In SBC circles, the issue of female pastors has been the subject of a lot of discussion during the past several days. I, personally, am a complementarian and believe that the office of elder-pastor-bishop in the local church is reserved, according to biblical teaching, for qualified males. At the same time, I recognize that there are authentic, bona fide followers of Jesus (i.e., my brothers and sisters in Christ) who interpret and/or apply the Bible differently than I do on these matters. Thus, I also believe I am enjoined by Scripture to have spiritual fellowship with those who may not hold the same views I do on non-essentials of the faith.
There are certain issues, such as the issue of differences of belief on female pastors, however, that make cooperation in the context of local churches difficult and to a certain degree impractical. If, for example, the accepted beliefs of a local church do not allow them to embrace the possibility of female pastors, this church will not seek to appoint otherwise qualified females to the office of pastor. If, on the other hand, the accepted beliefs of a church make room for female pastors, sooner or later a consistent application of these beliefs will lead them to appoint females as pastors. It is not really practical, though, to try to have it both ways. This is one of those tricky issues on which the proponents of both sides can share basic grassroots Christian fellowship with each other but will have difficulty cooperating with each other on certain ministry projects, at least at the level of local church governance.
Another similar issue is the practice of infant baptism. Early in the history of cross-cultural missions in North America there were several attempts of Baptists and Presbyterians working together on the same team to plant churches among native Americans. Even though both groups entered into this arrangement with an open spirit and the best of intentions, in the end the project bogged down when they had to face head-on the decision of whether or not to baptize the infant children of new converts. As a result, they decided to disband the cooperative agreement, go their separate ways, and bless each other’s efforts at seeking to be faithful to their understanding of Scripture and obey the Great Commission.
Beginning with the adoption of a revised Baptist Faith & Message in 2000, and worked out in several subsequent measures, the Southern Baptist Convention decided, by way of previously agreed upon democratic processes, to make biblical complementarianism a part of the set of stipulations for continued cooperation in certain ministry projects, such as supporting missionaries. To me, this makes good sense. While, up to a point, it is possible for Christians—and even more specifically, Baptists—of various convictions on the female pastorate issue to work together in the same organization, experience and wisdom teach us that this course of action is fraught with pitfalls.
While we seek to be fair and consistent in the application of these principles, I believe we do well at the same time to not lose sight of the essential unity in Christ we share with all those who truly embrace the essentials of the gospel and are sincerely seeking to follow the lordship of Jesus in their life and practice. We may well not be able to cooperate effectively on certain ministry projects, but that doesn’t mean we should necessarily treat all those on the other side of this issue as heretics or non-believers.
In practical terms, this means we should be able to pray together with them. We should take care not to badmouth them or criticize them in public forums. In addition to this, while it may well be difficult to partner with them at the level of local church governance, there may be other projects on which fruitful cooperation is possible.
This brings up a slightly more complex angle to this discussion: What is the underlying motive and basis for the beliefs and practices of those who disagree with us on this issue? Some egalitiarians take the views they do on these issues as an outworking of a spiritual epistemology that undermines the authority of the Bible and, as a result, ultimately of the lordship of Jesus over His church. With people like this, attempts at cooperation on practically any level will likely prove unfruitful and even have potential for implicating us in spiritual compromise. On the other hand, however, there are other believers who after seriously studying the Bible, praying, and sincerely seeking to the best of their ability to follow through on their understanding of God’s will on this issue, believe that it is best to recognize women in the role of pastor. While I may just as sincerely believe they are mistaken on this issue, I believe that I do wrong to elevate their mistaken belief and practice on this particular issue to such a high level of importance that it gets in the way of what might otherwise prove to be fruitful and blessed cooperation in certain ministry projects.
As so often occurs with so many issues similar to this one, the devil is in the details. There are nuances of interpretation and application that are often swept under the carpet or overlooked. There are misunderstandings on questions such as the difference between the office and the function of pastors; between our definitions of preaching, teaching, and pastoring; between titles and actual practice, etc. While it is vitally important to uphold the principle that no command or teaching of Scripture is optional for true disciples of Jesus, it is also equally important to maintain a generous heart and an irenic spirit in matters on which godly interpreters have disagreed with each other over the years. There are dangerous ditches on both sides of the road we must be careful to avoid falling into.
Bottom line: If certain churches within the SBC decide they are going to adopt a position and practice on these matters contrary to that stipulated in denominational polity as a prerequisite for denominational cooperation, we will likely need to apply the consequences that following this course of action dictates. While weighing these matters, though, we should seek to listen carefully and understand correctly what is really going on. We should be open to seeking mutually acceptable adjustments and listening carefully to plausible explanations. And if indeed in the midst of this process it becomes evident that a continued cooperation at a denominational level is not practical, so be it. But we should take extra care that this prudential decision and action does not at the same time lead us to break the bond of Christian fellowship with true brothers and sisters in Christ in other practical aspects.