In less than one week, pastors and church members within the Southern Baptist Convention will descend on New Orleans for the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting. While the event is ordinarily a social affair, where pastors rub shoulders with denominational leaders, local church leaders vote on various resolutions, and church credit cards accumulate charges for steak and lobster, this year’s meeting promises to be contentious. This year, voting SBC church leaders, called “messengers,” will either approve or deny Saddleback Church’s reentry to the convention.
Saddleback was one of the largest churches in the SBC, with over twenty thousand weekly attenders. However, this year the SBC removed Saddleback and other churches from the denomination for violating SBC beliefs outlined in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. More specifically, the SBC removed the churches for ordaining women as pastors. Saddleback and the other churches have appealed the decision and asked for reinstatement, and the messengers will vote on their appeal next week.
Both sides offer compelling arguments. The SBC Executive Committee and those who support Saddleback’s removal argue the church’s beliefs and practices fall outside the beliefs all SBC churches claim to hold; therefore, the SBC should no longer associate with them.
Saddleback and their supporters claim the SBC is primarily a means for churches to cooperate in evangelism and missions, pooling funds to reach lost people with the gospel at home and around the world. Historically, the SBC has been non-creedal, meaning churches voluntarily associated with the denomination without having to sign a document of policies and beliefs. Therefore, Saddleback believes the SBC should return to their non-creedal stance and refocus on cooperation over missions and evangelism—without the looming threat of disfellowship hanging over any church’s head.
While Saddleback’s arguments hit the right notes—especially their emphasis on missions and evangelism, which historically have been a relative strength for Baptists—the church and their supporters miss a key element of church planting and international missions. When we as a denomination plant churches at home and abroad, what kind of churches are we planting? What beliefs and practices will characterize such churches? What doctrinal distinctives will those churches hold?
Southern Baptists rightly join together for missions and evangelism, but we must constantly and carefully self-select the churches with which we are willing to cooperate in our endeavors. If Southern Baptists believe the office of pastor is limited to men, as they have historically held and continue to hold according to the BFM 2000, then Southern Baptists should expect to plant churches in the United States and around the world that also limit the office of pastor or elder to men. Just as I would expect Southern Baptist missionaries to plant churches that do not practice infant baptism, I would expect Southern Baptist missionaries to plant churches that align with the BFM 2000—as those are the beliefs each Southern Baptist church claims to hold.
I would happily work with Saddleback in numerous capacities for the sake of the gospel. I firmly believe Saddleback is a vibrant body of believers and that they proclaim the same gospel as other Christian churches. Moreover, I agree with Saddleback on a wide variety of theological issues. But Southern Baptists generally disagree with Saddleback on the issue of female pastors. And if Southern Baptist churches pool their money to plant a church, they have the right to decide together the character and nature of that congregation.
Not only does the SBC have the right to disfellowship churches that do not align with the common beliefs held among SBC churches; they have the responsibility to disfellowship such churches for the sake of missions and evangelism. The Baptist Faith and Message is sufficiently broad to encompass a vast array of churches and disagreements over a variety of theological positions—and Southern Baptists can amend it if they choose to—but as long as the document remains the standard for SBC churches, messengers to the annual meeting should not allow churches that openly contradict such beliefs to remain SBC churches.