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As annual meeting approaches, ‘pastor’ amendment opinions abound

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INDIANAPOLIS (BP) – Messengers to the 2024 SBC Annual Meeting are being asked to weigh in a second time on whether to add to the SBC Constitution an amendment regarding churches that employ women in pastoral roles.

The amendment’s proponents have often cited a June 2023 report, which listed 99 Southern Baptist churches with female pastors and a total of 149 female pastors from a sample size of 3,847 “randomized” churches. When extrapolated to the then-figure of 47,614 cooperating churches (now 46,906), the report estimated 1,844 female pastors serving in 1,225 churches.

Of those 99 original churches, nine listed women with the singular title of “pastor.” Another one was the “lead” pastor while two more used the term “senior pastor.” Seven are “co-lead” with one titled “senior leader” (lead pastor with husband). The remaining 73 women serve in an associational role or a role designated as a particular ministry.

For some, the above is proof that the Southern Baptist Convention needs clarity on the office of pastor/elder/overseer and the amendment is the way forward.

For others, the numbers show that the nation’s largest Protestant faith group is overwhelmingly complementarian in makeup and practice and such an amendment is unnecessary. Opponents also point to last year’s change to the Baptist Faith and Message strengthening its complementarian language as well as messengers’ overwhelming votes to remove two churches from friendly cooperation due to their have women in lead pastor roles.

Start of the (current) conversation

Mike Law, pastor of Arlington (Va.) Baptist Church, originally introduced a motion at the 2022 SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim to add a sixth item to the SBC Constitution, Article III: that cooperating churches would not “affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.” That motion was referred to the Executive Committee, which placed it in front of messengers last summer in New Orleans for a vote in spite of registering opposition to it.

After a clarifying amendment brought by Texas pastor Juan Sanchez, Southern Baptists gave the amendment its first of two required two-thirds votes of approval. Perhaps with one eye on the tone of discussions leading up to the first vote and another on a year ahead of podcasts, social media posts and pontificating from all around, Sanchez’s comments after the vote were prophetic.

“I think part of the problem is we are talking past each other in many ways,” Sanchez said. “I’m confident that there’s confusion about terminology that we should be having conversations about.

“One of one of the things I lament in our conversations in the Southern Baptist Convention right now is that there’s a lot of weaponizing of language and there’s a lot of tactics of fear.”

Choices and what follows

Columnists whose pieces have been posted at Baptist Press have sought to stay away from those kinds of tactics, instead establishing positions on the amendment while expressing support for those on the other side.

Denny Burk, professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, has written two pieces shared with BP. The first one in late November pointed to “no little bit of misunderstanding among some about the precise issues in dispute.

“Southern Baptist aren’t debating whether women may serve in church staff ministry positions,” he said. “Of course they can and do, and I can’t think of any Southern Baptist who would say otherwise. Nor are Southern Baptists debating whether women should teach mixed-gendered Sunday School classes.”

The debate isn’t even about complementarianism, he added, noting that the term wasn’t mentioned in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BF&M). The debate is centered on if that document allows for women to be pastors and “whether the BF&M should be the basis for friendly cooperation within the SBC.”

Where churches fall on those positions impacts the doctrinal integrity of the SBC. A stable middle way “is only a mirage,” he said.

Burk followed up his comments with another post in February addressing the question of what happens with females on church staffs in roles like children’s pastor.

“The answer to the question is ‘No, it doesn’t force their removal,’” he wrote. “The fact that so many seem to think that it does reveals that we have a pretty widespread misunderstanding of our polity.”

Burk went on to say he has “zero interest” in “adjudicating a glut of membership challenges concerning such churches.” In citing the vote to uphold Saddleback Church’s disfellowship, he pointed out that messengers already have the power to take such steps. In short, the amendment’s passage would not make a church’s removal automatic.

In a discussion one month earlier at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., SBC President Bart Barber agreed with Burk’s premise. However, he took a position contrary to Burk’s.

“The SBC already requires that churches limit the office of pastor to men without the Law amendment,” he said, citing the votes at the 2023 Annual Meeting.

“I think that when we face extremely confusing and convoluted questions, we ought to just let the messenger body pray about it and sort that out,” Barber said. “We have the framework in place right now without any amendment.”

Debate over function

In late February, North Carolina pastor Bruce Frank brought his thoughts on why the amendment is understandable, but unnecessary.

It’s “unneeded, unclear and could lead to the potential unraveling of the SBC as we know it,” he said.

A culture attempting to redefine gender makes it important for churches to emphasize the “biblical truth regarding God’s good design,” added Frank in lauding the SBC’s “unapologetically complementarian” position. “… The blurring of the God-given gender distinctives has often accompanied a denominational direction away from the authority of Scripture.”

Agreeing with Barber, Frank, pastor of Biltmore Church near Asheville, said that “if the current mechanism is in place to remove one of the largest churches in the SBC, as it did in 2023, then the framework already exists for removing a church that wanders too far from the Baptist Faith and Message.”

Frank also cited the debate over the amendment and the “function” of a pastor and how the amendment could be applied to women serving with the title of pastor, but in a non-senior role.

The amendment’s phrase “of any kind” opens up those doors, he said. Frank added that Scripture calls on elders to lead in churches, protect churches from false teachings, pray for the sick and use good judgement in doctrinal issues.

“We see men and women who are not elders being encouraged to carry out almost all of these functions in the New Testament churches,” he said.

Baptist Press reached out to Law for clarity on whether the amendment’s aim is to address churches with women serving with the title of pastor, in the function of pastor or both and whether the amendment’s language was sufficient for those tasks.

“The aim of the Amendment is to help the Convention walk in faithfulness to Scripture,” he said. “The Bible knows of no pastor/elder/overseer who does not perform the duties of the office. According to 1 Timothy 2:12, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, Scripture does not permit women to serve in the office of or under the title pastor/elder/overseer.

“Yes, the language is sufficient, and it is complementary to Scripture and the Baptist Faith and Message.”

The “potential unraveling” Frank alluded to can come through Southern Baptists failing to maintain a “missional passion with doctrinal integrity.” Fears about where the amendment could take the Convention, he said, could lead churches to “voluntarily opt out.”

This will not happen because churches “don’t have complementarian convictions but because they didn’t sign up for denominational drama that demands increasing uniformity on an ever-widening set of issues,” Frank wrote.

“Missionaries will come home. That’s not hyperbole; it’s just math.”

Church autonomy

Tennessee Baptists’ state executive Randy Davis became the first of his peers to publicly comment on the amendment in a column from early May.

Davis pointed to the amendment’s potential impact on historic Southern Baptist polity and possible unintended consequences.

“Southern Baptists throughout our history have respected differences of opinion on doctrinal issues for the sake of a shared mission,” Davis said. “I sincerely pray we can capture that civility regarding this challenge. I respect views on both sides of the Law Amendment, but I believe we would do well to pause and give its implications thoughtful consideration.”

One point of concern is how the amendment could effectively alter the purpose of the Baptist Faith and Message. Rather than promoting missions and including churches “of all sizes and cultures,” a “legalistically narrow road” could form.

“Our historical Baptist polity is to trust the local church to decide its own structures under the umbrella of our doctrinal belief system,” Davis said.

Fracturing that trust could lead to future debates about other issues that may affect cooperation – issues like using a particular Bible translation or whether churches adhere to reformed or non-reformed teachings.

“At what point will we have thwarted the local church’s autonomy while continuing to propagate the idea that its members have freedom to govern themselves?” asked Davis.

“As one of my fellow state executives said last summer, ‘The Southern Baptist Convention is organized to promote a mission not to police our churches.’”

Shortly thereafter, Robin Hadaway shared a story where, as a first-term International Mission Board missionary to Tanzania in 1985, he found himself in a hard position.

“I want to be a pastor,” he said in recollecting the words of a woman who had recently graduated from Tanzania’s Baptist seminary. “I explained to her why this was not biblical.”

In 2002, Hadaway was regional leader for eastern South America and supervising about 350 missionaries when he encountered a similar instance.

“I received word that a local Brazilian church had ordained a female IMB missionary,” said Hadaway, who is semi-retired while serving as senior professor of missions at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “A trustee and I asked her to rescind the ordination. She agreed, but soon after her retirement, a stateside Southern Baptist church ordained her.”

The amendment “is not about a woman’s status before the Lord,” he said. While men and women are equal, they are different while complementing each other. Hadaway does not believe the amendment’s passage would result in a flood of churches submitted to the Credentials Committee, citing that group’s history in responding to issues rather than searching for violations.

Considering consequences

Last week, newly elected Executive Committee President and CEO Jeff Iorg said the amendment reflected his “theological commitments” in church governance. It’s the standard he upheld as president of Gateway Seminary for the last 20 years. However, the potential “complications and consequences” that could come from it are leading him to oppose it.

Those implications begin with determining the amendment’s relevance to both the title and function of a pastor. If the former, churches can simply update the staff page on the website and reprint some business cards. However, Iorg said, continuing to function in the role as before “does not seem to fulfill the goal of the amendment.”

“If the issue is function, then the SBC Credentials Committee must investigate job descriptions, church governing documents, work records and personnel policies of local churches to determine if a woman is functioning as a pastor,” he said. “This is unsustainable due to the number of churches to be evaluated by a volunteer committee which meets once a month.”

Executive Committee staff created a list of churches in the SBC as an administrative tool 25 years ago, Iorg said. Since then, qualifiers amended into the Constitution have led to a change in perception – from the Convention consisting of messengers to instead consisting of churches.

The result has become “a substantive change that is reshaping our identity” and led to a tension about when “church autonomy intersects with Convention autonomy.”

His position is also influenced by two decades’ worth of observations leading the only Southern Baptist entity outside of the South.

Pastors and church members tend to view the SBC through their local lens, belief system and interpretation of the Bible, believing most Southern Baptists agree with them, or should, Iorg said.

“Some either do not appreciate the breadth of theological diversity in the SBC or, if they do understand it, find it troublesome or threatening,” he said.

The “elasticity” of the BF&M and SBC polity has been “a hallmark of our success” that could be endangered.

“By codifying a narrower interpretation of one part of our confessional statement in our Constitution, this may become a precursor to similar actions on other issues. Many Southern Baptist churches are out of alignment with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 on issues like regenerate church membership, Lord’s Supper practices, mode and purpose of baptism, democratic church government, church/state relationships, etc.”

He has also heard from pastors who are “quietly disengaging.”

“They are too focused on the demands of pastoral ministry to participate in denominational infighting over something they do not perceive as worth the battle,” he said. “…For some, the SBC is just not worth the hassle anymore.”

Determining boundaries

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler unofficially supported the amendment before it existed, stating from the floor at the 2022 Anaheim annual meeting that Southern Baptists are not confused when it comes to the meaning of “pastor.”

In February, he reiterated his support.

“I see it as not only something that we need to pass, but we need to just have it as a part of our bylaws in such a way that it settles a question,” said Mohler, adding that if the amendment fails, the issue would not go away and be reintroduced annually.

May 23, he released a video expressing his “confidence” in Southern Baptists as the annual meeting approaches.

The SBC, Mohler said, faces “an inescapable theological responsibility” to reassert “the boundaries of our cooperation.”

Previous generations of Southern Baptists didn’t have to say that the office of pastors is limited to men, he pointed out. “Southern Baptists, I believe, still are quite aware and quite convictional about [that] fact,” he said. But “confusion among us” has become “very dangerous” and “subversive to our ability to cooperate.”

Mohler pointed to the “clarity and overwhelming consensus” of the 2023 votes over churches who were deemed to no longer be in fellowship.

“Southern Baptists really do believe in the autonomy of the local church,” he said. “We can’t force any church to be a part of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“But the SBC also has the responsibility to define what are the boundaries, what is the basis, the foundation for the cooperation that brings us together for common work.”

Messengers will vote on the amendment at this year’s SBC annual meeting June 11-12 in Indianapolis.