I was not surprised by the vote of the SBC to expel Saddleback Church, the congregation my wife, Kay, and I founded 43 years ago, for giving three longtime female staff members “pastor of” titles. There are now perhaps nearly 2,000 other SBC churches around the United States worried they will be next.
The SBC executive committee’s unprecedented decision has opened a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences that will fundamentally destroy several tenets of the Baptist faith upon which the Convention was founded.
The SBC has been in decline since the Baptist Faith and Message confession was revised in 2000 to add a prohibition against female pastors. Then in 2015, just eight years ago, an amendment to the SBC constitution weaponized that confession, turning it into an enforceable creed.
For 400 years, Baptists have been anti-creed — but not anymore. Sadly, I think the decline in the SBC’s size and influence will continue as the Convention suffers one self-inflicted wound after another. These problems have weakened the identity, structure, mission and strategies for cooperation that once made the SBC a powerful force for the kingdom of God and for good in our society.
Some SBC leaders seem unable to admit it or talk about it, but denial is dishonesty. This is not a glitch or the result of a pandemic; it is a trajectory on which we have been for a while, and we should recognize the accompanying hypocrisies. No longer can we afford to avoid admitting our faults.
Those who care about the SBC should be concerned: Why would leadership want to further reduce a dwindling denomination? If ever we needed more believers operating in their God-given gifts and teaching abilities, it is now.
The SBC representatives — they are called “messengers” — who voted not to reinstate Saddleback and two other churches could have avoided a costly decade of inquisition and infighting that now looms. They could have avoided the inevitable and painful purging of the roughly 2,000 SBC churches that have already designated female staff as pastors. Instead, they have helped ensure that the once great SBC will be known as the Shrinking Baptist Convention.
That grieves my heart. Many SBC churches have given women the title of “pastor” for various tasks, such as children’s pastor, youth pastor, associate pastor or missions pastor. However, to remain “in friendly cooperation” with the SBC, none of that will now be allowed. The debate is over an English word — “pastor” — that is not even in the Bible, though “pastors” (plural) appears once, in a list of spiritual gifts of service but not in the context of an office or title of status. Not a single man or woman is called a “pastor” in the New Testament in any English translation.
Recognizing that the SBC’s executive committee consists of mostly male members, I should note that men treat this as a theological issue. Women, however, see it as an existential issue, because it denies the gifts, talents and skills they were sovereignly given by God. It thwarts their identity. We’ll never get 100 percent of Baptists to agree 100 percent on 100 percent of doctrine, but we should be able to agree on the common mission to which we have been called.
The SBC’s decision is disappointing to me, given my family’s four-generation history as Southern Baptists. I spoke out at the SBC meeting in New Orleans this month to support the frightened pastors and frustrated women in service around the country. But we need to get back to the main thing.
In some of his last words on Earth, Jesus commanded his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
These marching orders are known today as the Great Commission. Nearly 2,000 years have passed since Jesus assigned to us the most important task of all time, and yet there are still people and places across the globe who have never once had the opportunity to hear the good news of the Gospel.
To fulfill the Great Commission, we need everyone in the church using all of their gifts. We cannot finish the task with 50 percent of the team forced to sit on the bench. We need everybody on the field.