I am not sure of the final outcome of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) exploration to disfellowship Rick Warren for affirming women in ministry within biblical and BFM2K parameters without compromising male leadership. However, I am believing that history will remember Warren as a reformer having elevated the status of women in SBC life to be aligned with Scripture. The SBC may choose to make him a martyr, and that will be to the detriment of the health of the Convention.
A discussion evolving around the role of women in ministry the parameters of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM2K) statement erupted in volcanic fashion in SBC life to a full-blown controversy, with Rick Warren at the center. The SBC Credentials Committee, in June 2022, asked the floor of the Convention to impanel a committee to offer clarification(s) on the following words found in the BFM2K:
“While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
It is a settled conviction and largely agreement by consensus in SBC life that the role and “the office of the pastor is limited to men.”
The question at the heart of this controversy is this: Does the phrase “the office of the pastor” in the BFM2K reference the senior or lead pastor in a local church exclusively—that is clearly identifiable to all congregants and usually the community the church is located in? Or is that phrase also inclusive of any person on a local SBC church staff, who may have the word “pastor” included in their job title—such as “Women’s Pastor,” “Children’s Pastor,” “Youth Pastor,” “Young Adult Pastor,” “Senior’s Pastor,” “Executive Pastor,” etc.?
Is it biblical and BFM2K compliant that the word “pastor” in a job title be solely and exclusively reserved for males on a church staff? Or can a female on staff who is gifted by God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7; Ephesians 4:11-12) to serve a local church in their area of giftedness also assume the title pastor, as an adjective or descriptive term in their area of giftedness, such as “worship pastor,” “spiritual formation pastor,” “teaching pastor,” “administration pastor,” etc.?
Succinctly stated, the following two questions facing the SBC regarding women in ministry are:
1. Is the BFM2K violated if a female on a church staff has the word “pastor” in her job title?
A related question not asked by the Credentials Committee, but is also smoldering around this controversy is:
2. If a female fulfills the role of the preacher in a coed worship context within a local SBC church (who is not a pastor, nor wears the title), has that church violated the BFM2K Article 6 clause that says, “the office of the pastor is limited to men”?
In the opinion of a sizeable segment of the SBC, answers to these two questions are not made clear in the BFM2K, as evidenced by: (1) The fact that the Credentials Committee asked for clarification of the first question; (2) the standing ovation and applause Rick Warren received on the floor of the Convention when he made it clear that he sees a distinction from exercising and functioning in the giftedness of “pastor,” and serving in “the office of the pastor”; and (3) the large number of SBC churches who allow women to speak/preach in worship service who do not interpret the BFM2K to prohibit them speaking.
Amid fresh infighting over race, a reckoning with abuse, heated debates over the role of women, and a Credentials Committee considering whether to disfellowship arguably the best known and most influential SBC pastor historically and currently—I must ask myself again and again…what is the future of the SBC? And what is the future of the relationship with the SBC with those of us who have non-negotiable convictions and beliefs on both sides of these questions?
For those unaware, one year ago, a messenger requested the SBC Credentials Committed to consider disfellowshipping Rick Warren and his wonderful congregation, Saddleback Church. What was this grievous sin that Saddleback had committed? Churches in the past had been disfellowshipped for affirming homosexuality, issues of racism, and harboring sexual predators on their pastoral staff. Surely, the reason for such a motion to disfellowship the church indicated some sort of grievous sin? What “sin” had Saddleback committed? The answer is that they had ordained women.
It is a common practice for the SBC to “commission” women to serve as missionaries around the globe. Lottie Moon admitted to “preaching” to men on foreign soil. Women often function as church planters, or in key support roles to church planters, as did Lydia, to the Apostle Paul (Acts 16). Rick Warren ordains women to function in key ministry roles based on their Spirit giftedness to shepherd specific areas of Saddleback’s ministry, under the oversight of 12 male elders and a male Senior Pastor; and the SBC blows a gasket and seeks to disfellowship an iconic figure in SBC history, who even Paige Patterson honored with a stained-glass portrait at SWBTS.
SBC’s historic attitudes and actions relative to devaluing women and minorities may inform their resistance to Rick Warren and Saddleback equally, or more so, than the posture Warren and Saddleback themselves have adopted on “Women in Ministry” issues.
Let me be clear. Saddleback Church has 12 male elders. Rick Warren is the male lead pastor at Saddleback. Members of the BFMK 2000 committee are on record stating that phrase “the office of pastor” in the document refers to the “senior pastor.” Therefore, it begs the question…what exactly and specifically is the sin or violation committed by Warren/Saddleback that merits disfellowshipping? This is the question that the Chair of the Credentials Committee was asking, and was disrespected by Al Mohler and Tom Ascol, in my judgment, with the spirit and manner in which they addressed the Chair.
Many SBC churches have women on staff who are “pastors” of various ministries, though they do not inhabit the senior pastor position. In a cordial call for clarity, the committee offered what I though was a sensible solution. This solution, however, was publicly opposed by Dr. Mohler in tandem with Tom and Bill Ascol.
On the other hand, Dr. Adam Greenway, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, offered to the Credentials Committee’s report a thoughtful amendment that he would end up explaining and defending in a powerful Baptist Press column.
It is worth noting that (as Dr. Greenway has so eloquently done) various reports and records exist that indicate that the BFM revision committee intended for the scope of the revision on the article considering the pastorate to apply only to “senior pastors.” This is a reasonable interpretation and is the practice of many SBC churches.
Moreover, Dr. Mohler, who spoke against the Credentials Committee recommendation, was reported as saying back in May 2000 that women could serve in “assistant pastor” roles. And what is more, Dr. Mohler added in an interview with Baptist Press around the same time that the revision committee “would never presume to tell another church whom they may call as pastor or tell another person whether or not they may serve as pastor.”
How Dr. Mohler’s concern that the Credential Committee’s recommendation would somehow pose doom to the BFM2K because it would require “defining every word” is beyond me and contradicts his own words. If authorial intent matters, then Dr. Mohler’s recent words should be scrutinized by the public remarks he put forward while serving on the BFM2K revision committee. Why Dr. Mohler has blatantly contradicted his own words remains a mystery to me, but I pray he will have the integrity to address his past remarks. But, more importantly, the SBC faces the question: are we going to disfellowship any church with BFM2K committee members arguing before the adoption of BFM2K in June 2000, that “the office of pastor” refers to “senior” pastors?
Dr. Sam Storms argues, “There is no indication in the NT that the spiritual gift of pastoring, unlike the office of Elder, is gender specific. The Holy Spirit may well grant this gift to both men and women. Therefore, I believe that one may continue to embrace a biblically based complementarianism while speaking of certain women as ‘pastors’ in the local church.”
Dr. Mohler has argued that when it comes to Sunday worship hour preaching, you cannot separate the function of preaching from the office of pastor since “the function is the office, and the office is the function.” Aside from being a convoluted argument, it also does not stand up to Baptist confessional history.
Article XLIV of the 1646 First London Baptist Confession of Faith states that “Christ for the keeping of this church in holy and orderly communion, placeth some special men over the church, who by their office, are to govern, oversee, visit, watch…” But it also adds in Article XLV that “Also such to whom God hath given gifts in the church, may and ought to prophecy according to the proportion of faith, and to teach publicly the word of God, for the edification, exhortation, and comfort of the church.”
Likewise, the Second London Confession (1689) indicates that “although overseers or pastors of churches must be engaged in preaching the word as a function of their office, yet the work of preaching the word is not totally restricted to them… Others who are also gifted and prepared by the Holy Spirit for it and approved and called by the church may and should preach.”
How foolish it is to oppose non-elders preaching in the name of confessional fidelity when the very confessions used for that argument refute it!
But ultimately, this discussion revolves not around confessional history or theological distinctions, but the witness of the Holy Spirit both in Scripture and in the lives of women in the church who have been called of God to exercise their gifts.
How tragic it is that if Huldah, Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, Jael, Deborah, and other God-called women from Scripture were to show up at some SBC churches, they would more than likely be told to “go home” in direct conflict with Scripture’s clear and direct witness that God gifts women.
Pastor Aarron Schwartz posed a very provocative question in a Facebook post a year ago that I believe is more pertinent to this discussion than ever: “If we claim the authority of scripture, we must consider its entire testimony. I encourage you to examine these passages [which support women in ministry] for yourself. So… what about that 1 Timothy passage? Does the Bible give mixed or even contradictory messages concerning women in ministry?”
Surely the answer is “No!”
History will label Rick Warren a martyr or a reformer in SBC life surrounding issues of women in ministry. Warren’s legacy is sealed as having written the second best-selling book in history and having led the largest SBC church in history.
The SBC’s legacy is also sealed. The legacy will be one of theologically and practically embracing slavery and segregation for nearly 150 years and offering a formal apology 150 years into their existence. If Warren is disfellowshipped, history will remember the SBC as having disfellowshipped her most influential and largest church for the “sin” of ordaining and affirming women in ministry without compromising male leadership. Documented racism and sexism will be the noticeable stains on SBC history, that undermines the powerful and positive legacy of phenomenal church-planting, seminaries launched and sustained, evangelism and international missions. If the SBC makes the right decision regarding Warren, she redeems her stained legacy. If she makes the wrong decision, she exacerbates her stained legacy. Which will it be, SBC?
If Warren is not disfellowshipped, it will be unnecessary for someone to write the book one day: “Removing the Stain of Sexism from the SBC.”
If Warren is removed from the SBC, history will record that White Supremacy dominated the first 150 years of her existence, followed by “male supremacy” dominating at the dawn of the 21st Century and the foreseeable future.
The SBC ought to be remembered for having the strongest missionary force, seminaries, and church plants in the history of Christianity. Time will tell if racism, sexism, and sexual abuse be her dominate legacy.
I never speak for other churches. I am not authorized to speak for the one I pastor. But suffice to say, in my judgment, a vote to disfellowship Warren equates to a vote to not allow women to serve in the wide breadth of roles they are seen serving in Scripture. For me to cooperate with such a system would be contribution to the theological and systemic oppression that my people were afflicted to by the SBC for 150 years. I dare not partner and engage in contributing to such affliction and oppression of SBC women. An SBC that is not big enough for Saddleback and Rick Warren is not big enough for me.
Again, as previously stated, I am not sure of the final outcome, I could rest in peace with my epitaph saying either “Martyr” or “Reformer” if I were Warren. I am believing God, hope against hope, that Warren will be remembered as a reformer having elevated the status of women in SBC life to be aligned with Scripture.