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Battle on Bourbon Street

The 2023 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting rejected women pastors—but the fight is not over.

Clinton Attends Global AIDS Summit At Rick Warren's Megachurch

As goes the Southern Baptist Convention, so goes America. The SBC is the country’s largest Protestant denomination, home to over 13 million members in over 47,000 churches. The sheer size of the SBC means that Southern Baptists not only sit at the center of theological conservatism in the nation. They are also a formidable political coalition. In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidential election with approximately four out of five “white evangelicals” lending him their votes—many of these supplied by rank-and-file SBC pew fillers. 

If you were part of a progressive political cabal intent on silencing the echoes of the “Moral Majority” and nudging Republicans to the left, the SBC presents a prime target. Get the SBC to compromise on key cultural issues of the day—critical race theory, traditional marriage—and you can leverage that to move them away from supporting conservative politicians and causes.

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“Just focus on the gospel,” cry many current Baptist leaders. It doesn’t matter if the SBC isn’t interested in politics, because politics is interested in the SBC. And it appears that liberal actors inside and outside of the tent may have found their skeleton key, one that can finally make the SBC go the way of the Mainline Protestant denominations in America, the way of rainbow/trans flags, drag queen acts as “praise and worship,” and pastors proclaiming “abortion is an act of love” while wearing a Planned Parenthood stole. 

What could yield such a drastic departure from the historic, orthodox, confessional commitments of the Southern Baptist Convention? A journey of a thousand miles begins with a tiny step. For the SBC, the descent begins with this one: affirming women pastors

If the SBC won’t hold the line on male-only ordination, it is effectively cutting the theological and cultural brakes. Once that line is severed, the SBC will embark down the undefeated slippery slope of worldly accommodation. As research from 9Marks (a mostly conservative organization committed to church health) and The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (the main complementarian think tank in the evangelical world) shows, every gay-affirming denomination, seminary, or church also embraces women’s ordination.

Egalitarian-affirming pastors in the SBC labor under the misguided notion that the revolution will stop exactly where it benefits us most, thank you. But revolutions don’t work like that. If they start down this path, why wouldn’t the SBC ultimately go the way of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denominational home of the “abortion is an act of love” female pastor quoted above? 

That is where the fight is in the SBC today. At the recent annual meeting in New Orleans in June, the two sides faced off, one side attempting to preserve and enforce the SBC’s clearly stated commitment to male-only pastors, the other side angling to open up the Pandora’s box of women’s ordination. Whatever the SBC finally decides on this issue will echo throughout America and the world. 

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Enter David and Goliath. 

In late spring of 2022, Mike Law Jr. sat in his office in his modest SBC church in Northern Virginia. Serving as the senior pastor of Arlington Baptist Church, Law was largely content with his lot as the shepherd of a 100-person flock. Yet something bothered him. Within a five-mile radius of his congregation, he had noticed five SBC churches with female pastors on staff. Such a practice stood in direct opposition to the SBC’s confession of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, which states, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Law decided to take action. Investigative journalist Megan Basham summarizes how everything started in her excellent writeup for the online journal American Reformer, “Mr. Smith Goes to the Convention”: 

He sent an email to the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention… 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? He finished by thanking the committee for its service and said he looked forward to their answer. He would never get one. 

Eventually, Law heard directly from Jonathan Howe, vice president of communications for the SBC’s executive committee, informing him that such a determination was made by the credentials committee. (Baptists do love their committees.) The credentials committee replied: “I believe your question is in reference to Saddleback Church.” Therefore, the committee was “unable to give a response.”

What did Saddleback have to do with a small church in Northern Virginia? Quite a bit. Across the country in sunny California, Goliath was stirring. 

Saddleback is what’s known as a “mega-church,” boasting over 23,000 members across six campuses and led by Rick Warren, author of the best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life.

While it has undertaken efforts to downplay its affiliation with the SBC over the years, as of 2022, Saddleback was still officially a part of the convention. But that didn’t stop Warren from ordaining three women the year prior, something that caught the eye of the Washington Post: “Saddleback Church, one of the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention and home to influential pastor Rick Warren, ordained three women as staff pastors this past weekend… ‘Yesterday was a historic night for Saddleback Church in many ways!’ the Southern California mega-church's Facebook page announced on Saturday. ‘We ordained our first three women pastors, Liz Puffer, Cynthia Petty, and Katie Edwards!’”

This move didn’t go unnoticed by rank-and-file SBC pastors, either. At the annual meeting in 2021, a motion was made to instruct the credentials committee to “disfellowship” Saddleback for their flagrant violation of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. The credentials committee set up a report to the messengers in 2022—the same year that Law decided to force the question of women pastors by proposing an amendment to the SBC’s constitution to clarify that men, and only men, can serve as pastors. 

In a remarkable display of unequal weights and measures, Warren was given an unprecedented opportunity to command a microphone during the 2022 convention to make his case for Saddleback. At the same time, Law was pressured, even harassed, by Howe to drop his amendment. 

Ultimately, Law’s amendment was referred to the executive committee and the vote on Saddleback’s ouster was punted to 2023. 

Over the next year, the modern-day David and Goliath story developed. On one side was Law, the unassuming pastor of a small local church. On the other side was a multi-millionaire mega-church pastor who rubs shoulders with the Davos crowd and claims to have trained over 1 million pastors, “more than all the [SBC] seminaries put together.”

The extra time turned out to be a boon for Law. He spent the fall and spring taking the fight directly to the people. He drafted a letter in August 2022 calling for his fellow SBC pastors to “dispel the confusion in our Convention and to keep our long-held unity by recommending this amendment to the SBC Constitution at the 2023 annual meeting.” It ultimately garnered over 2,200 signatures. He also launched a website to explain the purpose of the amendment. 

But while David collected his five stones of grassroots support, Goliath also sharpened his spear. In February 2023, the SBC executive committee handed down its decision on Saddleback and four other churches under review, determining that they were no longer in “friendly cooperation” with the convention. According to the SBC rules, each church would have the chance to contest the ruling at the 2023 annual meeting before the assembled SBC messengers. 

Warren made it clear he had no intention of taking this lying down. In “An open letter to all Southern Baptists,” Warren rejected “the idea that Southern Baptists who disagree [on ordaining women pastors] are an existential threat to our convention and not true Baptists.” He said his church was challenging the ruling “not for ourselves, but for the future and nature of the SBC, which hangs in the balance.” 

The lines were drawn. Come June 2023, in New Orleans, the messengers would vote on whether or not to uphold Saddleback’s disfellowship. And the Law amendment? The decision on whether or not an up-or-down vote would come before the messengers lay in the hands of the executive committee—and their ruling wouldn’t come until the morning before the convention officially started.

In the fog of war, it is often hard to pinpoint any single strategic move that brings about the turning of the tide. But in the run-up to the SBC meeting in June, there was an “October surprise” that just may have forced the executive committee’s hand.

On June 10, American Reformer dropped an explosive piece: “How Many Female Pastors Are In The SBC?” The product of hundreds of hours of research by lay members in a local SBC church, the article made a claim that could not be ignored:

The SBC officially lists 47,614 SBC churches. Of these 47,614 churches, around 22,000 have websites publicly listed on the searchable SBC database… Our sample size of randomly selected churches was 3,847 churches. Within this sample we discovered 99 SBC churches with female pastors and a total of 149 female pastors serving across these 99 churches… When our team’s numbers are extrapolated to the entire Convention of 47,614 churches, we can conclude that there are approximately 1,844 female pastors serving in 1,225 SBC churches.

“This is a staggering number,” the article concluded. “It dwarfs the previously known information about female pastors by a factor of ten.”

On the morning of June 11, the executive committee delivered their verdict: The amendment would come up for a vote before the gathered body of messengers—approximately 12,000 this year—but with a recommendation that it was unnecessary and shouldn’t be adopted. 

The stage was set. Over the next two days, one of the largest deliberative bodies in the world would take two major votes, one on whether to uphold the decision to disfellowship Saddleback, the other on whether to begin the process of ratifying Law’s amendment (which, as a constitutional amendment, requires affirmation by two-thirds of the messengers over two years). 

The Saddleback vote was first. Warren came to the mic and delivered an impassioned final floor speech. “No one is asking any Southern Baptist to change their theology,” he said. “The Baptist Faith and Message is four thousand and thirty-two words. Our church disagrees with only one word. That's 99.99 percent in agreement. Isn’t that close enough?"

For the Southern Baptists sweating it out in Louisiana, it was not close enough. In an overwhelming vote, the messengers affirmed the decision to disfellowship Saddleback by a final tally of 9,437 (88 percent) to 1,212 (11 percent). 

One might reasonably wonder about the sequencing of the votes. Did the SBC platform (those who control the stage, debate, and issues presented to the messengers) hope that by dealing with Saddleback first, it would take the wind out of the sails of the Law amendment? Those of us in New Orleans had to wait one more day to find out. 

As the convention moved into its final day, the lines could not be more evident. If the Law amendment prevailed, it would be because the people in the room were willing to pass it over the opposition of their leadership. 

Standing ready at the microphone when his moment arrived, Law defended his multi-year effort one last time:

I pastor a church in a county where less than 6 percent of the population are evangelical Christians. Over a year ago, I realized that five Southern Baptist churches within a five-mile radius of my congregation had women serving as pastors, including senior pastors. 

When an unbeliever looks for a Southern Baptist Church in my area, we want them to find a church that holds to the Bible’s teaching and our Convention’s beliefs.

In 2000, Dr. Adrian Rogers estimated that there were somewhere between 50 and 70 women serving as pastors. Over the last year I’ve learned there are at least 170. As one pastor recently told us: he knows of over 1,900 churches that have female pastors on their staff. 

This issue is bigger than we realized a year ago. Now is not the time for half measures or delay.

Other denominations have failed on this point. Some of them have abandoned the Gospel altogether. Brothers and sisters, we must not stumble here.

Law went on to make two main arguments. First, his amendment would bring much-needed clarity. Second, it would strengthen the SBC and its standards of cooperation. “Brothers and sisters, we are not ashamed of 1 Timothy 2:12 or afraid of what the Bible teaches! We are not ashamed of our God and his Word. We love what God says, and we obey what God says. He is worthy and glorified by our obedience,” he said. (1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”)

Sarah Clatworthy, a messenger from LifePoint Baptist Church, stood to defend the Law amendment as well. Her brave and pointed remarks are worth considering in full:

We have seen clearly what the lack of precise clarity on any document can leave the door open to. We must stand our ground and keep the door shut to feminism and liberalism.

In a culture that is increasingly unclear about the roles of men and women, or what a man or woman is, we have to be crystal clear. For those churches who have women serving under the title pastor in any capacity, the constitution should encourage them to change those titles rather than allowing their titles to dictate what the constitution says.

Let those who affirm women in pastoral leadership attend the United Methodist Convention where they will be welcome with open arms. We should leave no room for our daughters and granddaughters in the generations ahead to have confusion on where the SBC stands. Let them know that Scripture is our authority and not the culture.

Her slightly humorous suggestion that the United Methodists would welcome those looking for egalitarian churches was met with applause. As the room clapped, she made a brilliant procedural move. Clatworthy “called the question,” ending debate and forcing the vote, thus giving her what amounted to the last word on the matter (though some additional parliamentary procedure resulted in one more round of speeches, one for and one against). 

After the conservatives beat back a last-minute effort to extend time on the debate, the moment of truth arrived. The vote before the messengers was on adding a single sentence to Article III, which begins with the heading: “The Convention will only deem a church to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention, and sympathetic with its purposes and work…which.” The proposed sentence was as follows: “Affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.”

In a shock to the platform, the people prevailed. The amendment was adopted by such an overwhelming majority that there was no effort to even ask for a recorded vote. Warren was already on his way back to California. 

David won the battle, but the war is not over. In the biblical story, David didn’t stop once he killed the giant with his stone. He then proceeded, not very winsomely, to take Goliath’s sword and cut his head off.

Where does the SBC go from here?

The counterstrike commenced even before the SBC concluded business on its final day. In the closing hours of the meeting, a coalition of former SBC presidents (J.D. Greear, James Merritt, Bryant Wright, Steve Gaines, Fred Luter, and Ed Litton) teamed up to offer a motion “to authorize the president to appoint a ‘broadly representative task force’ to study how the Convention should deem churches to be ‘in friendly cooperation on questions of faith and practice’ as written in Article 3 of the SBC Constitution, referring to the statement of faith.”

As most voting messengers had already left the room to pursue a few final hours of freedom and fun in the French Quarter, the motion passed with little debate. 

The wording sounds anodyne, but the intention is anything but. The goal of this task force is to nullify the Law amendment, regardless of whether it gets ratified, by moving the fight away from the question about who can be a pastor to what it means to be in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC. In a lengthy, hand-wringing blog post laden with emotionally manipulative language, former SBC president J.D. Greear made it clear that this backdoor was actually a full-frontal assault. 

“This amendment forces conformity down to tertiary levels in ways that will both violate local church autonomy and are inconsistent with our past practice,” he wrote. “If we continue down this road, we might become a Convention that spends its time focused on who is in and who is out, instead of on the best ways to reach our communities and glorify Jesus. If you want a harbinger of that, just take a look at Southern Baptist social media feeds right now. Is this what we want our Convention to be about?” 

For Greear and the other former presidents backing his play, the answer is no. They don’t want the denomination to “be about” policing doctrinal boundaries. They just want to be about the Great Commission and good vibes. Never mind that the Great Commission charges Christians not only to spread the gospel but also to teach disciples to obey all that Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:20), which includes the clear command that women are not permitted to be pastors (1 Timothy 2:12). 

The purpose of the task force is to generate recommendations about what it means for a church to be considered in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC. We can expect these recommendations to include a new interpretation of the “friendly cooperation” clause that does not demand enforced adherence to male-only ordination. 

Greear compares the task force to the “Jerusalem Council” we see convened in the Book of Acts. “In Acts 15, the church was at a crisis point as they tried to figure out what gospel unity looked like among churches that disagreed in some secondary matters. And they appointed a group to come up with a solution that seemed good to them and the Holy Spirit. They recognized that the unity of the church was a serious matter, and they wanted to take time to get it right.” 

But the will of the messengers was clearly expressed in the vote for the Law amendment. Apparently, Law’s campaign to educate the rank-and-file of the SBC concerning the growth of women pastors in their midst doesn’t count as “taking the time to get it right.”

Greear also appealed to his fellow Southern Baptists to check their intersectional boxes before enforcing a biblical standard. Along with expressing his deep concern about how women are “feeling” after the first passage of the Law amendment, Greear highlighted a letter sent by the National African American Fellowship within the SBC, which argues that “this most recent decision [to disfellowship Saddleback and adopt the Law amendment] is an unnecessary infringement upon the autonomy of the local church” that “may disproportionately impact NAAF affiliated congregations” because many of their “churches assign the title ‘pastor’ to women.”

So where does the SBC go from here? Will the Law amendment receive a second affirmative vote? Will the SBC leaders manage to negate it even if it does? Will intersectionality and “hurt feelings” rule the day, or will the SBC continue to be a people of the Book?

These are open questions, and the answers will impact more than just the SBC. The Law amendment and Saddleback’s ouster generated significant attention within American evangelicalism, even drawing the attention of national news outlets like the New York Times. Christians of all denominational affiliations across the country will keep a watchful eye on what the SBC does over the next year as it prepares to gather again in Indianapolis in 2024. Along with those watching eyes, some praying knees would be welcome as well. Because if the SBC doesn’t hold the line as one of the last theologically conservative bulwarks in our nation, working to hold back the dark, nothing good—or godly—will follow.