As an avid football fan, I watched Baylor’s meteoric rise to the top of college football with surprise, respect, but also a bit of suspicion. Art Briles seemed to be cooking something good even back in 2008 when the Longhorns were still strong, but to reach the heights that the Bears did was stunning after spending decades as a bottom dweller. Stories and rumors circulated that Baylor was doing everything they could to get talented players on campus, which of course includes illegally paying players. True, there are always accusations and rumors, and even if they were true, there are undoubtedly boosters in all major programs who give improper benefits to players, something that is difficult for schools to regulate. Still, Baylor has a reputation of being a conservative Baptist school that, as of yet, has not abandoned its Christian mission. It seemed especially amiss that they would try so hard to be noticed in the world of athletics. They had already been rocked with scandals before, most notably the basketball scandal back in the early 2000’s, but they recovered and were enjoying unprecedented athletic success.
However, this new scandal threatens to topple Baylor athletics, damage the city of Waco’s reputation, and more importantly, dishonor the Savior they claim to follow. As reports piled on that the university mishandled sexual assault cases over the years, many of them involving football players, the university was backed into a corner. They had no choice but to do the unthinkable: Fire by far the most successful football coach in their history and a figure pretty revered in Waco.
I won’t talk about the details of how Baylor failed on this issue; suffice it to say, it was a pretty widespread failure and it is bad that the football coaches were negligent or even complicit in trying to make such cases go away. This is extremely important, but plenty of articles around the web have covered that. I won’t talk much about the ramifications on football and recruiting either because, frankly, that stuff isn’t really all that important (or at least, shouldn’t be). What I will talk about is how Baylor’s failure has already given ammunition to people who want to criticize Christianity and has bewildered people who can’t understand that Christians could do this.
Political and theological distinctions are lost in the fray
I follow college football fairly closely, and when this scandal hit, plenty of people talked about the Christian angle. There were some who did so with glee, reveling in this new opportunity to attack Christianity without nuance, and for sure, such people can’t really be helped all that much. However, there were many who honestly asked questions such as, “Where on earth is The Baptist Church in all of this? Why don’t they step in? How can they condone this stuff and be Christian?”
On the one hand, this is a very misinformed question and I have tried my best to correct the misunderstandings implicit in it. However, on the other, it is a very understandable question because not even most Baptists or those who grew up in Baptist churches have any idea why such a question is off base.
If you know anything about Baptists, there is no “The Baptist Church” because Baptist churches are independent entities who can voluntarily choose to cooperate with one another. There is no top down structure like other denominations, though there is the convention (which, again, is a voluntary association). There may be (and probably are) many individual Baptist churches who A) Just heard about what happened and B) Are very displeased by it, but they really can’t do a thing to Baylor at all.
In addition, many conservative Baptist churches will not even consider Baylor to be a true conservative Baptist institution (Ken Starr, their recently ousted president who is now a chancellor, was not even a Baptist). Baylor themselves willingly disassociated from the national convention and blamed “fundamentalists” for their move, a word that, as Alvin Plantinga has wryly put it, typically just means “a sumbitch whose theological views are significantly to the right of my own,” which is hardly much of an intellectual charge. For those who don’t know what happened, here it is in a nutshell: Many conservative Baptist leaders and churches grew concerned that the seminaries were drifting left theologically, denying inerrancy, trumpeting private theology, and abandoning some important principles of the faith. They banded together and utilized the existing processes in the national convention to get conservative leaders elected and change the seminaries. Some ugly political battles ensued, but the conservatives won out. They call it the “Conservative Resurgence.” Their opponents, such as Baylor, call it “The Fundamentalist Takeover.” Isn’t this all fun?
Because of this, Baylor instead has associated itself with the older state convention, the BGCT (Baptist General Convention of Texas), while many conservative Baptist churches have increasingly moved to be a member of the SBTC (Southern Baptist Texas Convention), the other state convention that is more explicitly conservative. If this all sounds boring and convoluted, it admittedly is; as I said above, probably 95% of Baptist church members or people who grew up in a Baptist church don’t have the foggiest idea of the things I just talked about (I corrected one person who claimed to have grown up in a Southern Baptist Church, and he clearly had no idea what I was talking about and he was not happy to be corrected either).
Guess what? If most Baptists have no clue about any of this, you can bet that the average outside person has no idea either. The end result is that people blame the Baptist church, blame conservatism, and blame Christianity for this mess. Fair? No, and it is admittedly a little amusing seeing people try to blame conservative Christians for this but then hear that Baylor is associated with the more liberal wing of Baptists who are more likely to support gay marriage and the like. Still, it is the unfortunate consequence of those who claim to be Christian but also abandon ethical conduct to get ahead in worldly ways.
One more obstacle to overcome
Thus, this is what Baylor has done: They have hurt girls who were sexually assaulted by mishandling their cases and seemingly prioritizing football, and through this have dishonored the name of Christ they still champion. People have already made accusations that religious people turn a blind eye to sexual assault because they have outdated views of sex and can’t fathom that such things can happen in their goody two-shoe campus. They have laughed at the ethical teachings of Christ and Art Briles’ own testimony. They think that Christians are no different, or even worse, than everyone else, which shows that there is really nothing unique about Jesus.
Is this overgeneralizing? Sure it is. I’ve already addressed why this argument is wrong, and Baylor people that I know are definitely not circling the wagons to try to defend their coach and school but are horrified by what has happened. Still, there is a reason why Scripture constantly reminds us to be good witnesses in the world so that we can avoid such unnecessarily obstacles in showing the truth. In our adult Sunday School class at church, we’ve just finished a short series on the book of Titus, where Paul tells Titus numerous times to instruct the people to behave well so that they do not malign the word of God, that they silence critics, and that they show the truth to be attractive. People tend to be emotional, and when things like this hit, they become further turned off to the claims of the Christian faith.
Conservative Baptists could possibly just say that Baylor does not represent conservative Christianity and just blame liberalism for the lack of institutional control. However, this would be missing the larger point: When proclaimed Christians act like everyone else, it damages the witness of the church. It’s not like Baylor’s mistakes could not happen at another school, be it a liberal public school or a very conservative religious one. We need to guard against losing our priorities just because worldly recognition is in our grasp, be it athletic or secular academic accolades (frankly, most Christian schools abandon their principles for the latter, which is something I might write about some other time).
For sure, Christians are saved by grace and we should not pretend that we are perfect and cover up our mistakes and sins. We still sin and will continue to sin, sometimes a lot. At the same time, we should still act as if we have been transformed. If Christ is real, then that transformation should be real, and if it isn’t evident at all, we shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t think Jesus is that big of a deal.