A Time to Come Together: The Unintended Effects of the Law Amendment

In 2010 Nancy Pelosi urged Congress to pass all 828 pages of Obamacare regulations just minutes after it had been posted, before anyone had had a chance to read it. “Let’s just pass it,” she said, “and then we’ll figure out what’s in it.” 

As the ensuing chaos surrounding Obamacare demonstrated, that’s not usually the wisest approach.

On June 14, Southern Baptists approved by a 2/3 majority the adoption of the “Law Amendment,” which specifies that churches would only be in friendly cooperation if they appoint, affirm, or employ only men as a “pastor of any kind.” This constitutional amendment is not in effect yet. It must be ratified a second year in a row in Indianapolis by the same 2/3 majority. 

Many Southern Baptists voted for the Law Amendment because they rightfully believe the office of pastor is limited to men, and wanted an opportunity to affirm that, especially after hearing disheartening examples of a few prominent evangelical voices who regard complementarianism to be backward, archaic, and misogynistic. 

While supportive of the desire to affirm complementarianism, I want to suggest that this amendment is not the way to do that, and that it will have deleterious effects far beyond what most Southern Baptists intend, as evidenced by this open letter by our National African American Fellowship, who are pleading with us to slow down and consider the implications of what we’re doing.

Constitutional Concerns, Not Theological Ones

I want to be clear: I don’t oppose this amendment for theological reasons, but constitutional ones. Advocates of the amendment have expressed a desire to see support of complementarianism clarified and strengthened in our Convention, and I support that. This is the wrong mechanism for that.

I don’t oppose this amendment because I have any desire to see the influence of complementarianism weakened in our Convention, nor am I demurring on the strength of the biblical case for complementarianism. I share the same convictions as those who authored the amendment—I believe that there are only two offices in the church, (1) pastors (also called ‘elders’ or ‘overseers’) and (2) deacons. I believe that God has reserved the role of pastor/elder/overseer for men, an application of the principle of male headship he wove into creation. At The Summit Church, while we celebrate many women in our leadership, we have no female pastor/elders. I believe complementarianism is essential to Baptist faith and practice, a defining feature of our Convention, and am grateful our Baptist Faith and Message makes that clear.

I do oppose this amendment because it binds the hands of the Credentials Committee from differentiating between those churches who have committed (to use Al Mohler’s words) a “grievous error” (in this case, rejecting complementarianism) and those who I believe simply have a nomenclature problem. Since the Conservative Resurgence, we have sought to be united on primary things (e.g. salvation by faith alone, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the inerrancy of the Bible, etc.) and secondary things also (e.g. complementarianism, believer’s baptism, regenerate church membership, etc.). This amendment, however, makes conformity on a tertiary thing (right nomenclature of an office) a standard for fellowship.

Our history would say that those who clearly affirm complementarianism—even as they confuse the labeling of certain offices—are still “closely identified” with us. We have a long history of office confusion that demonstrates that. 

A Legacy of Office Confusion

We Baptists have a history of ecclesiastical office confusion that we should be honest about. 

Many of us grew up in Baptist churches where the Board of Deacons functioned as the Elders. Interestingly, in most of these churches, the deacons could not be women. Baptist “instincts,” formed by Scripture, were that only men can serve as governing elders (as defined by 1 Timothy 3), so when deacons served like elders, it made sense that they not be women. Many conservative Baptists, however, have come to the conclusion that women can and should be deacons—provided that they are truly servants of the church and not de facto elders. Some of our Southern Baptist churches still function with deacons as de facto elders, and so continue to disallow women from serving in that role. Their confusion of offices is, in my view, an error—but is it a disfellowshippable one? (Ironically, I believe these churches in which deacons serve as a kind of ruling elders are right in their complementarian instinct of not having women as deacons, even if they are wrong in how they label the offices!) 

Or consider this: Many Southern Baptist churches hire a seminary student to serve as their “youth pastor.” These candidates are often unordained, and remain so for several years. If we counted the number of unordained youth pastors serving in Southern Baptist churches that are not thought of as elders in those churches, I’m guessing that number would be in the thousands. This is an error, as it has effectively separated the office of pastor from that of elder. But is it a disfellowshippable one?

You may ask what relevance these examples have to the question of whether complementarian churches with a woman on staff they call “pastor” can still be considered in friendly cooperation. It is this: 

If we are willing to remove a church that is clearly complementarian for wrongly calling someone “pastor” who is not a 1 Timothy 2-3 elder, wouldn’t consistency demand we remove all these other churches, too?

If the rationale for removing churches is that “we all know what pastors are,” won’t we have to remove these other churches, too, since they obviously do not?

Churches that install a woman as senior pastor (or have a woman as one of their primary teaching authorities) have clearly rejected complementarianism. For others (as the letter from our NAAF demonstrates), this is not the case. By amending Article 3 to demand the removal of churches who have women as pastors “of any kind” in their church, we have removed this distinction. And to be clear, Article 3 (if amended) will demand their removal.

The History of Our Article 3 Amendments

Perhaps it will be helpful to consider why Southern Baptists have previously chosen to add specific items for “exclusion” into Article 3.

In 2019 and the subsequent meeting in 2021, we strengthened our stance on two issues: overt racism and inconsistency with our posture toward abuse. If the Credentials Committee determines a church has violated one of these things (and the church refuses to repent), the Committee then recommends that the church be regarded as “not in friendly cooperation”—and appropriately so. Article 3 makes it an open and shut case. 

Racism and abuse each have their own standalone enumeration (Articles 3.1.4. and 3.1.5.) in the list of what constitutes friendly cooperation. They actually go further than the BFM2K—in ways that I, along with most others, find completely appropriate. We wanted to make clear our stances on these issues, since they are briefly mentioned in Article XV but not spelled out in our BFM. If they had been already clear, Article 3 would be redundant.

Article 3.1.1 notably defines a cooperating church as one which “has a faith and practice which closely identifies” with the BFM, and then, as an example, it explains that we will not consider a church in friendly cooperation who endorses homosexual behavior in any way. This aims to strengthen our posture toward homosexual sin, making clear we will not allow latitude in how churches apply heterosexual norms. Say, for example, a church says, “Well, we believe God’s plan is heterosexual marriage, but if two homosexuals want to get married, we’ll perform that wedding because it’s better that they do that than live in promiscuity.” Article 3.1.1 precludes such reasoning, declaring that you are not in friendly cooperation if you endorse or sanction homosexual behavior in any way. No questions asked. 

The Law Amendment places churches with a woman on staff they call pastor in that same category. 

Binding Our Credentials Committee

With this amendment, if a church is brought to the Credentials Committee that has any woman on staff, who is a “pastor of any kind,” such as a woman who oversees their children’s ministry or website development, the Constitution mandates that the committee recommend disfellowship. They are, by Constitutional declaration, “not in friendly cooperation.” No exceptions. Even if we discern they are, indeed, complementarian, and this is merely inaccurate titling of someone’s staff position. 

I have been told by some advocates of the amendment that this is not their intent and that, of course, “Southern Baptists would not do that.” And yet, that’s what many advocates of the amendment are calling for, and in so doing they will be, in fact, applying what the literal wording of what the Constitution will say. (Check it out here—it’s not unclear what it requires!). In his speech on the floor of the annual meeting, the original motion maker specifically said it “gives a clear line for handling referrals” to the Credentials Committee. Churches that have a female “pastor of any kind” are not in friendly cooperation. Open and shut case. You can’t put something into the Constitution and then just not do what it says, and if you don’t intend to do what you put into the Constitution, don’t put it in there. 

While I don’t expect the Credentials Committee to be proactively hunting for churches in violation, if they receive submissions that fit the bill–even if the submissions come from a list of 170–they will be bound by our governing documents to assess those churches and to apply the standards, whether they want to or not. 

Putting this “exclusion” into our Constitution removes any place for latitude or discernment. That’s why the process for revising the Constitution is so cumbersome. Compare how difficult it is to change the Constitution with the fact that the BFM2K (now BFM23?) was changed in the space of about four minutes by a simple majority, whereas a constitutional amendment takes two consecutive years of super-majorities. Our Constitution is binding and allows no exceptions, nor should it.

I’ve heard the response, “Well, before we disfellowship them, we would give them a chance to change their views and adjust their practices.” Of course we would. We’d also do that for racist or LGBTQ+ affirming churches. Hopefully when we explain that the best reading of the New Testament points to “pastor” being synonymous with “elder,” they will change their titles accordingly. 

But what about those who don’t? Anyone with any experience in ministry understands that institutions, like local churches, are complicated things and don’t always change that easily. And sometimes our arguments are not as persuasive to others as they are to us. Thus, the important question is, What will we do if they don’t conform? If we ratify this amendment, we have decided a priori that they are not in friendly cooperation and the Credentials Committee will have no choice but to recommend disfellowship.

Put another way, the problem with this amendment is not that it gives churches no space to change their nomenclature, the problem is in what it mandates that we do if they don’t. Complementarian churches with inaccurate titling for some of their women in ministry are put into the same category as those harboring known sex abusers or marrying gay couples. Southern Baptists may well end up pushing away some churches that are actually with us theologically but choose to use a term that most of us believe is not biblically accurate for a particular ministry role– just as if they were either unrepentant racists or had embraced gay marriage. 

That doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel right because this level of enforced stricture has never been true of our “rules of cooperation.” 

In fact, I’d suggest that for those to whom it does feel right, perhaps they are the ones who aren’t “closely identified” with us.

… And Beyond?

Some advocates of the amendment have gone on record indicating they would go further than only excluding churches with a woman on staff called pastor. They believe this amendment authorizes them to suss out churches who have women operating under different titles (“director,” “minister,” “HR representative”) but are still exercising improper (i.e. improper in their view) authority over men. 

For example, they might be looking for a woman teaching from the stage in a mixed group setting (or teaching from a stage at all), or one who oversees male ministry volunteers, or offering counsel and input at the highest levels, or baptizing, or serving communion. Once they find these “infractions,” they have indicated they plan to submit them to the Credentials Committee. I don’t say that as a scare tactic—the original proponent of this amendment has said that merely changing titles without a sufficient change in duties would, by his view, render churches not in “friendly cooperation” with our Convention (and thus to be disfellowshipped). Personally, I’m horrified at the idea of a committee making an inquiry of our church to decide if we have women acting in ways they deem improper. No thank you. 

Based on what we have seen of the Credentials Committee, I would hope that they would not go down that road. But if this amendment passes, I don’t see how they couldn’t. And even if they resist, we are placing a huge burden on a committee of nine volunteers who are already overwhelmed by a backlog of submissions. They are responsible to process and respond to every one of them. If this passes, they likely will be inundated with mass submissions from those who are determined to police various churches according to their own interpretation of how that church should apply complementarianism. 

The Right and Wrong Applications of Autonomy

And that’s precisely where that other important Southern Baptist value comes in—the autonomy of the local church. Autonomy of the local church means that we recognize that each church has freedom, within bounds, to interpret and apply our beliefs.

Some wrongly use “the autonomy of the local church” to mean that churches should be able to believe anything they want and still call themselves Southern Baptist. That is ridiculous. Of course the Convention has the right to determine the boundaries of our cooperation, and unity around nothing is not unity at all. But Southern Baptists recognize a distinction between the core elements of our confession and the applications of it. We need unity in the former even as we allow latitude and autonomy in the latter.

Some advocates for the amendment say that, given all the confusion around complementarianism, we need to clarify that “pastor” is an office (not just a gift) and, as such, limited to men—and they believe this amendment is the place to do that. As I said above, I agree with this theological position and I am all for clarity. But our primary vehicles for offering clarity are resolutions and, in extreme cases, modifications to the BFM itself (again, something we should do only with great care).

Clarifying the BFM is NOT what the Constitution is for—except in those few things in which we will brook not even the slightest deviations of practice. We have ways to “affirm the center” without overly binding our Credentials Committee in how they “police the borders.” Passing resolutions or voting in changes to the BFM are ways of affirming the center; constitutional amendments are ways of policing the borders. 

The Saddleback Case Proves We Have What We Need

The reality is that we already have all that we need to settle secondary disagreements by removing churches that embrace egalitarianism—the Saddleback and Fern Creek cases demonstrate that. And thus, I believe a different approach is in order: It’s clear we have some questions about how to apply Article 3 as a whole, and what “closely identified” means. That’s not just relevant for this issue, but will be for many other issues of faith and practice as well.

Our Acts 15 Moment

In Acts 15, the church was at a crisis point as they tried to figure out what gospel unity looked like among churches that disagreed in some secondary matters. And they appointed a group to come up with a solution that seemed good to them and the Holy Spirit. They recognized that the unity of the church was a serious matter, and they wanted to take time to get it right. 

And so, on the Tuesday of the New Orleans Convention, I stood with several former SBC Presidents (James Merritt, Bryant Wright, Steve Gaines, Fred Luter, and Ed Litton) to call for our own Acts 15 moment, as the future of our cooperative mission depends on what we do here. We want to be doctrinally faithful, but we don’t want to change the basis of our cooperation that has been our genius for over a century. 

I came from an Independent Baptist background. We insisted on conformity in everything. I was attracted to the Southern Baptist Convention (Great Commission Baptists!) because we maintain cooperative consensus in our core convictions while not commanding rigid conformity in ways that impede local church autonomy. Compromise the former and we lose our doctrinal integrity; compromise the latter and we lose our missional vitality.

This amendment forces conformity down to tertiary levels in ways that will both violate local church autonomy and are inconsistent with our past practice.

If we continue down this road, we might become a Convention that spends its time focused on who is in and who is out, instead of on the best ways to reach our communities and glorify Jesus. If you want a harbinger of that, just take a look at Southern Baptist social media feeds right now. Is this what we want our Convention to be about? I’m tired of micromanaging churches; I want to be about the Great Commission. There are too many people on their way to hell for us to get quagmired in policing each other.

And here is something else which I can’t say often enough: Many of our sisters are deeply discouraged in this conversation. Some of our most engaged women in the SBC, who are all firmly complementarian and not seeking to be pastors, listen in to this conversation and struggle to understand why we seem to be so concerned that they are trying to take over our pulpits. They are not. And they don’t understand why we have turned them into a battleground. For years we’ve said that we should be focused on the numerous things they can do instead of the one thing they can’t. Many of them heard that and stepped up—not to pastor, but to serve. And now they hear leaders parsing out what is and isn’t going to fly, and they wonder if they will end up under a public microscope. And before any of us dismiss their fears and concerns with defensiveness or argue why they shouldn’t feel this way, we should make sure we actually spend time talking to women who serve in our churches and entities, to learn why it is that many of them do.

Just as important as not permitting what is forbidden to them is not forbidding what is encouraged, even commanded of them. Just as women have been an integral part of our past (note: our two major offering names!), they will undoubtedly be a crucial part of our future. A church where the women are not thriving will soon be a place where the men aren’t, either. 

Proponents of this amendment have said it would be tragic to compromise on complementarianism. I agree. But it would be equally tragic—and it seems far more likely in our given moment—to fail to celebrate or even recognize the gifting and calling of more than half the members of our churches. 

We can and should do both—guard our doctrine and set up our sisters to thrive. 

And that’s why we need to take our Acts 15 moment, as our African American brothers and sisters are urging us—to slow things down and ask for wisdom, allowing the Holy Spirit to find a solution that “seems good to us and the Holy Spirit,”a solution that will lead to both doctrinal faithfulness and missional flourishing in our churches. 

The early church took their time. So must we.