SBC 2023: Don’t Overcomplicate It; We Have a Confession

There have been several takes on how the Southern Baptist Convention Annual
Meeting (SBC AM) should respond to the Executive Committee’s removal of
Saddleback Church as a cooperating member of the SBC. I want to offer a perspective
that I think is less complicated than any other suggestion I have seen.

First, in case you do not know what has happened with Saddleback Church, on
February 21, 2023, the Executive Committee of the SBC affirmed the Credentials
Committee’s recommendation to remove Saddleback Church as a cooperating SBC
church for no longer being considered “in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist
Convention” because their faith and practice no longer closely aligns with The Baptist
Faith and Message.

When Rick Warren stepped away as the pastor of Saddleback Church, he was replaced
by Andy and Stacie Wood, who were recognized as lead pastor and teaching pastor,
respectively. The Baptist Faith and Message states, “While both men and women are
gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by
Scripture” (Article VI, The Church).

Initially, Warren argued that Saddleback distinguished between the office of pastor and
the gift of pastoring. Seemingly, Saddleback would retain the office of pastor exclusively
for men but would ordain men and women, recognizing their gift of pastoring. The
teaching seemed novel and an obvious first step toward a fully egalitarian view of
pastoral ministry. On May 7th, it was reported that Saddleback Church was appointing
Katie Edwards as the campus pastor of their Lake Forest campus. Recently, Warren
has asserted he changed his mind about women in ministry because of Scripture.

SBC Bylaw 8 provides that a church found not to be in friendly cooperation by the
Executive Committee may appeal the decision to the Convention through writing at least
30 days before the SBC AM. Saddleback has filed a written appeal to contest their
removal, and Warren has provided his reasons for Saddleback’s appeal here.

This article is not about whether Saddleback Church should be removed for having
female pastors, though sadly, I think they should be removed. I believe that according to
God’s design, the office and function of a pastor in the church is limited to God-called
men. If the SBC ever compromised on this issue, I would feel obligated to ask my
congregation to re-evaluate our status as a cooperating church in the SBC.

Instead, this article is about how the SBC AM should go about removing churches like
Saddleback, which are, in my understanding, outside the bounds of friendly cooperation
by no longer being closely aligned with the Baptist Faith and Message.

One proposal in response to the Saddleback situation is that messengers affirm a constitutional amendment by Mike Law, pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia, to stipulate that no SBC church “affirm[s], appoint[s], or employ[s] a woman as a pastor of any kind.” Another idea has been to form a committee to study what we mean by “pastor” and “the office of pastor.” Others want us to create a committee to define the absolute minimum that would be required to be considered in friendly cooperation with the SBC and what it means to be closely aligned with the Baptist Faith and Message

My response to all these proposals is, “Brothers and sisters, we have a confession. Let’s use it!”

There is no need to complicate this issue. It’s simple. If we add a constitutional amendment every time we need to remove a church, then functionally, we have a confession within a confession. The actual confession becomes useless. I do not think the idea of a study committee to define what we mean by the word “pastor” needs a response. As to what “friendly cooperation” or “closely aligned” with the Baptist Faith and Messagemeans, we have the opportunity to decide that as messengers every year at the SBC AM when cooperation issues are brought to the messengers for a determinative vote; no new committee is needed. 

In recent years, we have removed churches for promoting homosexuality and racism. Doing so is appropriate because the Baptist Faith and Message speaks clearly to those issues, as it does to the matter of God’s design in who serves as a pastor in His churches. Our confession is a positive assertion of what we, as Southern Baptists, believe and what defines the bounds of our friendly cooperation.    

As I type those words, I can hear the outrage of some saying, “We can’t do that! We are not creedal people.” However, when we say we are Southern Baptists, we have made a creedal assertion. The word “creed” comes from the Latin “credo” and simply means “I believe.” Our name itself is a declaration that we believe in believer’s baptism only, in contrast to the views of many of our Christian brothers and sisters. 

E.Y. Mullins, the fourth president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the primary architect of the original 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, used the terms “creed” and “confession” interchangeably. For Baptists, no human statement is equal to or above Scripture. But such a view is not at odds with utilizing confessional statements for voluntary adherence to a particular set of doctrinal standards, unapologetically stating what we believe the authoritative Scripture teaches. 

B.H. Carroll, the first president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, asserted,

The modern cry, ‘Less creed and more liberty,’ is a degeneration from the vertebrate to the jellyfish, and means less unity and less morality, and it means more heresy.… It is a positive and very hurtful sin to magnify liberty at the expense of doctrine.” 

[George and Dockery, Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, 148.]

One of the arguments frequently seen on social media is that the SBC would be wrong to remove a church for having a female pastor because Adrian Rogers and Albert Mohler were quoted at the time of the 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message as saying, “We don’t have the right, the authority or the power to limit anybody [church]” (Rogers) and “We would never presume to tell another church whom they may call as a pastor” (Mohler). Those statements rightly affirm our commitment to the autonomy of the local church. A local church has the right to self-rule under the Lordship of Christ. But local church autonomy does not mean that a church has a right to remain in friendly cooperation with the SBC. On the contrary, the relationship of cooperation within the SBC is voluntary in both directions. Local church autonomy is compatible with mutual accountability. Likewise, in 2000, at the time of the Baptist Faith and Message revision, when Adrian Rogers was asked about the possibility of excluding churches that call a woman pastor, he said, “We would find out what the situation is and vote.” Exactly! 

E.Y. Mullins helpfully explained this mutually voluntary relationship of cooperation between the local church and SBC, 

And this is precisely the way Baptist creeds and confessions of faith have arisen. No Baptist creed can be set up as final and authoritative apart from the Scriptures. They are all subject to revision whenever and wherever other Baptists see fit to make a fresh statement of their doctrinal beliefs. Of course, Baptists     have a right to the peaceful exercise of their freedom in holding and maintaining their own views as to Christian truth. In this, the group or denomination      corresponds to the individual in the matter of freedom. Consequently, they themselves must judge when an individual or group within the larger body has departed from the common view sufficiently to warrant separation. The enforced continuance of an individual with the larger group after radical and hopeless divergence of belief has arisen is a tyranny equal with the enforcement of the beliefs of the group upon the individual.

Mullins concludes,

Religious freedom, in other words, is a right of the group as well as of the individual. The voluntary principle applies equally and alike to both. 

[E.Y. Mullins, Baptist Beliefs: Judson Press, 1925]

Another objection I have heard is that if we remove a church for calling a woman pastor on the basis of our confessional statement, we will be weaponizing the confession in a way that will be harmful with unintended consequences. The truth is, we decide at every SBC AM how loosely or narrowly to define friendly cooperation and close alignment to the Baptist Faith and Message. In my experience, after attending about 25 SBC Annual Meetings, for all the bombastic propaganda prior to the SBC AM, the messengers tend to be reasonable Christ followers who generally make God-honoring decisions marked more by light than heat.

Brothers and sisters, we have a confession. Let’s use it. We don’t need constitutional amendments, and we don’t need study committees. We have a confession, grounded in the word of God, that sufficiently defines our theological cooperation parameters. All we need to do is use it when we consider and vote on issues of cooperation. Don’t overcomplicate it.

By |June 6th, 2023|Categories: Blog, Featured|

About the Author:

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today