Five Reasons to Oppose the Law Amendment


This summer, messengers to the SBC annual meeting will vote on the ratification of an amendment to our constitution which would add a restriction regarding the type of church we consider to be in friendly cooperation. The proposed amendment reads: “Affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.” As one who holds firm complementarian convictions yet believes this would be an unwise course of action, allow me to make a case for voting no when this matter comes before the messengers in June.

I believe Scripture is unquestionably clear about the two offices of the church: one of service, called deacon, and one of leadership, called pastor, elder, or overseer. The latter Scripture reserves for qualified men. Although both our culture and many other faith groups would decry that stance as patriarchal or outdated, I rest my case not on my own opinions but on God’s Word.

What does this mean practically for our churches? I believe God’s church is to be congregationally governed and elder-led. My church’s practice is to install only men as both lay and staff elders. These are the men to whom, as the author of Hebrews commands, we must submit ourselves as members of a church body under authority.

Beyond that office of church-wide authority and oversight, however, women are free to have a voice and serve in any way Scripture does not specifically prohibit. For example, in my church only men preach to the gathered church, while we frequently have women lead Bible studies, teach women and children, read Scripture in worship services, and serve on staff in ministerial positions.

Despite these convictions, I oppose ratification of the Law Amendment. Let me outline five primary reasons and suggest a potential way forward.

1. It prioritizes title, but inconsistently

Words are important. Words have meaning. We should, as often as possible, strive to communicate as precisely as we can so as to avoid confusion or discord. I believe the New Testament authors meant for the Greek words from which we derive pastor, elder, and overseer to all refer to the same office. For these reasons, I would not only discourage a church from separating title and office, but I would actively encourage them to change such a practice and reserve those titles for someone who holds that office of church-wide authority and oversight.

Having said that, it would be foolish to not acknowledge our cultural and linguistic history over the last 50-100 years, a period in which thousands of churches in our convention have separated title from office by granting a much larger semantic range to the word pastor than its two counterparts. For instance, innumerable churches use the word pastor interchangeably with titles such as minister or director in reference to someone who is on staff, but not in a ruling capacity. In a church with a single-elder model and numerous staff ministers, it is not uncommon for the person who directs student ministry to be referred to as the youth or student pastor, even if they are not ordained.

In such a church, are all of the members commanded to submit to the 22-year-old youth pastor whose only responsibility is directing ministry activities for middle and high schoolers? A man who does not teach from the pulpit, who is not involved in matters of care and discipline for the whole church, who does not report directly to the congregation? Is he on equal footing with the man they refer to as “senior pastor”? Is the fact that he holds the title “pastor” rather than “minister” equivalent to placing him in the office occupied by the lone elder of that church? If you ask me, the answer is no. I disagree with a church that employs this practice, but I can cooperate with them.

The fact is, the word pastor is semantically challenged in ways elder and bishop/overseer aren’t, and not all Southern Baptists use it the same way. Al Mohler has said on more than one occasion that we all know what pastor means. With due respect to Dr. Mohler, I think if that were the case we wouldn’t be in this situation. Clearly the church using pastor as equivalent to minister or director has a different idea of what that word means than I do, or Dr. Mohler does. Some of these churches are doing it intentionally, using Ephesians 4 as a model of pairing title with gifting, while for others it’s cultural and linguistic. Some are doing it unintentionally as a result of sloppy terminology and ecclesiology. Others still reject outright what the Baptist Faith and Message says in Article VI and are truly egalitarian. And the amendment does not offer anything more in the way of definition regarding what a pastor is than we currently have in our confession.

Frankly, I find the language “any kind of pastor or elder” more confusing than clarifying. Scripture and our confession both seem to indicate that there is only one kind of pastor or elder. While our confession stops at office and does not address title or function, I would argue the only “kind” of elder is the one who occupies the office of spiritual authority and oversight over the whole congregation. Sure, some may also have responsibilities for an age-segregated ministry, or for leading worship, or for administration. But those words that we often use to delineate a “children’s pastor” vs. a “worship pastor” vs. an “executive pastor” aren’t describing different kinds of pastors; they are merely modern terms we use to specify varying responsibilities among individuals who all occupy the same office: pastor/elder/overseer.

A children’s “pastor” who has no responsibility to the whole congregation is, I would argue, a children’s director or minister with the wrong title. Mike Law himself articulates this principle in a letter written to the Executive Committee in 2023, stating that these “qualifiers do not create new offices, nor can they create various rankings or degrees within the Scriptural office of pastor.” Why would we enshrine in our constitution a reference to non-Scriptural, modern terminology that lacks precision and opens the door for more confusion?

I think we should be most concerned with protecting the office, as Scripture describes it, despite a church’s (admittedly confusing) practice of misapplying the title. Think of it like this: if someone were to come into your church and be given access to every meeting, every committee, every service, but not be told what anyone’s title is, would they be able to discern those who hold the office of pastor? Would they be able to distinguish those people from others who have ministerial duties but do not occupy that Scriptural office?

By assuming every church that (incorrectly, in my opinion) assigns the title pastor to someone who does not occupy the office of church-wide authority is either in violation of or not closely identified with our confession of faith, we fail to acknowledge the spirit of Scripture’s decree which, I would argue, elevates substance over semantics.

Do I encourage, then, assigning the title of pastor (or elder or overseer) to someone in a ministerial position who doesn’t occupy the office, whether male or female? Absolutely not. The practice is, at best, confusing, particularly when we assign the title to women. But I am willing to cooperate with a church that is with us in spirit–that gladly affirms complementarianism and denies egalitarianism–even if its use of titles differs from what I would prescribe, in the same way I am willing to cooperate with a church whose practice of communion differs from mine. Which leads to my next point:

2. It excludes people who hold to our confession

At the outset, there are at least two distinct types of churches that would find themselves potentially on the outs with the SBC if the amendment is ratified. The first is the church we would all describe as egalitarian. This church is happy to not only call a woman a pastor, but to let her occupy that office. She preaches and leads, she answers directly to the congregation, and she wields a spiritual authority over the whole church. This church is clearly on the outside looking in in this scenario, and few would argue for their inclusion.

The second type of church genuinely believes in Scripture’s gender distinctions, is complementarian in practice, and the only thing they would need to do in order to not run afoul of the amended language would be to change the title of their children’s or women’s “pastor.” Her function is entirely in line with what the proponents of the amendment believe women are permitted to do in a church setting, but her title is askew.

These two churches are not the same. The former are unapologetic in their rejection of a doctrine Southern Baptists have enshrined in our confession. The latter have a practice that is confusing, but not worth breaking fellowship over. We cooperate based on a shared understanding of our mission to send missionaries to the ends of the earth, plant churches, and support theological education, and our cooperation has long entailed that the funds we raise through the Cooperative Program are broadly collected and narrowly allocated. If a church misapplies the title pastor to a woman whose function is entirely in line with Scripture, but knows that the money they are giving is being spent to plant churches that do not share that practice, why would we not welcome their participation?

We already agree that a church who has a woman functioning unapologetically as an elder runs afoul of our constitution’s stipulation that cooperating churches be “closely identifie[d] with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith”. The convention overwhelmingly decided that last year when an unprecedented 92% of messengers voted to sustain the Executive Committee’s decision to withdraw fellowship from Fern Creek Baptist Church–a measure that proves our convention already has a mechanism to handle such instances.

We must acknowledge the difference between a church that decides to install a woman as an elder and a church with clear complementarian convictions and all-male elders that uses the term pastor interchangeably with minister or director. Our convention has already spoken with astounding clarity regarding the former example. I hope we can make room for the latter, while continuing to contend with them to use titles in a way that removes the potential for confusion. This fight is better won through persuasion.

3. It is out of step with how we have existed as a convention for nearly two centuries

For the first 100 years of our existence as a convention–including an 80-year period in which we had no confession–the constitution said nothing about what a church must believe in order to cooperate. The only criteria for cooperation? Financial contribution. It was 1948 before we amended the constitution to say that messengers could only be appointed from churches “in friendly cooperation with this Convention and sympathetic with its purposes and work,” an admittedly broad and baptistic turn of phrase.

In 2015, however, we amended our constitution to include the phrase we are now contending with: that cooperating churches must “[have] a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.” So aside from three fairly egregious examples (affirmation of homosexuality, racism, and abuse), the only guidepost we have to judge a church’s status is the elastic language of “closely identifies with.”

The lead-up to that 2015 amendment, however, must be taken into consideration. When then-EC chairman Ernest Easley first released the draft of the Article III amendment in the spring of 2014 for the convention to read, consider, and give feedback on, it read as follows: “Has not intentionally operated in any manner demonstrating opposition to the doctrine expressed in the Convention’s most recently adopted statement of faith.”

After the language was published, churches and messengers began raising questions about the inclusion of the new, more restrictive language regarding how churches must interact with the Baptist Faith & Message. To quote a portion of Easley’s 2014 answer to this question: “Some pointed to the potential upside of how such a statement would clearly identify who we are. Others expressed alarm at how such a statement could be used to command a rigid doctrinal conformity even on matters which historically we have agreed to disagree” (emphasis added).

In response to these concerns, the EC proposed a revision to the language at their June meeting, replacing the initially proposed language regarding non-contradiction for what we have now (“closely identifies”), and the measure passed easily. Consider, additionally, this quote from a Baptist Press article published before the measure was ratified in 2015:

“[E]arlier proposed Article III revisions could have been interpreted to ‘impose a confession of faith upon a church,’ Easley, pastor of Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia, said. That perception ‘was never our intent,’” (emphasis added).

To summarize: it is not now, nor has it ever been, the practice of the Southern Baptist Convention to enforce or impose a confessional standard among cooperating churches. The confession is a self-identified consensus statement that broadly describes what most Southern Baptists believe. It is a guardrail for the work of our entities rather than an enforcement mechanism for our churches.

Can the messengers choose, at will, to decide that a church does not closely identify with that confession? Of course. But remember, even that standard is less than a decade old. Faithful Southern Baptists who love and believe Scripture have agreed to disagree on a whole host of individual practices for our entire history–including for the 24 years since the climax of the Conservative Resurgence–and I resent the implication that a lack of enforcement on this issue up until this point somehow indicates the presence of ongoing compromise.

Denny Burk wrote an article in 2022, arguing that “the SBC Constitution defines ‘closely identifies with’ not as subscription but as non-contradiction” (emphasis original). Heath Lambert wrote an article in February, arguing “The current standard . . . simply requires that churches not be in clear and convictional disagreement with the BFM. This is a commonsense approach that has served our convention well for decades.” Ignoring for a moment Lambert’s error regarding the timeline, as this approach has only been enumerated in the constitution for nine years, the fact remains that both Burk and Lambert argue non-contradiction as the clear interpretation of Article III, when the framers of that text specifically changed their original language to avoid such a standard. Easley confirmed precisely this to me in an email exchange last week.

Does that mean churches should be able to play fast and loose with any portion of our confession? I certainly hope not. But the fact remains, for 170 years we had nothing as a standard for cooperation beyond monetary giving and being “sympathetic with its purposes and work”. Whatever “closely identifies” means, it does not mean simple non-contradiction. The messengers have the right to decide what it does mean, and I think they did in New Orleans last year. Which, again, makes this amendment seem superfluous.

And what’s the difference between the issues already enumerated in Article III and the one before us? Easy. I’ve seen numerous people say something to the effect of, “If you want women pastors, just go join the _______ (insert denomination).” But what do we say to those who affirm racism or tolerate abuse? Surely not “Go join another church,” but “Repent.” These are not “agree to disagree” issues among otherwise orthodox faith groups. One of these things is not like the other. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

4. It invites unintended consequences

If the amendment passes, the worst thing that happens on its face is that we start losing churches that are actually complementarian but use titles differently than I would. I’d rather not do that, but it’s not the end of the world. The sky doesn’t fall if we vote to ratify. But we should consider some of the other things that may happen outside of the strict intentions of the amendment.

When Mike Law originally offered this amendment, his proposed language read, “Does not affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.” That language was amended by Juan Sanchez in New Orleans to read, “Affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.”

I find both iterations of the amendment unnecessary for reasons listed above, but one change stemming from the altered language invites, in my opinion, significant long-term problems we have not contended with. In fact, I found it so problematic that I shared my concern with both Mike and Juan in New Orleans before it had been formally moved from the floor.

The intent of the amendment, as I gather from Mike and others, is to restrict the office and title of pastor to men. By introducing language into our constitution regarding those pastors being “qualified by Scripture,” however, we are inviting into our formal credentials process the determination of whether the pastor of any given church is biblically qualified.

What happens when individuals begin weaponizing this language, codified in our constitution, against other pastors? What happens when you find out that another church’s pastor is a former felon, or divorced, or partakes in alcohol, or has a rebellious child? What happens when someone doesn’t like how a particular pastor interacts online and reports him to the credentials committee for failing to live up to the biblical qualifications that elders be self-controlled, respectable, gentle, and not quarrelsome? What level of engagement or rhetoric is acceptable? Who draws the line on the use of sarcasm, or public critique, or curse words? How do we define “above reproach”? These are questions to be answered by the church, not the convention.

Yet by instituting language into our constitution that requires not only that pastors and elders be men, but that they be biblically qualified, we are constitutionally requiring our credentials committee to respond to reports involving subjective criteria. Gender is objective. Hospitality? Respectability? Not so much. These churches could find themselves facing a credentials inquiry not because of their affirmation of homosexuality or their promotion of racism, but because their pastor posted a picture on Facebook drinking a beer or got hotheaded on Twitter.

Should the pastors of our churches be biblically qualified? Absolutely. Should the credentials committee, the Executive Committee, or the messenger body make a habit of ruling on an individual pastor’s subjective qualifications? Absolutely not.

One might argue that these instances will be few and far between, or that the credentials committee surely won’t take such reports seriously. But the fact is, we would be guessing, because we cannot possibly know how that language will be interpreted or used over the next decade. Even if not a single church ends up being disfellowshipped over the qualification language, the point remains that it is an unnecessary addition because we will essentially be forced to ignore it. Why add something we can’t (or at least shouldn’t) enforce?

5. It sets a dangerous precedent for future cooperation

Where do we go from here? Enforcing sound doctrine is good, but where do we stop? Some of the vocal proponents of the amendment seem to argue as though it has long been the practice of the Southern Baptist Convention to closely monitor the ecclesiological practices of its churches. This is simply untrue. If we pass this measure, do we stop at women who have the title of pastor, or do we begin policing function at some point in the near future?

Just how much are women allowed to do as members of a church staff? Can they bear the title “minister”? Can they oversee male volunteers as a children’s director? Can they read Scripture in the gathered worship service? Can they have a shepherding function, even if they don’t occupy the pastoral office or bear that title?

To be very clear, the text of the amendment does not include these considerations, so my question isn’t necessarily what will be the strict result of what happens if it passes. I’m more curious about what follows, and based on what we know of those who already seem to be conflating the titles pastor and minister as it relates to the debate, I think we should consider these possibilities.

Further, what do we do about churches who have other practices that do not align with the Baptist Faith & Message? What about deacons who function as elders (Article VI)? What about alien immersion as it pertains to church membership and communion (Article VII)? What about those whose view of religious liberty does not align with our confession (Article XVII)? What about the countless churches who practice open communion? Do we even have a collectively agreed upon understanding of what the Baptist Faith & Message means when it uses the word “member” in Article VII? Do we even know if our own confession describes close or closed communion?

Perhaps the question that most closely follows this particular amendment is whether we will report and disfellowship churches with men who bear the title of pastor or elder but do not occupy that office, or occupy the office but do not bear the title. Yes, as a complementarian I understand why there is a stricter backlash against the title being assigned to a woman, whom we would agree cannot meet the biblical qualifications of the office. But would consistency not dictate that a fidelity to Scripture also includes a commensurate amount of attention be paid to anyone bearing the title?

I do not fear taking the unapologetic stance that the office of pastor/elder is reserved for biblically qualified men. I fear the implications of how this amendment portends our cooperative efforts for the future. Based on convention action last year, it seems as though we want to begin doing something we haven’t done historically by withdrawing fellowship from churches who have female pastors (who actually function as pastors). I can live with that. I voted for that. But do we stop there? How narrow is narrow enough? What else must a church believe and do in order to remain in good standing?

In Conclusion

With all of this being said, I’m not unsympathetic to what happens if the amendment does not pass. Just as I’m worried that we may lose cooperating churches who feel this amendment is restrictive and un-Baptist, I similarly fear losing churches who feel the amendment is necessary and, like myself, don’t welcome the perception that we are moving in an egalitarian direction. How do we maintain our clear complementarian commitments and our longstanding cooperative spirit while being neither unnecessarily restrictive nor unintentionally sending a signal that we’re inching toward egalitarianism?

If we’re dead set on adding something to our Constitution, I think we’d be better off with something along the lines of: “Only men occupy the churchwide authority and oversight office of pastor/elder/overseer.” It’s not without its own problems–for instance, making a more precise theological statement about the function of the office than our confession does–but I do think it avoids some of the pitfalls of the language we’re currently contending with. Better yet, I wish we could return to the subsidiarity of a bygone Baptist era when matters such as these were handled at the associational level rather than being elevated to the national convention.

If you plan to ratify the amendment this summer, I have one very genuine question for you: are you unwilling to cooperate with churches whose use of titles differs from yours? And I suppose what I mean by that is this: if the amendment is not ratified, are you planning to cease cooperation with the SBC? If yes, this is clearly a Rubicon-crossing matter for you, and I applaud your consistency though I mean it when I say I’m sorry it’s come to this.

If, however, by your own admission, you are willing to continue cooperating with these churches if the amendment doesn’t pass…why are you pushing for a measure that would potentially stop them from cooperating with you? If you can live with it—if your conscience can abide it—why risk losing them? Is there not perhaps a better mechanism for encouraging these churches to adopt less confusing language than forcing the issue constitutionally?

Occasionally I read an argument in favor of the amendment that tempts me to change my mind and vote in favor of it. After all, I think churches should unequivocally reserve the title pastor for qualified men. But I also think churches shouldn’t practice open communion. I think churches should operate democratically. I think deacons should serve rather than lead. I think churches shouldn’t silence members or former employees with non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements. I think churches should prioritize meaningful, regenerate membership and practice church discipline. I think male ministers who aren’t in a position of church-wide authority and oversight shouldn’t be called pastors. But I will happily allow my money to be sent along with that of these churches to accomplish the Great Commission in a way that is guarded by our confession.

It may well be the case that churches with women actually functioning as pastors or elders are an “early step toward liberalism”, to quote the SBC Amendment website. I’m simply suggesting that we can tell the difference between the churches with a theological problem and the ones with a language problem. I will not vote to exclude complementarians who want to cooperate for our kingdom work, nor support a move that introduces potentially dangerous consequences to our cooperative efforts. I hope you’ll join me.

Editor's Note: As a part of its commitment to fostering conversation within the Southern Baptist Convention, the Baptist Review may publish editorials that espouse viewpoints that are not necessarily shared by the TBR team or other contributors. We welcome submissions for responses and rebuttals to any editorials as we seek to host meaningful conversations about the present and future of our convention.

Rob Collingsworth

Rob Collingsworth

Rob Collingsworth works as Director of Strategic Relationships for Criswell College and has also worked as a writer and editor for the Southern Baptist Texan. He served on the SBC Resolutions Committee in 2023 and 2024, and currently serves on the SBTC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee. Rob previously worked at Samford University, where he received his B.A. in Journalism, and at Southwestern Seminary, where he earned an M.Div. with an emphasis in ethics. He and his wife Rebeccah live in Fort Worth and have three children. In addition to leading the editorial efforts, Rob is a founder and leadership team member for The Baptist Review.