Every now and then we’re posed with existential questions that cause us to dive deep into the meaning of a word. Haddaway asked us “What is love?” in the 1990s. Tom Brady in 2001 asked us “What is a fumble?”
All levity aside, these questions are a way of bringing out a conversation and a question arising during the SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim this week. Sadly we weren’t able to make it out to California for the meeting this year. Hopefully next year we’ll be able to have plenty of beignets to go with our ballots.
The existential question coming from the meeting centered around a recommendation by the Credentials Committee to look at the issue of women pastors, particularly as it relates to Saddleback Church. Yes, they are SBC.
And that’s where it gets weird. In our convention of churches, you’ve got Saddleback and the Purpose-Driven model. You’ve also got Grace Church in Cape Coral Florida which is the home of the Founders Ministries. You’ve also got Steven Furtick and Elevation Church in Charlotte. And then you’ve got my church and (if you’re SBC) your church. You have Clifton Church in Louisville that has elders with more PhDs than you can count. You have multisite churches like Summit in RDU and you’ve got Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington DC. You’ve got traditional churches that sing all four verses in the hymnal and you’ve got churches that set off fire alarms from the smoke machines. You also have divides over things like politics and promoting candidates (looking at you FBC Dallas) and what the extent of the atonement is.
It’s long been said that if you put two Baptists in a room you’ll have three opinions. And there’s no shortage of opinions on SBC Twitter or on the floor of the annual meeting. One of the reasons for this is the very question of what it means to be Southern Baptist. If you look on the SBC website you’ll see a phrase “The SBC is a collection of like-minded churches working in cooperation with one another to impact the whole world with the Good News of Jesus Christ.” Before any discussion of what it means to be like-minded, it’s key to begin with Article 3 of the SBC constitution that defines what it means for a church to be in “friendly cooperation” with the convention.
One of the cherished and historic Baptist distinctives from our early days (however early is up for debate) has been religious liberty and soul competency, but above all the autonomy of the local church. In other words, our churches cannot be compelled to do anything by an ecclesial office or person. Each church sets its own name, owns its own property, and has the authority to govern itself without influence from Nashville. That includes determining a church’s statement of faith. Our own governing documents at Emmanuel has an explanation of our beliefs with a statement that we are in general agreement with the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. Your church may have something slightly different. Some copy/paste the BFM. Others add the 1689 London Confession. Some use the 1963 BFM. I bet there’s a few out there who use the original 1925 BFM. Others may add additional statements that have come into usage in the last few years, whether those be the Danvers, Nashville, Chicago, the Statement on Social Justice, or more. The point is that in any of these, the local church alone has the authority to determine its own statement of faith.
The question of “What makes a Southern Baptist” isn’t so much its statement of faith. That’s important. But it’s not the defining issue. The defining issue is a joining of mutual, voluntary cooperation between churches for the sake of the Gospel to the nations. That nature of cooperation works both ways. The Convention has the right to determine who is and who isn’t deemed in the convention, and churches have the right to decide if they want to join or withdraw. We are a confessional people. What we believe matters. But we are not a creedal people. Our churches cannot be compelled to affirm the BFM 2000 in order to be deemed in friendly cooperation. Our entities, however, can be compelled. They are not churches. They are separate legal entities which operate by the will and for the service of the churches. They can require employees, faculty, and trustees to affirm the BFM 2000. They can expect faculty to teach in accordance with and not contrary to its governing documents and statements of faith. Faculty at our seminaries are bound by Christian integrity to hold to these positions without mental reservation. Why? They’re not churches.
The SBC has always been a bigger tent than some would like. And maybe it hasn’t been big enough for others. The reality is when you put almost 50,000 churches across a spectrum of what we believe about a number of secondary issues in the same tent, there’s going to be some clowns. Our fellowship of churches and our cooperation has always existed with a very tenuous unity. I think about the scene from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly where everyone is in a standoff. No one’s firing their guns…. yet.
One of the tension points that we must understand as Southern Baptists is that we will be in partnership and cooperation with people who don’t do things the way we do in our church. Look at the affinity groups that meet at the SBC annual meeting. There are so many different groups, different backgrounds, different perspectives. And they all physically gather in the same meeting space as a visible reminder that we are all on the same team. Yes, I even would argue that there is room in the SBC for groups like Founders and the CBN. I don’t like either of them. I think they’re fringe and they have an agenda to proxy coup. But, provided they’re willing to voluntarily cooperate for the sake of the mission and for the Gospel to get to the nations through our convention mechanisms (ie the Cooperative Program) then while I wouldn’t attend any of your events I would affirm you as a fellow Southern Baptist. The key element in this is that we must be willing to cooperate with those different than us. It’s a two-way street. Some won’t cooperate or won’t play ball unless they get their way. That’s not the Baptist way. It’s not even the Christian way.
The second tension point is that we’re going to look at “closely identifies” and have to wrestle with what that means for a church to closely identify. We’ve been pretty clear by protocol, practice, and governing documents that a church which affirms the LGBT lifestyle is out of cooperation with the Convention, and recently that churches which harbor and retain sexual abusers as pastors/leaders are out of cooperation. Since the 2000 BFM adoption we’ve been pretty clear that a church with a woman lead pastor is out of cooperation.
Once we get past those, we’re in the Saddleback situation. In article VI of the BFM 2000 we read “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” And here we need charitable clarity to move forward within our tension points. As said on Twitter by two seminary presidents, words matter.
A recommendation by the Credentials Committee was presented to the messengers to put together a study group to present to the 2023 SBC in New Orleans additional clarity regarding the “office of pastor.” Their reasoning was that there are many different offices within Baptist churches which include “pastor” in the title, though often with very different responsibilities and authority. I had hoped it would pass, and a study group could be formed. I was disappointed it was rescinded by Credentials after some passionate discussion. Not because I think it was a back door attempt to legitimize women pastors (it’s not, and I was disappointed to see some run with that) but because it is a legitimate issue that demands greater clarity so the messengers and our churches can be better informed. It’s long been debated that the “office of pastor” is the lead/senior pastor, or in a church that has them, the elders. It’s opened debate on the nuance of office & function of pastor, especially in relation to the pulpit and whether or not a woman can address/preach/teach the Body in corporate worship. The Greenway amendment to add to the study group to define what it means for a church to have a confession of faith that “closely identifies” was wise, and I was again disappointed to see it voted down.
Many of our churches use pastor and offer a qualifier not found in Scripture to add to the office. There’s no biblical office of youth pastor, music pastor, small groups pastor, pastor of experience, pastor emeritus, or any combination role you can think of that has pastor in it. There is one biblical office of pastor, pastor. So what does that mean? How do we best practice our ecclesiology within our confessional statements and how we identify leadership and the scope of authority/responsibility? How we’ve handled this at Emmanuel is that we have made a distinction between paid/vocational ministry staff and those whom we use the word pastor to describe. We believe that elders/pastors are qualified men, but we do not believe that all ministry leaders have to be pastors. For those who are given the title of pastor (myself and before they moved away our volunteer associate pastor and our bivocational music/kids pastor) there is a greater expectation and responsibility. Pastors preach. Pastors shepherd. Pastors care for the body. Pastors are personal examples of being above reproach. Maybe your church does it a little different. And that’s fine. You do you. We’ll do us.
I have three hopes for the next 12 months:
Should Saddleback remain in the SBC? Here’s my two cents: No, they probably shouldn’t. And they should be the one to make the break. It’s ok. There’s no harm in saying “Hey guys, we’ve moved away from where we were on these issues. And we know you have your convictions. We love you. We’ll pray for you. And we’ll be cheering you on as we go our separate ways.” Rick Warren is a peacemaker, and has treated those with whom he disagrees with kindness though remaining firm in his convictions. Psalm 133 tells us it’s good when God’s people live together in unity. There’s some fractures in the relationship. Maybe it’s best before New Orleans for the break to happen. I know some won’t like that or agree. That’s fine. We’re Baptist, we have to be fine with not agreeing!
In the preamble to the BFM 2000, we read “Baptist churches, associations, and general bodies have adopted confessions of faith as a witness to the world, and as instruments of doctrinal accountability. We are not embarrassed to state before the world that these are doctrines we hold precious and as essential to the Baptist tradition of faith and practice.” Let’s hold our cherished beliefs dear, let’s hold them firmly, and let’s move forward towards charitable clarity as we continue to do the work of defining how it best we live out our cooperative relationships and our shared faith.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.