Overview:

Over the past couple of years, the SBC's newest schism has centered around the question of women pastors.

After decades of decline, the hardline ultraconservative faction has swung into action to cast out one megachurch for appointing three women pastors.

Though hundreds of SBC churches have women pastors, suddenly it's a big deal. They're ignoring all of the denomination's problems to focus on this one extremely secondary issue—the hill they will die upon.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

The argument over women pastors is heating up for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). They’ve been in decline for many decades now, by their own reckoning, with a protracted and uninterrupted drop in membership for the last 15 years or so. And yet their current strategy involves attacking anyone who’s even sympathetic to the notion of women pastors. To outsiders, this newest strategy might not make a whole lot of sense. But to Southern Baptist leaders, it’s the hands-down most important question of their day.

The absolute state of the SBC

When I said the SBC has been in decline for decades, I referred to what they call their baptism ratio. This is the number of baptisms they score compared to their overall membership: 1 person baptized per however many existing members. It’s a measure of their recruitment effectiveness more than anything else, a marker of how well their resources function to draw in new SBC-lings.

Many years ago, SBC leaders decided that recruitment is their ride-or-die mission. That makes their baptism ratio their ride-or-die statistic.

They’ve kept track of this ratio for a long time through their Annual Reports. From the late 1800s to the 1970s, sometimes it’d dip as low as 1:20, or it might rise as high as 1:31. But after 1975, it never dipped below 1:30 again. In 1986, it reached the 40s for the first time. By 2002, it stayed in the 40s for good.

After hovering in the 40s for a while, the 2013 report reveals it hitting 1:50 for the first time. By 2019, they’d dipped to 1:60, and would never see the 50s again. And the pandemic walloped them clear to 1:114. They’ve only slightly recovered from that drop by rising back up to 1:88. They might recover a bit more this year, but I doubt they’ll ever see the 60s again.

Membership has also struggled mightily. After reporting 16M members in the 2002 report and swelling to 16.3M by 2007, that figure, too, began to drop: 15M by 2012, 14M by 2019, and finally 13M in 2022, its most recent report. The last time they had 13M members was in 1983.

Focusing on anything but their decline

As you can tell from the numbers, the SBC’s decline has been accelerating in recent years. Various scandals and crises, like the 2019 “Abuse of Faith” crisis detailing the pervasiveness of sex abuse and cover-ups in pastoral ranks, have shattered the flocks’ confidence in their leaders. The SBC has also proven singularly incapable of responding well to Americans’ growing secularization.

Instead of finding recruitment or retention methods that work, they continue to rely on their old manipulative methods that only alienate them from the youngest generations.

One might think that a denomination that is in a decline this marked might be concentrating on retention, at least. But no.

They’re arguing about women pastors.

As in, pastors who are women. Specifically as in, SBC pastors who are women. And the SBC church leaders that have hired them, or might one day potentially hire them, or are even halfway sympathetic to the idea of some other SBC church potentially hiring them one day.

The SBC’s long and difficult relationship with women pastors

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the SBC underwent a schism that its victors now call the Conservative Resurgence. By planting ultraconservative allies in key positions throughout the denomination, and capturing its presidency for a set period of time, a small cabal of plotters drove out every church and church leader who was even vaguely non-conservative. Then, they set about progress-proofing the SBC for what they hoped would be all time.

And the entire official reason why they did all that, why they drove away literally thousands of member churches, literally why they went to all this trouble and planning and scheming, was to prevent women from becoming SBC pastors.

In the heyday of women’s rights advances, a number of women were making tracks toward pastor jobs in SBC churches. This development deeply alarmed the schemers.

Here is how Al Mohler, one of the earliest cronies and lickspittles of the takeover, put it:

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., recalled in a seminary chapel sermon the reaction when the Southern Baptist Convention in 1984 for the first time adopted a resolution declaring the office of pastor is restricted to men qualified by Scripture.

“That incited one of the most incredible denominational controversies — in the midst of that great controversy of the ’70s and the ’80s and the ’90s — that one could imagine.”

Baptist News Global, 2010

He’d been a student aching for power back then, and initially he was very sympathetic to the idea of women pastors. But his Dear Leaders soon humiliated him into line.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that women pastors became the singular doctrinal crisis that drove the takeover of the SBC. The winners might claim it was over literalism and inerrancy, sure. But it was literalism and inerrancy in the service of barring women from pastorships.

So yes, it’s sort of like the role slavery played in the American Civil War.

YouTube video
Surprisingly, this came from PragerU’s YouTube channel, but it’s from a West Point professor and colonel. You can find the transcript of this video at their site.

In the case of women pastors during the Conservative Resurgence, those ultraconservative schemers won that fight.

Preventing women pastors is the NUMBER ONE PRIORITY for these guys

By the year 2000, the deed was done—at which point SBC leaders brought forth the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, or BFM2k. It’s like their Constitution. Here is what Article VI says about how a church ought to be structured:

Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

BFM2k, Article VI

For the past 20ish years, SBC-lings have considered this dictate to be as binding as the Bible itself. (Well, at least the parts that aren’t too uncomfortable to follow literally, like all those strange-seeming dietary laws.) In short, SBC churches aren’t allowed to have women pastors—and the BFM2k wrote that rule in stone.

But then, something happened along the way to the Annual Meeting a few years ago:

Abuse of Faith.”

Abuse of Faith became a lightning rod of controversy and change

That’s the name that secular journalists gave the SBC’s sex-abuse crisis. Back in 2019, those journalists uncovered and publicly revealed decades of sex abuse and cover-ups in the SBC’s (male) pastoral ranks. This abuse and its cover-ups infested the entire denomination, and it reached all the way up to the SBC’s highest ranks.

As outraged SBC-lings wrestled with this crisis, new calls for women pastors rang out. Perhaps more and more SBC-lings had begun to notice that when demographic groups are disenfranchised from power, they become powerless—and then they become prey for the powerful. After all, the same thing had happened with Black people under “separate but equal” laws. (That’s why our government abolished the entire legal fiction of separate-but-equal. And here, it’s worth noting that the SBC has another long and very troubled history with racism.)

Or maybe SBC-lings just saw women pastors as part of an overarching move toward progress.

Whatever the case, more and more ultraconservative SBC-lings and leaders became alarmed over the new inroads SBC women were making toward positions of power.

It was like the Conservative Resurgence hadn’t even happened!

Leaping into action to solve the biggest problem in the whole entire dadgum dang ol’ world

It’s interesting to me to note that the SBC’s top leaders have fought like three cats in a pillowcase over how to handle Abuse of Faith.

One faction, which I’ve dubbed the Old Guard, wants to do basically nothing about it: let churches handle it however they see fit, but they insist that it’s not the denomination’s responsibility at all. (That worked great for decades, right? At least for the most powerful men in the SBC.) The other faction, which I call the Pretend Progressives, want to tackle it in only slightly more meaningful ways.

The Old Guard viciously attacks their enemy faction for focusing on abuse rather than recruitment. Meanwhile, the Pretend Progressives seem focused on fixing the problem without doing anything too invasive or extensive. As well, both factions are deeply concerned about recruitment levels and tanking retention rates. But each has its own strategy for dealing with those: the Old Guard wants everyone to just Jesus harder, while the Pretend Progressives introduce endless cringey evangelism campaigns that quickly fizzle and fade away.

At least, that’s how things have been going for several years.

But now, women pastors have overtaken the sex-abuse crisis as the factions’ main argument.

Anatomy of a new schism

It’s like watching a particularly-bad reboot of an old movie franchise. Women pastors have become the new argument, the new political football, the new scapegoat for everything that each faction views as wrong with the SBC today.

Last year, at the SBC’s 2021 Annual Meeting, each faction presented a number of initiatives for the denomination to work on during the next year. One of these involved tackling the question of the growing numbers of women pastors in the SBC. This was a solidly Old Guard initiative. But both factions’ leaders officially oppose women pastors. (In the 2021 President’s Address in the Annual Report on page 115, J.D. Greear—a solid Pretend Progressive—states that the SBC’s rules are “crystal clear” regarding no women pastors.)

On page 169 of the 2021 Annual Report, we see an initiative from 2019 that requested the addition of “and function” to Article VI. Its proposer wanted it to read:

While men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office and function of pastor is limited to men as qualified by scripture.

2021 Annual Report, p. 169

That “and function” is very important right now. SBC ultraconservatives do not want women as pastors. But in addition, they also don’t want women doing anything that even smells like pastoral work.

So during the 2022 Annual Meeting, the question arose again. This time, the initiative’s proposer asked for even more sweeping language in the BFM2k:

“That Article III, Section 1, of the SBC Constitution be amended to add ‘(6) Does not
affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.’”

2022 Annual Report, p. 57

And that bit about “affirm[ing]” isn’t accidental, either.

Ultraconservatives don’t just want to attack churches that hire women pastors. They want to destroy anyone who even thinks that idea is fine by Jesus.

Right now, that means Saddleback Church.

Why Saddleback Church is at the center of the maelstrom over women pastors

Rick Warren is the former head pastor of Saddleback Church. He wrote the popular Purpose-Driven Life series.

Saddleback Church itself is a megachurch. Like most of its breed, it is so large that its leaders employ a large flotilla of sub-pastors.

And in May 2021, Saddleback hired three women pastors to be part of that flotilla.

Now, Saddleback Church isn’t the first SBC church to do this. Not by a longshot. The SBC, and in particular Al Mohler, likes to pretend otherwise, but Saddleback isn’t alone here at all. As a hardline Old Guard site pointed out in 2020, the SBC contains hundreds of churches that are pastored by women.

Of course, that’s hundreds of churches out of 47,614 churches (as of 2021). But as those hardliners point out, they tend to be the biggest churches in the SBC:

One writer gave us a list of a whole bunch of churches with pastors without the Y chromosome, but we likewise did a big expose on this too last year, when we discovered that 10% of the biggest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention have women pastors on staff, and another 15% have women functioning in the role of pastor, just without the title. 47 of them based on 466 churches. Add another 35,000 churches to the list, and it doesn’t take much to know we have a problem.

Pulpit & Pen

THE HORROR!

They went on to name some of those “biggest churches,” too. (Part of me wonders if their flocks even know they attend an SBC-branded church. Some SBC churches seem to try very hard to obscure that connection.)

But the biggest, best-recognized name in the list is arguably Saddleback. And so Saddleback has become the newest scapegoat in this newest schism.

The retaliation against Saddleback has already begun

Dysfunctional authoritarians, like those we find at the rotted heart of evangelicalism, tend to retaliate brutally hard against dissenters and heretics. However, in modern evangelicalism there are simply so many of those that the tribe has to focus its efforts on those who stand out from the rest. By being such a high-prominence, well-known megachurch, Saddleback has lifted itself into prime position as a perfect retaliation target.

So in the 2021 Annual Report (p. 74), we find someone requesting that the SBC “break fellowship” with Saddleback.” (In Christianese, “break fellowship” means kicking out and ostracizing someone until they mend their ways.) The requester specifically names, as his reason for this request, the ordination of those three women pastors.

In 2022’s Annual Report (p. 60-61), the SBC’s leaders render their verdict. Or rather, their non-verdict:

The Credentials Committee reports. . . that it is unable to form an opinion regarding the relationship of Saddleback Church to the Southern Baptist Convention, until clarity is provided regarding the use of the title “pastor” for staff positions with different responsibility and authority than that of the lead pastor.

2022 Annual Report, page 61

Then, they punted to the future. They asked their fellow SBC leaders to appoint yet-another-committee this year to study the all-important question of exactly what the words “office of pastor” mean, then report back at the 2023 Annual Meeting. Then, they can figure out how to handle women pastors. Only then can they decide upon Saddleback’s fate.

Women pastors, and the problems nobody has been able to solve

The attacks on Saddleback are already just incredible in their animosity, as are the arguments around women pastors. I cannot imagine how that’s going to heat up over the coming months.

Rick Warren himself has pronounced the issue “secondary.” He’s right—at least in the grand scheme of things, and for the SBC itself. But in another way, this issue is not only primary but possibly the most important argument in the entire denomination’s recent history.

Here’s why:

Nobody in the entire SBC has ever managed to figure out any way to end their hemorrhage of members, much less to reverse their decline. Nor has anybody in the SBC ever come up with any reliable method of recruitment that actually works, much less any method that their increasingly confrontation-averse flocks are actually willing to do. Every proposal evangelicals have ever put into action on the evangelism front has failed, often hilariously. And cracking down harder on authoritarianism to improve retention has led only to new abuse scandals.

Adding to those woes, now they’ve got this huge sex-abuse crisis that’s now three years old, almost four. It began in February 2019. In those almost-four-years, the SBC has barely managed to fully identify the problem. Addressing it meaningfully might take another four!

For most of those almost-four-years, the Old Guard have simply denied they have any duty to handle the problem, while the Pretend Progressives have either dragged their feet or introduced ridiculous busy-work like Caring Well as a substitute for meaningful action.

In situations like this one, I can easily imagine the sheer relief the leaders of both factions felt when the topic of women pastors crossed their paths.

Clearly, the best way to handle unsolvable problems is to find something else to argue about

In a lot of ways, this fight must feel like a welcome distraction from all those other problems that neither faction can adequately address.

It is also a shorthand, dogwhistle-loaded battle that each faction’s leaders are using to highlight their own imagined superiority over their enemies.

The Old Guard’s leaders sneer: THEY want to “reinterpret the BFM 2000” just like “classic liberal[s]” always do. Stop letting these liberalism-infected elites mangle TRUE CHRISTIANITY™!

The Pretend Progressives piously respond: Oh yeah? Well, THEY want to deny the important historical role of evangelical women serving in ministry, thus rejecting Jesus’ decision to call women to these roles! Stop letting ultraconservatives wreck Jesus’ ineffable plan!

YouTube video
Yes yes, but would that be the Great Plan, or the Ineffable Plan? (From Good Omens.)

And while the factions wrangle over this question, gaining followers and votes and swaying decisions as best they can, the actual real problems of the SBC—retention, recruitment, and that still-almost-entirely-unaddressed abuse crisis—continue to fester.

I’m absolutely positive that both factions’ leaders hope that by the time any of those three problems become completely unavoidable dealbreakers, they’ll be long retired and living out their sunset years in luxury.

But in the meanwhile, they have a football in play that is clearly acceptable to both factions. The battle over women pastors is, unlike all three of those other problems, a winnable battle.

Whoever wins this fight will control the SBC for the foreseeable future, just as the people who won the last fight won the Conservative Resurgence. It is a proxy fight masking the real priorities of those who fight the battle for ownership over what is still the biggest Protestant denomination in America.

Avatar photo

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...