The nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, with just fewer than 16 million members in over 40,000 churches across the country, once again generated controversy and front-page news during its annual June meeting. After headlines reported that the Convention had approved a revised statement of faith that says women should not serve as pastors, outrage erupted among the gurus of political correctness and the high priestesses of feminism, as did rumors of major rifts within the Southern Baptists' own membership.

It will no doubt surprise onlookers to learn that the Convention has not in fact banned local congregations from having women pastors. Many seem to be under this impression, but they are in error.

It is true that one of the confession's approved revisions 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." However, this statement does not ban local congregations from having women pastors, because a Baptist confessional statement has "no authority over the conscience" of any individual or church. Baptist confessional statements are guides to "those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us." They do not regulate local Baptist churches.

Each local congregation governs itself autonomously, owning its own property, selecting its own pastors, and deciding for itself how much money it chooses to contribute voluntarily to denominational causes. There is neither theological desire nor organizational apparatus for the denomination to ban a local church from calling a woman as pastor. Baptist theology restricts both ordination and pastor selection solely to the local congregation, and it is instructive to note that of the nearly 42,000 individual Southern Baptist churches across the nation, only 35 congregations have currently chosen to have a woman serve as their pastor. Even a vast majority of so-called "moderate" Southern Baptist churches do not have women pastors, because their own congregational memberships have not called them to such a position of service.

It should also be noted that the confessional revision affirms explicitly that "women are gifted for service in the church," and many women serve currently as professors and administrators in our seminaries and in other ministry and trustee positions at the local, state, and national level in Southern Baptist life. For example, the legislative counsel for the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Washington, D.C., is a woman. In fact, I met my wife of 29 years while we were both seminary students responding to God's call to each of us to full-time ministry. My wife, who went on from seminary to earn a Ph.D., is currently in full-time ministry as a Christian psychotherapist.

Southern Baptists believe that women should not serve as pastors of local churches because the Apostle Paul teaches that a woman is not to "usurp authority over the man" in church (I Timothy 2:12), and the epistle to the Hebrew Christians states clearly that the office of pastor is indeed a position of authority (Hebrews 13:7, 17). The Southern Baptist Convention has merely reaffirmed that belief and the authority of the Scriptures that support it.

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