Female Pastors, LGBTQ, and the Future of the SBC
It might have taken the feminist dissidents 30+ years, but they may at last be on the brink of getting their way in the SBC. And female pastors may be only their first win.
In May of 2022, Mike Law, pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Virginia, sent an email to the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. As the only full-time staff member of a church of about 100, he had never had any interaction with his national leadership before, so he began with a chipper greeting introducing himself and his congregation, followed by a straightforward question: Is a church that has a woman serving as pastor deemed to be in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention?
Home to some 47,000 churches and 13 million members, the SBC’s status as the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. is due in large part to its loose structure. Rather than a top-down hierarchy, it’s more of a casual association of churches who agree on doctrine and pool their money to fund missions, seminaries, and various charitable endeavors. Its leaders have no power to tell churches what to teach, where or how to operate, or who to hire. The only authority they have is to manage the billion-plus in unrestricted funds they receive and set the terms for who gets to be a member.
Though its contributions may have been small, Arlington Baptist was nonetheless a contributor in good standing. And its pastor was inquiring whether, since Article VI of the denomination’s statement of faith asserts that “the office of pastor is limited to men” based on 1 Timothy 2:9-14 and 3:1-7, a church could remain in the club if it violated this doctrine.
Law explained that his understanding was that a church with a woman pastor would not qualify for what the SBC calls “friendly cooperation” because that requires a “faith and practice that closely identifies with the Baptist Faith and Message” (the SBC’s name for their statement of faith). Churches that affirm homosexual behavior and marriage had been disfellowshipped for falling afoul of the BF&M in the past. Why would this point of doctrine be any different?
He finished by thanking the committee for its service and said he looked forward to their answer.
He would never get one.
Speaking Through Other Means
The response Law received from VP of Communications, Jonathan Howe, explained that determinations of friendly cooperation are made by the credentials committee, not the executive committee. So if he wanted to report a church for having a woman pastor, that was where he should turn.
Law wrote back, apologizing for not being clear the first time — he knew where churches could be reported but was only asking about the general principle. Did the committee agree with the BF&M’s position on women in the pastorate and did that belief guide their decisions?
Howe replied that he could not speak for the credentials committee and did not think the credentials committee was likely to speak for the credentials committee either. “They speak through their actions throughout the year,” he said.
He then pointed Law to a portal where he could report a church for review.
To Law, the confusion lay in the fact that the committee had not been speaking through their actions. “In just a five-mile radius of Arlington Baptist, I had noticed five other SBC churches that had female pastors on staff,” he tells me. Further far-from-exhaustive research turned up 170 more. Colleagues shared that when they had reported churches in their areas for the same issue, the credentials committee took no action. Then there were the whispers that various SBC leaders themselves attended churches where women act as pastors (in fact, one blog cited Howe’s wife as one of them).
In short, it seemed to Law it would be helpful if the committee could be prevailed upon to speak through other means. Namely, words.
But while Law’s next email to senior members of the credentials committee produced no better results, their response did clarify why his query was being met with stonewalling and unasked-for directions on how to report churches.
“I believe your question is in reference to Saddleback Church,” the registration secretary informed him. Because of this, he said the committee would be “unable to give a response.”
With 23,000 members spread across 14 campuses, not to mention extension groups around the world that “attend” services online, Saddleback could hardly provide a greater contrast to Arlington Baptist, where Law himself stuffs sermon outlines into Sunday bulletins and makes the spaghetti for Wednesday night bible study.
The megachurch’s founding pastor, Rick Warren, is the author of The Purpose Driven Life, one of the best-selling books of the last few decades. Known for rubbing shoulders with heads of state at the United Nations and World Economic Forum and for counting top bureaucrats like former NIH director, Francis Collins, among his personal friends, Warren has made it plain he considers himself more of an asset to his denomination than his denomination is to him. “We don’t need the Southern Baptist Convention,” he recently told Christianity Today’s editor-in-chief, Russell Moore, during a podcast interview. “They need the 6000 Purpose-Driven churches that are in our fellowship.”
In 2021, Warren had defied the BF&M by ordaining three women, leading to something of a crisis for SBC leadership. Media outlets like The Washington Post were covering Warren’s rebellion with subtle notes of glee, but much of the denomination’s membership was deeply upset. Would the SBC eject their celebrity son, the pastor who, according to his own website, is “America’s most influential spiritual leader”? Or would they overlook the tenets of their own statement of faith?
All of this conjecture was immaterial to Law, however, as he hadn’t been thinking of Saddleback at all. His experience with the churches in his immediate vicinity had simply convinced him that indifference to doctrinal adherence was leading to drift and confusion. He felt a bright line of clarity was in order.
Thus, a month after his initial letter to the executive committee, he determined to attend the SBC’s national meeting and propose a constitutional amendment. It would require Southern Baptist churches to conform to the BF&M on the question of women in the pastorate, just as they were required to do on issues of sexuality.
Delegates (known as messengers) to the annual convention would have the opportunity to consider the question solely on biblical merit, free from any wrangling over famous personalities or their media–boosted power plays.
But then, less than two weeks before the convention, Warren announced he was retiring and named as his replacement a husband-and-wife team. Though Law would not know it for some time, Warren’s decision would become the main obstacle to his hope of giving the SBC the chance to make a clear-cut, up-or-down choice.
Long Lines and New Committees, and Surprise Speakers
The first day of the convention started at 8 am. Law arrived at 7:45, stationing himself near one of ten microphones interspersed throughout a hall that would soon be churning with more than 12,000 attendees. Though he had pre-submitted his amendment by email the night before, there was no guarantee he would actually be granted an opportunity to make a motion as the process is, by all accounts, harrowing.
“There’s only two twenty-minute periods when you can make motions and long lines form for the mics, so they’re hard to get a hold of,” explains Sam Webb, an attorney from Houston who attended the convention as a messenger. “Even once you submit a request to a page and the page submits it to the platform, the platform may or may not call on you. If they do call on you, you only get a couple of minutes to speak. You have lights on you and the echoes within the hall can be incredibly loud, so it’s hard to see and hear.”
Given how easy it would be to miss his chance, Law resolved to continue standing near the mic for the two-and-a-half-hour wait even after Howe came by and pressed him to sit down. His persistence paid off — he wasn’t the first to make a motion as he’d hoped, but he did get his proposal in early and it was quickly seconded. At that point, the committee on the order of business could have scheduled his amendment for an immediate vote. Instead, they sent it to the executive committee, who would then decide whether to bring it forward at the next convention, in the summer of 2023.
At that moment, Law had a choice to make. He could have pulled the amendment out of the committee to force a vote on the floor (and, in fact, that morning friends had nudged him to do so). But senior leaders in the SBC persuaded him to be patient and trust the executive committee to shepherd it through a formal vetting process, something that would also give him more time to drum up support before the 2023 convention.
It was a decision he would later come to regret.
That didn’t mean the issue of women in the pastorate was tabled for 2022, however. At the 2021 convention, a pastor from Louisiana had submitted a motion calling for Saddleback to be disfellowshipped over its ordination of the three women. As with Law’s motion, the credentials committee had decided not to act immediately but rather take a year to consider the matter. They were now due to deliver a decision.
Instead, the committee chairwoman announced they were recommending the creation of a new committee that would spend another year studying the definition of the word “pastor.” After this proposal was met with howls of outrage, one of the six seminary presidents (himself the former chair of an SBC committee), stepped up to a mic to propose another option.
He felt that perhaps the problem was not with the word “pastor” but “cooperation,” and suggested the new committee could instead spend a year studying what it meant to cooperate with the statement of faith. The messengers did not think that word required a year of study either, however, and overwhelmingly rejected this proposal as well.
Then it was time for lunch.
When the meeting reconvened, then-president Ed Litton was announcing standard business from the platform when he was summoned to a hushed exchange with the credentials committee chairwoman. Upon returning to the podium he announced there would be a departure from the agenda to hear from a surprise guest. “We’re gonna take a moment to extend a courtesy to a pastor here from Southern California,” he declared to the darkened hall. “Rick Warren—we want to hear his heart for this convention.”
As The New York Times has highlighted, Saddleback has never “[used] the word Baptist in its name or [foregrounded] any connection to the denomination.” Indeed, at a 2005 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Warren conspicuously distanced his church from the denomination. When an NBC reporter asked if it was part of the SBC, he replied, “No — it was. In the early years, when we first got started, it was a part of the Southern Baptist Convention…basically we cooperated with them in their missions program, but now we’re doing our own missions program.”
Months later, Warren asked Pew to alter its online transcript, saying he misspoke. But The Baptist Standard observed that he has always downplayed any affiliation with the SBC because of “what Warren calls ‘widespread misperceptions about Southern Baptists.’” And sources who have been in SBC leadership for decades tell me that before 2022, they can only recall Warren attending the convention a couple of times in 35 years. Those occasions coincided with his being offered prime speaking roles.
Nonetheless, Litton gave Warren a VIP welcome, permitting him to make a speech that ran over six minutes — more than double the three-minute time limit imposed on everyone else speaking from the floor. In it, Warren cited a litany of statistical proof for his church’s success. He noted that he “grew [Saddleback] to become the largest church in this convention” and that “78,157 members of our church signed our membership covenant after taking our membership class.” He even contrasted the impact of his life’s work with that of SBC institutions, saying, “I’ve had the privilege for 43 years of training 1.1 million pastors. That, sorry friends, is more than all the seminaries put together.”
When he was done, Litton thanked him and said he believed Warren could “feel the warmth, love, and appreciation of Southern Baptists.”
Law tells me that in the many SBC conventions he’s attended over the years, he has never seen anything like the special privilege Warren was afforded.
“That never happens. The parliamentarian might let somebody step up on the platform to offer a word or two on a point of a procedure, but to clear the microphones and say, ‘We have a guest at microphone three,’ is unheard of as far as I know.”
He adds that as the question of Saddleback’s membership was not being debated, there was no mechanism in Robert’s Rules of Order (the classic parliamentary manual that governs SBC proceedings) for the platform to recognize Warren. “At no point in time at that meeting was Saddleback under the threat of being disfellowshipped. Nor was that motion offered. So procedurally it was completely and utterly out of the blue.”
Webb was shocked by the decision on other grounds: “Here were SBC leaders pressuring people like Mike Law to sit down, telling him he can’t stand near a microphone until the agenda gets to motions, but all of a sudden Rick Warren is handed the mic to essentially give a grandstanding, defensive speech over an issue that wasn’t even being addressed by the platform? It was surreal.”
Additionally, Webb notes that the platform cut off other speakers mid-sentence because their time ran out or their comments were ruled out of order on technicalities: “So it was one of these really strange moments where you think to yourself, why is it that Rick Warren gets this partiality, this favor with seemingly no time limit? It was really quite discouraging.”
After Warren’s speech, the credentials chairwoman announced that the committee had “heard the messengers” and were withdrawing their recommendation to study any words for a year. But since they’d already confirmed that Saddleback would not be disfellowshipped then, they still had another year to consider the matter before they had to make a report to the denomination again.
Still, the seed of questioning definitions was planted. And the intramural debate that followed the convention, in which the meaning of particular words and phrases were minutely dissected to determine if the authors could have intended something other than their obvious meaning, would sound familiar to any Constitutional attorney. Those who wanted to open pulpits to females argued that “pastor” might have referred only to “senior pastor” or “teaching pastor.” Those who didn’t argued the plain-text, originalist position.