Pastor Mike Law of Arlington, Virginia, has stated his intention to submit an amendment to the SBC constitution and by-laws at this year’s annual meeting. This amendment would require the SBC to disfellowship (expel) any church that employs a woman as its pastor. Of course, his announcement has prompted lots of discussion. So, let us join the debate here at SBC Voices.
Navigators determine their position on the globe by calculating their latitude and longitude. For purposes of this discussion, let’s make Bible verses our latitude and previous SBC motions our longitude. Note: I am not saying SBC tradition has equal authority with the Scriptures. The Scriptures remain our authority; still, motions passed by Southern Baptists in the past reveal what they understood the Bible to say about women serving as pastors.
To discover our latitude, let’s consider three verses from the Pastoral Epistles. The first is 1 Timothy 2:12.
- 1 Timothy 2:12–I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (ESV)
What does this verse mean? Dr. Ray Van Neste of Union University explains,
“This statement is given in the context of Paul’s apostolic instructions to the church for the ordering of church practice when the church is assembled together. In that context two things are prohibited: (1) Women are not permitted to publicly teach Scripture and/or Christian doctrine to men in church….and (2) women are not permitted to exercise authority over men in the church…Women teaching other women, and women teaching children are not in view here, and both are encouraged elsewhere.” (ESV Study Bible, 2328)
We turn now to two parallel verses in 1 Timothy and Titus.
- 1 Timothy 3:2–Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, (ESV)
Titus 1:6– if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. (ESV)
Of 1 Timothy 3:2, Warren Wiersbe writes,
“All of the qualifying adjectives in this passage are masculine. While there is ample scope for feminine ministry in a local assembly, the office of elder is not given to women.”
(Bible Exposition Commentary)
In both verses, the ESV translators render the Greek as “the husband of one wife.” Literally translated into English, this would be “a one-woman MAN” (capitalization mine). Most commentators interpret this as prohibiting an overseer (episcopos) from practicing polygamy, a common thing in that period. Still, the requirement is that an overseer (pastor) must be a man who is faithful to one wife.
For our longitudinal position, there are two previous SBC votes that speak to our topic. In its 1984 meeting, the SBC approved this resolution:
Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we not decide concerns of Christians doctrine and practice by modern cultural, sociological, and ecclesiastical trends or by emotional factors; that we remind ourselves of the dearly bought Baptist principle of the final authority of Scripture in matters of faith and conduct; and that we encourage the service of women in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.
Then, in 2000 the SBC approved its revised Statement of Faith and Message. The article on “The Church” reads as follows:
A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
I should remind our readers that resolutions passed by the SBC are not binding on the member churches. Likewise, a church that applies for membership in the SBC is not required to adopt the 2000 Statement of Faith and Message as its church statement of faith. In fact, most SBC churches held membership in the Convention long before 2000. IMB and NAMB missionaries and the professors at our seminaries must sign an affirmation that they accept the 2000 Statement and will preach and teach in accordance with it.
The SBC has stated clearly its position on women serving as pastors, and the biblical teaching seems clear, also. However, some interpreters believe that Paul’s teaching in the verses above is culturally conditioned. That is, the instruction applied to the churches of Paul’s day, but they no longer apply to the contemporary church. An example of cultural conditioning is “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16, ESV). I don’t know of an SBC church that practices kissing, even though we claim to be New Testament churches. If asked about this verse, we would answer, “Oh, that verse is culturally conditioned; now we just greet each other with a handshake.”
When I began teaching at Southern Baptist Seminary in 1993, the dean assigned me to teach Introduction to Ministry. The ordination of women was a hot topic on campus at that time, and we had a number of female students who had come to Southern Seminary, hoping that a church in Louisville would ordain them. So, our class studied the verses above and discussed their meaning. I told my class, “The whole debate turns on the question of cultural conditioning. If you believe the verses are culturally conditioned, then women can serve as pastors. If the verses are not culturally conditioned, then the prohibition stands.” I believed then, and I believe now that these verses are not culturally conditioned. Therefore, women are barred from the pastoral office.