When Southern Baptists met in New Orleans this week for their annual convention, a number of important issues were on the docket, including updating the Convention’s progress on the sexual abuse scandals that were the focus of last year’s meeting and discussing budget problems after coming in nearly $7 million in the red last year. However, the SBC’s primary focus was rendering a verdict on whether Saddleback Church, a megachurch in California started by Rick Warren, would be able to remain affiliated with the SBC due to the issue of women pastors.
The Convention decided to disfellowship the church back in February because it had ordained three women as pastors in 2021 and “assigned pastoral titles to all women in pastoral roles” last December. However, the SBC’s bylaws gave Saddleback—and the other five churches who received a similar judgment—the opportunity to appeal the decision at the national convention. And while more than 88 percent of those who came representing their home churches voted to uphold that judgment, it’s unlikely that the matter is settled for good.
After all, as Rick Warren said in his final remarks, there are 1,928 churches within the Convention that have women on pastoral staff. Moreover, many among that 11.36 percent that voted to keep Saddleback in the SBC—the equivalent of roughly 5,600 churches—are likely less than thrilled with the results as well.
But why was the topic of women in the role of pastors such a big issue for the SBC? And why is this discussion relevant to you, regardless of your belief on that subject or your denominational affiliation?
Let’s tackle the first question first.
Creeds vs. confessions of faith
One of the foundational principles that sets Baptists apart from many other Christian denominations is that, from their earliest days, they have been wary of creeds, which essentially function as a statement of belief with which one must agree to be part of the group that holds to it. Baptists have instead favored confessions of faith, which function more as a guideline to explain the core beliefs shared by the majority of churches in their affiliation.
While the difference between those two approaches may sound like semantics, it has been important historically because it has helped to mitigate the division that often pops up when theological disagreements threaten to become more important than our shared faith in Jesus Christ.
In the SBC, that confession is called the Baptist Faith and Message, and it has undergone a number of revisions over the years in order to keep the document accurate to the beliefs of the majority within the Convention. The latest version was updated in 2000 and added this specification: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” An amendment approved at this year’s convention would add the offices of elder and overseer to that list of positions that only men can fill as well. That amendment will have to be ratified once again in 2024.
Prior to 2000, this section of the confession focused more on defining the church as “an autonomous body, operating through democratic processes under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”
The line the SBC wouldn’t cross
The belief that churches within the convention were ultimately accountable only to Christ played a key role in Rick Warren’s argument that Saddleback should not be removed from the SBC. As he stated, both from the convention floor and in an open letter to Southern Baptists, he does not expect those who disagree with him and his church on the issue of women in pastoral roles to change their theology. He just asked that they see the issue in the same way as other doctrinal differences—he named Calvinism and dispensationalism as two such examples—and agree to disagree.
The Convention was not willing to make that accommodation.
And while that may seem harsh and overly demanding, their reasoning is important to understand even if you still disagree.
As Albert Mohler, who spoke for the committee that handled Saddleback’s appeal, stated, “Southern Baptists decided this is not just a matter of church polity, this is not just a matter of hermeneutics, it’s a matter of biblical commitment—to a Scripture we believe unequivocally limits the office of pastor to men.”
While Christians can disagree on how “unequivocally” the Bible speaks to this issue (see “Should women be pastors?” by Dr. Jim Denison), the Convention’s reasoning is important because it shows that what distinguishes this question from the subjects that Warren brought up is the degree to which a clear answer can be known.
For the SBC, this issue is clear, and any compromise would constitute a challenge to biblical authority.
That was the line the SBC was unwilling to cross. And while some may disagree with where they drew that line—myself among them—the discussion points to a critical decision that each of us must make as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission and help the lost find Jesus.
Watering down the Word of God
One of the greatest temptations we must guard against is wanting so badly to help people accept Jesus that we dilute the gospel into something that is more palatable but no longer the truth of God’s word.
If you were to describe the core tenets of the Christian faith, where would you start? How long is that list of nonnegotiables? And how far down the list do you get before things start to get a bit uncomfortable?
For me, the hardest part is when we get to the issue of sin.
I recognize that all of us are sinful and that we need Jesus to save us. However, I also feel the pull to water down just how damning that sin is in comparison to our holy God and to focus so much on Christ’s grace that the reason he had to die in the first place becomes something of an afterthought.
But human depravity is a nonnegotiable truth of Scripture, and minimizing or ignoring its importance fundamentally alters the truth of the gospel.
The same basic principle applies to a number of other subjects as well.
We cannot cross certain lines and still consider our message to be Christian. While I do not believe the role of women as pastors rises to that level—and, to be clear, the SBC is not saying Saddleback or any other church that affirms women as pastors is no longer Christian—the authority of the Bible is essential.
So take some time and ask God to show you any areas in your faith where you’ve approached, or even crossed, the line of creating a gospel in your image rather than allowing the gospel to mold you into God’s image.
All of us have some area where we’re tempted to go astray.