Faced with pressure from its rightward flank, the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board issued a statement Oct. 14 promising that “only qualified men” will “serve as the communicator for teaching and preaching” at church plants endorsed by NAMB.
While the SBC has adopted resolutions and doctrinal statements prohibiting women from serving as pastors, a rift has opened in recent years between the most thoroughly conservative Southern Baptists (exemplified by the Calvinist Founders Ministries group) and other growth-oriented pragmatists (exemplified by Rick Warren and his Saddleback Church in Southern California).
When news broke in early May that Saddleback had ordained three female staff members as ministers and that Kay Warren, Rick Warren’s wife, had delivered a Sunday morning message, the male-only segment of the SBC went on high alert. Some called for Saddleback — the largest church in the SBC — to be kicked out of the fold.
Male pastors raising alarms
Some male pastors, particularly within Founders Ministries, also have expressed concerns for several months about reports of NAMB-sponsored church starts where women were listed with pastoral titles. Some within the group had researched the issue and called out those they believed were violators.
Tom Buck, an East Texas pastor affiliated with Founders Ministries — who earlier this year called Vice President Kamala Harris a “Jezebel” — had been leading the charge against perceived lack enforcement of the SBC’s no-women-pastors policy in NAMB church starts. After the Oct. 14 NAMB statement, Buck tweeted his gratitude for NAMB President Kevin Ezell and said: “For the record, whether approved or not, multiple NAMB plants had women preaching and some with title of pastor. This policy on prohibition of women pastors/preaching in corporate worship of NAMB church plants is new & needed!”
Also on Oct. 14, Founders Ministries President Tom Ascol said on Twitter that the primary credit for this victory goes to Buck, who he said had diligently pursued the concern through NAMB’s administration.
This reiteration of the SBC’s male-headship policies comes as the denomination is embroiled in a highly publicized investigation of alleged mishandling of sexual abuse cases within the SBC, largely abuse cases against women by male leaders.
Controversy over women’s roles in mission leadership, both overseas and domestically, is nothing new to the SBC.
No woman ever has been elected president of the SBC, and no woman ever has led an SBC agency or institution other than Woman’s Missionary Union, which is considered an “auxiliary” to the SBC’s mission work.
Controversy over women’s roles in mission leadership, both overseas and domestically, is nothing new to the SBC. Opposition to women serving as pastors was one of the drivers of the schism within the SBC in the 1990s. At that time, a few women had served as pastors of SBC church starts or of congregations that received some kind of financial assistance.
The NAMB statement
The new NAMB statement says: “Our ministry assignment is to serve our brothers and sisters across the convention in autonomous SBC churches. We recognize there are differing views on how best to interpret and apply Article VI of The Baptist Faith and Message, which affirms the truth that ‘both men and women are gifted for service in the church’ and that ‘the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.’ We will continue to partner with and assist any cooperating churches. We believe it best, however, to reserve endorsement and funding for planters who are willing to reflect the practice of most Southern Baptists in this issue.”
Following this policy, the statement explains, is akin to following NAMB’s policy that church planters “abstain from alcohol in their personal practice as well as in church-sponsored events.”
“Only qualified men will hold the office or title of ‘pastor / elder / bishop / overseer’ and, as such, serve as the communicator for teaching and preaching in their main gatherings or worship services.”
It then adds: “NAMB also requires that endorsed planters align with the practice of the majority of Southern Baptist churches — that only qualified men will hold the office or title of “pastor/elder/bishop/overseer” and, as such, serve as the communicator for teaching and preaching in their main gatherings or worship services. Since culture, practice and methodology in the early years of a church plant set a foundation for future ministry, all endorsed Send Network planters will agree to abide by this guideline for the duration of their endorsement period.”
The last sentence illustrates the reality that once a church has been started and moves beyond NAMB’s startup funding, the mission agency has no further control over its policies.
Who is a ‘pastor’?
Also at play behind this debate is a parsing of the word “pastor.” Some SBC churches, like other evangelical churches, interpret limitations on only males serving as pastors to apply only to the primary preacher or leader of the congregation. The most conservative side of the SBC believes women never should be in any position of “authority” over men, which includes not only preaching but also teaching any males other than young children.
Tedd Mathis, pastor of Pueblo West Baptist Church in Pueblo, Colo., recently wrote a blog about this issue for the Founders Ministries website. In it, he explains the concerns he and others have about women serving in any role with the title pastor, not just the senior pastor role.
“We saw it on SBC church websites here in Colorado that listed women as co-lead pastors and women preaching before Christ’s gathered church.”
Mathis joined together his concerns about women in church leadership and Critical Race Theory in the same post. He and others are concerned, he explained: “First, seeing God’s good design dishonored and distorted by women serving in the role of pastors. Second, seeing the tentacles of the godless ideology of Critical Race Theory unnecessarily divide Christ’s blood-bought people. Those distortions and those tentacles were being observed in our own backyard. We saw it on SBC church websites here in Colorado that listed women as co-lead pastors and women preaching before Christ’s gathered church. We saw it in publicly posted essays written by Colorado pastors using the divisive language of CRT.”
In the current situation, NAMB reported through Baptist Press that it had conducted a review of 1,200 endorsed church plants and found that none of them listed a women as senior pastor or lead pastor, although six listed a woman with the title “pastor” or in some staff leadership role.
“Those have been addressed,” Ezell told Baptist Press. “We individually and appropriately address these situations as they come to our attention.”
Several SBC leaders are board members or leaders within a group known as the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which advocates a strict complementarian theology. Complementarianism says that God created men and women for distinctly different roles and that men also must be the leaders in home and church.
Both groups that splintered from the SBC in the late 20th century — the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship — affirm women serving in all pastoral and leadership roles. The same is true among most of the mainline Protestant denominations, including the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Disciples of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The SBC, the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the three largest religious groups in America that strictly prohibit women from primary leadership roles.
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