In truth, the issue of women serving as pastors fuelled the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC. The question was instantly clarifying. The divide over women serving in the pastorate served as a signal of the deeper divide over the authority and interpretation of the Bible. Simply put, the only way to affirm women serving in the pastoral role is to reject the authority and sufficiency of biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. There is more to the picture, but not less. Furthermore, the Christian church in virtually every tradition through nearly two millennia in almost every place on earth has understood these texts clearly. In most churches around the world, there is no question about these texts even now. Furthermore, there is the testimony of God-given differences in the roles of men and women in the church and in the home throughout the Bible. The pattern of revealed truth is not hard to follow.
I was in the SBC when the Resurgence got rolling. Maybe it’s because I was an Episcopalian at one time, but I gave little thought to this issue. I always thought this was about the inerrancy of Scriptures regarding such things as eternal life, the Resurrection, and things like that. One very powerful memory from the era came in a facing pair of articles in the Baptist and Reflector. The conservative article came from Adrian Rodgers, who appealed to the authority of Scripture. The opposing one simply exhorted us to get with the program that existed at the time.
So, as Lenin would ask, what is to be done? The answer to that question is different in a Baptist context because their ecclesiology is different from just about everyone else.
To start with, the SBC cannot claim any magisterium because the whole concept is denied by their idea. Mohler’s recitation of the Baptist Faith and Message Statement is a little misleading because it does not reflect an authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures; it’s simply the statement of a consensus of a group of churches in a voluntary association. Baptist churches have traditionally denied that there is or should be an overchurch of any kind. That, however, precludes truly authoritative statements by the SBC, something I discuss in my 2007 piece Authority and Evangelical Churches, which also discusses the dicey concept of preachers in Baptist churches having real “authority” as well. (The creeping in of human authority in Baptist debate hasn’t done anything to move things forward.)
Because the local church is the supreme body in a Baptist association, it’s their job to set people forth in the ministry, and for other local churches to accept or reject their judgment. If one church sets a woman forth in the ministry, others are not bound to accept her or that ordination. In principle that’s the way that Baptist churches are supposed to work.
The problem is that, having eschewed real ecclesiastical authority, SBC churches at least have substituted rigid uniformity and conformity to keep everything and everyone in line. When that breaks things get really ugly, because, when combined with their defective view of justification and perseverance, Baptist church politics are the nastiest out there. But that insistence on uniformity has hampered their outreach outside the Scots-Irish realm, which is the main driver behind the Baptist decline in numbers.
Mohler mentions Saddleback Church’s ordination of women, and tries to issue a “call to arms” as follows:
Southern Baptists are now, yet again, at a moment of decision. This is no longer a point of tension and debate. These moves represent an attempt to redefine and reformulate the convictional foundation of Southern Baptist faith and cooperative ministry. The theological issues have not changed since the year 2000 when Southern Baptists spoke clearly and precisely in the Baptist Faith & Message. More importantly, the Holy Scriptures have not changed and cannot change.
What Mohler and others will not come out and say is that, if they’re really serious about this, there is only one recourse: to kick Saddleback Church and others who practice WO out of the SBC, the state convention and the local association. That’s what Texas Baptists started to do with Beverly Hills Baptist Church in the 1970’s over its acceptance of modern Pentecost; it never got beyond the local association, but the idea was there.
But that brings us to another point: past the local churches, the SBC is a complex of organisations including Lifeway (once called the Sunday School Board,) the International Mission Board (once called the Foreign Mission Board,) the North American Mission Board (once called the Home Mission Board) and of course the seminaries. Kicking out Saddleback Church would potentially create the publicity problems that the Episcopal Church tried to avoid by not disciplining James Pike in the 1960’s. But it would also deprive these institutions of the money and people flow that they currently enjoy, and given the times we live in that’s a scary proposition.
I am sure, however, that J.R. Graves, Ben Bogard, and my mother’s parents are laughing from eternity at the mess that the SBC has gotten itself into. The Landmark Baptists’ most significant issue–the one that inspired them to bolt from the SBC at the turn of the last century–wasn’t doctrinally or lifestyle based but on the SBC’s aforementioned overchurch institutions, which they considered to be contrary to Scripture. Without these institutions Baptists would have much more room to manoevre, but with them they are forced to “thread the needle” by continuing to support these institutions and maintain their desired doctrinal position.
And we all know what happens when we try that:
At this, Jesus said to his disciples: “I tell you that a rich man will find it hard to enter the Kingdom of Heaven! I say again, it is easier for a camel to get through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” On hearing this, the disciples exclaimed in great astonishment: “Who then can possibly be saved?” But Jesus looked at them, and said: “With men this is impossible, but with God everything is possible.” Then Peter turned and said to Jesus: “But we–we left everything, and followed you; what, then, shall we have?” “I tell you,” answered Jesus, “that at the New Creation, ‘when the Son of Man takes his seat on his throne of glory,’ you who followed me shall be seated upon twelve thrones, as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel. Every one who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or land, on account of my Name, will receive many times as much, and will ‘gain Immortal Life.’ But many who are first now will then be last, and those who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:23-30 TCNT)