BLOG: Saddleback, Pastors, Baptists and the Bible

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At the recent annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in Anaheim, there was a debate and a number of questions regarding the issue of the Saddleback Church and women as pastors. A number of Oklahoma Baptist pastors have reached out to me asking for comments and clarification, so I thought it might be helpful for me to address the situation.

As with understanding any issue, the best place to start is the Bible. In the New Testament, the term for the office of teaching/shepherding in the church is “elder” (presbuteros) or “overseer/bishop” (episkopos). The apostle Paul clearly uses these two terms interchangeably in Titus 1, and Luke does the same in Acts 20 describing Paul’s farewell address to the elders of Ephesus. The term “pastor” (poimaino) does not refer to an office in the church, but rather to an office of elders (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2). To be a pastor or shepherd is one of the things that the elders do In the church. The exception is in Eph. 4:11 when Paul speaks of “pastors” (poimenas), but does so in a list describing functions/gifts. Thus, there is biblical justification for holding that the term “pastor” can be used interchangeably with “elder/overseer”.

In the pastoral epistles, Paul instructs the young pastors Timothy and Titus that the office of elder should only be held by qualified men (1 Tim. 2, 3 and Titus 1). Our confession, the Baptist faith and message (BF&M) 2000affirms this scriptural teaching when it states, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to scripturally qualified men.” Shepherding/pastoring the congregation as a whole is a function of the office of elder/overseer/pastor and is limited to qualified men according to our denomination.

Part of what has created some of the controversy within the SBC regarding women as pastors is how Baptists have come to use the term “pastor.” It should be noted that the 1925 version of the Baptist faith and message does not use the term “pastor”, but rather states that the offices in the church are “bishops, or elders and deacons”. However, the 1963 and 2000 versions of the BF&M use the term “pastor”. This is because the term “pastor” had become synonymous with the office of “elder/overseer” in Baptist life. The difficulty is that in recent decades many SBC churches have begun to use the term “pastor” for a number of church staff who are not qualified to be elders. It would therefore seem useful that the term “pastor” be limited to those qualified to be elders since that is the meaning of the term in the BF&M.

Another useful thing is to recognize the distinction between the office of elder/overseer/pastor and the office of pastor/shepherd, especially when it comes to ordination. In the New Testament, ordination (or appointment/imposition of hands) was extended to the office of elder and not to office or gift (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). Thus, ordaining someone to a certain office or gift they possess seems to be an extra-biblical practice that can confuse the office of elder/overseer/pastor and who is qualified to hold it.

In conclusion, I do not believe there is widespread confusion or deviation from biblical teaching or BF&M regarding the qualifications of a pastor among Southern Baptists. Any confusion seems to stem from the way some have come to use the term “pastor” in a way that is not directly correlated to “elder/overseer” and from a lack of separation between office and function of pastor and pastor. I think it is very important to note that one of the dangers in a discussion like this is that we tend to focus more on what women cannot do in the church rather than what ‘they do. Women are undoubtedly gifted and called to ministry. Think of the dependence of our churches on the ministry of women! They serve the kingdom of God in a wide range of capacities. The commands of Scripture to go out and make disciples and serve the church of Jesus are not meant only for men. As we reflect on this subject of scriptural qualifications for the pastor, let us not forget to appreciate the essential role that women play in the ministry of the church.

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