Encore: The SBC’s Gordian Knot Problem


Editor’s Note: This article is an encore article from our March 2023 theme Under Reconstruction: How the Egalitarian Beachball Wrecks the Household of God.

There’s an ancient Greek legend about a knot so intricate it could not be untied. When the people of Phrygia lacked a king, an oracle proclaimed that the next man to enter the city would be declared king. That man was a farmer named Gordias. When he was declared king, his son tied the ox-cart to a post using an intricate knot that was so tightly entangled it was impossible to untie. According to legend, this knot remained in the palace of the Phrygian kings at Gordium until the fourth century, and another oracle declared that whoever could untie the intricate knot would become not just king of Phyrgia, but of all Asia. There was blessing to be had for the man able to untie the tangled knot, but to do so seemed impossible. The knot was just too much for anyone to untie.

The SBC Gordian Knot

It seems we might be facing such a problem in the SBC with regard to our current debate regarding women in pastoral ministry and the role of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (hereafter BFM2000) in the cooperation of fifty thousand autonomous churches. The problem seems intractable, impossible even. We can no longer kick the can down the road or agree to disagree, a solution must be found. There is great blessing for the SBC and its churches that lie beyond the problem – but this knot seems just too tightly tied, and some seem unwilling to even take up the task of untying it, for a variety of reasons. But deal with this Gordian knot we must. I do not believe the SBC can move forward in any fruitful way without taking care of this tangled mess.

To untie the knot, we need to understand the various ropes that make up the tangled mess. Herein lies the biggest problem: there is not just one issue, but many related issues tied so tightly together that until we take a closer look we cannot identify all the problems. In my estimation, there are eleven different issues masquerading as one. Eleven different issues that each need to be taken into account and dealt with if the SBC is to move forward. Some of these are questions of biblical exegesis, some are issues of Baptist polity, and even some are matters of historic practice of this particular association/convention. Clarification in one of these areas may lead to even more work on one of the other areas, or the revelation of issues not listed here that must then be handled. That’s what makes this such a tangled knot.

Identifying the Strands

There are at least eleven ropes within the knot:

  1. The definition of “pastor” in the BFM2000
  2. The use of the term “pastor” over elder
  3. The application of the term “pastor” to women in leadership roles
  4. The choice to use alternate titles for women in leadership roles (i.e., Minister or Director)
  5. The appropriateness of having women serve in such leadership roles
  6. The relationship between the office and function of “pastor”
  7. The argument that “pastor” is a gift not an office
  8. The role of the BFM2000 in SBC partnership
  9. The degree of affirmation/subscription to BFM2000 for partnership
  10. The ability of the SBC to define/delineate fellowship/partnership
  11. The need for clarity in SBC partnerships (full members, donor partners, etc.)

Each of these eleven issues invites further debate and discussion. It is clear there is not consensus within the SBC on most of these points. Therein lies the problem. How can we work together without some level of agreement? And what determines that level of agreement? Without a clear document (yes, confession) to which we can clearly point and affirm, we will always be left to the tyranny of the individual interpretation. I believe that is what has caused us to get to this point and why clarity on each of these points is crucial for us moving forward.

Now the question is: how exactly do we deal with such an intricate problem? I have been told by some that this is much ado about nothing, and to worry about it is a distraction from our mission. Some seem content to see the knot and walk away, convinced it is too much work to untie. Others want to kick the can down the road, refusing to deal with the issue because they know that seeking to untie the knot will mean that some people and churches might be excluded from the SBC. I fear there are even some among our number that enjoy the knot being there because of the ambiguity it provides. Clarity of these issues means that some will have to get off the fence and take a position, and let’s be honest, dealing with this issue may cost some people opportunities and positions. But I believe integrity demands we deal with this and that people be forthright and honest about their convictions.

Working Toward a Solution

I believe most of us in the SBC see the need to deal with the problems and move forward, whatever lies on the other side. I firmly believe that on the other side of the unraveled knot is a clarity of doctrine that leads to a deeper commitment to cooperative work in missions, church planting, and seminary education. We can never partner to plant churches when we are unclear who ought to lead such churches. We can never partner to train pastors when we are unclear as to what a pastor is and what he does. These doctrinal issues are not tertiary to our mission, they require firm commitment to define and motivate our mission. This is far from a distraction from the mission, it is integral to us being able to lock arms and cooperate together in the mission.

The SBC is not the only game in town, and those who disagree with what the SBC believes on this issue are welcome to start their own associational partnerships to the same end, and we will praise the Lord for it. But cooperation in mission demands a certain degree of doctrinal unity, and we need to clarify our unity. This is what led Southern Baptists to revise the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000. And today, as that document stands upon the firm foundation of God’s Word—something that could not be said about the SBC in the decades leading up to 2000—it does not need to be rewritten. Instead, we need to have the courage of our convictions to put in practice what it preaches. That is what Mike Law’s amendment to the SBC constitution invites Southern Baptist’s to do when they gather in New Orleans.

In the legend of the Gordian Knot there did come a man to figure it out: Alexander the Great. After struggling to untie the knot, it finally occurred to him that what was necessary to deal with the problem was a direct approach. He drew his sword and he cut the knot in half – so loosening the knot so that the ox-cart could be fully untied from the post. Now, Alexander’s solution was one of pragmatic reasoning, thinking it mattered not how the knot was loosed, just that it was accomplished. My argument is that a direct approach will be the best solution to undo the knot. We accomplish nothing by denying there is a problem or by rejoicing in the lack of clarity. We undermine our own stated unity and cooperation if we are unwilling to approach this knot directly and do everything we can to clarify our positions. It is not unity to pretend there is not a problem.

There is great blessing that comes with figuring out this problem – but it will not be accomplished by those who are unwilling to make some people unhappy or upset the status quo. It will only be accomplished by those brave enough to draw a sword and deal with the problem head on. We must clarify what we believe, and that may even mean making some changes to how the convention relates to the BFM2000 and defining terms clearly enough that some that currently partner themselves with the SBC choose to no longer do so. Do we have the courage to do so? It is my prayer that we do. I believe that we will be better in the long run for having made the difficult decisions and doing the hard work. The knot can, and must, be undone.



  • Jason Gray

    Jason has a B.S. in Economics from the University of Florida, and a Master of Divinity as well as a Doctor of Ministry in Applied Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jason serves as Lead Pastor of Redeemer Church (Abilene, TX). He and his wife, Kristin, have four children.

Jason Gray

Jason Gray

Jason has a B.S. in Economics from the University of Florida, and a Master of Divinity as well as a Doctor of Ministry in Applied Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jason serves as Lead Pastor of Redeemer Church (Abilene, TX). He and his wife, Kristin, have four children.