A Missouri church is facing criticism from within its own ranks over a pastor accused of child sex crimes who refuses to step down.
Pastor Travis Smith has been exonerated of two child sex crimes cases, and now charged in two more.
Baptist leaders are concerned, while his congregation is steadfast in their support.
In several small mid-Missouri towns surrounding the county seat of California, MO, Smith's name can invoke the response, "Say no more."
Before being pastor at the First Baptist Church in Stover, Smith was youth pastor at Pilot Grove Baptist Church.
"The whole thing just made me sick. The whole thing was sickening," said a woman who didn't want to reveal her identity.
She said she left Pilot Grove when Smith took the position, partly because of word-of-mouth involving the 16-year-old at the center of one of the recently charged cases and partly because of sexually explicit remarks she said Smith made to her behind closed doors and the attitude she encountered when she tried to establish boundaries.
"That he could get away with it and that, you know, women were just objects for his pleasure," she said of the sorts of things Smith said to her.
Charges filed this fall suggest that the mindset included teens, two girls who were 16 to be exact.
The first set of allegations involves dates in the late 1990s, when Smith lived in Latham, MO. The accuser, now 30, said Smith "held her down" in his home and told her to "shut up and be still." On another occasion, on a rural road, she said Smith had sex with her in his truck with a buddy present to watch.
At that time, he was just a member at Pilot Grove.
But the second case involves a teen who knew Smith because he was youth minister. She told police he'd had sex with her several times at a cemetery in 2005, when she was 16. Her father told police he'd found the two there late at night on two occasions and told Smith to stop seeing his daughter because he was concerned about the nature of their friendship.
Those allegations arose this year after a previous set of child sex charges, involving two other teens, yielded no convictions.
The Morgan County Press covered the 2010 charges, one of which was dropped and the other resulting in acquittal. The 14-year-old's allegation of fondling during a fishing trip that year, her mother said, amounted to the girl's word against his because there were no witnesses and no physical evidence.
But the charges created a history that had more people talking this time around about whether Smith should remain pastor of the church in Stover.
"I live here in Stover and am proud to call Travis Smith my pastor," Ray Layne said.
Layne said Smith is the best pastor he's ever had.
"He's real. He is just a Christian in a sinful world, struggling just like everybody else, just like every other pastor, if they will be honest," Layne said. "That's inspirational to me."
But the Missouri Baptist Convention is worried he could be a little too real.
The organization's spokesman referred to the Bible in his written statement on the matter, from Titus 1 and 1 Timothy. He said the "biblical qualifications" indicate "a pastor must be above reproach - and even above suspicion."
"God is gracious to forgive all sins," spokesman Rob Phillips wrote in a statement. "At the same time, we should understand the Lord holds leaders in the church to a higher standard."
One of the key doctrines of Southern Baptists is autonomy of the local church. The local Baptist Association can recommend Smith step down. The state Baptist Convention can pray that parishioners will change their minds about Smith's fitness for his job. But there is no hierarchy to force any change.
That leaves a small section of mid-Missouri countryside divided on what's the Christian thing to do.
"I just don't want to see him hurt anybody else," the woman said.
"There is no question in my mind that the children are safe - none," Layne said.
Smith's attorney said he had no comment on the matter. Moniteau County Court has Smith's next court hearing, for case review, scheduled on Dec. 4.
A spokesman for the Missouri Baptist Convention issued the following written statement:
Two biblical doctrines that Southern Baptists hold dear are the priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local church. Each of the 1,900 Southern Baptist churches in Missouri is autonomous, or independent. Each church hires its own staff, manages its own finances, and owns or rents its own facilities. There is no hierarchy in Southern Baptist life. No church or organization wields authority over another church. But each Missouri Baptist Church is engaged with all of the others through a voluntary missions effort called the Cooperative Program (CP). Missouri Baptist churches contribute a portion of their budgets to CP, which then supports children's homes, disaster relief efforts, church training events and much more. Most CP funds contributed by Missourians stay in the state, but a portion supports 10,500 Southern Baptist missionaries around the world and other global evangelical causes. (Learn more about the Cooperative Program here.)
How does all of this effect the situation in Stover? We're aware of the situation at First Baptist Church, Stover, and are in contact with the association's director of missions, who is working closely with the pastor and the church. While we respect the independence of the local church and have no direct authority over it, we are deeply grieved by the allegations. We pray that the courts will administer justice fairly and swiftly, and that there will be healing among the wounded church members. We also pray that the church members will have the wisdom, grace and courage to act biblically in their dealings with their pastor. The biblical qualifications for pastor as spelled out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are clear that a pastor must be above reproach — and even above suspicion. God is gracious to forgive all sins — even grievous sins — and we should be forgiving as well if and when our leaders suffer moral failures. At the same time, we should understand the Lord holds leaders in the church to a higher standard that, when violated, disqualifies them from continuing in their leadership role.
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