Complementarian Confessional Conflagration

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.

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.

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