Southern Baptists are overwhelmingly a complementarian convention of churches. This means we are committed to biblical teachings about distinct-yet-complementary gender roles for men and women, as well as the principle of male leadership in the family and the church. As the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 says concerning the latter, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Southern Baptists also affirm the principle of cooperative autonomy. While every church is autonomous, and thus free from external denominational control, those same autonomous churches choose to cooperate with each other for the sake of kingdom advance. According to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000:
“Christ’s people should, as occasion requires, organize such associations and conventions as may best secure cooperation for the great objects of the Kingdom of God. Such organizations have no authority over one another or over the churches. They are voluntary and advisory bodies designed to elicit, combine, and direct the energies of our people in the most effective manner.”
Southern Baptists are also increasingly committed to defining the parameters of cooperation according to our confession of faith. When the SBC was founded in 1845, we had no denominational confession of faith. While that changed with the Baptist Faith and Message 1925, the confession was not used consistently as a means of doctrinal accountability until after the adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Even then, the SBC was only “semi-confessional,” using the confession to safeguard sound doctrine at our agencies and boards and to vet those who served in elected and appointed leadership roles. The confession did not play a factor in local churches cooperating with the convention.
The latter began to change in 2015. Article III of the SBC Constitution was amended to read that a cooperating church “has a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.” While it remains unclear what it means for a church’s faith and practice to be closely identified with the confession, what is clear is that the convention desired for churches to at least evidence considerable sympathy with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 in order to be considered a cooperating church.
This brings me to the question at hand. Southern Baptists are in the middle of a “family conversation” about how best to reconcile our complementarian convictions, increased confessionalism, and commitment to cooperative autonomy. A number of Southern Baptist churches have female staff members who have the title of pastor. In a very small number of cases, those women are solo, senior or co-pastors of their local churches. In a much larger number of cases, those women serve in other staff positions such as leading women’s ministries, student ministries, children’s ministries or counseling ministries, yet carry the title of pastor. In a convention of autonomous churches, it should come as no surprise that practices vary widely.
Recently, the Southern Baptist Executive Committee voted to accept the recommendation of the Credentials Committee that four churches be disfellowshipped for having women serving in pastoral roles, most notably Saddleback Church. (Full disclosure: as the Recording Secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention, I serve as an ex officio member of the Executive Committee.) The Executive Committee also continues to consider a constitutional amendment, advanced by Virginia pastor Mike Law, that a cooperative church “does not affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”
My purpose in this article is not to settle the debate. The Southern Baptist Convention will do that, with open Scriptures, calloused knees and the assistance of the Holy Spirit. But I do want to help Southern Baptists understand that this issue is more complicated than it might seem at first glance — even for a convention where nearly all of our churches are complementarian.
The first complication, noted above, is that we are not all agreed on what is intended by the phrase “closely identifies” in Article III. It is not a statement of strict subscription, so presumably one does not have to fully agree with every point of the confession. But neither is it a statement of general affirmation, which opens the door to numerous caveats. It appears to be something in between. So, one question to be resolved is whether or not a church having one or more female pastors differs enough from the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 that the church no longer “closely identifies” with the confession.
A second complication is that we are not all agreed on what is meant by the title of pastor. Historically, most Baptists have believed that the biblical titles of elder, overseer and pastor refer to the same office. While all of our churches are agreed that a senior or solo pastor is an elder/overseer/pastor, many of our churches do not consider other staff (or even lay) pastors to hold that biblical office. Note that I’m not speaking to what ought to be the case. Personally, I’m persuaded from Scripture that the title and office should be closely connected and that all elders/overseers/pastors should meet the same biblical qualifications. Whether a church has one pastor or many is a contextual matter that falls under the principle of local church autonomy. Rather, I’m speaking to what is the case. We are not unified on this crucial point.
A final, related complication is that not every church that assigns pastoral titles to women has abandoned complementarianism. A few churches have clearly done so, as evidenced by women serving as senior or solo or co-pastors and/or by openly rejecting complementarian views. However, many other churches appear to be simply sloppy in at least their language — and perhaps their ecclesiology — by applying pastoral titles to women (and perhaps men) who do not actually hold pastoral offices in the church. The former group of churches are clearly drifting doctrinally. The latter may simply be unaware, overly pragmatic, or making decisions based upon some tradition rather than biblical teaching.
As Southern Baptists continue to navigate this issue, I want to urge us to be careful, even as we strive to clarify what we believe about women pastors and what it means to be a cooperating church. It is one thing to disfellowship churches that have abandoned sound doctrine or ethics. It is quite another matter to disfellowship churches that are with us doctrinally, but who use different language — perhaps even confusing and unhelpful language — to communicate their faith and practice. We must make sure that we distinguish between churches that are incorrigibly committed to doctrinal error, including egalitarianism, and churches that can be gently persuaded to clarify their complementarian beliefs.
I am hopeful that Southern Baptists will figure out how to thread this needle in a way that is faithful to Scripture and consistent with our Baptist distinctives — the latter of which are informed by Scripture. Join me in praying we do so for the glory of God, the health of our churches, and the future of our cooperative mission as Southern Baptists.
— Nathan Finn serves as provost and dean of the faculty at North Greenville University in Tigerville.