By Michael McEwen
On Saturday, March 17, a current Southeastern Seminary student, William Watson Birch, was arrested for sexual assault charges against another student on the campus of Southeastern. Birch was compliant with the police and confessed to the crime. He has since been expelled from school and removed from student housing.
Monday afternoon, Mark Liederbach, Dean of Students and Associate Professor of Ethics, addressed campus residents about the unfortunate event. This mandatory meeting for residents sought to provide accurate information concerning the assault, a prayer time for both the afflicted and offender, and lastly to provide an open floor question and answer time.
Liederbach said, “Paul tells us 1 Timothy 1:14-15 that ‘Christ came to save sinners, of whom I, Paul, am the foremost of all.’ There are a few things I need to address: 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.”
On Tuesday, a special chapel was held that addressed the circumstances over the weekend. Daniel Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, opened with a reading from Isaiah 53 and then clarified some misconceptions and misinterpretations produced by the media.
“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 with Birch Monday in his office after Birch posted a $50,000 bail. He spoke of Birch’s shame and repentance over what had happened. Birch, said Akin, asked for forgiveness and was confirmed of his forgiveness by Akin himself. “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 concluded his part of the chapel address by providing pastoral notes to the Southeastern students, faculty, and staff. He said, “This awful incident reminds us of the depravity of humanity, and that we too are sinners. 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, Professor of Counseling, also spoke to the chapel addressing the issues with counseling wisdom.
He began, “Sexual assault. Isn’t this an oxymoron? These words should never go together,” he expressed in a serious tone. “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.”
Further defining sexual assault, Williams added, “It 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.”
As the last main speaker, Mark Liederbach reminded the students that the Student Life department and all of Southeastern’s counseling professors are there for any concerns and/or problems the students may be struggling with. Liederbach said, “I have discovered that grief takes a lot from a human being, 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.”
After Liederbach’s emphasized points, Akin reminded the students to always be proactive in similar occurrences as recently experienced at Southeastern. In closing, Akin noted that this incident can be best processed in the reading of 1 John 1:5-7. While reading John’s letter, Akin emphasized to the chapel of the cleansing of Christ’s blood over those who have fellowship with him.
The mission of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Southeastern is an institution of higher learning and a Cooperate Program ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention.