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Georgia Alleged Shooter Was Active in a Southern Baptist Church: Three Responses to the Sins of Christians


Delaina Ashley Yaun and her husband were on a date last Tuesday and decided to get a massage. They went for the first time to Young’s Asian Massage Parlor near Woodstock, a town north of Atlanta. When a gunman attacked the parlor, Delaina and three others were murdered.

“I’m lost, I’m confused, I’m hurt. I’m numb,” her mother later told reporters.

Two other Atlanta-area massage parlors were also attacked; eight people died in all. Authorities charged Robert Aaron Long in the worst mass killing in the US in almost two years.

This story is tragic on so many levels. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent and died amid a rising tide of anti-Asian incidents across the country. The suspect told investigators that he targeted the businesses because he blamed them for “providing an outlet for his addiction to sex.”

Here’s the part of the story that I’m being asked about: according to his youth pastor, the suspect was active in a Southern Baptist congregation. Brett Cottrell, who led the youth ministry at Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia, from 2008 to 2017, told the Washington Post that Long stacked chairs and cleaned floors at the church as a teenager.

Cottrell added that Long’s father was considered an important lay leader in the church; the family attended services on Sunday mornings and evenings, as well as meetings on Wednesday nights and mission trips.

Cottrell considered Long a “typical teenager” growing up in the Atlanta suburbs. He stated that Long was part of a high school group that met for Bible study once a week before school and helped a backyard Bible club with games and songs for kids.

According to authorities, Long’s parents identified their son from surveillance images of the first shooting on Tuesday and alerted the sheriff’s office. “They’re very distraught. And they were very helpful in this apprehension,” the sheriff said. Authorities added that without their help, the carnage could have been even worse.

Man killed in church service this week

A man was shot and killed Wednesday afternoon inside Emerald City Bible Fellowship Church in Seattle while participating in a church gathering. We have become tragically accustomed to the frequency of such shootings in recent years and often ask why bad things happen to God’s people.

But when church members are the shooters rather than the victims, we are forced to face a different kind of question: What difference does Christianity make when those who claim to be Christians act in horrific ways?

Clergy abuse scandals have rocked the Catholic church for years. However, Catholics are not alone in this: according to a 2019 report, seven hundred people were sexually abused in Southern Baptist churches over twenty years. The Ravi Zacharias scandal continues to make headlines. We could list other evangelical leaders accused of sexual misconduct in recent years. 

The Bible promises: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). God’s word says of believers: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

Why, then, do Christians fail morally, sometimes in horrific ways?

Three biblical responses

It may seem that, like a medicine that promises to make us well but makes us sick, our faith does not do what it claims to do. If Christians are not more like Christ than anyone else, why follow Christ?

A biblical response is that our faith never promises that Christians will be made perfect in this life. Sanctification requires cooperation, which is why we are to “put to death what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5). Even Paul the Apostle admitted, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). Conversion starts the process of sanctification, but that process is not completed in this world (Philippians 1:6).

Others will say that people who claim to follow Jesus but sin in horrific ways are not true Christians. That may well be true for specific individuals, but the Bible teaches, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). If Jesus was tempted, we will be tempted (Hebrews 4:15). If Peter could fail, we can fail (Galatians 2:11-14).

This reality leads to a third fact: Becoming a Christian does not remove our free will. We were created to love our Lord and our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39), but love requires a choice. God therefore gives us freedom to choose and honors our freedom. (For more on divine sovereignty and human freedom, please see my website article on luck and providence.)

When Christians sin, the fault is not with Christ but with us. The Holy Spirit will give us the strength to defeat temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13), but we must seek his help daily (Ephesians 5:18).

Three practical responses

Let’s close with these practical responses to the tragedy in Georgia:

One: Pray for the families of the victims, asking God to grant them his “peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4:6-7) and to raise up Christians who will minister to them with his compassion and grace (1 Corinthians 12:27). Then volunteer to help the hurting people you meet today in the spirit of Jesus (Mark 10:45).

Two: Ask God to reveal any areas where you need to repent of sin today, remembering that “sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15). The best time to repent of sin is now.

Three: Submit your day to the Holy Spirit, asking him to manifest his “fruit” in your life (Galatians 5:22-23) and to “sanctify you completely” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Leave no area outside his control and power.

The Scottish theologian John Baillie offered a morning prayer to God that I invite you to pray with me: “By your grace, O God, I will go nowhere today where you cannot come, nor seek anyone’s presence that would rob me of yours. By your grace I will let no thought enter my heart that might hinder my closeness with you, nor let any word come from my mouth that is not meant for your ear. So shall my courage be firm and my heart be at peace.” 

Will your “courage be firm” and your “heart be at peace” today?

NOTE: I’m excited to let you know that we’ve just re-released my foundational book, Blessed: Eight Ways Christians Change Culture, with the inclusion of the new, bonus Blessed Small Group Study Guide. This resource focuses our attention on the Beatitudes, and the goal of exploring these timeless principles is simple: to align our lives with their truth so fully that they define our character—and empower our influence as culture-changing Christians. So please request the special Blessed resource when you give today. It’s my gift to thank you for your generosity to help more Christians discern the news differently.

Publication date: March 19, 2021

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Megan Varner/Stringer

Jim Denison, PhD, is a cultural theologian and the founder and CEO of Denison Ministries. Denison Ministries includes DenisonForum.org, First15.org, ChristianParenting.org, and FoundationsWithJanet.org. Jim speaks biblically into significant cultural issues at Denison Forum. He is the chief author of The Daily Article and has written more than 30 books, including The Coming Tsunamithe Biblical Insight to Tough Questions series, and The Fifth Great Awakening.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

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