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FIRST-PERSON: What about churches with female children’s pastors?


In a previous essay “Responding to Opposition to the Law Amendment,” there was one objection that I did not address but that I have been hearing from different quarters of the SBC for some time now. The question goes like this: “What about churches with female children’s pastors? Won’t the Law Amendment force the removal of churches that are otherwise complementarian and that don’t have women actually functioning in a pastoral role but that are a little confused about the title of pastor?”

The answer to the question is “No, it doesn’t force their removal.” The fact that so many seem to think that it does reveals that we have a pretty widespread misunderstanding of our polity. I would also add that – as a supporter of the Law Amendment – I have zero interest in adjudicating a glut of membership challenges concerning such churches. To begin with, there aren’t that many of them. Only about thirteen percent of SBC churches with female pastors have the title “children” or “kids pastor,” according to the author of a June 2023 American Reformer report. So the issue is not as widespread as some have made it out to be. Nevertheless, let me explain why I don’t believe that the “female children’s pastor” objection is an obstacle to supporting the Law Amendment.

The Law amendment doesn’t add anything substantial to the SBC Constitution. It merely clarifies what is already there. The constitution already allows Southern Baptists to challenge the credentials of churches with female associate pastors (as we saw with Saddleback). Upon appeal, it falls to the messengers ultimately to identify which churches are in friendly cooperation.  

In other words, churches with female associate pastors can have their messenger credentials challenged right now. There is nothing preventing that from happening right now. If such a referral came to the Credentials Committee, the committee could recommend removal even without the Law Amendment. Moreover, the Credentials Committee can recommend removal even if the Law Amendment were to fail. The Law Amendment does not add any powers to the Credentials Committee or to the messengers that they do not already have.  

Also – and this is really important – the Credentials Committee can choose not to recommend removal of such a church if they so please. The messengers themselves could also choose not to remove such a church if they if they so please. The Law amendment does not compel either the committee or messengers to vote one way or the other.  

President Bart Barber spoke about this possibility in a recent interview (at the 39:28 mark)—that the Law Amendment might pass and that the messengers might choose not to enforce it in a given case. He is certainly right that this is a possibility, but I disagree with him that this would necessarily be a bad thing. Southern Baptists understand that specific cases can have mitigating circumstances that might make removal a bad option. And the messengers are free to vote as they please with or without the Law Amendment.

In short, the Law Amendment does not make removal automatic. Someone would still have to refer such a church to the Credentials Committee. The Credentials Committee and the EC would still have to vote whether or not to recommend removal, and upon appeal so would the messengers. At every step of the way, the relevant authorities have to weigh the evidence, deliberate, make a judgment, and vote. And they are free to vote however they please with or without the Law Amendment.  

So the answer to the question about whether the Law Amendment forces Southern Baptists to remove a church is “no.” But that raises another important question. If the Law Amendment doesn’t compel committee members and messengers to vote a certain way, then why would we need it? We need it for the Credentials Committee to have clarity in their important work. In order to see this, we have to recall what happened at the last two annual meetings.

Messengers voted to approve the Law Amendment in the wake of the Saddleback controversy, which began in Anaheim and ended in New Orleans. At the annual meeting in Anaheim in 2022, the Credentials Committee did not recommend the removal of Saddleback but instead recommended a study committee to study what the word “pastor” means in the Baptist Faith and Message – whether “pastor” refers to senior pastors only or to associate pastors as well. The messengers balked at that recommendation, and the Credentials Committee withdrew it. The messengers overwhelmingly agreed that we already know what a pastor is and that we don’t need a study committee for it.

So in Anaheim, the messengers were unwilling to give the Credentials Committee clarity through a study committee. But in New Orleans, the messengers were more than willing to give the Credentials Committee clarity by overwhelmingly voting in favor of the Law Amendment. The messengers were also willing to give clarity by voting decisively to remove Saddleback from friendly cooperation. This is the context of how the Law Amendment got approved in New Orleans, and it had nothing to do with female children’s pastors. It had everything to do with whether or not the Credentials Committee would bring the right recommendation to the floor in cases like Saddleback. In other words, it was a way of offering clarity to those presiding over membership challenges.

For these reasons, I believe the objection concerning churches with “female children’s pastors” fails to persuade. Southern Baptists are free to challenge the credentials of confused churches with female children’s pastors right now if they wish, but by and large they aren’t doing it. I doubt that would change even if the Law Amendment were to be passed in Indianapolis this summer. Why? Because this was never about that. It was always about churches like Saddleback that not only had women as “pastors” but also had them functioning in actual pastoral roles, including preaching to the entire congregation on Sunday mornings.

To be sure, it contradicts the BF&M and (more importantly) Scripture for churches to give the title “pastor” to our sisters ministering to children—even if they aren’t functioning in a pastoral role. Nevertheless, my hope for such confused churches is not their immediate removal. On the contrary, I would counsel patience and forbearance in order to persuade them to bring their titles in alignment with Scripture. But such persuasion would be much less effective if the convention were to act in any way that expresses confusion about what a pastor is. So far, messengers have acted with clarity and conviction. I am praying that we will do so again in Indianapolis by passing the Law Amendment.

    About the Author

  • Denny Burk

    Denny Burk is professor of Biblical Studies and director of The Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College. He is also the president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

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