The Law Amendment: An Unnecessary Necessary Revision

Since 2022, and especially after the 2023 first vote to approve the so-called “Law amendment,” multiple authors and speakers have sought to sway messengers to vote in favor of or against changing the SBC Constitution. Ordinary church members, pastors, local association leaders, state convention directors, and national SBC entity leaders have weighed in to express their thoughts.

Our article seeks to add additional voices in favor of the amendment and to discuss our reasoning.

Not Necessary

At the outset, we must state unequivocally: we believe the Law Amendment to be unnecessary. We believe Scripture is already clear on the issue of the pastoral office, title, and function. First Timothy 2:9-14, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and Titus 1:5-9 are plain: only biblically qualified men may hold the office, title, and/or function of pastor in the local church. As Paul wrote these texts, he had one office in mind: that of pastor/elder/overseer. He did not have secular, western corporate culture in mind in which there is a pyramid structure of leadership with a CEO at the top followed by vice presidents and middle managers. Paul did not have adjectives modifying pastor/elder/overseer in mind as he wrote.

To use contemporary church titles, Paul was not thinking of the “senior pastor” alone and excluding the “children’s pastor” or “music pastor” from the qualifications. Further, nowhere in Scripture do we see prescription or description of females holding the pastoral office, title, or function in the context of a local church. Paul’s intention was and is that any person holding the office, title, and function of “pastor” in a local church must meet all biblical qualifications.

We also believe The Baptist Faith & Message, 2000 is also perfectly clear on the issue. Throughout Baptist history, the office of pastor has been understood to be limited to biblically qualified men. Standing in a long line of historic Baptist confessions, the currently adopted statement of faith of the SBC reads, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” This is unambiguous. From a scriptural and confessional perspective, we believe the proposed amendment to be unnecessary.

But It’s Necessary

We do, however, believe the Law Amendment to be necessary. Though Scripture and our confession are clear, the current use of the term “pastor” beyond the normative biblical use gives evidence for the need to clarify the stance of the SBC on the role and function of pastor.

Though The Baptist Faith & Message, 2000 is equally clear on the pastoral office, interpretation of the confessional statement has undergone a sort of metamorphosis. A tiered system of reading the statement of faith, with some sections being less important for cooperation than others seems to be growing in popularity. Admittedly, Article XVI on Peace and War is not necessary belief for being considered a Christian like Article II on God. However, if the Convention found itself at a point of decision in the seating of messengers from a church which denied Article II, the vote would be overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, against seating those messengers.

Likewise, if a point of decision came in the seating of messengers from a church that openly advocated the destruction of every nation on Earth outside the United States, the vote would like be unanimously against seating those messengers. Our statement of faith carries both Christian orthodoxy and Baptist conviction. The SBC has chosen to set its theological anchor around this confession.

Unity around Theology

While we need both theological and cooperative unity, our unity in missions and education must be centered around our theology. That theological unity is found in Scripture, which is established in the BF&M 2000. So, our cooperative efforts must be rooted in our adopted statement of faith.

Scripture and our statement of faith are clear, but cooperative pragmatism seems to have taken precedence over theological confessionalism, thus theological clarity is required at such a time as this. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Southern Baptist Convention fought the battle for the Bible. Now we are fighting the battle yet again, but this time is different. The former battle was over inerrancy and infallibility. The current battle is over authority and clarity. Either 1 Timothy 2, 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1 are just as authoritative as every other chapter or they are not.

The Law Amendment seeks biblical fidelity and confessional clarity. We believe every Southern Baptist wants biblical fidelity. The amendment does nothing more than restate what 1 Timothy 2, 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1 already state: only biblically qualified men may serve in the office, hold the title, or perform the function of pastor.

We also believe every Southern Baptist wants clarity. Indeed, the preamble to The Baptist Faith & Message, 1963 states there are “certain definite doctrines that Baptists believe, cherish, and with which they have been and are now closely identified. It is the purpose of this statement of faith and message to set forth certain teachings which we believe.” Beliefs which are decidedly Baptists are those, according to the 1963 committee, with which Baptists are “closely identified.” The 1963 committee then proceeded to state those beliefs which are undeniably Baptist, specifically, Southern Baptist. Confessions have always sought clarity and we should follow that heritage.

Nothing New

The Law Amendment is not, philosophically or methodologically, a new thing. The SBC already has boundaries for cooperation, and they are set forth in Article III of the SBC Constitution. As the Constitution stands, Article III, Section 1 delineates five qualifications a church must meet to be deemed in friendly cooperation with the Convention. A church must:

1. Have “a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.”

2. Have “formally approved its intention to cooperate with the SBC.”

3. Have “made undesignated, financial contribution(s) through the Cooperative Program, and/or through the Convention’s Executive Committee for Convention causes, and/or to any Convention entity during the fiscal year preceding.”

4. Must “not act in a manner inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse.”

5. Must “not act to affirm, approve, or endorse discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity.”

The Law Amendment seeks to add a sixth qualification: a church in friendly cooperation must “affirm, appoint, or employ only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.”

The additional qualifications dealing with abuse and ethnic discrimination are clearly covered in Scripture and Article XV of The Baptist Faith & Message, 2000, yet those qualifications are also delineated in our governing documents because Southern Baptists saw fit to restate, a third time (Scripture, statement of faith, governing documents) what they believed. The Law Amendment is a simple restating of what we’ve already declared to be our belief. It does not go beyond Scripture or our adopted statement of faith.

Travis S. Kerns (Ph.D., Southern Seminary) is the associational mission strategist for Three Rivers Baptist Association in Taylors, S.C. Andrew T. Walker (Ph.D., Southern Seminary) is associate professor of Christian ethics and public theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.