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Chapel service addresses sexual assault charge

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP) -- A chapel service for the seminary community and a meeting for campus residents have followed the arrest of a Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary student on sexual assault charges on Saturday, March 17.

The SEBTS student, William Watson Birch, 43, was compliant with police and confessed to the crime against a 25-year-old male student at the Wake Forest, N.C., campus. Birch has been removed from student housing and expelled from the seminary.

In a special chapel on Tuesday (March 20), Daniel Akin, Southeastern's president, opened with a reading from Isaiah 53 and then clarified misconceptions and misinterpretations stemming from media reports about the weekend's circumstances.

"It has been alleged by some media sources," Akin said, "that Southeastern acted irresponsibly in notifying our student body. Honestly, we moved very quickly and the sexual perpetrator was quarantined and no one was in further danger after his apprehension. Since then, our primary concern has been to protect the victim and the seminary family. Also, I pledge to you, the Southeastern family, that I never, nor will I ever cover up any facts that concern our institution and family at Southeastern."

Akin met in his office on Monday with Birch after he (Birch) posted a $50,000 bail. Akin spoke of Birch's shame and repentance over what had happened. Akin said Birch asked for forgiveness and that he (Akin) confirmed his forgiveness.


"Not only did I forgive him for what he had done," Akin said, "but I want to let you know that Birch's victim has already forgiven him as well."

Akin then spoke from a pastoral perspective to Southeastern students, faculty and staff. "This awful incident reminds us of the depravity of humanity, and that we too are sinners," Akin said. "We need to 'take heed less we also fall' because of our own sinful proclivities. Let us be reminded of the Gospel that tells us of the God who is abundant in grace and mercy on our behalf."

Sam Williams, SEBTS professor of counseling, also spoke to the chapel audience.

He began, "Sexual assault. Isn't this an oxymoron? These words should never go together."

Williams continued, "Sexual things are to be sweet, sensitive and consensual between a husband and his wife as beautiful acts of affection. Sex is very good and it is also very powerful, but sex is good only when properly subordinated under the lordship of God."

Sexual assault, Williams said, is "any type of activity toward you that you do not agree with and consent to. It can be physical or verbal. We will not minimize any form of sexual assault, or any form of sin, but most emphatically, we will not minimize the power of the Gospel. Though your sin is great, God's grace is greater."


The next speaker, Mark Liederbach, dean of students and associate professor of ethics, reminded the students that Southeastern's student life department and all of the seminary's counseling professors are available for any concerns and/or problems that students may be struggling with. "I have discovered that grief takes a lot from a human being," Liederbach said, "so we want to be here to help you in any way we can."

Liederbach continued, "Here are a few takeaways from this regrettable event: The Gospel message is that God's kindness has drawn us to repentance. Also, shame should always follow sin, but the Gospel should always dominate shame. Lastly, when our loves get disordered, we call that sin, and when this happens to an entire race of people, we call this the Fall. Lust is the disordering of our loves from the things of God, and the restoration through the Gospel is the proper reordering of our loves and affections to God."

Akin concluded the chapel by reminding the students to always be proactive in any similar circumstances. He said the incident can be best processed in the reading of 1 John 1:5-7. While reading John's letter, Akin emphasized to the chapel audience the cleansing of Christ's blood over those who have fellowship with Him.


On Monday afternoon (March 19), Liederbach addressed student housing residents to provide accurate information concerning the assault, a prayer time for both the victim and offender and an open question-and-answer time.

"Paul tells us 1 Timothy 1:14-15 that 'Christ came to save sinners, of whom I, Paul, am the foremost of all,'" Liederbach said during the session with students in on-campus housing. "First, keep in mind that we are saved by God's grace, and not because we are good or worthy of salvation. Also, we as a body are to work hard to pursue holiness. We are to walk together humbly before the Lord."

Reported by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary's communications staff.

Copyright (c) 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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