How Should We Think About Disfellowshipping Churches In the SBC That Have Women as Pastors?

Next week, more than 12,000 Great Commission Baptists will be in New Orleans for the SBC Annual Meeting. I will be one of them. Every year we gather because we believe we can do more together than we can on our own. 

There has been a lot of discussion in the SBC recently surrounding the question of female pastors. Specifically, many are asking if the SBC ought to disfellowship churches with female pastors. 

Should the SBC disfellowship at all?

Technically, given the structure of the SBC, the language used for removing a church from the SBC is not “disfellowshipping,” but the designation, “not in friendly cooperation” with the Convention. That’s a bit of a mouthful, though. Since most people are talking about “disfellowshipping” (and since that communicates, more or less, what’s happening), I’ll stick with that language.

The SBC has disfellowshipped churches, on and off, for the last 30 years, using various processes. Over the last several years, particularly when considering concerns about churches’ alleged mishandling of abuse, it became apparent that the SBC needed a clearer process for dealing with questions about the cooperating status of churches. The standing Credentials Committee, approved in 2019, was a step in that direction. And I supported the establishment and work of that committee. 

This committee has a difficult task in some cases, because they have to assess if a church has a faith and practice that is closely identified with our statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. That might sound easy. It’s not. Obviously, a church that was preaching clear heresy—say, that Jesus was not God—would be removed. But most cases aren’t so obvious. If I were on that committee, I would have to take each case on its merits in order to give a definitive opinion about a particular situation. 

I believe it is important for any organization—including the SBC—to have the right to determine its own boundaries of cooperation. This isn’t particularly groundbreaking or novel. The Convention needs a process by which it can assess who is within the organization and who is not. And that process must be biblical, fair, and charitable.

So … should the SBC disfellowship churches with female pastors? 

This sounds like a simple question, but to answer it responsibly, we need to address two related, but distinct questions:

1. What kind of issues do Southern Baptists believe are worthy of disfellowshipping?

Southern Baptists have long recognized that we need to be unified around essentials, while simultaneously letting autonomous churches believe different things on less important matters—or, more often, in the application of certain beliefs. For instance, many of our churches practice communion slightly differently. We don’t all approach baptism identically, particularly in terms of timing (e.g., spontaneous vs. scheduled). Nor do we all approach the issue of religious liberty in exactly the same way. Baptists, for example, agree that “the church should not resort to the civil powers to carry on its work,” but we differ on the appropriate level of a pastor’s political activism, involvement, and endorsement of certain candidates.. These diverse applications are (usually) allowable. 

While many would like a simple, codified list, it seems best to maintain certain core principles and allow for wisdom in how those more general principles are applied.

We believe complementarianism is an essential element of church belief and practice. When it comes to the issue of women as practicing pastors, the SBC has made its stance clear in the BFM 2000. We subscribe to a complementarian view of men and women in the local church. That is one of our stated essentials that defines how we carry out our cooperative work. What that looks like in actual application among our churches, however, is slightly fluid. 

Some churches have chosen to appoint women as lead pastors, which appears to be a clear denial of complementarianism. For churches like this, perhaps we should recognize that they are not closely identified with us.   

In other churches, however, the issue is not one of complementarianism, so much as it is one of nomenclature. For example, what are we to do about a church that’s using an improper title, calling a woman the “children’s pastor”? Are they really taking an egalitarian stance, or do they have a nomenclature problem? We can encourage churches to adopt better, less problematic nomenclature. But are we really prepared to start asking our Credentials Committee to start kicking out churches left and right over sloppy titling of their staff positions?

2. How do we intend to enforce disfellowship?

Many in our Convention want to go even further. They believe we shouldn’t stop at restricting the title of “pastor” to men. Instead, they believe we need to find churches in which women are doing things that are “pastor-like.”  

I’m not convinced any of us want to live in the world where this kind of enforcement begins to happen. Just imagine: Church X has a woman in a staff role. She isn’t an elder. She isn’t called “pastor.” But someone from Church Y decides that, in their interpretation, the woman (and therefore Church X) is in violation of this unwritten rule. Do we really want people policing their specific application of what is “pastor-like” in other churches?

Is the prospect of female pastors in the SBC a “growing danger”? 

Some have said that we need to be on guard, since the prospect of female pastors in SBC churches is a “growing danger.” I disagree.

The reality is that even the largest estimates of churches with female pastors on staff make for a very small—and, in fact, shrinking—fraction of our Convention.

I can speak specifically about my own state. Here, we have about 4,300 North Carolina Baptist churches. Ten years ago, the number of female pastors was around 200. Twenty years ago, it was around 400. Now, it’s fewer than 20. So, judging by our data, this is not growing, it is shrinking. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant, misinformed, or being purposely divisive.

Eleven years ago, a committee was formed by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. They proposed that the State Convention would operate strictly according to the BFM 2000, but churches who did not hold to the BFM 2000 could still give, partner, or seat messengers. In other words, our state didn’t cut off the opportunity to participate in cooperating for missions, even though we did say that those participating at this level would do so under this statement of faith. This is a model that has worked for us.

One of my biggest concerns here is that we will alienate women who will be less inclined to serve because we have turned them into a battleground.

The BFM 2000 says that the office of pastor is limited to qualified men. It seems we are at risk of focusing hard on the “men” part … and we have much less to say about the “qualified” part. But 1 Timothy says the qualified men should be sober-minded, self-controlled, and not quarrelsome. Many of our most engaged women in the SBC, who are all firmly complementarian, who are not trying to be pastors, listen in to this conversation and struggle to understand why we are so concerned that they are trying to take over our pulpits … and yet so many pastors are absolutely ruthless on Twitter every day. 

Final Thoughts

First (and this should go without saying. But given the context, I just want it stated as plainly as possible): Women are an incredibly valuable, gifted part of our congregations. We should absolutely be empowering as much female leadership in the church as possible, all the while remaining faithful to Scripture. 

At our church, we have determined that we would hire, in some cases, a female “minister” or “director” in certain areas of the church—say, a female “children’s minister,” a “communications director,” or a “human resources director.” We have looked through our organization and outlined which roles can be filled by a woman and which roles are elder-specific (and, thereby, not open to women). I believe our church demonstrates we can both encourage women to exercise their gifts and be thorough-going complementarians.

Second, I do not believe it is helpful for a woman to have the title of “pastor.” Now, I realize you may be thinking: “What on earth is the difference between a ‘minister’ and a ‘pastor?’” But the words we use matter, and clarity is kindness. Given their general usage, I think the word “pastor” is, for most people, synonymous with the office of an “elder/overseer” in a way that “minister” isn’t. Which is why, at our church, we use the words “elder” and “pastor” interchangeably.

Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the messengers at the annual meeting to decide how we respond to this. 

Five churches were already declared “not in friendly cooperation” by the SBC Executive Committee, based on the recommendation of the Credentials Committee, because they have female senior or teaching pastors. Two of those churches will be appealing those rulings. The messengers will be asked to vote “yes” or “no”  as to whether to sustain the Executive Committee’s decisions. 

Additionally, there are some in our Convention who would like to go even further and consider an amendment to the SBC Constitution, declaring in our governing documents that a church is only in friendly cooperation if it does not affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind. 

To be clear, the Credentials Committee already has what they need in the current constitution to take this action—and they did, including the cases of the two churches that will be appealing. The amendment asks the question, Do we want to raise this issue to the level of being one of the specific practices listed in our constitution, with a broad definition, and then allow some group to come into your church and decide if you are enforcing it the way that they want you to? 

I think it’s important to have this discussion in good faith with an attempt to understand both sides, while remaining biblically faithful. The reality is that the SBC is not egalitarian, and does not do its work from an egalitarian interpretation. It would not be appropriate to assume that it does, or to say that someone who advocates a different approach to our cooperation (or a different philosophy about our governing documents) means that they are trying to promote egalitarianism. 

And, if you’re a part of an SBC church, make plans to be at the Annual Meeting next week, where a lot of this will be discussed. Come be in the “room where it happens!”

I’ll see you in New Orleans!