The SBC, Complementarianism, the Office of Pastor, & the Way Forward? 

By Nate Akin

February 10, 2021, I posted a twitter thread about “pastors/complementarianism” due to the amount of conversation I was observing on Social Media (SM) around the topic. This thread preceded both SBC 2021, SBC 2022, and the whole dust up with Rick Warren including the revelation that he was ordaining women as “pastors” but not “elders.” Almost two years later, there still seem to be questions around this issue. 

Some might pushback and argue that we are not really as unsettled on the complementarian question as the Rick Warren controversy would suggest. I am assured by some that there are fewer women in the SBC holding the title of “pastor” than even a decade ago. Although I have no concrete verification, where I minister, I find that observation to be true. However, given Warren’s influence, his reception at the SBC, his successors at Saddleback church, continued SM fighting, and the culture’s persistence against gender distinctions and complementarianism of any kind, there do seem to be questions of clarity and future cooperation pertaining to this issue. I see a two-fold challenge: Clarity on complementarianism and biblical polity. The issue is not just with a lack of clarity on complementarianism, but also with our ecclesiology and our understanding of the office of pastor itself.

The SBC’s complementarian problem: The slide on SM has been perceptible. In 2020 on SM, even in our own circles, it appeared as though complementarianism was starting to mean that the office of Pastor/Elder is for men only, but women can occasionally “preach” in the Sunday service of the gathered church. Fast forward to 2021: Rick Warren argued for pastor as a “gift” that women can possess rather than just an office to hold. For some, complementarianism began to mean that women can preach and even be called “Pastor,” but they cannot be called an “Elder or Overseer (Bishop).” I believe the vast majority of the SBC would disagree with this conclusion. However, you can see how among some, even in the SBC, the term “complementarianism” began to erode distinctions (and thus complements) among the genders. For instance, someone like Warren is arguing that while only men can hold the office of elder, women can be called “pastors” and even perform the functions of the office of elder, but they just cannot hold the title. 

The SBC’s polity problem: Both on SM and in some SBC blogs, we seem also to lack agreement and even understanding on the office of Pastor/Elder/Overseer. So, alongside a possible complementarian problem we also have a potential polity problem, particularly with understanding plurality of elder leadership taught in the scriptures.

I am hopeful that those assuring me the issues are not as big as SM might suggest are right, and they may well be so. I also hope what I perceive to be a lack of understanding of plurality is overstated. However, it never hurts to review and restate who we have been, who we are, and who we desire to be. Now before I jump into these considerations, I will reiterate something I wrote in that initial thread. I am thankful for any charitable conversation and pushback around an open Bible on this topic. I know good brothers and sisters, godlier and smarter than I am, that think differently on these topics. It is my desire to contribute my thoughts in a spirit of humility. I also hope my views honor the plain reading of the text that reflects a sound hermeneutic, consistent with what we have said in past Baptist confessions.

An Argument for Clear Complementarianism and Plural Overseer Polity

  1. Pastors are Elders are Overseers. Both Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5 use the Greek words of these terms interchangeably to speak about the same group of men. Both these texts affirm plurality of overseer polity without distinction (of “Senior” vs. “Associate” for instance). We note that the verb form of pastor (poimainō) is used in both texts rather than the noun form, which is only used in Ephesians 4. The use of the verb form highlights the primary role of the oversight office which is that of a shepherd to the flock.
  2. The Office of Pastor/Elder/Overseer is to be occupied by men only. While women are gifted to do many things in the Church (missionary, evangelist, teachers in Titus 2 settings, etc.) and while I believe the Bible teaches women can/should serve as Deacons (others I esteem disagree with me here), 1 Timothy 2-3, Titus 1, and the BFM2000 seem to make this point clear. To this point, my father Danny Akin will soon release a piece at BaptistPress around this topic. I think my dad does a good job of stating a clear and charitable complementarianism that highlights the gift women are to the church. He writes, “Women’s gifts are essential to the health and building up of the Church. I am so encouraged by my sisters in the faith who, throughout Church history, have served Christ faithfully in the roles he has appointed for them. Moreover, I am also challenged by my sisters who have served in these roles with unrivalled sacrifice, resolve, and faithfulness and helped to fulfill the Great Commission of King Jesus. I think of Betsey Stockton, Amy Carmichael, Ann and Sarah Judson, Lottie Moon, Bertha Smith and so many other choice servants of King Jesus.” 

  3. Church History is consistent with a complementarian position. It seems very unlikely that my previous point would have been in question in early eras of the church in any serious way. Neither Augustine, Luther, Calvin, nor Spurgeon advocated for women holding the Office, just to name a few. 

  4. “Pastor” is not just a gift; it is the primary function of the Office which is to Shepherd the flock of God as a Pastor/Elder/Overseer. Herein lies the new confusion to our current conversation. Pastor Warren (find the irony there as he is still listed on their website as the “founding pastor” not the “founding elder”) is trying to argue that “pastor” is a gift rather than an Office. Thus, he argues women can hold the gift and be called “pastor,” but they cannot hold the office and be called “elder.” This would take its own post to dissect and reconstruct but some quick notes.
    • First, Warren seems to be advocating a form of egalitarianism masquerading as complementarianism.Historically, his own church (“founding pastor”) and his convention (SBC), have used this term “pastor” to refer to the Office not the gift. This has been the case since the planting of Saddleback and the writing of the BFM1963. The use of the term “pastor” for the Office can also be found in Baptist confessions as far back as the Second London (1689) and New Hampshire Confession (1833). In addition, I have tried in vain to find the staff page of Saddleback apart from the campus pastors and founding pastor. It would be a curious question if they ordain any other “gifts” listed in the New Testament, or just the “pastor gift?” And if so, why is that? 
    • The SBC could add clarity if we would return to our former BFM use of the term “elder,” since it is the most used term for the Office in the New Testament. The term “elder” was used in the original BFM1925. If a future version of the BFM just stated, the “Office of Overseer/Pastor/Elder is for men only” it would not allow us to play fast and loose with important terminology. More than that, it would clear up the confusion of seeking to divide gift, function, office, and would uphold a plurality of elder’s polity we see in the New Testament, which we will turn to now.

  5. There does not seem to be a clear bifurcation between Lead/Senior Pastors and other Pastors in the Church in the New Testament. Neither the Bible (Acts 14, 15, & 20; 1 Tim. 4; James 5 for instance), nor our Statements of Faith (SOF), make this distinction or bifurcation. New Hampshire says, “scriptural officers are bishops (another word for Overseer) or pastors and deacons” (plural). Abstract of Principles (1858) says, “The regular officers of a Church are Bishops or Elders, and Deacons” (plural). BFM1925 states, “Its Scriptural officers are bishops, or elders, and deacons” (plural). BFM1963 writes, “Its Scriptural officers are pastors and deacons” (plural). The BFM2000 then states, “Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons (plural commentary and italics are mine). While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” All of these SOFs, consistent with the Bible, see the office as a plural one with no distinction or bifurcation between Lead Pastors and other Non-Lead pastors. 

  6. Any discussion that would separate the qualifications, title, or functions of a Senior/Lead Pastor over the other Pastors on staff, at least unintentionally, confuses the pattern of plurality of Pastor/Elder/Overseer in the New Testament. Some have argued, and maybe rightly so, that although the reading of the BFM2000 might read plural, the authors intended for it to mean the Senior Pastor only. But that position would then be something new for Baptists and a departure both from the Bible (which never mentions explicitly a Senior Pastor and does not divide up qualifications) and our past SOFs. More than that, it would undermine any teaching of the plurality of that office which is consistent, most importantly, with what we see in the Scriptures but it is also not foreign to our Baptist past (see First SBC President W.B. Johnson’s work on elders).

  7. The way forward on these issues should be one of clarity and charity. Clarity in that we should clearly state, based upon the scriptures, where we stand on these issues. It is never a helpful thing to push for a position that is okay with levels of confusion. However, charity must also be a major consideration given that there is some disagreement and/or confusion. We should be happy to be patient with one another as we do our best to state our positions with precision, hoping that most, over time, will be won over to what our confessions state is a more biblical way. Our SBC President Bart Barber has been helpful to me in this point, reminding me that even the Lord Jesus did not immediately remove the lampstand from Ephesus in Revelation 2. We can gladly and graciously advocate for patience for issues that would not require the removal of a church’s lampstand.   

The Way Forward?

It seems there are three ways before us as far as cooperation and as these questions/issues are concerned. It really comes down to the question: At what level do we want to be confessional?

Option 1: Confessional at the local church level – This would mean to be in friendly cooperation with the SBC or your state convention, every local church must affirm the BFM2000 (even if you currently affirm New Hampshire or Second London). While this would certainly bring more clarity, this would be a departure from how we have historically viewed and used our BFMs. Interestingly, even in the wake of the adoption of the new BFM in 2000, there was not a push to remove churches that cooperated with the SBC that had women as pastors, even Senior Pastor.  

Option 2: Confessional at the cooperation level – This would mean that any cooperation among churches, at both the national and state level, is governed by the BFM. Practically, this would mean we will not send any missionaries through the IMB, plant any churches through NAMB, appoint any Seminary Professors in our six Seminaries, hire any employees in our entities, or appoint any Trustees who do not affirm the BFM2000. This option would be more consistent with how the BFM2000 has been used over the past couple of decades. However, I believe this is where some of the confusion came in last summer in Anaheim. The onus of the debate should not have been put on the BFM’s meaning of “pastor,” regardless of what Saddleback is doing with it. The more important question is, what does article 3.1 of the SBC constitution mean by friendly cooperation with the SBC is for churches that have “a faith and practice that closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith?” Which leads to a 3rd option … 

Option 3: A Patient and Positive Hybrid – This would mean we are primarily confessional at the cooperation level while also defining more clearly what we mean in article 3.1. by “a faith and practice that closely identifies.” This option is a way to hold local church autonomy and a form of confessionalism in a healthy tension. Which would raise the important question, what does a church minimally have to believe to be Southern Baptist? Historically, the only thing a church needed to do in order to be considered Southern Baptist and to send messengers to the Convention was be a “Baptist” church and give financially to the causes of the convention. This all changed once Southern Baptists began adding both the negative and positive clauses that would disfellowship an SBC church, such as endorsing homosexual behavior, inconsistency on the Convention’s beliefs on sexual abuse, or discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity, as well as the addition of article 3.1 in 2015. So, in some sense, the addition of the language of 3.1 makes option 3 a necessity. Pastor Mike Law of Arlington Baptist Church (Arlington, VA) is seeking a form of option 3 proposing a change to article 3 of the constitution to add an exclusion clause for any church that affirms women as pastors. That may well be the best way forward at the national level and/or the only immediate option. 

Personally, I could get behind options 2 or 3, but would prefer option 3, with what might be a slight tweak to what Pastor Law is seeking to accomplish, one that would take a little longer. Again, in some sense, option 3 has been made necessary by changes to the Constitution. That is not a bad thing, even if it is an historical departure. It is a wise thing that churches who widely disagree with the BFM2000 cannot send messengers to the SBC with voting power. We must delineate who we are and the issue of who can hold the oversight office of the church as chief among them. I would propose then that article 3 have both a positive and negative clause that delineates who we are and who we are not. The negative clause, or who we are not, would combine our statements on homosexuality, sexual abuse, and racial discrimination. I would not include in that statement a negative form of our complementarian view, not because I don’t think that is an error, but because I do not believe it prudent to include it as a negative in the same way as homosexuality, sexual abuse, and racial discrimination.  

Rather, I would address our clear complementarianism in a positive way.  So, we then add a positive clause of who we are, stating what we mean by “a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted SOF” that would include what we clearly say in our SOF; that is the office of Pastor/Elder/Overseer is to be held only by men. This would include more from the BFM2000 such as inerrancy, justification by faith, believer’s baptism by immersion, regenerate church membership, but may not, for instance demand a “close communion” position for churches to be in friendly cooperation (though I would be fine with including the close communion position because I believe it upholds the importance of biblical believer’s baptism). These changes to the constitution, plus adding back in the word “elders” to the BFM, would take time to adopt and this would allow for clear, patient teaching on the matters, giving local churches time to search the scriptures, examine their practices, and adjust their practices to the standard required for friendly cooperation. Again, I am advocating for patience because I know of brothers who have inherited churches where women serve, for instance, with the title of children’s pastor. These pastors agree with our clear complementarianism and polity but need time to lead their churches toward change. 

There are likely better proposals, but here is at least one attempt. May the Lord grant us grace, peace, favor, and faithfulness in these matters for the sake of His Name among the Nations.