In unsurprising news, Southern Baptists recently got into an argument.
In news that may be a bit more surprising, the argument centered around a woman who is as close to a patron saint as Southern Baptists would ever have—Beth Moore.
The controversy arose when Moore mentioned on Twitter that she would be preaching at her church on Mother’s Day. Moore is part of Bayou City Fellowship, a Southern Baptist Convention church in the Houston area. I know the church well.
Bayou City Fellowship—locally known as BCF—was one of the hardest-working churches in the city of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. BCF is a biblical, healthy, gospel-proclaiming church.
Moore’s tweet, however, caught the eye of Owen Strachan, associate professor of theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He took to Twitter to rebuff Moore’s plans to preach on Mother’s Day, arguing that doing so would be unbiblical.
Strachan argued that the SBC was “complementarian,” and for Moore to preach would be “functional egalitarianism.” Strachan pointed to created order and passages in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians to support his perspective.
Different understandings of how men and women differ
Generally speaking, “complementarians” are those who argue there are created differences between men and women, and those differences play out in specific roles in the home and church.
Generally speaking, “egalitarians” are those who argue while there are created differences between men and women, there are no prescribed functional roles in the home or church.
When the SBC adopted the most recent version of the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000, they added a section on the family based on Ephesians 5 and stated that the role of pastor is reserved for men. In doing so, the SBC rejected egalitarianism and became a complementarian denomination to some degree.
But to what degree? Hence the argument.
Just how complementarian is the SBC?
Some churches, like BCF, would argue they are complementarian. They have male elders who provide leadership to the congregation, and—almost all of the time—those male elders (and other pastors) teach from the pulpit.
They would argue that allowing Moore to preach on Mother’s Day was in no way unbiblical but rather allowing her to use her gifting on a day set aside to honor mothers. In their mind, they are well within the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.
Other churches would agree with Strachan, taking a narrower interpretation of the Scripture, the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, and the concept of complementarianism. In their minds, to allow a woman ever to teach a man is tantamount to rebelling against the Scripture by controverting Paul’s exhortations in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians that women are to remain silent in the church gathering.
What should Southern Baptists do?
In my mind, the answer is simple—nothing.
The parameters of cooperation have shifted in the SBC over the years, but the current parameters are clear, and they are set forth in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message for the churches seeking to participate and cooperate fully with the SBC.
On this particular issue, there is only one parameter mentioned—the role of pastor is reserved for a male. There are multiple ways churches then can interpret and put that particular parameter into practice in their individual congregations. The Bible certainly gives room for interpretation.
Churches like BCF have decided to take a “soft” complementarian perspective in which the women of the congregation fully are able to exercise their gifts but do not fill the role of elder.
Some of those congregations—not necessarily BCF—invite women to the highest levels of discussion and leadership for input and perspective while not officially ordaining them as pastors or elders. Other soft complementarian churches have regular venues in which women teach or disciple men.
All of this is done with high regard for Scripture. Where some schools of biblical interpretation disregard any difference between the sexes in the Bible as mere cultural context, these “soft” complementarian churches believe the Scripture does provide prescriptive and normative differences between men and women in the church and family, but that those differences are far less restrictive than many often have used the Bible to support.
Faithful to the Bible and broad cooperation
These churches point to a number of places in the Bible—Phoebe the deacon, Junia the apostle, the prophesying daughters of Philip, Lydia hosting a church in her home, Priscilla discipling Apollos, the women prophesying in the Corinthian church, Jesus commissioning the Samaritan woman to be an evangelist, Jesus commending Mary as a disciple and allowing her to sit at his feet, and Jesus having the women first report the gospel.
Clearly women were—and still are—integral in the life and practice of the church. At the same time, they note both Titus and 1 Timothy limit the role of elder to men, and they attempt to take that seriously.
Baptists always have been a people who have valued the Scriptures and have tried to find ways to apply them faithfully. “Soft” complementarian churches, in my opinion, are no different. The SBC should recognize the fact such churches are within the bounds set by the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message and that these churches strive to faithfully interpret the Scriptures, and the SBC should allow them full cooperation within the denomination.
The SBC was founded on the notion of broad cooperation. That is when she is at her best. I hope she chooses that path now.
Steve Bezner is the pastor of Houston Northwest Church.