SBC Life Articles

Churches Declare Their Stance on Pastorship Through Ordination

There may be nuances related to ordination and how it is observed from one church to another, but the qualifications for the pastor role are crystal clear, said a collection of Southern Baptist pastors and leaders.

The core of who can be ordained reflects what the Bible says regarding the office of pastor, said Mark Vance, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa.

“We avoid giving that terminology of ‘pastor’ to those who would not be qualified as elders biblically,” he said. “The simplest way I can summarize it is, ‘Who fits the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3? Titus 1?’ Those who are ordained are those who are qualified to serve in the office of pastor/elder/overseer.

“So, when it comes to the issue of gender, we don’t ordain women.”

Cornerstone Church sits near Iowa State University and draws a significant number of college students. Attendance can surpass 3,500 during the semester. Taking a complementarian position is countercultural, but something the church does nonetheless.

Vance asserted that holding to a biblical model of ordination and the office of pastor does not diminish the role of women in ministry.

“This doesn’t mean women don’t serve in other ministry contexts,” he said. “They absolutely do. But ordination isn’t just a recognition of an ability to serve. It’s an appointment toward an office that comes with an authority that the New Testament prescribes as limited to men in the household of God.”

The historic Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis and Cornerstone are similar in attendance size, but minister in different contexts. Still, there is clear-cut agreement on ordination between Vance and Bellevue Pastor Steve Gaines.

“To be ‘ordained’ as a pastor means to be ‘sanctified’ or ‘set apart’ for the purpose of fulfilling the biblical role of pastor within the context of a local congregation of Christ-followers,” said Gaines, who served on the study committee for the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Southern Baptists’ statement of faith. “Only biblically qualified men should be ordained in a local church.”

Gender is one determining factor of who can serve as a pastor, but it’s hardly the only one.

“We look for men who are spiritually mature and qualify biblically to serve as a pastor,” Gaines said. “Our current pastors then interview a candidate to analyze his doctrine, the vibrancy of his walk with Christ and his Christian character. If he passes those examinations, he is recommended to the congregation to be set apart/ordained to be a pastor.”

Thereby, ordination is a factor in a Bellevue staff member’s ministry title.

“We refer to male and female non-ordained staff members who lead as ‘directors,’” Gaines said. “We do not refer to a non-ordained staff member as ‘pastor.’”

The Rock Fellowship is a young congregation in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Its first ordination was significant for the church.

“That was a big moment,” Pastor Daryl Jones said.

A young seminary graduate had been given opportunities to preach and teach, with Jones also establishing a mentoring program in eldership.

Observing spiritual growth and “the Holy Spirit’s empowerment,” Jones and others felt he had become ready to undertake other responsibilities as prescribed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. That contrasts with another situation where a young man worked with the title of “minister,” who had not quite reached the level of pastor.

“I don’t use that term lightly,” said Jones, who noted that Scripture is “not ambiguous at all” when it comes the office being specific to men.

Hershael York, senior pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, and dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, pointed to the practice of laying on of hands in the Bible as “a definite designation of someone as an elder, an overseer, a shepherd” to recognize someone’s “calling and gifting.”

The roots of ordination begin with the Word of God. From there, the responsibility of gauging candidates goes through a council of some type and, ultimately, the church itself.

“Accountability is a good thing,” York said. “When people go off doing their own things without accountability, there’s just no guarantee that they’re going to remain true to their word and faithful to the Lord.

“Ordination is a way where we formally examine someone and declare them fit to be a pastor.”

Others have a differing perspective when it comes to ordination. Juan Sanchez, senior pastor of High Pointe Baptist in Austin, Texas, prefers that churches affirm pastors as opposed to ordaining them.

“In our context, we don’t have ordination services,” he said. “The church recognizes—based on the testing from the elders and observation of the congregation—that once someone is presented to the congregation as pastor, that person is the pastor.”

Ordination, as he has seen it, “seems to give someone a title or office divorced from the local church context.”

“I’ll give you an example,” he said. “I’m just one of the pastors at High Pointe. But if I were to move away [and get another job], I’m no longer a pastor because I’m no longer shepherding a local church. The way ordination is used today, once I leave . . . I would still be carrying the title of ‘pastor’ because I’m ordained.”

The point, he explained, is that the office of pastor is intimately connected to the local church. This bears itself out in how many typically find their next pastor.

Many churches appoint a search team to look through resumes and discuss candidates. They watch videos of sermons or travel to observe in person. Eventually a name emerges and more interviews are held with the search team and meetings with key groups in the church. A question-and-answer session may occur the day before the candidate preaches in view of a call on Sunday morning.

“I realize that I’m swimming against the stream here of traditional Baptist history,” Sanchez said. “But I do think that, intuitively, that’s what is practiced.”

Sanchez also pointed to 1 Timothy 3 in showing the office of pastor as reserved for men, while noting that the explanation actually begins a chapter earlier.

“In 1 Timothy 2, Paul is basically prohibiting women from teaching doctrine to men or having authority over men in the context of the local gathering,” he said.

Jonathan Leeman is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Bladensburg, Maryland, and editorial director for 9Marks, a parachurch organization focused on what it deems are the biblical marks of a healthy church. Leeman agreed that the word “ordination” has some drawbacks.

“It’s a contested term that we have inherited and brings a lot of baggage from medieval Catholicism,” he said. “It can unhelpfully communicate, as it were, a mystical mark on the soul that a man receives once for all, whether or not he’s in this church or that church.”

Like Sanchez, he also pointed to 1 Timothy 2 on the roles of women in teaching and exercising authority over men regarding the pastorate.

“I understand the authority [Paul] has in 1 Timothy 2:12 is that of a pastor/overseer/elder,” Leeman said.

“It does not have in mind congregational authority, which I understand to be shared by men and women by virtue of the priesthood of all believers. Nor does he have in mind any authority that a deacon might exercise over some tangible area of the church’s life. This is why I personally believe there’s room for female deacons, or deaconesses.”

When a church places the title of “pastor” on a staff person who does not meet the qualifications as leveled in Scripture, respondents stopped short of calling for disfellowshipping that church. However, at the very least such practices muddy the waters.

“That is a sloppy use of language,” York said. “I would not put that title on anyone just because it happens to be a man. This is where, I think, Baptist churches have been less than careful with our language. At Buck Run, those who we designate as pastor, we mean by everything the Word means as shepherds and overseers.”

Gregory A. Wills, dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, agrees.

“In my view, it’s unhelpful to call someone who is not in the office of pastor, by the title of pastor,” he said. “It promotes confusion between the actions of the individual and the office.”

Wills explained that all believers have a basic set of “pastoral duties” to each other.

“We exercise, by duty under Christ, a certain shepherding function toward all other believers,” he said. “Those who have some maturity and leadership [qualities] are going to have more opportunities and a broader, deeper sense of duty to exercise pastoral functions.

“We minister to one another [and] shepherd one another. But having those general duties is not the same thing as being in the office of pastor/ elder/overseer.”

Regarding the Baptist Faith and Message, Vance said the text clearly limits the office of pastor to men. The overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist churches confirm this in practice. “We don’t have a preponderance . . . having women use the title of ‘pastor’ or preaching and teaching regularly,” he said.

He has expressed discouragement over talk of disfellowshipping any church that has such practices, but perhaps not in the direction one may expect.

“I know there’s a process [Southern Baptists] follow, but I’m discouraged because I think integrity demands that if you already know you’re out of line with where a group is, you should disfellowship yourself,” he said.

York pointed out that many Southern Baptist churches did just that after the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 was adopted to include Scripture and clearer language on gender roles and the pastorate.

“Those churches that left, they weren’t confused about what we meant,” he said.

Vance compared today’s discussion to someone agreeing to play soccer, then showing up in football gear. Both are sports. Both are active and fun. But each is distinct from the other.

In Southern Baptist life, there is a confessional statement “that tells us the game that we’re supposed to be playing.”

“It lacks a bit of honesty for folks to join a fellowship that is clearly complementarian and clearly states male eldership in its documents,” he said. “I find it to lack integrity to think that maybe you can enter the game to play a different one.”