This summer, messengers from the SBC will gather in Indianapolis to vote on an amendment to the Convention’s constitution which aims to more closely define the role of pastor within cooperating churches, commonly known as the Law Amendment.
The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 states that the role of pastor/elder/overseer is reserved for men, but until fairly recently, many churches in the SBC had operated under the assumption that women could hold church staff positions with the word “pastor” or “minister” in the title, or fulfill ministerial functions in the church provided they were not serving as an elder, or what many churches refer to as “Senior Pastor” or “Lead Pastor.” This assumption stems in large part from statements to that effect made by the committee itself in 2000 when the revised confession was proposed and adopted.
The Law Amendment seeks to clarify the extent of complementarian commitments within the SBC, answering this question: can a church remain in good standing with the Southern Baptist Convention if they have women staff members holding the title of pastor?
If the question stopped there, the conversation around the Law Amendment would be quite different. However, proponents of the Law Amendment have repeatedly claimed this also includes fulfilling ministerial functions of a pastor (with special emphasis given to women preaching to a mixed congregation), and is also extended to other titles they affiliate with “pastor,” such as ministers or directors.
This vote is important to me and my church for a simple reason: we have several females on our church staff who carry out ministerial functions. Up until recently, however, we have believed ourselves to be in good standing with the Southern Baptist Convention because we only have men serving as elders, and the only people on our staff with the word “pastor” in their job titles are those who also serve as elders. To use somewhat outdated and tired language, we have assumed that we are in friendly cooperation because the women on our staff are not pastors but are operating under the direction and authority of our pastors/elders.
It seems as though some of the amendment’s supporters are arguing that such women are pushing beyond the acceptable bounds of the BFM and, by extension, undercutting the Scriptures due to the function of their position, regardless of their title. They detail this on their website, sbcamendment.org (http://sbcamendment.org/). In the FAQ section, they explain their opinions in great detail, and they argue for a much more restrictive position than many churches in the SBC currently hold. For example:
- In Question 9 of the FAQ, they argue that the BFM conversation surrounding female pastors is about any woman serving in any pastoral role, not simply Senior or Lead Pastor.
- In Question 15 of the FAQ, they argue that women are clearly forbidden from teaching men based on 1 Timothy 2:12.
- In Question 22 of the FAQ, they argue that women are forbidden to preach to men, even if done in a context with all-male elders.
- In Question 23 of the FAQ, they come just short of saying that women cannot serve on staff with the title of “minister” if their job functions include any of those which they might deem pastoral.
- In Question 27 of the FAQ, they state that a woman serving as a Women’s Pastor or Children’s Pastor is “to subvert the clear teaching of Scripture and to disregard the plain teaching of the Baptist Faith and Message”.
In the 48 years I’ve been part of SBC churches, the vast majority were in churches that have allowed women to serve in a ministerial capacity. Each of them still have women serving on their staff. These churches don’t believe themselves to be out of step with the BFM or the Bible. I know we certainly don’t in my church.
To the contrary, we have thought in great detail about this topic, and we have reached vastly different conclusions from those who drafted the FAQ on the SBC Amendment website. We have male elders and pastors, but women as ministers. We believe women can teach men, but women do not serve as elders. This is precisely what the Baptist Faith & Message states on its face: it speaks to title and office, and it is silent on function.
My point is a simple one: we have a reasoned position, and we believe that position is grounded in the Scriptures and is in line with the BFM, as we only have male pastors/elders.
As a lifelong Southern Baptist, I have long believed that we cooperate with churches who may have small differences of Scriptural interpretation in order to serve the larger goal of sharing the gospel of Jesus together (hence the name of the Cooperative Program). We cooperate across our differences to do something together that we could not accomplish alone.
While I personally disagree with the interpretation of those offering the Law Amendment, I am willing to cooperate with pastors and churches who hold to such an interpretation because I believe the mission to be of ultimate importance. In short, although I am willing to cooperate with them, it appears that supporters of the Law Amendment are not willing to cooperate with me, or by extension, any individual or church with similar convictions.
If the Law Amendment passes and if it is applied in the way that its supporters desire, then the convention will reach a moment of decision: how will it handle churches like mine? How will it handle other churches who have, for example, a female Women’s Pastor or Children’s Pastor?
This is why it is not only the passage of the Law Amendment that matters, but its application, as well. Some might argue that as long as women do not have the word “pastor” in their job title that they will be allowed to continue in good standing with the SBC. But I wonder if this is true. Women in our congregation regularly teach men the Bible to great effectiveness in various contexts. Our Family Minister leads many male volunteers, meaning she has “authority” over them. Will those who seek to codify the Law Amendment seek to push us out? Whose job will it be to decide if this ‘authority’ is the unbiblical authority, or if it’s acceptable as long as her title isn’t pastor?
To be clear: our church is not looking to cause division within the SBC. We have been cooperating for some time, and hope to do so long into the future. I do think, however, that we need to be clear regarding what, precisely, we are asking the messengers to approve. Is this simply an amendment about job titles? Or is this something far larger, seeking to create a universal approach to women in churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention? Will churches who do not view the office of elder the same as a Children’s Pastor now be out of friendly cooperation?
Baptists don’t usually take kindly to hair-splitting bureaucratic directives, and if that is the way the amendment will be interpreted and enforced, I imagine many churches will cease cooperation with the SBC.
I recently asked a friend who is in leadership of a Baptist organization why it is that supporters of the Law Amendment want to push out churches with differing views on this topic. His answer surprised me: “They believe you might vote to change the Baptist Faith and Message to allow women pastors.” I suppose I am naive, because I had never considered such an outcome. I simply believed that my particular interpretive stance was in the minority. I never perceived myself to be a threat. But if other churches are seen as threats, then I imagine the Law Amendment will pass, and it will be applied in the strictest of ways.
I don’t see such an approach helping the SBC in the long run. Instead, I think such an approach will lead to continuing decline and eventual theological cannibalization.
Perhaps it is not too late. I, for one, hope we will choose once again to cooperate instead of cannibalize.