In recent days following the 2022 SBC, the debate over the office and function of pastor has reached a boiling point. One of the points that I’ve sought to labor over the last four years is that social justice is about far more than racism (ethnic prejudice). It’s likewise far more than women preachers too. That’s what makes social justice such a powerful force to be reckoned with.
While social justice is multi-faceted—it certainly does involve what we may call the latest feminist revolution—a new wave of egalitarians who are seeking to deconstruct evangelical churches, institutions, and denominations.
While this issue has been a constant debate at some level within the SBC (the largest group of protestant churches in America) for years, many people believe that egalitarianism will rule the SBC just as it has overtaken other Mainline denominations.
Rick Warren is no newcomer to the evangelical scene. He and his church, Saddleback Church, have been around for a long time. The influence of Warren upon evangelicalism is without question massively large and much of it coming from his writing ministry including his bestselling books, Purpose Driven Life and Purpose Driven Church.
Last May, Warren made news when he led his church to ordain three women to the office of pastor. Warren praised the move as a “historic night.” This resulted in a motion to disfellowship Saddleback from the SBC at the 2021 annual meeting. Over the last year, the Credentials Committee of the SBC reviewed Saddleback Church’s position and was prepared to give a report to the messengers of the SBC in California during the second week of June, 2022. To intensify matters, Rick Warren made another announcement right before the annual meeting of the SBC which involved news of his retirement plans and the new co-pastor husband and wife team that will be replacing him.
During the time for the Credentials Committee’s report, the chairwoman Linda Cooper began her report by giving an overview of the Committee’s role which merely reviews the relationship of specific churches to the SBC regarding their faith and practice but does not have authority over the churches. In order to evaluate the standing of a specific church like Saddleback, the Credentials Committee reviews the church’s faith and practice according to the following criteria:
- Previous actions of the Southern Baptist Convention
- The Baptist Faith & Message
- Adopted resolutions
- The SBC’s governing documents
This is important because of the fact that the determination is not based solely upon the text of Scripture or the confession of faith known as the Baptist Faith & Message. It’s based on previous actions of the SBC (traditional approaches and decisions) and adopted resolutions. In other words, the resolutions of the SBC do matter from year to year. If the SBC has drifted off course slightly from year to year with certain resolutions and decisions that move the SBC to the left on important matters such as the office of pastor, the Credentials Committee cannot appeal to a biblical text and disfellowship a church for a clear breach of doctrinal conviction.
When one examines the history of the SBC, it’s clear that the title “minister” has been historically used for women in various roles within local churches—including children’s minister, music minister, and a variety of other roles. This has been a historic move in the direction of normalizing the idea of women serving as pastors and could play into the way a study committee or Credentials Committee views this issue.
The official recommendation from the Credentials Committee stated that that they were not prepared to make a recommendation regarding Saddleback Church based on the fact that there are differing opinions regarding the intent of the office of pastor. They recommended forming a study committee that would assess the differentiation between the office and function of a pastor within the Southern Baptist Convention. In other words, some churches may have women serving with the title pastor who have the “gifts” of a pastor while not holding the office of pastor within the church. This is Rick Warren’s position and it’s clear that his opinions have influenced the Credentials Committee through this process.
The recommendation was opposed by messengers from the floor and amendments were offered, but they failed to gain support from the body of messengers and were not adopted. After Rick Warren spoke from the floor as a messenger from the Saddleback Church, the Credentials Committee withdrew its recommendation stating that they will convene throughout the year to conclude on Saddleback Church in the coming months.
In 2018 as the messengers of the SBC gathered together in Dallas, Texas for their annual meeting, the question was centered on whether or not a woman could serve as the president of the SBC. Figures such as Dwight McKissic and James Merritt supported the idea publicly. Since 2018, the social justice train has unpacked various boxcars filled with progressive ideologies within the SBC (CRT/I and more). The social justice movement is not over. In fact, the social justice train is just beginning to unload its cargo boxcar by boxcar and there is much more to come in the days to follow.
The Need for the Debate
One can be certain that a debate on this issue is certain at this point. However, as the debate unfolds in form of social media posts, articles, podcasts, and conference sermons—watch closely to how the language is employed. Words matter and theology matters, but how words are employed and how statements are crafted will reveal much about the intent of the leadership of the SBC.
The problem with the SBC is the lack of clarity in the Baptist Faith & Message. The SBC adopted a statement that was intentionally big tent oriented in order to give place for churches of various stripes—conservative and far less conservative. The “big tent” approach to ministry precipitates clashes on important matters that prevent many churches from working together in unity on both Christian education and church planting.
The SBC does not need a floating signifier which allows for various groups to interpret the meaning of a text based on their own passions, beliefs, and practices. If the SBC employs language intended to be less concrete and clear in order to serve as a floating signifier to appease differing groups, the control of the Convention comes down to mob rule rather than clear and concrete meaning established in a well articulated confession rooted in biblical texts.
Cultural trends and the present debate within the SBC on the office and function of pastor indicate that the mob is coming after the SBC. In 2017 Barna Research Group pointed out that there was a distinct rise in women pastors. According to their study, “One of every 11 Protestant pastors is a woman—triple as many as 25 years ago.” According to the statistical report titled, “State of Clergywomen in the U.S.: A Statistical Update” the numbers indicate that within “most Mainline denominations, the percentage of clergywomen has doubled or tripled since 1994.” Forget the debate on women serving as president of the SBC, the goal is a full takeover of local churches and seminaries.
In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul articulates a clear prohibition related to women in the local church. He says, ” I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” There is a distinction between the teaching and exercise of authority that should be acknowledged. Paul was a bit of a revolutionary in his day, since women were often not permitted to learn, but Paul encourages them to be learners—studying out the faith and gaining greater knowledge of their God (1 Tim. 2:11). Although the Holy Spirit led Paul to stretch the boundaries of women in one cultural area, he revisited historic boundaries in the area of teaching that God had already put into place back in the Garden. Women, as Paul stated, were not to teach men. This is a reversal of roles.
The word teach, “διδάσκω,” according to Thomas Schreiner, has in mind the public teaching and involves authoritative transmission of tradition about Christ and the Scriptures (1 Cor. 12:28-29; Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 3:16; James 3:1). 1Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, Women in the Church (Third Edition): An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 190. The office of elder is a teaching office and is connected with oversight authority, but the idea of teaching and authority can be distinct among themselves. It is possible for a person to teach the Bible with authority without being an elder in a local church, but he cannot be an elder without authority nor can he preach without authority. When referencing authority, Paul uses the word, “αὐθεντέω” as he addresses this boundary for women in the church. When Paul makes his statement, he goes on to explain by writing, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:13-14). This is not a curse on women because of the fall, but rather a design from the beginning instituted by God. John MacArthur writes:
Women may be highly gifted teachers and leaders, but those gifts are not to be exercised over men in the context of the church. That is true not because women are spiritually inferior to men but because God’s law commands it. He has ordained order in His creation—an order that reflects His own nature and therefore should be reflected in His church. Anyone ignoring or rejecting God’s order, then, weakens the church and dishonors Him. 2John MacArthur, “Can Women Exercise Authority in the Church?” [accessed 4-17-18]
The SBC and other evangelical denominations must regain a firm commitment to the Bible and avoid ambiguous language and criteria for interpreting what the Bible actually says. In some cases that might mean that your tent becomes smaller, but in the end if it glorifies God—the size of the tent doesn’t really matter. The fact remains, leaders within the SBC continue to defend and actively promote a big tent approach to ministry more than a fierce commitment to the biblical text. If that indeed is the commitment of the SBC, it’s doomed to failure.