“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in Christ’s triumphal procession and through us spreads the aroma of the knowledge of him in every place. For to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
A few weeks ago, I was riding in the car with some friends. As we drove, one of them popped a mint in her mouth. It was something she’d done numerous times before. For whatever reason, though, this time was different. A few minutes later, not realizing what she had done, I began noticing an odd smell in the car that was gradually growing stronger. It was minty fresh, but it was quickly becoming overwhelming. Eventually, wanting to be sure I wasn’t the only one smelling this, I asked what was going on. We finally had to have her spit out the mint and we opened the windows the smell was getting so strong. What has me thinking about that this morning is recent, heartbreaking and infuriating news from the Southern Baptist Convention, and something Paul says here about our lives smelling like Jesus. Let’s talk about it.
One of the things about the sacrificial system in place under the Law of Moses is that it made worship incredibly physical. What I mean is that the worshipers could experience what they were doing in ways our worship today doesn’t typically allow. When you went to offer an animal sacrifice, the priest may have prepared the animal, but you were the one who slit its throat. Slitting an animal’s throat, however, is not some neat and tidy affair. Blood would have immediately began flowing. Some of the blood was discarded, but some of it was used in various parts of the ritual. Once the animal had been killed, it was time to butcher it. The priest carved the animal up into various pieces that went different places depending on the kind of sacrifice it was. Some was burned. Some was cooked. Some was discarded. This whole process was graphic from start to finish. And it smelled. On a day when there were supplicants lined up for hours to offer their sacrifices and it was hot, the smells and sights of death would have been overwhelming.
In describing this whole process to the people, though, God makes a comment more than once about the nature of their sacrifices. When they made burnt offerings to Him, it was the smell of those offerings that would get His attention. He would be roused by the aroma and reminded of His commitment to them. He would act with mercy toward them. Now, to a certain extent, this kind of language was inherently figurative. God was giving them a way to understand Him that was consistent with the way ancient peoples thought about the gods generally. He was, of course, different, and didn’t need the smell of incense and burned meat to remind Him of His commitment to His people. The reminder was really for them. But, nonetheless, the idea of smell was an important part of the worship process for ancient Israel.
Paul was borrowing on this kind of religious background in what he wrote to the Corinthian believers here. This worked even though his audience was predominantly composed of Gentile-background believers because, as I said, this kind of sacrificial thinking was common across many ancient peoples. He took the idea of the smell of the sacrifices and applied it to the members of the Corinthian church (and believers more generally). No longer do we offer sacrifices whose aroma is intended to get God’s attention. In Christ, we always have God’s attention. Instead, the whole thing has been reversed. We are to be the “aroma of the knowledge of God” and “the fragrance of Christ” in the world around us. By our particular smell, we are to remind the people around us of who God is.
In other words, if you are a follower of Jesus, you should smell. So then, how do you smell?
When we are getting things right, we smell really good. Everywhere we go, people see what impact knowing God has on a person’s life. They are drawn to that aroma and desire to have a taste of whatever it is that is smelling so good. We send out waves of the character of Christ and, like the fragrance of a bread machine when it gets near the end of its cycle, everyone around us takes note of how good it is. In this way, our very presence in the world is an offering from God to the world to invite them into the life that is rich and full and abundant; the life that is truly life.
But when we get it wrong, we smell bad. Really bad. A few years ago, the Houston Chronicle newspaper published a lengthy investigative journalism report on the problem of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist Churches in their region. The results were ugly. While abuse was not something nearly every church was dealing with, the number of people who had been abused in the SBC churches of that region and the number of pastors and other church leaders who did the abusing was not small. Worse yet, there were intentional efforts in far too many places to try to cover up the abuse, shame and blame the victims for it, and otherwise to treat it as not nearly the problem that it was. In the wake of the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal, the story probably didn’t get the national attention it deserved, but it certainly was a shock to the system of the SBC and its churches.
That summer, J.D. Greear, the pastor of Summit Church in Raleigh, NC, was elected President of the SBC and came in with the promise of getting to the bottom of the problem and helping churches make sure they were not only handling the issue properly, but that they had access to the training materials they needed to ensure they were protecting the vulnerable in their midst. He led the Convention in making some important strides forward, but he also received not a little pushback from other leaders who insisted the problem wasn’t really all that bad and that our focus needed to be on evangelism and declining baptism numbers.
Last summer, at the annual meeting in Nashville, TN, the Messengers to the meeting (that is, the various attendees representing churches who cast votes on business matters) voted overwhelmingly in favor of directing the SBC’s Executive Committee to hire a third-party organization to do an investigation of the denomination’s leadership to see just how bad the problem of sexual abuse in the Convention really was. This would require them to revoke any attorney-client privilege that was in place so the investigation could be as thorough as it needed to be. After some initial pushback from certain members of the Executive Committee, the group finally voted to revoke its attorney-client privilege and allow the investigation to proceed.
This past Sunday, the results of the investigation were released to the public. It wasn’t pretty. It revealed that not only does the Convention have a problem with sexual abuse, but that there have been institutional efforts from the highest levels of the Convention to hide it. Calls to take active steps to confront the matter had been rebuffed, sometimes vigorously, and the individuals calling for such steps to be taken (some of whom had been victims themselves) were literally demonized by some of the members of the Executive Committee. Efforts to convince the EC to pursue reforms to the whole system were described as “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”
In one of the more shocking findings of the report, Johnny Hunt, one of the absolute superstars of the Convention, a man who was more widely and deeply respected by millions of Southern Baptists across the country than just about anyone else, was credibly accused of sexually assaulting the wife of a much younger pastor – a charge he is still aggressively denying. He was also revealed to have been an investor in some of the spa businesses of Ravi Zacharias, a giant in the world of Christian apologetics who was beloved around the world, but who after his death a few years ago was revealed to have been a serial sexual abuser, something he used those spa businesses to pursue and hide.
Calls to create a database within the SBC of pastors who were credibly accused of sexual abuse so that churches could avoid hiring them, thus allowing them to go from church to church abusing people (usually children), were rebuffed and denied by EC leadership. It wasn’t possible to create such a thing because those kinds of numbers were not tracked regularly. Churches were autonomous and so couldn’t be made to do something they didn’t want to do. Such a list could be used to blacklist certain individuals who didn’t deserve it. Yet the report found that just such a list had indeed been created and kept a secret from everyone including most of the Executive Committee members themselves.
The unwritten policy of the SBC Executive Committee was that if someone came reporting abuse, they were to be placated quickly and sent away. The EC was not going to talk about it. They were not going to be given a platform to speak. They were not going to be given a hearing. They were to be dealt with. And the justification given for all of this was that giving attention to such matters would distract the Convention from giving things like evangelism the focus they deserved. We didn’t need to have our Gospel efforts sidelined by a few claims that were probably mostly just sound and fury and without much substance to them.
To put it rather mildly, this whole thing stinks. It’s like someone set off a giant stink bomb in the Southern Baptist Convention and its pungent perfume is spreading all over the place. While it has looked for years like we have been planting beautiful flowers of grace and Gospel, the very people who were tasked with tending the garden at the highest levels were taking the quickly accumulating trash of sexual abuse and burying it under the soil of the Convention’s kingdom business. But now, their efforts to hide it rather than dealing with it properly have been revealed. They spoke eloquently of advancing the Gospel into a lost world, but at the same time were denying that very Gospel to these broken individuals who so desperately needed it. They may have been planting Gospel flowers, but they were fertilizing them with this garbage and now that the blossoms have come to bloom, their fragrance is one of death and not life. This is all to our shame.
The way forward from here will not be quick and it will not be easy. Southern Baptist Churches need to join together in a spirit, a movement of repentance. It does not matter whether we have had a direct hand in the abuse or not. Neither Daniel nor Nehemiah were guilty of the sins of their nation, but as members of that nation, they both prayed long and passionate prayers of repentance on behalf of their people in hopes that God would hear their cries and respond with mercy. If they could do such a thing, we must also.
Now, in Christ, we have a guarantee of mercy they could not have even imagined, but our leaders have been revealed as being guilty of assuming on that mercy for themselves while denying it to the least of these in our midst. There are few things that made Jesus angrier than this kind of thing. His words were unequivocal: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away – it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Next month, the SBC will hold its annual meeting in Anaheim, CA. Whatever else the organizers had planned to talk about at the meeting, this report will now be the major focus of everything they do. The report made a number of recommendations for the SBC to take to address the mountain of issues that were revealed. It will be incumbent upon the Messengers to address them as thoroughly and completely as they can.
Our aroma has become off-putting and offensive, not merely to the world around us, but to our God. Moving forward will take much intentionality and humility. This is not the kind of smell God intended for us to have. We serve a God who redeems and restores even the most heinous sinners, but He calls His people to a higher standard than that of the world. We have not met that standard. Not even close. Let us hope and pray that He is not done with us. Let us hope and pray and commit ourselves to once again living lives that are fragrant with the knowledge of God and the presence of Christ. There is a world around us that needs to experience them. Let us clean our stink so we can smell like God intended once again. Nothing else will do.