On June 2, 2023, Rick Warren published an open letter that appeals for a favorable vote on behalf of Saddleback Church to remain in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The issue at stake is whether Southern Baptists will accept cooperation with churches that ordain and employ women pastors—as Saddleback now does—even though this practice goes directly against The Baptist Faith and Message (BFM).
Since Warren is a massively influential figure and highly effective rhetorician, we may expect his appeal to convince many messengers to vote in his favor. If it does convince the majority, it will be a monumental choice that essentially validates SBC churches with women pastors and diminishes the value of the BFM as a uniting document.
The problem is that Warren’s letter is intellectually dishonest on multiple fronts. It may prove persuasive as a piece of rhetoric, but it is not sound as an honest argument. In the end, it is a classic example of the way doctrinal compromise always tries to find validation: By promoting a shallow notion of unity, by making basic doctrinal standards out to be unnecessary, and by casting those who take a stand for biblical truth as divisive aggressors. If the SBC allows this mentality to set course, it will not only undermine the specific doctrine at hand, but also lead down a path of further compromise.
Therefore, I am writing this piece to identify twelve points of manipulative rhetoric that reveal the true nature of Warren’s letter. In the interest of brevity, I will simply quote Warren and offer short counter points that I hope expose the flaws in his appeal. In the end, I hope messengers will not be swayed by Warren’s powerful persona and popular reasoning but instead will see through his appeal as an attempt to manipulate with shallow logic.
Twelve Considerations from Warren’s “Open Letter”
1. Warren: “First, I’m deeply concerned about our denomination’s 17 years of decline and the loss of a half million members just last year.”
By putting this concern at the beginning of his letter, Warren suggests a link between our denominational size and his specific issue. The suggestion is that taking a biblical stand concerning the role of pastor will further hurt the SBC.
There are several wrong assumptions built into this connection: First, it suggests that numerical popularity is the standard by which the SBC should be measured without regard for basic biblical convictions. Second, it assumes that the key to growing in numbers is having loose standards for unity when in fact denominations that drift from biblical standards tend to diminish in size. Third, it is reductionistic. There are actually numerous factors that have contributed to the numerical decline of the SBC in recent years (cultural, doctrinal, procedural, etc.).
2. Warren: “From the start, our unity has always been based on a common mission, not a common confession. For the first 80 years of the SBC, we did not even have a confession . . .”
But now we do. The question is “Why?” At least one part of the answer is that in the early twentieth century churches were drifting into theological liberalism at an alarming rate, so Southern Baptists realized that trying to cooperate without a statement of faith was not prudent. Another part of the answer is that as the Cooperative Program was formed, Baptists knew there had to be a reliable doctrinal standard that churches could trust in order to participate conscientiously. In short, the shallow approach to unity and cooperation was not practical for convictional people. The BFM set a standard on which Bible believing Baptists could agree. The real truth is that Baptists have always been a confessional people. By adopting the BFM, the SBC followed in the footsteps of their Baptist forefathers.
3. Warren: “[The founders of the SBC] knew we never could get 100% of Baptists to agree 100% on 100% of every interpretation of Scripture.”
This statement misrepresents the intention behind the BFM. It is not a document that attempts to address “every interpretation of Scripture.” Rather, it is a document that seeks to articulate those basic truths that should define our cooperation. In the preamble to the BFM, the committee states that such confessions are not regarded “as complete statements of our faith.” But they nevertheless affirm the need for confessions in the face of “challenges to faith” that “appear in every age.” “Each generation of Christians bears the responsibility of guarding the treasury of truth that has been entrusted to us.”
4. Warren: “Your own family members often hold opposing opinions, but you don’t disown them for that. You still love them in spite of disagreements.”
There are several problems with this logic. First, the bases for inclusion in a nuclear family and in a denomination are different. The one is natural birth. The other is common faith. So while a difference in belief does not remove someone from a nuclear family, it may be legitimate grounds for removal from a denomination. Second, even in one’s own family, lines sometimes have to be drawn in order to take a stand for truth. Third, Warren twists the concept of “love” to mean, “If you have a profound disagreement with me that leads you not to cooperate with me, then you don’t love me.” This logic follows the way our culture abuses the concept of love to insist on the affirmation of all kinds of unbiblical ideas and lifestyles.
5. Warren: “The current ruling of the Executive Committee will open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences unless we reject it. It will fundamentally destroy four historic Southern Baptist distinctives upon which the convention was organized by our founders. It will: 1. Change the basis of our cooperation. 2. Change the basis of our identity. 3. Centralize power in the Executive Committee and take away autonomy from the churches. 4. Turn our confession into a creed . . .”
The logic here is all very twisted. Each of Warren’s points needs correction. 1. A vote to uphold a doctrine in the BFM would not change “the basis of our cooperation” because our common confession is that very basis. 2. Such a vote would not change “the basis of our identity” because our identity is both missional and doctrinal–both articulated clearly in the BFM. 3. A vote of the messengers to remove Saddleback can hardly be evidence of “centralized power in the Executive Committee” because as a vote of the messengers, it would be a collective statement of the churches of the SBC. 4. The polarization between confessions and creeds is a false extreme. Confessions can certainly define reasons for disassociation. There are many doctrinal issues that could create the need to disassociate with churches. In such instances, the BFM would serve as a ready reference for justifying such a move.
6. Warren: “Our appeal to reverse the Executive Committee ruling is not asking any Baptist to change their theology. Not at all. The overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists are complementarian. But we reject the idea that Southern Baptists who disagree are an existential threat to our convention and not true Baptists.”
This statement essentially says, “We aren’t out to change anything. We just want to be accepted.” But Warren is out to change people’s views on the pastorate in order to in his mind liberate women in ministry. Further, this type of appeal is how many false ideas get initial validation in both church and society. A demand for affirmation is always close on the heels of acceptance. Then at some point, the full-blown agenda gets full traction.
7. Warren: “This should be the moment where 47,000-plus autonomous, independent, freedom-loving churches say no to turning the Executive Committee into a theological magisterium that controls a perpetual inquisition of churches and makes the Executive Committee a centralized hierarchy that tells our congregations who to hire and what to call them.”
The exaggerated rhetoric and imagery of this statement is over the top. It is polarizing to the extreme. In truth, it is not intrusive or magisterial for an organization to have standards of involvement and to have the ability to disfellowship those who are in obvious violation of those standards. No “inquisition” is needed to understand that Saddleback has flagrantly gone against Southern Baptist convictions and that Warren has wholesale denigrated the purpose of the BFM.
8. Warren: “This is a vote to refocus on the Great Commission and say no to a Great Inquisition, which will waste enormous time, money and energy that we should be investing in revitalizing our churches.”
Beyond the continued rhetoric of “a Great Inquisition,” the question to ask in response to this statement is this: How will we revitalize our churches? With women pastors? With husband and wife pastor teams? With egalitarian practices? Are we to collectively spend our “time, money, and energy” promoting an unbiblical form of ministry? If these are the ways that Warren wants to “revitalize” churches, then Southern Baptists have the right to say no to cooperation with him.
9. Warren: “This is a vote to continue being the denomination of Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong – two strong, godly women who fearlessly spoke to men and challenged them everywhere about the priority of missions . . .”
This statement makes two dishonest characterizations. First, it attempts to claim Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong for the side of women pastors when it is by no means clear that they would support Warren’s cause. They themselves were not pastors and never sought the pastoral office. And as solid, Bible-believing, Baptist missionaries of the nineteenth century, they would have understood the pastorate to be reserved for men. Second, Warren characterizes complementarians as those who are opposed to women having any voice or ministry at all, but it simply does not follow that a stand for male pastors means that women cannot have a powerful impact for God’s kingdom. Southern Baptists have celebrated women like Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong for decades without affirming female pastors.
10. Warren: “This is a vote to affirm our founding documents which insist that our unity is to be based on giving total submission to Christ in our deeds and not based on mental submission to man-made creeds.”
This is one of the most transparently dishonest statements in Warren’s entire letter. In it, he drives a false wedge between doctrine and deeds. It should be easy for the reader to understand that a church’s doctrine of the pastorate results in its practice of the pastorate. “Submission to Christ in our deeds” starts with submission to Christ in our beliefs.
11. Warren: “The SBC grew for 80 years – 80 years! – without any statement of faith because our unity never was based on a confession.”
This statement is an example of Warren’s disregard for the BFM. It is clear throughout his letter that Warren would rather the SBC not have a confession at all. So the rhetoric of his letter is not merely against the SBC having a clear doctrine of the pastorate, but actually against the SBC having any clear doctrine as articulated in a confession at all. In order to make his point for women pastors, he is willing to cast aside the BFM altogether.
12. Warren: “Then we grew for 90 more years – with a consensus confession that never was used to exclude people on the basis of interpretation.”
This statement gives the false impression that until recently Southern Baptists have always gotten along just fine without any needed stands concerning doctrine. Whether one looks to the original need for the BFM in a 1920’s climate of advancing liberalism or to the conservative resurgence of the 1980’s, the fact is that the SBC has had important moments of separation between sound doctrine and progressive doctrine. These very moments have protected the SBC from doctrinal decline throughout its existence.
At the end of this quotation, Warren slips in the idea that the question of women pastors is up for “interpretation” in the BFM, when in fact the issue is set forth quite clearly. Article IV on the church states, “[The church’s] 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.”
In conclusion, there are two true statements in Warren’s letter that I would like to highlight. He said, “Today, our founders are rolling over in their graves.” This claim is undoubtedly true. The founders of the SBC would be appalled at many things being advanced among Southern Baptists by those who do not value sound, reliable doctrine. We can be sure that they are indeed rolling over in their graves at the redefinition of the office of pastor by men such as Warren. Warren also said: “[T]he future and nature of the SBC . . . hangs in the balance.” This is no doubt true. The vote concerning Saddleback will either set a direction for strong, doctrinal unity consistent with being a confessional people, or it will choose a path of shallow pragmatism that dismisses not only a biblical view of pastors but the notion of clear, confessional doctrine altogether.
As a convention of churches, we all have the responsibility to see through manipulative rhetoric when it presents itself. This is especially true when it regards matters of conviction that we hold as foundations for our unity and mission. May the messengers at this year‘s annual meeting, and at every meeting after, stand for a biblical doctrine of the pastorate and in doing so stand for the body of biblical doctrine that unites us.