FIRST-PERSON: Doctrinal fidelity without methodological conformity

Mark Twain is often credited with saying “a lie can travel around the world while the truth is still putting on its pants.” That’s apropos for how several prominent national media outlets are interpreting the events of this week’s Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting. You may have even seen headlines that read that the SBC voted this week to affirm female pastors. That is simply not true.

Here is what really happened.

The SBC made two decisions this week that, at first glance, may appear to be contradictory. On Tuesday, the convention found First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia, not to be in friendly cooperation with the SBC because of its egalitarian position on the pastorate. Then on Wednesday, a proposed constitutional amendment requiring churches in friendly cooperation to affirm, appoint or employ only men as “any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture” failed to receive the needed two-thirds vote to become adopted into the SBC Constitution.

So what’s going on? Does the SBC affirm female pastors or not?

The answer is fairly straightforward: the SBC exercised its ability to walk and chew gum at the same time, to act with wisdom as it took action on two related but distinct questions. In short, the convention maintained doctrinal fidelity without requiring methodological conformity.

On the one hand, the convention maintained doctrinal fidelity.

SBC messengers have determined in two successive years to exclude from cooperation churches they deemed to be egalitarian and not closely identified with the convention’s adopted statement of faith, which says, “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.” The convention has demonstrated its willingness to draw a line when a church does not identify closely enough with the adopted statement of faith.

On the other hand, the convention chose not to require methodological conformity.

There are a number of churches in our convention which are complementarian but have female staff members who have the word “pastor” in their title, though they do not function as a senior pastor. For instance, many churches title their female children’s director as a children’s “pastor.”

Some in the SBC were concerned the adoption of the Law Amendment would have required us to exclude such churches from cooperation. The messengers instead determined not to adopt this requirement. There may be better ways to have a conversation with these churches about how best to title their staff members, but the convention determined that requiring conformity in how staff members are titled is not something we are willing to do.

Historically, the term “pastor” in the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) was understood by many to refer to the office of senior pastor and not staff positions. As a result, we have cooperated with churches which use these titles in a variety of ways. We have churches with one senior pastor and a board of lay elders. We have churches with a plurality of elders. We have churches who use “minister” as a title for their staff-level positions instead of “pastor.”

Truly, Southern Baptists have a good degree of variety when it comes to how staff are titled. However, when a church signals that it is egalitarian in its belief regarding the pastorate, the convention has been willing to exclude it from cooperation. At the same time, the messengers have determined not to require conformity in terms of how staff positions are titled.

This is a good approach for Southern Baptists. It is a historical approach. It is an approach which reflects Baptist polity.

It allows us to maintain our convictions while being charitable with those who disagree on more minor matters. And it allows us to maintain doctrinal fidelity without requiring methodological conformity.

While the vote on the “Law Amendment” reflects a difference in opinion on how best to approach the question of polity, Southern Baptists remain unified on the question of our theology.

We cheerfully affirm God’s good design for the wonderful “complementarity” of how men and women together reflect God’s image and together serve the body of Christ, while not requiring our churches to have conformity on how this conviction is implemented in our churches.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Andrew Hébert is the lead pastor of Mobberly Baptist Church in Longview, Texas. He is the author of “Shepherding Like Jesus: Returning to the Wild Idea that Character Matters in Ministry.”)

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