Southern Baptists debate ‘What is a pastor?’ on the heels of America asking, ‘What is a woman?’

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By Sharayah Colter

June 17, 2022

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Recently, many Americans watched in disbelief when then-United States Supreme Court Justice nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson was unable or unwilling to answer the question, “What is a woman?”

This week, at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, many watched in similar disbelief as Baptists struggled to answer the question, “What is a pastor?”

While Scripture provides a clear definition of “pastor,” Southern Baptists demonstrated uncertainty during their annual meeting June 14 in Anaheim, Calif., as messengers debated whether women can serve as pastors—something Baptists have long-opposed as unbiblical. During the Credentials Committee report, chairwoman Linda Cooper explained to messengers the committee was not yet ready to make a recommendation about whether Saddleback Church in Anaheim, Calif., which has ordained women as pastors, should no longer be considered in friendly cooperation with the SBC. The Convention’s most recent confession of faith–The Baptist Faith and Message 2000–conveys that Southern Baptists believe pastors should be male, as prescribed in Scripture. 

The Credentials Committee originally asked messengers to approve a study committee to study the office and function of pastor in more depth, but after vigorous debate ensued on the convention hall floor, the committee withdrew the recommendation and decided to take more time to consider the matter as a committee.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) President Albert Mohler spoke against the recommendation.

“If we eventually have to form a study committee over every word in our confession of faith, then we are doomed as a convention,” Mohler said.

Mohler served on the committee that revised the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000 to produce its most current iteration.

“Dr. Mohler, I understand totally,” Cooper responded from the platform. “To me, I know what the word pastor means, but in some of our Southern Baptist churches, pastor is a spiritual gift that is given to many people, so we want to have clarity in what that ‘pastor’ means,” Cooper said. 

Audible shouts of “No!” could be heard throughout the convention hall.

Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., also spoke to the recommendation and to an amendment proposed by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) President Adam Greenway, saying it seemed to him Southern Baptists were “making things far more complex than they should be.”

“We do have the Baptist Faith and Message,” Ascol said. “It is not equivocal in its language. It’s very simple. It’s very clear. If churches choose to call people pastors who are not biblically qualified to be pastors, that is a matter for the church to resolve. I think we have spoken rather clearly as a Convention. I think if we adopt this amendment, it will further complicate something that has no reason to be complicated. It’s simple. Saddleback had ordained women to be pastors very loudly. They’ve celebrated it. The Southern Baptist Convention has said we do not believe that women can serve in the office of pastor. So, let’s not do this amendment. Let’s defeat it, and then let’s defeat the original recommendation.”

Later in the day June 14, Saddleback pastor Rick Warren was given an opportunity to speak at a microphone to “read a love letter” to the Convention since he said the 2022 Annual Meeting may be his last. In his speech to messengers, Warren highlighted a list of his ministerial accomplishments and talked about his love for the Southern Baptist Convention. He urged messengers not to focus on secondary issues, presumably referencing the issue of his church ordaining female pastors.

“Are we going to keep bickering over secondary issues or are we going to keep the main thing the main thing?” Warren asked?

Newly elected SBC President Bart Barber expressed thankfulness for Warren via Twitter June 16 while noting their “different opinions over pastoral complementarianism.”

Complementarianism is the doctrinal belief that God in the Bible gives certain roles to men and certain roles to women within the spheres of the church and the home. The doctrine affirms that both men and women have equal value but different roles, whereas the counterpoint doctrine, Egalitarianism, affirms that men and women have equal value and no distinction in roles. 

Despite Warren’s effort to minimize the issue and despite the affirmation he received by many leading Southern Baptists, still many other Southern Baptists view departure from Baptists’ long-held beliefs about the roles of men and women as a clear indication of liberal drift.

“In 2000, Southern Baptists overwhelmingly adopted the Baptist Faith & Message revision,” Mohler said in a Twitter post. “We explicitly stated that we confess and believe together that ‘the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.’ Southern Baptists knew what they were doing. Words matter.

“Rick Warren has been kind to me, but if he has led his church in violation of our confession of faith, the act was entirely that of the pastor and his church. The SBC cannot order a local church on its doctrine. It has every right and power to define its own association.”