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Some Southern Baptist Women Worry About a ‘Narrowing’ Complementarianism

Recent debates have left them discouraged and uncertain about what’s next for female leaders.
Some Southern Baptist Women Worry About a ‘Narrowing’ Complementarianism

On the ten-hour drive home from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting in New Orleans, Leah Finn had questions.

Finn felt like she should know enough to understand the changes that 12,000 Southern Baptists approved at their gathering in mid-June. She had been following the proposals for months, she knew the rules of parliamentary procedure, and her husband, Nathan Finn, serves as a trustee on the SBC Executive Committee.

With the rejection of Saddleback Church’s appeal, it was clear the convention held a strong consensus against women as lead pastors and preaching pastors and would be willing to break fellowship over the issue. But what about women in other roles?

The SBC moved to change its foundational documents to reiterate its stance: amending its constitution to explicitly state that cooperating churches must restrict “any kind” of pastor to qualified men and rewording its faith statement to say that “pastors/overseers/elders” are male.

Many Southern Baptist leaders advocating for the new wording saw it as a way to clarify their shared complementarian convictions. But some women have quietly worried that the changes, and the surrounding debate, could call into question or further limit their place in the denomination.

Leah Finn thought of her friends who serve as ministers at SBC churches, teach at SBC seminaries, and pursue degrees at SBC schools and wondered how the decisions would affect them in the years ahead.

She and her husband ended up writing an op-ed for Baptist Press, the SBC’s official outlet, lamenting how the annual meeting left female leaders “uncertain about their future in Southern Baptist life.” Some wonder what moves could come next, and others are disappointed that so much of the current discussion focuses on what women can’t do.

“The biggest thing for me, following this debate, is that I feel like we haven’t had a conversation about how women can be used in the church,” said Courtney Reissig, a messenger from Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she serves as discipleship content director. “It’s been primarily focused on the restriction, which I believe the Bible affirms, but then the question comes up, ‘So where do women serve?’”

“The pastors who push the limitations should also equally provide pathways for women to serve in their churches within the bounds of the Baptist Faith and Message,” she said.

Southern Baptist women themselves can be hesitant to speak up with their concerns, afraid that publicly questioning the recent moves could get them labeled as liberal or egalitarian. About a dozen women CT spoke with at the annual meeting expressed reservations about the changes to the constitution and statement of faith but didn’t want to go on the record.

After the Finns’ Baptist Press piece went live, “I had several women reach out to me and say, ‘Thank you for saying this. You voiced what we’ve been feeling,’” Leah Finn said. “So many are afraid to say, ‘We are complementarian, but we feel uncomfortable with this amendment.’ It’s narrowing things in a way we felt like the Baptist Faith and Message was [already] narrow, and our constitution was narrow, and it’s narrowing it even more.”

This is the first year the SBC has disfellowshipped a handful of its 47,000 cooperating churches for having women in lead pastor and preaching positions.

Many saw the departing churches as a slim minority in the solidly conservative, complementarian denomination, while others suggested female pastors were more prevalent. Virginia pastor Mike Law, who originally proposed the amendment, cited a handful in his area, while Kevin McClure in Louisville tallied a sample of SBC churches whose websites name women pastors, including over children’s, youth, and worship ministries.

Under the new constitutional language of “only men” being appointed as “any kind of pastor” in SBC churches, complementarian women serving on staff may wonder if their title or their role could get their church reported to the credentials committee, the SBC body that recommends whether churches meet the requirements for cooperation. (Only since 2019, as the SBC moved to make mishandling abuse grounds for dismissal, has the committee been tasked with evaluating churches in violation.)

Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, spoke on a panel in favor of the amendment at a 9Marks ministry event during the meeting in New Orleans. He disagreed with the notion that women on church staffs could fear being “targeted” for their roles as a result but instead said churches need to take responsibility for ensuring the wording of their titles is clear and aligns with Scripture.

“A church could have a woman function in a way that I think there’s no biblical problem with, but because they’re calling her by a title that’s the same as elder, pastor, bishop, then that’s problematic, though the role that she’s filling may not be,” Dever said.

Critics of the amendment to restrict all pastor roles to men—which must pass at a second vote in 2024 to be enacted—contend that the independent, autonomous churches that make up the convention have the freedom to appoint their own ministers. And decide what titles to use for them.

Amy Hébert, a Southern Baptist pastor’s wife in Texas and a graduate of SBC-affiliated Criswell College, believes the amendment is “overreaching.”

“It will force churches to decide whether to remain in the SBC,” Hébert said. “Each church can choose whether they want women to be titled ‘pastor’ versus ‘minister,’ et cetera, so it may not cause the women to lose their roles, [but] it may cause a loss in the SBC.”

Hébert said that her female friends in the SBC fear more restrictive moves will follow. Southern Baptists are still speculating how or whether the denomination will address churches who use pastor titles for women, and whether there will be scrutiny on women in ministry beyond the titles they use.

“I’ve heard people say in this discussion, ‘Well, it’s not enough that the children’s pastor not be called pastor if there’s a staff member that’s doing pastor-like things.’ Which sounds great until we appoint the group that’s going to determine what those things are,” said former SBC president and Summit Church pastor J. D. Greear, speaking at a lunch hosted by Baptist21 during the annual meeting.

“At our church, we don’t have any pastors that are women. We do have a children’s director who’s a woman, and she oversees male volunteers. I know some faithful brothers that would say that’s actually a violation of 1 Timothy 2.”

A couple SBC churches with women in copastor and associate pastor positions have voluntarily stepped away from the convention in the weeks since the annual meeting, including Elevation Church, the megachurch led by Steven Furtick in North Carolina, and First Baptist Church Gainesville in Georgia. Both congregations had been called out online for including female pastors on staff.

Some advocates of the amendment responded to their exits by suggesting the SBC’s “clarifications” were having their intended effect.

Supporters say the recent moves around women in pastoral roles are a necessary safeguard against theological drift in the SBC. The only woman to come to the mic in New Orleans to address women pastors, Sarah Clatworthy, spoke out in favor of the amendment.

“We should leave no room for our daughters and granddaughters in the generations ahead to have confusion on where the SBC stands,” said Clatworthy, a messenger from Lifepoint Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas. “Let them know Scripture is our authority and not the culture.”

But another prevalent perspective among SBC women wasn’t voiced from the floor: that of the children’s ministry directors, worship leaders, Bible study leaders, Sunday school teachers, mentors, and missionaries who wish they could focus on the work of ministry without having to defend their place.

“I just want to serve. I just want to be able to talk about Jesus. And I want that to be affirmed,” Kristen Phelps, a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary trustee and messenger from New City Church in New York, told CT. “At the core of it, it’s not about the word [pastor]. It’s about women and their role in the Great Commission … and including women in ministry actually gives us a fuller picture of God.”

With the autonomy of local churches, several women who said they have the assurance of their own pastors told CT they feel like they can continue to serve in their roles without being wrapped up in the tensions on the denominational level.

“As Southern Baptists continue to reaffirm our commitment to biblical complementarianism, we must also be crystal clear that God calls and gifts women to vocational ministry,” the Finns wrote in Baptist Press. “We should affirm their godly callings joyfully and unequivocally, without clearing our throats or apologizing for the equally biblical principle of the priesthood of all believers. Our sisters’ ministries advance the kingdom.”

Female enrollment is up at SBC seminaries, and programs for women in ministry are expanding. Women have better representation than ever on SBC committees. Young female missionaries continue to outnumber men on the mission field.

But most Southern Baptist churches could be doing more to involve and disciple female leaders. A resolution passed this year urged pastors to equip women in their churches, acknowledging the “countless women who serve among us as missionaries, writers, apologists, teachers, mentors, and leaders” and that their contributions are “absolutely vital and too often unrecognized.”

Less than 10 percent of evangelical churches have a full-time staff member overseeing women’s ministry, according to Becky Loyd, director of Lifeway Women, a division of the SBC’s publishing arm.

“I do hope that we begin to talk about things like pay and title equity for women who are doing the same types of ministry jobs that men are doing in churches. I also believe there are opportunities for churches to fund more full-time staff positions to focus on ministry to women,” Loyd told CT by email.

“When 90 percent of women who are leading a ministry at churches are not part of a full-time staff, how are they growing and developing? How are they integrating their reaching and teaching for women into the mission and vision of the church? This is the biggest issue I see related to women in the church.”

Jacki King is one of those women’s ministers, on staff at Second Baptist Church in Conway, Arkansas, where her husband is lead pastor. She has also raised concerns about pay parity and women’s involvement.

A suggestion going into a new week post #sbc23 for pastors: Find some sisters on your staff, in your church, within the SBC & have a conversation with more questions than answers,” she tweeted. “It’s not enough to merely have them at the table, engage them.”

Reissig, at Immanuel Baptist, said she doesn’t fear for the future of her position in the church where her pastor makes space for women to serve. But she believes the current focus on women’s roles—in a denomination still grappling with its response to sex abuse by pastors—is misguided.

“We are missing an important part of the biblical passages that speak to who can and should serve in the office as pastors. The Bible limits the office of pastor to qualified men, so I think it does a disservice to women who serve when unqualified men are put in the office,” Reissig said. “If we want to be consistent with the Bible, we should be as committed to the biblical qualifications of the office as we are to limiting women from the office.”

Women made up 30 percent of the 19,000-person crowd at the annual meeting; pastors’ wives, women on church staffs, and female church members are all welcome as messengers if sent by their church. A majority who attended in New Orleans say they plan to return for the 2024 gathering in Indianapolis, according to a survey of registrants.

And they’re continuing to ask questions—behind the scenes and publicly—about what further moves or messaging might come.

“My prayer is that the conversation about women in ministry turns from boundary-making to equipping and empowering. Pastors and male ministry leaders, we need you to change the conversation,” said Loyd at Lifeway.

“For women who worry about ripple effects, I think they need to evaluate their current situation and decide if it’s a place where they have opportunities to grow in their gifts and calling. If it’s not, then they need to find another place,” she said. “I understand the fears and have dealt with them myself, but our God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. If he has given a woman gifts, he’s going to provide a place for her to use them.”

[ This article is also available in español Français, and 한국어. ]

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