Complementarianism, the SBC, and the Autonomy of the Church

The 2019 Southern Baptist Convention was overall a display of unity and focus. The Gospel above all was the theme and it highlighted the need to stay focused on the purpose of the SBC to bring the Gospel to all the world. There was a tremendous display of unity on the issue of sexual abuse along with a time of lamenting and repentance. I must say that I was very encouraged and can emphatically say that I am proud to be a Southern Baptist pastor.
However, there is an underlining issue that has been sort of thorn in the side of the SBC. Years ago, the SBC won the battle of the Bible. The Southern Baptist Convention is dominated by those who believe the Bible to be the inerrant, infallible, and inspired Word of God. For this I am thankful. The issue, however, in any large organization such as the SBC, is that there are so many different views and opinions. All Southern Baptists would claim that they believe the Bible to be the complete Word of God. Not all Southern Baptists agree as to the interpretation of various texts of scripture. Such is the case between those who are Calvinists and those who are not. If you have read any of my previous articles, you will find that I am most definitely not a Calvinist. As a matter of fact, I have very strong views against Calvinism. However, I have learned from experience that most who hold to Calvinistic views are just as passionate about preaching the Gospel as I am, and they have a strong commitment to the Great Commission. Therefore, I can certainly partner with those who have such views that differ than mine for the sake of the Gospel.
There is one issue that has come to the forefront in SBC life of late and that is the view of complementarianism. This is the view that men and women have different but complementary roles in life, the home, and in the church. This has become an issue in the SBC in large part due to recent actions and comments made by Beth Moore and others. The fact is that Southern Baptist theology has been very clear that it does indeed hold to Biblical complementarianism. It would be hard to find any Southern Baptist that would not claim to be complementarian. It is clear, that men and women have different God-given roles and functions that are defined in scripture. It is also very clear that the office of Pastor is reserved for qualified men. This fits not only by direct command, but also by the principle of male leadership seen throughout the Bible. The Baptist Faith & Message is also very clear that only men can serve in the office of Pastor. What is not clearly defined by Southern Baptists, is whether or not a woman can practice pastoral functions though not serving in the office of Pastor. There are some who feel that women should not teach a group of people that includes men such as in a Sunday School class. There are others that feel that women can perform all the functions of a pastor including preaching, as long as she is not serving in the office of a pastor.
My view on this is somewhat in the middle. I firmly believe that women are not to serve in the office of pastor and also deacon. At the same time, I believe that women can certainly instruct a man like a mother would instruct her son. For example, there are many times when I have gone to women in the church for advice on certain issues, simply because they know more about the particular issue than I do. There have been times when I have received encouragement and even rebuke by Godly women. I personally do not see anything unbiblical or wrong with a Godly woman providing such encouragement to a man. I believe there is a lot we can learn from Godly women. I also believe that women can serve in leadership roles in the church as long as it is under the authority of the pastor. Women can certainly serve as committee members within the church and provide wise counsel.
There is a gray area in my thinking, however. Can a woman teach a class with men present? Can a woman speak from the pulpit? Is such action considered as a position of authority? It is my belief that the ideal situation in the life of a local church is that men teach men and women teach women. If at all possible, I would stay away from having women teaching classes with men present. I would even stay away from having women leading behind the pulpit including leading the worship. However, though this is the ideal, it is not always feasible. In many smaller churches you will have situations where there are not qualified men to teach. In some situations, you may not have a qualified man who can lead the congregation in worship. Therefore, in these cases I believe God gives us grace and we should exercise grace.
You may say, “but what about the passage that states that women are not teach or have authority over the man?” I would then argue, “what about the passage that states that women are to have their heads covered and are not even allowed to talk at church?” As we interpret the Bible, we must do so from an historical and cultural perspective. The command in the scripture is clear: women are not to serve in the office of pastor and deacon. The principle in the scripture is clear: women are not to be in a position of authority over a man in the local church. Here lies are problem, in the messy details. Should we take the view that women can do nothing in the church? Should we take the view that they cannot speak? Should we take the view that they should cover their heads? Or, should we take the view that women can certainly speak and even teach as long as she does not exercise authority or serve in the office of pastor and deacon.
At the SBC convention there was a motion made by a Godly woman to amend the Baptist Faith & Message to include that not only should men only serve in the office of pastor, but also, only men should perform the functions of a pastor. That motion may be voted on at next year’s convention as it was sent to committee for consideration. If the vote was held today though, my personal opinion would lead me to vote for the amendment, in wisdom, I would vote against the amendment. Here is why: the functions of a pastor include but are not limited to: teaching, shepherding, leading, etc. A woman can certainly shepherd. She can care for those in need. She can nurture her children and others in the church. She can provide instruction, though perhaps not in an organized class setting where men are present. Such an amendment remains unclear. At the same time, we must consider the autonomy of the local church. If we narrow our statements in the Baptist Faith & Message too tightly, then the whole purpose of autonomous churches cooperating for the sake of the Gospel becomes very limited and hindered. Every Southern Baptist Church must hold to the Baptist Faith & Message to be considered as a cooperating church. The Baptist Faith & Message is very clear that only men can serve in the office of pastor. However, if we include that only men can teach and shepherd, etc. we would alienate many SBC churches and our Gospel witness in the world could be greatly harmed. Therefore, I believe that the SBC should stand strong on Biblical truth; but should also uphold local church autonomy. If there is a local church that does not have qualified men to teach a Sunday School class, so they utilize a Godly and humble woman to teach, would that church be deemed an uncooperating church? The proposed amendment could open-up that possibility.
For the sake of clarity let me say that I am unashamedly a conservative Bible believing Southern Baptist. I tend to always take the more conservative view on any issue. Personally, I lead any church I pastor to seek God’s best. When it comes to women’s roles in the church, this does mean that I discourage from having women teach classes with men as students and I discourage women from serving in authoritative roles in the church. With that say, though, I as a pastor must give an account before God for my pastoral leadership; it is not my place to demand that other pastors lead the same way I would on this issue. Most certainly, variation in complementarian views is within the realm of boundaries set for a church I would cooperate with. Therefore, based on Southern Baptists long stand on church autonomy and the very clear statement that the Baptist Faith & Message clearly states only men should serve in the office of pastor, I believe that leaving the statement as is would be more suitable for cooperation and for the furtherance of the Gospel.
One last note to consider. Though I am okay with leaving the Baptist Faith & Message as is, I do believe an amendment should be made to the constitution and bylaws that states the following: The office of president, vice president, and executive officers of the SBC and its entities should be held only by men who meet the qualifications of a pastor. These offices suggest and demand pastoral style leadership and should therefore require pastoral qualifications to be meet.
There always has been and always will be issues that we as Southern Baptists face. On areas which we agree, we should be united in our resolve. On areas which we disagree, we should practice grace and discernment. The Gospel is above all. The purpose of the SBC is not to solve all theological differences, but to unite us in the common goal and passion of reaching the world for Jesus. If we stay focus on our purpose, all of the issues on which we disagree will work itself out. Debate, yes. Have discussions, yes. But, practice love and grace. Focus on the one thing that Southern Baptists do best, proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all peoples and to all the world!

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