RELIGION: SBC] — The long-serving general counsel of the Southern Baptist Convention has decided not to continue ties with the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
The decision was made after members of the SBC’s Nashville-based Executive Committee decided not to invoke attorney-client privilege in a sexual-abuse investigation. This means that all conversations regarding legal matters between Executive Committee members and staff will no longer be confidential.
This decision rendered it impossible for the denomination to continue its legal counsel role, wrote James Guenther of Guenther, Jordan & Price.
” We simply don’t know how to advise clients and represent them with the quality that they deserve. In keeping with our standard of practice, Guenther and Jordan wrote a letter to Ronnie Floyd.
News of the break between the firm and the Executive Committee was first reported by the Baptist and Reflector, a Tennessee Baptist state newspaper.
Guenther, 87, has been general counsel for the SBC since 1966. He spent 10 years working for the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources), before that.
Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., on Feb. 18, 2019. RNS photo by Bob Smietana
Guenther told the Baptist and Reflector that his firm has represented the SBC in about 50 cases where the denomination was being sued over the actions of a local congregation.
“Because Southern Baptists do not have hierarchical structures and the convention doesn’t control churches, Guenther has never lost an ascending responsibility,” the newspaper reported.
The attorney advised Southern Baptists that they must adhere to their theology to be legally protected.
” We have to be vigilant that we practice the things we preach and conventions must respect the Baptist Faith and Message about the autonomy of local churches,” he said to the Baptist and Reflector.
The issue of confidentiality was hotly debated by Southern Baptist leaders in recent weeks. So was the question of attorney client privilege and local church control over national SBC entities like the Executive Committee.
The debate revolved around a decision by the denomination’s annual gathering to investigate how the Executive Committee responded to sexual abuse allegations and how Executive Committee staff and members treated survivors.
The Executive Committee originally ordered an investigation on its own. However, local church delegates took over that investigation. These delegates were known as messengers and directed the committee not to waive privilege when the outside firm conducting the investigation asked.
The Rev. Rolland Slade, top left, prays with attendees before a virtual special meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, Oct. 5, 2021. Video screen grab
During meetings this autumn, committee members suggested that waiving privilege could expose the SBC to lawsuits and bankrupt it. They also claimed that waiving privilege was against Guenther’s advice and the opinions of other lawyers who were brought in to discuss the matter.
Other members of the committee, including Rolland Slade, claimed they were bound to follow instructions from local church messengers.
After weeks of deadlock, the committee voted on Oct. 10 to waive privilege. At least 10 committee members, most who opposed the waiver, have resigned. Guenther, Jordan and Floyd also addressed questions regarding the waiver of privilege.
” Some have referred to the attorney-client privilege as an evil device that allows misconduct to be hidden so wrongdoers escape justice and defeat legal rights of others,” they wrote. This is a farce
Floyd thanked Guenther’s company for their long-standing service to the SBC.
” “With deep regrets we accept their decision, and fully understand their motive behind it and their need for withdrawal,” he said to Baptist Press. “We are extremely grateful for their 56 years of superior service to the Southern Baptist Convention and the Executive Committee.”
After the breaking of Guenther with the SBC, Morris Chapman, ex-president of Executive Committee, posted a comment on social media that seemed to be a reply.
“Southern Baptists will always have faithful representation before the throne of God,” he wrote.