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First Thoughts

Women Pastors and The Future of The Southern Baptist Convention

One of the kindest gifts of God to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been the leadership we have enjoyed from some of the finest preachers in America. Those leaders have never been perfect but have always been characterized by faithfulness to the Word of God.

These days Southern Baptists are witnessing a display of faithlessness from one of our most influential leaders, America’s pastor, Rick Warren. In recent years Pastor Rick has led his church in calling women to the pastoral office. Because this practice is a clear violation of Scripture and The Baptist Faith and Message (BFM), the SBC has taken steps to remove his church from the convention. Pastor Rick’s church has the freedom to hire anyone they like. The SBC has similar freedom to affiliate with anyone they like.

Pastor Rick is embracing his church’s freedom while protesting the SBC’s.

Southern Baptists are accustomed to seeing the convention’s largest and most influential pastors stand to speak in defense of Scripture and the BFM. This year we are witnessing one of our most prominent leaders speak against the Bible and our confession.

Such open faithlessness is shocking, new, and sad.

Women Pastors?

Pastor Rick is arguing that messengers should allow churches with female pastors to remain in friendly cooperation. He believes this position is biblical. He says women pastors are endorsed in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), by the fact that women were the original witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24:10), and that the gift of prophecy in the early church was poured out on men and women (Acts 2:17-18).

These passages are crucial teachings in Scripture endorsing the critical role that women play in our ministries. Southern Baptists embrace the crucial involvement of women in our churches because God does. But these passages are not at odds with other verses that specifically limit the office of pastor to men (2 Timothy 2:15; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6).

The Bible is not at war with itself. Passages of Scripture cannot be deployed against one another. Southern Baptists have already figured this out and made clear in the BFM that “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

For 2000 years, Christians have believed that women are indispensable to the Great Commission while also reserving the pastoral office to qualified men. There is no reason to revisit this issue now.

David and Goliath

Pastor Rick disagrees. He is characterizing the freedom of the SBC to hold its position in terms of David and Goliath. He says many small churches and pastors with no voice believe women should be pastors and someone must stand up for them against the mighty and powerful SBC (you’re supposed to hear thunder clapping in the background of this statement).

This claim misunderstands that the SBC is nothing, if not a large group of small churches and normal pastors who have come together to share Christ with the world. The SBC is the largest grassroots organization of normal Christians in the entire world and, by design, can never force anyone to do anything. No one is being oppressed or mistreated when these congregations and their pastors come together of their own free will, make their understanding of Scripture clear, and ask that cooperating churches agree.

What is oppressive is when a prominent leader uses his influence, voice, and power to introduce conflict on a matter that has been settled for decades. Such behavior is unloving, heartbreaking, and painfully regrettable.

Faithfulness and the Future

The passages of Scripture reserving the office of pastor for qualified men are unpopular. They are not unclear. In fact, they are so clear that they have been a test case for faithfulness—not just in Southern Baptist life, but for every denomination. Conservative denominations who approve the ordination of women are always fully liberalized within a generation. That is true because the teaching of Scripture on this issue is so incredibly clear that if you can make the Bible say women pastors are acceptable, you can make the Bible say anything. If you possess the ability to make the Bible say anything, eventually, you will.

Southern Baptists know it is not our job to make the Bible say whatever we want. It is our job simply to trust the Lord and do what the Bible says. We must never follow someone’s lead into error simply because they have an influential ministry. Instead, we must make clear that we believe the entire Bible—even when it is unpopular. If doing this requires approving a constitutional amendment, then we should do it even though I believe our documents are already clear. On an issue of such importance, we can afford to risk redundancy for the sake of clarity.

Southern Baptists need to pray for Pastor Rick. In the final phase of his ministry, he is exalting himself above God’s Word, he is standing against Scripture, and he is urging others to follow him into the black night of faithlessness. It is not too late for him to stop, but he must cry out to God, humble himself, and repent. We should ask God for this to happen.

But if Pastor Rick will not turn, then Southern Baptists must not follow him into his error. This is not an issue on which we can bend.

Today Southern Baptists must focus on faithfulness. This faithfulness requires us to uphold the clear teachings of Scripture and our confessional documents. May God help us to do that in New Orleans.

This is part 3 of a series of blog posts on the Future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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