Complementarian Confessional Conflagration

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There aren’t five reasons to oppose the Law Amendment. There isn’t even one.

If you had told me ten years ago that female pastors would become an item of contention again in the Southern Baptist Convention, I probably would not have believed you. It was not very long ago that most of us were under the impression that the issue had been settled by the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 (BF&M), which says that the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture. Nevertheless, here we are in 2024, and the issue is before us again.

The surprising thing this go round is that the debate appears to be an intra-complementarian conflagration as both sides at least claim to affirm the BF&M. Nevertheless, a profound difference exists among us about the propriety of cooperation with churches who have female pastors. To put it very bluntly, you have one set of complementarians who do not wish to cooperate with churches that have female pastors, and another set that do.

Enter Rob Collingsworth, who recently penned an essay for The Baptist Review arguing that Southern Baptists ought to be willing to cooperate with at least some churches that employ female pastors. For this reason, he is keen to persuade Southern Baptists to vote against the Law Amendment at our annual meeting this June in Indianapolis. If passed, the Law Amendment would clarify what the SBC Constitution already says—that cooperating churches should closely identify with the BF&M’s teaching about qualifications for pastors. Collingsworth believes that it would be bad for the Southern Baptist Convention to alienate churches who have female pastors but who would otherwise wish to contribute to our cooperative efforts. And for Collingsworth, the Law Amendment would alienate many such churches.

He gives five reasons for opposing the Law Amendment, each of which I believe to be problematic.

1. Should the SBC Cooperate with Churches that Employ Female Pastors?

First, he believes the SBC should be willing to cooperate with churches that give women the title pastor. As long as those female pastors don’t actually do the work of pastors, why should we split hairs over the title pastor? After all, the term pastor is “semantically challenged,” and we ought to recognize that some female pastors are nevertheless aligned with the “spirit” of the Bible’s teaching, if not the letter.

Collingsworth fails to recognize that the problem we are facing isn’t merely with churches that are confused about titles. I can think of two prominent examples right off the top of my head. One of the churches represented on the SBC’s Cooperation Committee employs a female executive pastor who preaches from time to time on Sunday mornings. Another church represented on the Cooperation Committee employs a variety of female pastors and has a senior pastor who publicly disagrees with the BF&M’s teaching about a male-only pastorate and who has publicly opposed the SBC’s removal of Saddleback. Neither of these situations represents mere confusion over nomenclature, but something far more substantive. Collingsworth doesn’t really explain the real scope of the problem right now in at least some cooperating churches. Voting down the Law Amendment would likely exacerbate that confusion, and yet that’s precisely what Collingsworth urges Southern Baptists to do.

2. Would the Law Amendment Exclude Churches that Subscribe to the Baptist Faith and Message?

Second, Collingsworth argues that the Law Amendment would exclude churches that hold to the BF&M. For him, while egalitarian churches with female pastors should be excluded from friendly cooperation, “complementarian” churches with female pastors should not. If churches are willing to give their money to a convention that does not share their views, why should the SBC refuse to cooperate with them?

The reason is because cooperating churches send messengers to the annual meeting. Messengers at the annual meeting vote on what the policies and priorities of the convention will be. How long will the SBC affirm the Bible’s teaching about a male-only pastorate if messengers increasingly disagree with what our confession says about a male-only pastorate? Cooperation is not merely about collecting money. It’s about messengers determining what our mission and priorities will be in our efforts to reach the nations for Christ. Do we want those messengers to agree with what our confession says about qualified male pastors? I think we do, and the Law Amendment helps to clarify our intention in this regard. Voting it down would send the opposite message.

3. Is the Law Amendment Out of Step with SBC History?

Third, Collingsworth argues that the Law Amendment would be out of step with how our Convention has operated for most of its history. The SBC was formed in 1849 but did not adopt the BF&M until 1925. And even then, it did not require cooperating churches to agree with the BF&M. It only required them to send in contributions. It wasn’t until 2015 that the convention adopted a requirement that cooperating churches “closely identify” with the BF&M. Nevertheless, Collingsworth contends that “closely identifies” allows for churches to contradict what the BF&M says on any given point, including what the BF&M says about the qualifications for pastors. He says that the chair of the SBC Executive Committee that proposed the “closely identifies” language confirmed to him privately that this is the case.

I am not sure what to make of that last part. I have had my own private correspondence with the 2015 chair of the Executive Committee, and he confirmed to me in writing the opposite of what Collingsworth claims in his essay. I’m not saying that either Collingsworth or the former chair are lying. I’m sure that if we all sat down together face to face, we would probably sort out the discrepancy. In any case, we still have to contend with the language of Article 3 of the SBC Constitution, and it says that cooperating churches should have a faith and practice that closely identifies with the BF&M. And then it gives an example of what not closely identifying would look like, and that example is a contradiction of the BF&M’s teaching on homosexuality. The most plausible reading of Article 3, therefore, is that closely identifying with the BF&M means not contradicting the BF&M.

In an article for this month’s theme at Christ Over All, Colin Smothers points out that the language of ‘closely identifies’ comes from the preamble to the 1963 BF&M. That preamble says the following:

This generation of Southern Baptists is in historic succession of intent and purpose as it endeavors to state for its time and theological climate those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us.

Baptists emphasize the soul’s competency before God, freedom in religion, and the priesthood of the believer. However, this emphasis should not be interpreted to mean that there is an absence of certain definite doctrines that Baptists believe, cherish, and with which they have been and are now closely identified.

It is the purpose of this statement of faith and message to set forth certain teachings which we believe. (emphasis mine)

Notice that “closely identified” refers to certain definite truths that are held in common by all Southern Baptists. In other words, “closely identified” refers to the fact that all of the doctrines in the BF&M (not some of its doctrines) are “most surely held among us.” Likewise, we should understand “closely identifies” in Article 3 of the SBC Constitution to refer to all of the BF&M’s doctrines, not some of them.

Collingsworth seems to think that because the SBC spent most of its history without a confessional requirement for cooperation, we should feel free to ignore the confessional requirement that messengers overwhelmingly adopted in 2015. Yet the SBC has self-consciously been moving in a more confessional direction, and that began decades before the “closely identifies” language was added to the Constitution in 2015. Shouldn’t we celebrate the advance of that confessional clarity? Isn’t such clarity needed in the post-Christian culture that we are called to reach for Christ? Now is not the time to retreat from confessional cooperation but to lean into it. Let’s not turn back the clock to a time when the only thing required to be a Southern Baptist Church was to make financial contributions. We have a confessional form of cooperation, and passing the Law Amendment would only help to clarify that.

4. Will the Law Amendment “Weaponize” the SBC Constitution?

Fourth, Collingsworth opposes the Law Amendment because he thinks it will be used to “weaponize” the SBC Constitution against “other pastors.” The amendment calls for biblically qualified men to serve as pastors, and we don’t want our credentials process to be addled by a flood of inquiries into whether or not churches have qualified pastors.

In my view, this concern misunderstands both our polity and what is most likely to cause “weaponization” of our Constitution. Messengers are already free right now to challenge the credentials of churches on the basis of pastoral qualifications. They can do that with or without the Law Amendment. In fact, they are doing that, and I’m told that the Credentials Committee is already overwhelmed with all kinds of referrals. It’s not the Law Amendment that has allowed for the so-called “weaponization” of the SBC Constitution. Rather, it’s the change the Convention made in 2019 to make the Credentials Committee a standing committee, and then opening up an online portal so that anyone with an internet connection can challenge a church’s credentials. I believe there were good motives behind that change in 2019, but it has had unintended consequences that are not good for our convention. But again, the problem here is not the Law Amendment (which hasn’t even been enacted yet), and it’s a misunderstanding of our polity to say that it is.

5. Will the Law Amendment Set a Troubling Precedent?

Fifth, Collingsworth worries that the passage of the Law Amendment will set a precedent for the SBC “to closely monitor the ecclesiological practices of its churches.” If the SBC starts policing churches on female pastors, what’s next? Alien immersion? Malfunctioning deacons? Violations of religious liberty? Is the SBC going to start policing an ever-narrowing set of issues in cooperating churches?

This concern also misunderstands our polity. The passage of the Law Amendment does not give the Credentials Committee or any other Southern Baptist group the power “to closely monitor” the internal workings of churches. The Credentials Committee does not lean forward with doctrinal tests for all SBC churches. On the contrary, the Credentials Committee receives referrals and can only respond to those referrals. It cannot initiate inquiries on its own or otherwise police churches. I would recommend all Southern Baptists read Bylaw 8 to understand how the Credentials Committee actually works. If someone challenges the credentials of a church, the Credentials Committee may ask that church questions, but it cannot “investigate” that church or otherwise “closely monitor” that church (see Article IV of the SBC Constitution and Bylaw 8.C.5). Collingsworth’s fear on this account is entirely misplaced in my view.

Conclusion

Collingsworth’s article is one more piece of evidence that at least some people oppose the Law Amendment because they are willing to cooperate with churches that have female pastors. The space for such a thing in the SBC is already pretty narrow, as the votes against Saddleback and Fern Creek last summer demonstrate. The Law Amendment would clarify beyond a reasonable doubt what the position of the SBC is on the matter. Some are fighting the Law Amendment because they want to leave space for cooperating with at least some churches that have female pastors. Is that the direction that the SBC wishes to go? I haven’t seen any evidence that it wishes to do so, and I don’t understand why anyone would think otherwise after the decisive votes in New Orleans last summer.

For these reasons, I am not persuaded by Collingsworth’s objections to the Law Amendment. On the contrary, the Law Amendment simply clarifies what our Constitution already calls for—close identification with the BF&M. Messengers have already proved their commitment to hold the line on the BF&M’s teaching on female pastors. I am hoping and praying that they will prove it again in Indianapolis by passing the Law Amendment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Denny Burk

    Denny Burk (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Burk is the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and speaks and writes extensively about gender and sexuality. He keeps a popular blog at DennyBurk.com.

Denny Burk

Denny Burk

Denny Burk (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Burk is the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and speaks and writes extensively about gender and sexuality. He keeps a popular blog at DennyBurk.com.