Every year, Southern Baptist life centers briefly around the annual convention. As I noted in a previous “Baptist insider” article for The Federalist, the denomination technically only exists for the two days of this convention. As such, those days become a source of high drama. Each year tends to have one or two issues that dominate the discussion. The 2023 convention was focused on women in pastoral leadership.
A brief backstory: Across the 1970s and 1980s, the Southern Baptist Convention fought a denominational civil war resulting in the SBC moving from theological liberalism to theological conservatism. The SBC remains the only Christian denomination to enter theological liberalism and then return to conservative theological positions. The two interrelated areas were biblical inerrancy and the role of women in ministry.
Inerrancy is a nuanced theological position affirming that the original documents of Scripture are “without error,” and leads in practice to a church’s leadership affirming that all of Scripture is applicable to the church today. The nuances within the inerrancy discussion are best left to another article, but the position leads to the broad claims that Scripture is authoritative and theologians cannot pick and choose which portions apply today and which portions applied only to the original audience. The SBC has consistently affirmed that Scripture is authoritative, but push comes to shove when the question of women serving as pastors arises.
In the New Testament epistles I Timothy and Titus, Paul lists “husband of one wife” as a requirement for elders; Peter specifically refers to elders in the masculine in I Peter 5; Paul’s instructions to Titus and Timothy about finding elders presume only men can be elders. Contemporary churches must determine whether these passages reflect a time-bound reflection of Paul’s culture, or if male pastoral leadership is a standing requirement for how God’s church should be ordered.
In 2023, this question came to a head in the person of Rick Warren and the institution of Saddleback Church. Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” has been a major leader in the evangelical seeker-friendly and church growth movements. In 2022, the Credentials Committee found that Warren was in violation of the “Baptist Faith and Message 2000’s” requirement that churches in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC may only ordain men; Warren publicly ordained two women as pastors of Saddleback. In February 2023, the Executive Committee disfellowshipped Saddleback. At the convention, Warren had three minutes to make his case for why this disfellowshipping should be overturned.
In this moment, multiple questions were represented. Would Baptist tendencies for pragmatism over doctrine triumph? Would one of the last complementarian denominations move in an egalitarian direction? Would Baptist elites maneuver the debate such that the messengers did not really get to vote? All of those questions were in the air (see Megan Basham’s and William Wolfe’s moment-by-moment Twitter feed June 13-14 for ample illustration). The answer to these questions was surprisingly straightforward: Al Mohler defended the disfellowshipping decision, and the messengers overwhelmingly voted to sustain Saddleback’s disfellowshipping by an 80 percent ballot vote.
Over the course of the remaining hours of resolutions, reports, and debate, a consensus emerged. The convention passed resolutions affirming that the office of pastor/elder/overseer is reserved for men. Pastor Mike Law argued passionately for an amendment to the SBC constitution outlining that conviction as part of what is required to remain in “friendly cooperation.” That amendment passed with overwhelming support. Denny Burke proposed a resolution condemning all “gender-affirming care,” transgender surgery, and transgender ideology as contrary to God’s creational order; Burk’s resolution received full support.
In one sense, this convention was Southern Baptist politics as usual: 12,000 messengers gathered, debated, prayed, sang, and preached. But at the same time, there is a growing awareness in the convention that Aaron Renn is right: Evangelical Christians are now in the negative world and need to boldly proclaim what they believe. If boldness falters now, then the SBC could drift from the position won in the Conservative Resurgence.
In 2023, young leaders (Mike Law, Denny Burke, and Andrew T. Walker among others) stand ready to guard the tradition of conservative theology won by their spiritual fathers (Al Mohler, Paige Patterson, and Paul Pressler among the whole Conservative Resurgence generation of Southern Baptists). The 2023 convention was divisive and complicated, but Southern Baptists remain faithful to the positions won by the last generation.