a requirement that the executive committee waive attorney-client privilege, a blanket move several non-SBC attorneys I spoke to said they would never advise a client to make.
Once the task force was set up, Denhollander was also appointed to advise it. Multiple sources speaking under the condition of anonymity told me that not only was she instrumental in the decision to hire Guidepost, she was in regular communication with the company’s CEO, Julie Wood, as the investigation was ongoing.
Some legal experts told me Denhollander’s previous representation of Lyell against the executive committee made her later advisory role to the task force ethically questionable.
“It certainly sends up some red flags, and it goes against a basic sense of fairness,” former North Carolina superior court judge Phillip Ginn said. He added that, in some cases, attorneys are able to secure disclaimers to get around conflict of interest concerns. But he said that if you want to get “accurate and fair results you certainly don’t want either side tipping the scales in any way.”
Jenna Ellis, who represented Grace Community Church in its successful case against the California lockdown mandates, felt that even if Denhollander and the law firm she partnered with had agreed never to represent future clients against the SBC, her representation of Lyell should have precluded her involvement in the task force.
“I couldn’t go from representing the January 6 committee to advising the FBI, for example, because, through that representation, I have established myself as a non-neutral party,” said Ellis. “So by staying on and advising, she’s tainting the neutrality of the investigation.”
Denhollander and Guidepost did not respond to request for comment about the subject of their conversations during the investigation or concerns over conflicts of interest.
There’s no question the language in the report is at times one-sided, as when it describes Lyell’s emails to the committee as “respectful,” but does not note that the committee’s replies are equally polite, even solicitous.
It also brought up claims from victim Christa Brown that one executive committee member “chortled” and another turned his back on her in a disrespectful fashion, without mentioning that committee members dispute her recollection. Former SBC legal counsel, Jim Guenther, was at that meeting and says he does not remember anything like what Brown is describing. “I did not observe any level of disrespect,” he tells me. Guenther’s refutation does not appear in the report.
The objections of the executive committee members aren’t the only things Guidepost leaves out.
Denhollander is not critical of all SBC leadership, and among those she has highlighted as an ally is former SBC president and Raleigh megachurch pastor J.D. Greear.
The only mentions the report makes of Greear are positive, positioning him as one of the few top SBC leaders to make a sincere effort to address abuse. It makes no mention of the fact that in 2021, Greear hired executive pastor Bryan Loritts, aware that Loritts had been accused of covering up sex crimes at a previous church.
Time’s Up, a Hollywood splinter group of the #MeToo movement, was scandalized when it was discovered that it had given a pass to political leaders who publicly supported their cause while privately violating the group’s principles. Greear’s absence in the SBC abuse report raises the question of whether Guidepost was doing the same.
Advocacy Over Impartiality
Guidepost and Denhollander’s approach to the question of abuse is one of advocacy. And the company’s handling of Lyell’s allegations calls into question how any third-party adjudicators the task force is recommending will handle difficult cases.
Denhollander has suggested “trauma-informed” experts like those at Guidepost should be able to judge accusations within the SBC based on a preponderance-of-evidence standard that falls short of what criminal convictions require.
Many people within national SBC leadership circles told me, on condition of anonymity, that the subject of abuse has become a political football that various factions have been leveraging to settle bitter scores and sway the direction of the denomination on issues that have nothing to do with abuse, like allowing women into the pastorate. The initiation of the task force itself, relying on leaked letters that were then used as the impetus to demand investigations smacks of the dealings of politics more than pulpits.
Finally, six different SBC pastors pointed out to me that very little in the Guidepost report was actually new information. In many of the cases, flagrant mishandling of allegations had already been addressed and the men involved removed from office. And the highly publicized list the executive committee was keeping of abusers was, in fact, culled from newspaper reports. Every accusation it contained was already in the public domain.
Denhollander has made it clear that she considers Guidepost to be foremost in this field. And yet its investigators had no qualms naming Sills a certain abuser, even though he has faced no criminal convictions, civil suits, or even had any charges filed against him. If Guidepost is the best in the industry and it shows so little concern for the presumption of innocence that is the hallmark of biblical and American justice, will another company like it do better?
Toward the end of my conversation with Tom Nettles, he grew somewhat pensive about how a situation like this could have happened to his friend.
“I think that there are levels of truth and levels of integrity that are being flattened out here,” he said. “And to the degree that more of the complexity and the texture of truth can be set forth, I just think that’ll be good for all of us.”