Saddleback Ordination Sparks Discussion Over Women Pastors

An ordination service at Saddleback Valley Community Church has reinvigorated an ongoing discussion among Southern Baptists over the title of “pastor” and whether and how that label should be applied to a woman in a ministry context.

A post to the church’s Facebook page described the service, held May 6, as part of “a historic night for Saddleback Church in many ways,” and noted the church had “ordained [its] first three women pastors.”

The women are longtime staff members who have combined to serve more than 70 years at Saddleback. Although their titles have changed, their roles appear largely the same. According to the church’s Facebook posts, Liz Puffer is now pastor of pastoral care; Cynthia Petty, who formerly had the title of children’s minister, is NextGen ministries pastor; and Katie Edwards, who serves in junior high ministry, now has the title of student ministries pastor for the church’s Lake Forest campus.

Saddleback Church, founded in 1980 by Rick and Kay Warren, is among the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, with almost 53,000 members, weekly attendance of more than 23,000, and 19 campuses (four international). Rick Warren is arguably the most recognizable Southern Baptist pastor. The church’s elders are all male, as are all its campus pastors.

The church’s announcement kicked off the latest round of debate over the issue of women in ministry, which was a major point of contention during the Conservative Resurgence a generation ago.

As the debate played out over Mother’s Day weekend, largely on social media, SBC Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd called Southern Baptists to stand on their shared conviction, but also to conduct Christlike conversations about the issue.

“Baptists believe in the principle of the final authority of the Holy Scripture. This has not changed, and we have not moved,” Floyd said in a statement. “As a part of our confession of faith in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, we state clearly: ‘While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.’

“Circumstances like these may be complex, but we must work diligently to understand them and to achieve clarity. Ultimately, Southern Baptists will always stand upon the authority of the Scripture.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offered commentary in a May 10 blog post. He told Baptist Press: “The Baptist Faith and Message rightly states our biblical conviction that the office of pastor is limited to men as authorized by Scripture, and this means both the teaching office and the function of preaching before the congregation. Southern Baptists have been tested over this conviction before, and we will be again, but this is the clear teaching of the Bible and we cannot compromise this commitment.”

J.D. Greear, the current SBC president and pastor of Summit Church in Raleigh, N.C., wrote in a blog post that while he has “long respected Saddleback’s ministry impact and heart for getting the gospel to the nations, I disagree with their decision to take this step, and would even say I find it disappointing.” The post shared the church’s 2019 position paper on women in ministry, “in which we sought to consider how to stand firmly upon God’s Word while platforming women to exercise the multitude of gifts God has given them.”

Floyd reminded Southern Baptists to ground their comments in a civil tone while understanding other points of view.

“While Southern Baptists are, and should be, passionate about their biblical convictions,” he told Baptist Press, “we must also demonstrate a Christlike spirit with our words and conduct.”

Among the many social media posts from Southern Baptist leaders was a tweet from former SBC President James D. Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga., who wrote: “I affirm both that God calls all men and women to vital ministry in the life of the local church as well as God’s clear word on a man only being a pastor, elder, overseer which is grounded in creation. These truths are not contradictory. They are indeed complementary.”