Any discussion concerning women serving as pastors in Southern Baptist churches must be informed by “past decisions” made by the Southern Baptist Convention, two key SBC figures said Wednesday.
In a joint statement, SBC Executive Committee Chairman Jared Wellman and SBC President Bart Barber said a “commitment to affirming Southern Baptist polity and the Baptist Faith and Message remains central” in the ongoing debate over female pastors, which gained national attention last week after a Virginia pastor released an open letter to the Executive Committee.
The document, written by Pastor Mike Law of Arlington Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia, called on the board to recommend an amendment to the SBC’s constitution to include verbiage requiring Southern Baptist churches not to “affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”
Since its publication, the letter, titled “A Call To Keep Our Unity,” has received more than 800 signatures in support of Law’s motion, which was initially introduced at the SBC's Annual Meeting in Anaheim, California, last June.
Wellman and Barber acknowledged that while the SBC “did not reach a moment in Anaheim where the messengers were able to vote on these questions, as far as it lies within our authority to do so, we are committed to letting these questions come before messengers” at the SBC's Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, in June 2023. The SBC's constitution and bylaws can only be changed by a vote of messengers at the Annual Meeting.
Messengers are representatives from cooperating Southern Baptist churches who gather to decide on policy and budget questions for the convention.
While the statement signaled an intent to "protect the messengers’ rights, answer the messengers’ questions, and implement the messengers’ instructions" regarding the issue of female pastors, Wellman and Barber also stated support for the Baptist Faith & Message, the Convention's statement of faith, adding, “We believe that the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
“These words represent our own individual doctrinal convictions. More importantly, these words represent the sentiments of the messenger body in their past decisions. As we discharge our own duties, we will do so in ways that implement these past decisions that the messengers have given to us.”
Should the SBC decide ultimately to change the Convention’s constitution, any church found to be in violation of SBC bylaws would no longer be a part of the Convention.
In his letter, Law noted the Baptist Faith & Message statement adopted in 2000 already affirms that “while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Prior to that, Law said the SBC — through its “Resolution On Ordination And The Role Of Women In Ministry” — already recognizes the Bible “excludes women from pastoral leadership” and “pastoral functions.”
“This matter has long been settled by Southern Baptists,” he wrote.
While a "resolution" is informative as a "snapshot" of where Southern Baptists are on a particular issue at a particular moment, and the Baptist Faith and Message "Confession" is instructive as a reliable summary of what Southern Baptists most surely believe, neither one is binding on the conscience of an individual Southern Baptist or on a Southern Baptist church. However, the constitution and bylaws are binding on a Southern Baptist church. Any church that violates the constitution and bylaws would no longer be, by definition, a member of the Southern Baptist Convention.
While there’s little data on the number of women serving in pastoral roles in Southern Baptist churches, fewer than one-tenth of 1% of SBC-affiliated churches in 2000 had a woman serving as senior pastor, according to a study from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Last year, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, drew scrutiny from many within the SBC when the church ordained three women — Liz Puffer, Cynthia Petty and Katie Edwards.
Since then, the prominent California megachurch has received increased attention for its support of female pastors.
Recently installed lead Pastor Andy Wood, who replaced pastor and bestselling author Rick Warren as leader of Saddleback, listed his wife, Stacie, as a “teaching pastor” on the church’s website.
Earlier in October, Stacie preached a sermon at Saddleback, with her being identified as a “Teaching Pastor.”
Also last month, trustees at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, unanimously approved a resolution encouraging the seminary's administration to continue theologically training both men and women, "but with men alone reserved for the office and function, and thereby title of pastor."
"It is further resolved that this Board encourages The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary administration and faculty to continue its theological training with this stated conviction —graduating both men and women for service to the church, but with men alone reserved for the office and function, and thereby title of pastor," the resolution states in part.
The resolution commended the stance of SBTS President Albert Mohler, who helped revise the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, the official statement of faith for the SBC.
Shortly after the SBC's Annual Meeting last June, Mohler was joined by Chuck Kelley and Richard Land, who also were members of the revision committee, in publishing a statement clarifying the meaning of the word "pastor," titled, "A Statement Concerning the Baptist Faith & Message and the Word' Pastor.'"
Mohler has served as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1993, Kelley served as president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for 23 years, and Land served as president of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission from 1988-2013 and is president emeritus of Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina. The Confession Revision Committee assigned the three men to write a study guide for the new 2000 Baptist Faith & Message Confession.
Aiming to bring clarity to a fractious debate within SBC life, the theologians said that when it comes to the word "pastor," Southern Baptists have always understood the term. In keeping with the spirit of Baptist Faith and Message 2000, "pastor" means "one who fulfills the pastoral office and carries out the pastor's functions."
Ian M. Giatti is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: email@example.com.