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Is the Southern Baptist Convention Overstepping its Authority?

Updated: Apr 6


A discussion of Creeds, Authority, and Autonomy 


There is a growing discussion in some corners of the SBC that the Convention is preparing to, if not already, overstepping its bounds and violating the autonomy of its Churches. The impetus behind these conversations is the recent disfellowshipping of several churches over the issue of female pastors, and the impending disfellowshipping of more. This issue has been a big topic at the last 3 annual meetings, and it's shaping up to be a major issue (if not THE major issue) at the upcoming 2024 meeting in Indianapolis this coming June.  


The spotlight on female pastors in the SBC, while unwelcome by some, has caused the Convention to take notice of an issue it seemed to be mostly unaware of. Before the 2023 meeting, most SBC pastors and churches would probably have acknowledged that a small number of SBC churches had female pastors, but with the release of a study done by Kevin McClure in June of 2023, the issue of female pastors was shown to be far larger than anyone realized. According to McClure’s data, there are approximately 1,844 females serving in various pastoral roles across 1,225 Southern Baptist Churches. That is a significant number, and a significant issue. 


At the 2023 annual meeting, the Convention moved to disfellowship 2 Churches over the issue of female pastors. The messengers to the 2023 meeting also voted overwhelmingly to approve the Law Amendment to the BF&M 2000 which further clarifies the Convention’s beliefs on spiritual leadership. As Pastor Heath Lambert notes, “There is a historical and textual reason for this amendment….The intention is to correct real confusion that has taken place.”


In the time since the 2023 annual meeting, there has been a growing conversation around the nature of the SBC’s doctrinal commitments (which is set to be a major issue at this year’s meeting), the ecclesial authority of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 in the life of the Convention, and a potential overreach of the Convention’s authority when it comes to individual Churches.


In short, there are a growing number of Churches making the argument that by honoring its doctrinal commitments as spelled out in the BF&M 2000, and by holding Churches to account with the tool of disfellowshipment, the Southern Baptist Convention is now violating the cherished baptist doctrine of local church autonomy, and that the Convention is setting itself up to do so more and more. Some Pastors and Churches are also arguing that by spending time and money to guard its doctrinal integrity, the Convention is detracting from its primary goals of evangelism and mission.


The question is: Is this true? Is the Convention’s move to maintain its doctrinal integrity truly a breach of local Church autonomy? I think not…



A Quick History…

At the 2022 annual meeting in Anaheim, CA, the question of female pastors in the SBC came to the forefront of Convention business as the messengers sought to address its largest Church, Saddleback Church, over the issue of ordaining women to the pastorate. In 2021, the California mega-Church ordained 3 women to serve as pastors in their congregation, which is a clear departure from the Convention’s statement of faith, but more importantly, a departure from God’s authoritative Word. 


At the 2022 annual meeting, the Credentials Committee muddied the waters on the issue with the following statement, “It is the unanimous opinion of the Credentials Committee that the majority of Southern Baptists hold to the belief that the function of lead pastor, elder, bishop, or overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture and that this was the intended definition of “office of pastor” as stated in Article VI of the BF&M 2000. The CC has found little information evidencing the Convention’s beliefs regarding the use of the “title of pastor” for staff positions with different responsibility and authority than that of the lead pastor.”


Not only is such a statement biblically false and inappropriate, it only served to confuse the issue and open the Convention to controversy. Here’s what I wrote after the 2022 convention: 


“With this statement, the CC has effectively changed the meaning of the Bible and the BF&M 2000 by adding the word “lead” before the title “Pastor.” Nowhere does this distinction show up in Scripture nor the BF&M 2000. While some churches operate according to a hierarchical structure, utilizing the title “lead pastor” or “senior pastor” to rank one position over another, this is not a biblical distinction and has no warrant from Scripture. By including this language, the CC has effectively opened the SBC up to controversy.


This response to this issue has effectively said, “Baptists believe that only men can be senior pastors, but other pastoral positions aren’t clear.” That is a betrayal of the Scriptures and of the BF&M 2000.


It is my opinion that this response represents a failure on the part of the CC to stand on Scripture, and to stand where the SBC has always firmly stood.

It is also a clear violation of the Danvers statement and the Chicago Statement.


Baptist Polity is clear: Only men can serve in the office of Elder/Overseer/Pastor (three titles referring to the same office) no matter how a particular Church chooses to define it. When a Church decides to appoint women to that role, they have violated Scripture and departed from cooperation with the SBC. The CC had everything it needed to make its choice. Saddleback should be disfellowshipped.”


Thankfully, the messengers to the 2023 meetings stood for biblical truth and disfellowshipped Saddleback and Fern Creek. But, the action of the 2023 messengers has opened up a whole new conversation: Just how much authority does our Statement of Faith have? When we say that churches must be “closely identified” with the BF&M, how closely are we talking? 



What Authority do Creeds, Confessions, and Statements of Faith have? 

Part of this issue stems from an argument being put forward that goes something like this: Southern Baptists are not creedal people; meaning that we are not beholden to a religious creed.


The only problem with that argument is this: We ARE a creedal people


  • Creed: A brief authoritative formula of religious belief; a set of fundamental beliefs; a set of beliefs or aims which guide someone's actions.


Baptists are creedal because we have always sought to state what we believe and to hold one another to that account on the basis of our beliefs. Most every world religion is creedal to one extent or another. 


And as Southern Baptists, our creed is the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which was previously the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, which was based on the 1724 Philadelphia Confession of Faith, which was shaped and influenced by the 1689 Baptist Confession (also called the Second London Confession), which was the baptist version of the famous 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith. 


Baptists are now and have always been a creedal people.


The Preamble of the BF&M 2000 reads, 

  • “Baptists are a people of deep beliefs and cherished doctrines. Throughout our history we have been a confessional people, adopting statements of faith as a witness to our beliefs and a pledge of our faithfulness to the doctrines revealed in Holy Scripture. Our confessions of faith are rooted in historical precedent, as the church in every age has been called upon to define and defend its beliefs. Each generation of Christians bears the responsibility of guarding the treasury of truth that has been entrusted to us [2 Timothy 1:14]. Facing a new century, Southern Baptists must meet the demands and duties of the present hour.”


But that still begs the question: What authority does the BF&M have over the Churches of the Convention? 

  • And how much authority, if any, does the Convention itself have over its churches on the basis of the BF&M 2000? 



A Voluntary Association 

The Southern Baptist Convention is, in true Baptist practice, a voluntary partnership between each of our 47,000 churches and the Convention itself. No one forces a Church to partner with the Convention and the Convention has no ability to keep a Church in partnership should it desire to leave.  


The Southern Baptist Convention recognizes and cherishes the historic baptist doctrine of local autonomy, meaning that there is no authority over an individual Baptist Church other than the Lord Jesus Himself. SBC Churches do not answer to the Convention, and the Convention cannot and must not tell its Churches what to do. 


  • Article VI. of the BF&M 2000 reads, “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its two scriptural offices are that of pastor/elder/overseer and deacon. 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.”


Amen. 


Smoke and Mirrors 

But still, the question remains: Is the Convention overstepping its own boundaries and violating its own statement of faith by seeking to emphasize and uphold its stated doctrinal commitments? 


Some would say, “Yes. That is exactly what the convention is doing by telling its churches that they must not have female pastors.” That is the position of FBC Alexandria, who, for generations apparently, has had females in positions of spiritual and pastoral leadership, and who presently have a female serving in a staff pastoral role. In a video from July 2023, Pastor Robert Stephens not only openly claims that his church believes in and supports women in the pastorate, but also that he and his church view the SBC as placing itself in danger of compromising its own autonomy.


  • I do want to say that I commend this brother for his tone throughout the meeting; there is something for us all to learn from how he conducts himself. I also agree with much of what he says regarding the powerful nature of the SBC for Kingdom advancement, his excitement for gospel mission, and his pastoral encouragement that the Church should keep its missions giving going toward missions. But, his charity and encouragement don't change or excuse the grave doctrinal misstep regarding women in the pastorate.


In the video, Pastor Stephens accuses the SBC of flirting with an overstep should it move to solidify the Law Amendment to the BF&M 2000. In their minds, such a move by the Convention amounts to a violation of FBC Alexandria's autonomy; they view it as the SBC telling their Church what they can and cannot do. 


They say as much on their church website stating, "In 2023, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) overwhelmingly voted to disfellowship (or vote out) two Southern Baptist churches for employing female pastors: Saddleback Church in California and Fern Creek Baptist Church in Kentucky. Further, the SBC voted to adopt a constitutional amendment specifying that SBC churches can only employ men as pastors or elders. This action was in stark contrast to the longstanding ideal that SBC churches were autonomous and that, “the Convention does not claim and would never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations or convention. As a church that employed two female pastors at the time, First Baptist Church of Alexandria (FBCA) was engaged in this debate and grieved by this result. We remain resolute in recognizing God’s calling to ministry for both men and women. For nearly 100 years, women have had a prominent role in ministry and positions of authority at FBCA."


But, FBC Alexandria, and the numerous other Churches in the convention who might make such an argument are doing nothing more than playing the smoke and mirrors of doctrinal dishonesty. In no way has the Convention has told these Churches what they can and cannot do. At no time has the convention told any Church that they must remove or fire any female pastors on their staffs.


The Convention has simply raised the point that those Churches who appoint women to the pastorate have moved away from the Confession of Faith to which they once pledged support. 


So in reality, it is those Churches like FBC Alexandria who are the ones in danger of a violation, not the SBC. These Churches and their leaders leverage arguments and rhetoric designed to mask their biblical unfaithfulness by attempting to cast blame on others. 



Does the SBC Have the Authority to Enforce its Statement of Faith? 

The short answer is, Yes. Absolutely it does.


The Convention has every right and every authority to enforce and uphold its statement of faith and doctrinal beliefs. Without such beliefs, the Convention is meaningless; just a melting pot of various beliefs, stances, and viewpoints with no ability to act or accomplish its work. Without doctrinal parameters that mean something, the convention ceases to be a convention. Without guarding its doctrinal faithfulness, the other actions of the Convention, such as our mission efforts through the IMB and NAMB would be impossible. It is a logical fallacy to say that by guarding its statement of faith the Convention is detracting from its valuable mission work. It is, in fact, just the opposite.


 And so, for these reasons, the Convention is clear about its beliefs; it holds that the local Church is autonomous and recognizes no governing authority above the Church other than the Lord Jesus. The Southern Baptist Convention is a voluntary association of such Churches. But while the Convention has no authority in those Churches, nor does it seek authority in those Churches, the Convention, by virtue of its Creed, does have authority to determine its own borders and respond to doctrinal challenges in every age. 


The Convention has the right and the responsibility to define what it means to voluntarily partner with the organization. 


From the BF&M 2000 Preamble: 

  • “New challenges to faith appear in every age. A pervasive anti-supernaturalism in the culture was answered by Southern Baptists in 1925, when the Baptist Faith and Message was first adopted by this Convention. In 1963, Southern Baptists responded to assaults upon the authority and truthfulness of the Bible by adopting revisions to the Baptist Faith and Message. The Convention added an article on “The Family” in 1998, thus answering cultural confusion with the clear teachings of Scripture. Now, faced with a culture hostile to the very notion of truth, this generation of Baptists must claim anew the eternal truths of the Christian faith.”


And now, in the age of postmodernity where the culture no longer recognizes the objectivity of human gender, and a large portion of the American Church is failing to recognize biblical gender distinctions, it is now time for the Southern Baptist Convention to address the growing issue of women in the pastorate. As Heath Lambert wrote, "There is reason for this amendment."


Again, from the BF&M 2000 Preamble,

  • “Baptist churches, associations, and general bodies have adopted confessions of faith as a witness to the world, and as instruments of doctrinal accountability. We are not embarrassed to state before the world that these are doctrines we hold precious and as essential to the Baptist tradition of faith and practice.”



The Real Issue: Churches Abandoning Scripture. 

That’s the core issue here. Churches are violating the clear teaching of Scripture, which the BF&M states is our sole authority. And these Churches are getting upset when they are being called to account for their unfaithfulness. Churches like Saddleback, Fern Creek, FBC Alexandria, and no doubt many more do not have an issue with the Southern Baptist Convention.


These Churches and their leaders have an issue with the Bible. 


The SBC is in no danger of overstepping its own self-imposed boundaries because the Convention is taking no steps to change these Churches. At no point did the SBC seek to change the internal governance of Saddleback or Fern Creek. The Convention did not tell them they could not appoint female pastors.  And the SBC is not now trying to tell FBC Alexandria and other Churches like it that they absolutely cannot have female pastors. 


But, what is going on is this: The SBC, in full authority, is telling these Churches that by appointing women to the pastorate they have ceased to be aligned with the SBC’s historic and biblical statement of faith. It is the Churches themselves that have failed to uphold their end of the partnership agreement. 


Thus, the SBC is not telling these Churches what to do, it is simply telling the truth that these Churches, by their actions, are no longer aligned with historic Baptist doctrine. And for that reason, they no longer belong in the Southern Baptist Convention.

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2 comentarios


Thank you Ben for sharing this issue!

My prayers continue for the SBC meeting and each person going that they will be obedient to His word and God will be honored and glorified!

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Amen, bro. Well stated.

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