The Southern Baptists’ ‘pastor’ controversy: A study in terminology’s pitfalls and their consequences

Editor's Note:  The author of this column was one of the 15-member study committee selected by the Southern Baptist Convention to propose revisions to the Baptist Faith & Message (1963) and to present those revisions for approval or rejection by the SBC business session in 2000. He was also one of three committee members (along with Charles S. Kelley Jr. and R. Albert Mohler Jr.) appointed by the study committee to answer questions during the floor debate on the proposed revisions.

After the revised confession was overwhelmingly approved as the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 (BF&M), the Convention asked these three men to write a study guide to the confession (Kelley, Land, and Mohler, The Baptist Faith & Message, Nashville, LifeWay Press, 2007).

Also, Land is the only person to have served on both the 2000 study committee and on the seven-member committee appointed to draft a confessional article on “The Family” for the BF&M, which was overwhelmingly approved by the Convention in 1998.

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Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting June 15-16, 2021, cast ballots for several motions and elections throughout the two-day event in Nashville, Tenn.
Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting June 15-16, 2021, cast ballots for several motions and elections throughout the two-day event in Nashville, Tenn. | Eric Brown

What is the controversy roiling Southern Baptists concerning the term “pastor” all about? Is it a major doctrinal disagreement or is it merely a “tempest in a teapot,” unworthy of the heat it has generated? And why, in the larger scheme of things, does it matter?

The truth is that it is neither of the above but instead falls somewhere between misunderstanding and disagreement. It matters a great deal to me because the SBC has always been my spiritual home as a Christian. However, it is also the largest Protestant denomination in the country, Evangelical or otherwise. What happens in Southern Baptist life impacts American Christianity for good or ill. If Southern Baptists catch a cold, American Evangelicals start sniffling.

Part of the problem with the “pastor” terminology debate is that it is an ecclesiological (church) issue, and Baptists are pretty unique (at least within historical Protestant Christendom) when it comes to the doctrine of the church.

I taught a course on “Baptist Distinctives” to Southern Baptist seminarians for 13 years and I always started the first lecture with the doctrine of the church. The first sentence of the BF&M on “The Church” says:

“A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth.”

I would always tell my students, “Almost every phrase of that definition separates Baptists from virtually all other major faith traditions arising out of the 16th and 17th century Reformation (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, even Congregational).

Perhaps the most unique part of the definition, and often the most difficult for outside observers to understand, is that each local congregation is autonomous “through democratic processes” and “under the Lordship of Christ.”

Consequently, there is no hierarchy or denominational vertical structure in Baptist ecclesiology. Each church calls her own pastors and staff members, owns her own property, and decides annually what percentage of her budget she wishes to contribute to Southern Baptist causes at the local, state and national levels. That is why the denomination is called the Southern Baptist “Convention” — it is a convention of local churches (approximately 46,000 local congregations) who have voted voluntarily to be part of the Convention and have been accepted by the other throng of Convention churches as espousing the doctrines outlined in the BF&M confession.

Each Baptist fellowship group, starting with the local congregation, the local association of churches, the state convention of churches, and the national Convention, decides for themselves (independently of what any other Baptist fellowship group may decide) whether a local church fits within acceptable Baptist doctrinal parameters. For example, a local church could be and sometimes is, a member of the national Convention, even after the church has been removed from the state convention and/or the local association.

During the theological controversies which produced the “Conservative Resurgence” in the last quarter of the 20th century, it was often claimed by Southern Baptist moderates that “being Baptist means you are free to believe anything you want to believe” under the “priesthood of the believer.” That assertion is only partially true.

Baptists do believe that humanly speaking, you are certainly free to believe whatever you wish. However, you do not have the right to believe, or disbelieve, anything you choose and still call yourself a Southern Baptist. Each fellowship group of Baptists, local church, local association, state convention, and national Convention, decides independently of each other whether you have strayed beyond the boundaries of what they each collectively believe it means to be “Southern Baptist.”

At the national level, the BF&M defines the doctrines and theological parameters Southern Baptists, as a corporate body, believe are acceptable for Southern Baptists to affirm and espouse.

The BF&M is not a creed and it is not binding on any individual’s conscience. The Southern Baptist Convention does, however, have the right to say by a vote of its member churches that a particular church has moved beyond the boundaries and consensus of what the member churches believe represents Southern Baptist’s faith and practice.

The BF&M is binding on the various entities owned and operated by the SBC at the national level (the six seminaries, the two mission boards, etc.) which are owned and operated by the Convention on behalf of the churches and for the benefit of helping the churches expand the Gospel around the globe.

About 20 years ago I was preaching a revival in a city away from my home in Nashville. I was invited, after the evening services one weeknight, to have a late dinner with a group of Southern Baptists from another church in town. Since I never eat before preaching at night, I accepted their invitation. It soon became clear that these church members were very exercised about the fact that their church was in the process of being voted out of membership in the local association of Southern Baptist churches because they were no longer requiring a baptism by immersion in water, subsequent to a personal testimony of having made a profession of faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior as a prerequisite to membership in that local church. Evidently, they had invited me to dinner because they wanted to know what a “denominational official” thought about their controversy.

They were quite exercised as they explained to me how persecuted they felt that this was being done to them and that it was a “violation of local church autonomy” and the “priesthood of the believer.” I listened politely to their indignation as I enjoyed an excellently prepared (seared on the outside, RARE on the inside) Porterhouse steak.

Just as the dessert (a magnificent chocolate bread pudding soufflé) arrived, they turned to me and said, “Dr. Land, what do you think?”

I took a bite of the soufflé, which was sublime (If you are what you eat, parts of me are chocolate). Then I asked them to please remember in about five minutes that they did ask me for my opinion. I told them, “This is not a violation of local church autonomy. No one is trying to come in and remove your pastor and your church leadership. No one is proposing to confiscate your property. This is a local association of Southern Baptist churches that are saying that if you no longer require baptism by immersion in water after a profession of faith in Jesus as your personal Savior, then you are no longer a Baptist church by their collective definition of the term.

“They are removing you from fellowship in the association in order to witness to the surrounding world what their beliefs are about what a Baptist church is.” I concluded by saying, “Frankly, if I were in your association, I would vote to disfellowship you as well.” The dinner party broke up quite quickly after that exchange.

I hope this background helps to explain the non-hierarchal, horizontal nature of Southern Baptist ecclesiology and polity. Also, I used this example because of the current kerfuffle concerning the nomenclature used by churches in “ordaining” or “dedicating” certain women staff members as “pastors” with qualifying descriptors such as “children’s pastor” or “pastor to senior adults” as opposed to “children’s minister” or “minster to senior adults” certainly does not rise to the level of rejecting a proper definition and mode of baptism as a prerequisite for church membership in a local Baptist church.   

Instead, it is a question of whether or not the pastoral office is a position of authority and if so, does conferring even a restricted use of the term “pastor” inevitably give some people the impression, intended or not, that the church has conferred pastoral authority on a woman in violation of apostolic mandate.

The BF&M does state 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.”

Why do Baptists believe that? There are several reasons, all having to do with their understanding of the “Manual for Faith, Order, and Practice in Baptist Churches” — the New Testament.

In the section of the New Testament most directly applicable to things being done with order in the local church (The Pastoral Epistles) the Apostle Paul tells his son in the faith, Timothy, “I suffer not a woman…to usurp authority over the man” (I Tim. 2:12).

As Kelley, Mohler, and I point out in the BF&M Study Guide: “The
New Testament words that Baptists identify with the pastoral office
include terms translated as bishop, elder, and pastor. Each term adds
to our understanding of the pastoral office and the pastor’s
responsibility. Bishop means overseer—someone who oversees the
work of others…In the Christian church elder was used for someone
who presided over assemblies and served as a counselor. The term
pastor describes a shepherd who loves and cares for the believers who
make up the congregation.”

The Apostle Paul’s requirement that a pastor be “the husband of one wife” (I Tim. 3:2) clearly indicates in the New Testament pastors were to be men.

The verb form of all three of these words describing the office of pastor: episkopos (bishop), presbutero (elder), and poimainō (“to shepherd, or pastor”) are found in the Apostle Peter’s first epistle (I Pet. 5:1-5).

There is also a vivid example of the authoritative and shepherding role of the pastor in the 13th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Hebrew Christians are exhorted to put themselves under the authority of those who “watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy.” (Heb. 13:7, 17, emphasis supplied).

Those who “watch for your souls” were the pastoral elders of the early church. And the statement that the pastoral undershepherds are going to give an account to the Lord Jesus concerning their watch care should be sobering to all who have the privilege of being the Lord’s undershepherds here on Earth of some of the Great Shepherd’s flock.

In life, and especially in religious life, with its eternal consequences, we have the responsibility to seek to be understood correctly. We have the additional responsibility to do our very best not to be misunderstood. From much experience, I know that some people, when reading this column will automatically assume that my position on this issue is dictated by my supposed prejudice toward women.

So let me “put my cards on the table” (if a Baptist can be permitted to use such a phrase). I believe the New Testament does not allow women to be in “authority” over men in the local church. However, while serving as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics and public policy entity (the Christian Life Commission, now the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission), I called a woman to be the “head” of our Washington, D.C., office (the home office is in Nashville). And yes, she did have supervisory authority over men, which was perfectly appropriate because the Washington office was not a church and her supervisory role was not pastoral.

And by the way, her name was Shannon Royce and she did a great job until she felt that her responsibilities as a mother required her to resign. We were sorry to see her go and we missed her dedication and expertise.

I personally would have no theological problem with a woman being the head of any Southern Baptist institution or serving as a dean or a professor in any Southern Baptist seminary or college. If former U.N. Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick had wanted to run for president, I would have been all for it. If an American Margaret Thatcher (my personal favorite political leader) emerged on the current scene, I would enthusiastically back her political ambitions.

And, having attended Southern Baptist churches all of my conscious life I am well aware that virtually all of our churches would implode upon themselves without the myriads of women who invest their spiritual gifts and time in local churches and in personal discipleship and other ministry efforts.

At the time the Baptist Faith & Message study committee was appointed, the idea of women serving in a pastoral role, senior and otherwise, in a local church was a bigger issue than I believe it to be in the current SBC.  At the time the committee felt that it had to be addressed forthrightly in the BF&M 2000, and it was.

The present discussion is a disagreement among complementarians, not a debate between complementarians and egalitarians. On one side, you have complementarians who believe that, based on Scripture, women should not be given the title of pastor in any sense by the church because it would inevitably be perceived and interpreted as a church conferring some degree of pastoral authority on the individual woman given the title and that would contradict New Testament apostolic teaching.

The other group is complementarians who believe that while the role of “senior pastor” is reserved only for men, women can be given the title of some type of “pastor” without violating the New Testament admonition of not having a woman in authority over men in the local church.

I am certain that the overwhelming consensus among the study committee members was that the prohibition on women as “pastors” was meant to be inclusive, and did not leave room for female church staff members to be accorded even a qualified version of that title.

Frankly, I believe it is impossible in Southern Baptist culture and tradition for a church to confer even a qualified portion of the term “pastor” on a woman staff member without conferring some degree of pastoral authority upon her, which would be a violation of New Testament teaching.

As the discussion continues, Southern Baptists will have to decide how wide “like faith and practice” can be stretched and what is amenable to a significant majority of the local churches who will ultimately decide the matter.

I do know that those who object to expanding the pastoral terminology to women believe that if the practice is widely accepted, there will be an inevitable vocabulary-driven “mission creep” and sooner rather than later the Convention will have to arbitrate the issue of women being accepted as “the pastor” of local assemblies of believers.

This Southern Baptist would ask, “Why invite the confusion such imprecise vocabulary would inevitably bring with it? Why invite confusion and discord by calling a woman “pastor” to senior adults when “minister” to senior adults conveys an understanding of her important role in the church’s ministry without inevitably conferring perceived pastoral authority upon her in violation of the Apostle Paul’s clear direction.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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