SBC theologians clarify meaning of ‘pastor’ amid dispute

Saddleback Church
Saddleback Church ordains its first three female pastors: Liz Puffer, Cynthia Petty and Katie Edwards on Thursday, May 6, 2021. This is even though their denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, limits the pastorate to men. |

Prominent Southern Baptist theologians have issued a statement clarifying the meaning of the word ‘pastor’ amid controversy in the largest Protestant denomination in the United States over the Saddleback Church’s ordination of female pastors by Rick Warren last year.

The document “A Statement Concerning the Baptist Faith and Message and the Word ‘Pastor’” was released last week by two Southern Baptist seminary presidents and the former head of the denomination’s public policy arm.

The signatories are Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Chuck Kelley, president of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; and Richard Land, who served as chairman of the Commission on Ethics and Religious Liberty from 1988 to 2013 and president emeritus of Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina. The confessional review committee commissioned the three men to write a study guide for the new 2000 Baptist confession of faith and message.

Aiming to clarify a heated debate within the life of SBC, theologians said that when it comes to the word “pastor”, Southern Baptists have always understood the term.

In keeping with the spirit of Baptist Faith and Message 2000, “pastor” means “one who fulfills the pastoral function and exercises the functions of pastor”.

Article VI of The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states that the scriptural offices are pastors and deacons and that “[w]While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to scripturally qualified men.”

The function of the office and the office itself are inseparable, argued the three Baptist leaders. They pointed out that the commentary they wrote on the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message notes that central to this pastoral role is “the responsibility to preach and teach.”

“[I]It is important to understand that the word pastor was chosen precisely because of its clarity among Southern Baptists. The statement carefully affirms that both men and women are gifted for service in the church, but the role of pastor is biblically defined and should only be held by scripturally qualified men,” they reiterated in the new statement.

When the Baptist Faith & Message was adopted and revised in 2000, the committee established that “pastor” should not be used to describe every ministerial position within a church, they added.

Unlike other denominations with a hierarchical ecclesiastical structure, in Baptist ecclesiology the local church calls and ordains its pastors, not the denomination as a whole or its affiliated entities.

While the debate over what the Bible says about who is qualified to serve in a pastoral role is not new, the question resurfaced at this year’s SBC annual meeting in Anaheim, California. Saddleback’s recent ordinations of female “pastors” were considered by many to contravene Baptist Faith & Message 2000.

In remarks from the floor of the annual meeting in June, Warren, the outgoing pastor of the Southern California megachurch, called on the denomination to stop fighting over the issue and that the subject is not a doctrine of first order.

“As Western culture grows darker, more evil and more secular, we must decide: are we going to treat each other as allies or adversaries?” Warren asked.

“Are we going to continue bickering over side issues, or are we going to keep the main thing as main?”

Discussion of the issue, the theology surrounding it, and whether to disaffiliate the Saddleback Church from the SBC was ultimately deferred to a later date. It was sent to the convention’s credentials committee for further study.

Generally speaking, those who oppose the ordination of women as senior pastors are called “complementary” and believe that certain offices within the church are reserved for men. While espousing complementary theology, there are others who believe that only the office of “senior pastor” is reserved for men.

In contrast, “Egalitarians” believe that the specific scriptures that appear to restrict pastoral care to men are not general universal restrictions.

Land, one of the men involved in issuing the statement, is the editor of the Christian Post. He said in an interview on Monday that “it should be remembered that this is a debate about ecclesiology, not soteriology, and should be treated as such in discussions among brothers and sisters in Christ”.

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