Correction: The SBC Does NOT Oppose Women’s Ordination… Just Women Pastors

Stacie Wood, a female, functions in the office of pastor at Saddleback Church in CA. You can see the problem. Image: YouTube

Imagine my embarrassment when I heard from the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s media relations director that I had made a fundamental error in my Feb. 27 article about the SBC’s recent disfellowshipping of five churches over the role of women. I literally wrote my dissertation on contemporary American evangelicalism—how could I have gotten this so wrong? In it, I had written that the SBC recently voted to disfellowship five member churches—including the renowned Saddleback Church—because each had ordained at least one female pastor. 

No, corrected the SBC media relations director, the SBC had not disfellowshipped Saddleback Church over its 2021 ordination of three women pastors, but rather due to the fact that senior pastor Andy Wood’s wife Stacie was a “teaching pastor” who was functioning as a pastor. In official terms, they disfellowshipped Saddleback:

“[O]n the basis that the church has a faith and practice that does not closely identify with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith, as demonstrated by the church having a female teaching pastor functioning in the office of pastor.” [Emphasis added.]


The breaking point was not that Saddleback had female pastors. It was that having a female pastor who acted as a pastor meant that their faith and practice no longer closely identified with the Convention’s statement against… having female pastors! I hope we’ve all learned an important lesson here.

The trouble with theological semantics is that they can obscure the reality of a church’s—or denomination’s—actual, concrete stances on important social issues. This comes up time and time again in conservative American evangelicalism where one must conduct a website treasure hunt to determine that a tagline like “everybody welcome” does not mean that, for example, same-sex couples will be welcomed as a valued iteration of sacred human partnership. Such ambiguity is deeply painful (and potentially even dangerous) for LGBTQ people and their loved ones, who might accept the invitation to a “welcoming” church only to be told that being transgender puts them outside of God’s design for human flourishing. 

But we do welcome LGBTQ people into our church, such churches might proclaim… as long as they’re receptive to the biblical truth that their lifestyle is sinful and requires repentance in order to be within the bounds of God’s moral law! 

Ah, but see, what we have here is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the word “welcome” means. Of course, quibbling over definitions might be futile, but the fact remains that conservative evangelical churches—many of them Southern Baptist—often foreground their invitation to religious seekers of all stripes while hiding their strict theologies on gender and sexuality in a link to the SBC’s statement of faith (officially known as the Baptist Faith and Message or BF&M) in tiny font at the bottom of their “Our Beliefs” page.

In the case of the SBC’s recent disfellowshipping, the Executive Committee’s insistence on the fact that it was Saddleback’s employment of a female pastor to work as a pastor—that is, in a position to teach and/or have authority over both women and men—is a revealing distinction without much of a difference. In recent years, the SBC has wrestled with the changing definition and role of pastor across its member churches. With growing congregation sizes prompting bigger leadership teams, an individual Southern Baptist church might have a whole team of leaders whose title of pastor doesn’t necessarily include the responsibility or even opportunity to preach to the whole congregation. 

Thus, the issue was not, the SBC argues, Saddleback’s 2021 decision to bestow upon three women the title of pastor—and technically they are, of course, correct. Although, it must be noted, even this development led to an initial investigation by the SBC Credentials Committee and prompted statements from the outgoing SBC president and all four candidates for his replacement, all of whom affirmed their conviction that the Bible prohibits women from serving as pastors.

Indeed, Albert Mohler, president of flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a blog post exhorting, as he elaborated to Baptist Press, that “the office of pastor is limited to men as authorized by Scripture, and this means both the teaching office and the function of preaching before the congregation.” [Emphasis added] In other words, whether as behind-the-scenes teachers or behind-the-pulpit preachers, the SBC opposes women working as pastors.

The SBC reaffirmed that even the title of pastor should be reserved for men alone in a 2022 statement from the very leaders who drafted the prohibition on women pastors for the 2000 update to the BF&M. Far from highlighting the ambiguity of the term, the SBC statement argued that “the word pastor was chosen [for use in the BF&M] precisely because of its clarity among Southern Baptists.”

The 2022 statement then reiterated that the 2000 BF&M “carefully affirms that both men and women are gifted for service in the church, but the role of pastor is biblically defined and is to be held only by men as qualified by Scripture.”

What, then, is left to parse out? Is the issue that women may be called pastor but not function as a pastor in any traditional sense of the word? One wonders whether the SBC’s rush to publicly double down on its prohibition of female pastors in the wake of Saddleback’s 2021 ordinations of three long term female employees belies even this small bit of wiggle room. 

Regardless, what we have here seems to be Olympic-level goalpost-moving by the SBC in an attempt to maintain their gender hierarchy without it, well, sounding too bad. Women can be leaders in the church! Not leaders over men, you understand. But if their role is subordinate enough, they can even be given the title of pastor! A title that, of course, the SBC is very clear belongs only to men and whose bestowing upon women will prompt an investigation by the credentials committee. But perhaps that investigation will run dry! You could risk it! What you can’t risk, though, and please hear me on this, is giving a woman the title of pastor if she will actually function in the office of pastor.

If you have any further questions on this or other related issues, please direct your inquiries to the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. I am sure they would be happy to clarify.