By Thomas E. Rush
I have long realized that an organization the size of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) could certainly experience some degree of downgrade in its theological commitments. There are differences of opinion on certain theological matters that can be expected, and which are not of a nature to render the difference a cause for breaking fellowship.
On the other hand, there are some sacrosanct things that do rise to the level of the breaking of fellowship. While there is some latitude for differences there are some bedrock, fundamental, foundational issues that have not only sustained our convention of churches but have saved us from the ash heap of churches no longer in friendly association with true Christianity.
Sometimes these things are referred to as first, second or third order issues. First order issues have to do with the foundational biblical beliefs we cherish. They cannot and should not be compromised. Second order issues are also important. They would include things that have clear biblical warrant. Whether a woman can be a pastor or not is a second order issue. But it is worth dividing over because the Bible is clear on the subject. We cannot abandon the clear definition of what a pastor is without doing irreparable harm to our convention of churches.
Just to be clear, I’m a Baptist from my head lights to my tail pipe. I was born Baptist, bred Baptist, baptized Baptist and will die Baptist. Someone asked me one time what I would be if I were not a Baptist. I replied, “I’d be ashamed.” But, to further clarify, I’m an old fashioned Baptist. I still believe in the Bible, the Blood, and the Blessed Hope (Titus 2:11-15).
That said, and having been fully immersed in the first conservative resurgence that rescued our beloved SBC from the confusion of neo-orthodox liberalism, I never expected that the next fight would be so soon nor so insidious. Our current dilemma is worse than the former. It’s more entrenched, more subtle, more demonic. For the most part the neo-orthodox professors in the seminaries back in the day admitted their position.
For example, the president and faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the 80’s were in favor of the ordination of women to the office of pastor. This in spite of a statement of faith and a history of orthopraxy that rejected female leadership in the office of pastor. The practice was based on the orthodox belief that the Bible was clear in its standards for the qualifying of pastors (1 Tim. 2:11 – 3:13). The seminary rejected the standard but made no attempt to hide its position.
Today, for example, the North America Mission Board (NAMB) has a statement that they do not plant nor endorse churches that have female pastors. You can review their statement here. But don’t be fooled, they say one thing and do another. You can see the evidence of their egalitarian position in this article from Servants and Heralds.
Further evidence, at least for me personally, came when I was recently invited to a church planting meeting in the Atlanta metro area. I sent an email to NAMB stating that I did not wish to partner with a church planting network that endorsed female pastors. Their response included this statement: “NAMB has always and will always only endorse Biblically qualified men as pastors. NAMB is committed to the Baptist Faith & Message, is complementarian by conviction and does not endorse women as pastors.” I responded with clear proof of their support of churches with female pastors, asking for correction if my information was wrong. Their response to that was essentially, “Have a nice day.”
Since NAMB could not refute the facts presented I am firm in my belief that they do what is convenient for them without regard to the denomination’s beliefs and practices. I no longer financially support NAMB, and I would argue that every SBC church should pull funding from NAMB until such time as the leadership of the organization brings it into line with SBC orthopraxy and orthodoxy.
Is the SBC complicit with an egalitarian position? We hardly need to take the time to list the numerous “preacherettes” that LifeWay Christian Resources has platformed. Chief among them would be Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, and Jen Wilkin. Some of these teachers’ falsehoods are exposed by women’s Bible teacher, Michelle Lesley here.
At the denomination’s convention in Anaheim, California, in 2022, a lengthy discussion erupted over whether churches with female pastors should be considered, “not in friendly cooperation.” If they were deemed not to be they would be denied messengers at the annual meeting. Unfortunately, it seems we have lost the proper definition of the word “pastor.” It was apparent that many in attendance at the convention did not understand the historical nor biblical meaning of the word.
The Credentials Committee refused to act on a motion to remove Saddleback Church (which had openly ordained three female pastors). Instead, they chose to put forth an inane response to a motion to remove the church for ordaining three females as pastors in their church. Their response, report and recommendation was as follows:
“Response: It is the unanimous opinion of the Credentials Committee that the majority of Southern Baptists hold to the belief that the function of lead pastor, elder, bishop, or overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture and that this was the intended definition of “office of pastor” as stated in Article VI of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. The Credentials Committee has found little information evidencing the Convention’s beliefs regarding the use of the “title of pastor” for staff positions with different responsibility and authority than that of the lead pastor. For this reason, the Credentials Committee makes the following report and recommendation:
“Report: The Credentials Committee reports to the Southern Baptist Convention during its June 14-15, 2022, annual meeting, that pursuant to SBC Bylaw 8 and SBC Constitution Article III, that it is unable to form an opinion regarding the relationship of Saddleback Church to the Southern Baptist Convention, until clarity is provided regarding the use of the title “pastor” for staff positions with different responsibility and authority than that of the lead pastor. Therefore, the Credentials Committee makes the following recommendation:
“Recommendation: The Credentials Committee recommends that the Southern Baptist Convention during its June 14-15, 2022, annual meeting in Anaheim, California, form a study committee, the members of which shall be appointed by the President, to report to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, June 13-14, 2023, in New Orleans, Louisiana, a recommendation providing clarity regarding the “office of pastor” as stated in the Baptist Faith & Message Article VI, The Church, given the many different offices within Baptist churches which include “pastor” in the title, though often with very different responsibilities and authority.”
The recommendation was not passed but neither was Saddleback removed. Earlier this year the Executive Committee of the SBC took action to remove Saddleback and several other churches from “friendly cooperation” with the convention for having female pastors. We can expect that decision to be challenged on the floor of the convention in New Orleans in June. There is also a motion coming to change the bylaws to clarify the meaning of the word pastor and how it relates to SBC churches in terms of female pastors. The letter requesting the motion be brought to the floor for consideration can be seen here. It contains the signatures of hundreds of SBC pastors and mine is included. I am hopeful that the bylaw change will pass and that we can settle this issue.
How Did We Get Here?
The SBC has long held that the office and function of a pastor is reserved for men (2 Tim. 2:11-12; 3:1-13). The office and function of a pastor cannot be separated as though there was a difference in functioning as a pastor but not actually holding the office. In an effort to open doors of ordination and pastoral leadership to women some have tried to draw a difference between a “lead” or “senior” pastor as opposed to someone in lesser role yet maintaining the title of “pastor.” The Scriptures hold no such distinction. As pastor is a pastor, period.
In studying the scriptural qualifications of pastors and comparing them with three titles for the office there is a clear correlation. There are three primary words that the New Testament uses to describe and define pastors, all referring to one office. These three words indicate that pastors have spiritual authority (as overseers), they are to be spiritually mature (as elders), and they are responsible for the spiritual care (as pastors) of the flock (Cf. Acts 20:17-32; I Pet. 5:1-5). Thus, the qualifications for such men clearly divide into categories which support these three concepts of leadership.
So how did we become so confused about the meaning of the word pastor? I think the downgrade began many years ago. I would go back at least to the 1960’s when churches began having multiple men to serve on the staff. Most churches at that time were still single staff pastor led. But as many churches grew new staff titles were added and men were called to fill those positions; they were given titles relative to their primarily calling or function in the church. Normally they would have the title “Minister of …;” such as ministers of music, education, youth, etc.
While some of them surely had a call on their life for pastoral ministry, and the qualifications to match, many of them had neither. But, in an effort to gain a monetary tax advantage often these men were ordained and given the title pastor to be qualified for the housing allowance tax break. In addition, many churches were very lax in licensing and ordaining men to the ministry. Often, all you had to do was ask and the church would ordain you!
The consequences of such actions led to a dumbing-down of the meaning of the word pastor, and thus both the office and function of a pastor suffered harm. When we play fast and loose with definitions, particularly biblical definitions, we are headed for trouble.
Then, under the weak leadership of neo-orthodox presidents and faculty at our seminaries women began to be welcomed into tracts of study that had previously been reserved only for men. At Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) in Wake Forest, NC, a “Center for Women’s Ministry” was established. The push for ordaining women and finding them pastorates was going full speed ahead. I was well acquainted with this since I was a student there in the 80’s.
There was a problem though, the churches of the SBC were not as open to the idea as the seminaries might have wanted. There were very few pulpits open to this new group of “preacherettes.” Places of ministry needed to be found for them. Some went to the more liberal mainline denominations to find places of work. Some were hired on as staff at Baptist churches, and still others were left with no place to go.
To our great shame an open door for female pastors was found in the military chaplaincy. The Home Mission Board (HMB) realized that the SBC was an organization (through our six seminaries) that could provide qualified female chaplain candidates. The military required ordination to the ministry and a master’s level theological degree, and in the 70’s began opening the door to more women in the military, the chaplaincy included. I once heard the argument from an HMB chaplaincy representative that providing these qualified female chaplain candidates would open more opportunities for male chaplain candidates. Balderdash!
To justify their position the HMB argued that a chaplain was not really a pastor. I served 28 years in the military, 21 as a chaplain. I can assure you that a chaplain is a PASTOR! The role is clearly and uniquely pastoral. But this underhanded move required ordination. Some churches just helped out by ordaining females so they could pass muster for consideration in the military chaplaincy.
Imagine the difficulty, and disgrace, of having to answer the question from other chaplains or service members, “I thought the SBC didn’t believe in female pastors?” Almost of all the women endorsed by the HMB to the military were extremely liberal. We aren’t talking about conservative women wanting to do ministry to women in the military. For one thing, such positions don’t exist.
This practice went on for about thirty years but finally those of us who knew better prevailed on the trustees at the now North American Mission Board (NAMB) in 2004 to change the policy. Again, as a denomination we were playing fast and loose with the definition of the word pastor and the meaning of ordination. The new policy eliminated endorsing females to the military, the Veteran’s Administration and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. NAMB still endorses women as chaplains to hospitals and in the disaster relief organization (clearly, they still don’t understand the role of a chaplain).
All of these actions led to a greater openness to females serving in staff positions below the so-called “senior” pastor. Many of our SBC churches have females serving in pastoral roles whether they actually use the title of pastor or not. This is not in keeping with our statement of faith, much less with our biblical convictions.
Of note, SEBTS is back at the endorsement of females in the office and function of pastor. The current situation is more subtle and sinister in that the issue is “training” women for pastoral roles but not “recommending” them to fill those roles. Does that even make sense? President Danny Akin has led the seminary to confer pastoral ministry degrees on women. Someone might respond that Akin has been clear in his position that only men can serve as the pastor of a local church. Although Akin claims that not recommending women to fill these roles suffices as a traditional Baptist understanding of the issue, such is clearly not the case. His position is made clear through his actions. And it would certainly appear that he is definitely in favor of women in pastoral roles, otherwise there would be no need to confer said degrees on them.
A new term was adopted recently by many advocating women pastors in roles other than the “senior pastor.” The term was “soft-complementarian.” To be clear, soft-complementarian is simply a term that means egalitarian. You either understand that the Bible mandates that the role, office and function of pastor is for men, or you don’t. If you don’t, you have an egalitarian position. Churches that have or support female pastors of any kind should not be considered in friendly cooperation with the SBC.
Let’s be clear, the Bible does not allow for women to serve in roles of leadership over men in the local church. They should never be given the title of “pastor” no matter what function they may have on as a member of a church staff or as a church volunteer. This in no way discounts the many vital roles that women have in ministry in our churches. They minister to their own families as godly wives and mothers, they teach other women and children in the ministries of the local church, and they provide a valuable encouragement to the life of any local congregation by their faithfulness in sharing Christ with others (1 Tim 2; Titus 2).
Southern Baptists must reverse this unbiblical and unhealthy trend across our convention of churches. The denominations of churches that are now performing same-sex marriage ceremonies, ordaining open and practicing homosexuals to the office of pastor, all started down this spiritual downgrade with the ordaining of women to the office of pastor. Fidelity to the Scriptures is paramount if we expect to receive the blessings of God (1 Thess. 2:13).