This is part 2 of 2 in Andrew Bartlett’s and Terran Williams’ response to the confirmed expulsion of Saddleback Church by the Southern Baptist Convention despite Rick Warren’s plea. Part 1 is here. (Listen to the Holy Post podcast discussion on that article at 32:20 here.)

Source of image, dated 1854: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington


Utter confidence

In June 2023, 88.46% of the SBC messengers voted to confirm the expulsion of Saddleback Church, one of the largest in the Convention, for having one or more woman pastors. For Fern Creek Baptist Church, for the same offence, the expulsion vote was even higher, at 91.85%.

The Baptist Faith and Message has stated: “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture” since the year 2000. But those were the first ever expulsions for that offence. Some hundreds of other churches are now in the firing line. 

The voting figures sent out a message of utter confidence in the SBC’s ban on woman pastors.

That level of confidence appears rather difficult to justify, in view of six plain facts:

  • In the New Testament, the term “pastors” is used only once.
  • In the New Testament, there is not even one mention of “the office” of pastor.
  • In the one place where the term “pastors” is used, there is no indication of a limitation to men (Ephesians 4:11).
  • Because there is no plain statement in the New Testament that “the office of pastor” should be off-limits to women, most complementarian scholars make their case for restriction by joining the dots of controversial interpretations of several different passages of Scripture. The central passage which is used (1 Timothy 2:11-15) does not mention pastors at all, but is held to imply the restriction.
  • There is a substantial body of conservative biblical scholarship that concludes that the restriction is not supported by the New Testament. For example, no less than seven presidents of the Evangelical Theological Society, whose members must annually sign off on their support for Scripture’s inerrancy, have held this view.1Roger Nicole, Kenneth Kantzer, Walter Kaiser, Stanley Gundry, Alan F. Johnson, Millard Erickson, and Craig Keener
  • When Bible-believing pastors look thoroughly into whether the restriction is really justified, they may conclude that it is not – as happened with Rick Warren, and with Terran Williams. 

What reasons can explain the SBC’s utter confidence?

We suggest there could be three reasons:

1)   The SBC is in captivity to a myth. The myth says: to disagree with the ban on woman pastors is to reject the authority of Scripture. 

2)   The SBC is caught in a tribal and partisan mindset which makes the genuine pursuit of truth almost impossible. 

3)   The SBC has blanked the lessons of history, forgetting its earlier mistakes. 

We think reason 2 (TRIBALISM) is probably central, driving both reason 1 (THE MYTH) and reason 3 (FORGETTING HISTORY). 

In our previous post we unpacked reason 1. See here

In this post we consider reasons 2 and 3.

Tribe over truth

In individuals and especially in groups, a partisan mindset obstructs the pursuit of truth. It makes people avoid or become impervious to facts that challenge their firmly held beliefs.  

Such a mindset creates several barriers to a genuine quest for truth: 

  • It creates motivated reasoning, where we consciously or unconsciously rationalize or interpret information in a way that supports our preexisting beliefs. This shows up in flawed reasoning and in cherry-picking of evidence to bolster our side while discounting or dismissing other viewpoints.
  • It leads to the limiting of our exposure to dissenting viewpoints or alternative sources of information. It is all too easy to surround ourselves with like-minded people, to consume biased media sources, or to engage in social media echo chambers that reinforce our beliefs. 
  • Especially what motivates us at an individual level is our need for belonging. Partisan identities often become deeply intertwined with our self-image and social belonging. Partisanship fosters a sense of group loyalty and belonging, which can create a strong pressure to conform to the party line and avoid dissenting opinions. To challenge the prevailing narrative will be met, almost certainly, with criticism and ostracization.

We can learn from some of Scripture’s examples of partisan groups prioritizing tribe over truth: the crowd that killed Stephen in Acts 7 and the Ephesian mob chanting “Great is Artemis” in Acts 19.  

We are not comparing the SBC to murderers or to idolaters. Our point is this: when an insider confronts a tribe’s narrative (Stephen in Jerusalem) or when an outsider challenges it (Paul in Ephesus), that evokes an even stronger emotional commitment to “the truth”, because the tribe is perceived as under threat, and its cohesion and unity are seen as in jeopardy. From the tribe’s point of view, the solution is to deal decisively with the threat, sending out a strong message to deter future challenges, and doubling-down on the beliefs that were challenged. 

Sadly, this is the condition that the SBC has fallen into. In this mindset, it has become impervious to facts and is now over-certain about its interpretation of Scripture. 

For an individual church leader to escape from this collective blindness now requires something of a miracle. 

The apostle Paul remains a model for all believers escaping from groupthink that is sincere but is faulty. He witnessed and supported his tribe’s readiness to punish those who challenged their narrative (Stephen’s death); he was enthusiastic to inflict similar penalties on others; and he knew the intoxication and strength of believing he was “in the right.” But he acted “in ignorance and unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13). The way out for him involved a triple humiliation—of admitting he was wrong, of admitting that he had needlessly hurt people because of his wrong-headed certainty about his own rightness, and of being ostracized by the tribe in whom he had once found his identity. 

As we track Rick Warren’s journey, we see something of this same pathway of humility and humiliation. After decades of restricting the ministry of women at Saddleback, something happened to make him review his prior convictions. Principally, he began to question the impact of the restriction on the Great Commission (Matthew 28:17-20). Its impact, he realised, is disastrous to the work of God in the world. So he looked into whether the Bible really teaches what complementarians say. And he deliberately exposed himself to counterviews—by his own account, 100 books—and he slowly changed his mind. He reflects, “When I finally did my proper ‘due diligence’, laying aside 50 years of bias, I was shocked, chagrined, and embarrassed.”

He then apologized to gifted and called women for excluding them for all those years. He admitted that he had lazily accepted groupthink on those passages; in particular, that 1 Timothy 2:12, especially with its pivot word “authentein”, did not ban women from pastoring; and that for most of his ministry career he had readily adopted his earlier beliefs about women because they suited him just fine.2Here is what he said on his 10 June 2023 Twitter feed: “My biggest regret in 53 years of ministry is that I didn’t do my own personal exegesis sooner on the 4 passages used to restrict women. Shame on me. I wasted those 4 yrs of Greek in college & seminary. When I finally did my proper “due diligence”, laying aside 50 years of bias, I was shocked, chagrined, and embarrassed. So many hermeneutical rules were being violated including: Never build a doctrine on a single word that is used only once in scripture! There’s nothing to compare it to (correlation). Do your own study of “authentein” in ancient Greek and you’ll be shocked too. I think maybe it was because I didn’t WANT to know anything that might challenge the view I WANTED to believe for 50 yrs. But eventually, integrity required that I read over 70 commentaries by INERRANTIST scholars that blew apart my comfortable, traditional, and culture-based interpretation. No seminary told me that those commentaries even existed and Baptist Bookstores refused to carry them. (My mother managed a Baptist Bookstore.) So I accepted the interpretation that was most comfortable for me as a man with my background. Then reading over 100 books on the early church and the history of the Great Commission … demanded my repentance. That journey was both painful and humbling. … … I PUBLICLY APOLOGIZE to every good woman in my life, church, and ministry that I failed to speak up for in my years of ignorance. What grieves me is that I hindered them in obeying the Great Commission command (and Acts 2:17-18) that EVERYONE is to TEACH in the church. I held them back from using the spiritual gifts and leadership skills that the Holy Spirit had sovereignly placed in them. That breaks my heart now, and I am truly repentant and sorry for my sin. I wish I could do it all over. Christian women, will you please forgive me? …” [typos corrected

What happened next was predictable—via social media platforms and SBC leadership, and at the SBC’s New Orleans gathering, the tribe accused and evicted him and Saddleback Church. The strongest message has now been sent out to all would-be offenders: If you will not join the SBC chant “Great is Male Authority!” it matters not who you are, we will deal with you. 

From what we understand, next comes the witch hunt: find every woman anywhere in the SBC whose ministry designation includes the word “pastor” and expel the church.

Is this collective behavior the result of the Spirit of Christ, and of the truth of God’s word having its way? We ask permission to doubt it. It seems to us more likely that, in decades to come, this sad moment in the history of the largest Protestant denomination in America will serve as a case study of tribalism triumphing over truth. 

Now on to reason 3.

History repeating itself

Al Mohler, who urged the messengers to vote against Saddleback in New Orleans, is a self-proclaimed “history buff”. We would urge the SBC to be more aware of their history, for the mistakes of history get repeated when we fail to learn from them. 

If the SBC were more conscious of past error, they might be a little more judicious about their stand on restricting women’s ministry. 

The past error we refer to is the utter confidence that caused the SBC to break from other Baptist churches in 1845, forming a new denomination, because of their sincere belief that slavery as an institution was biblically endorsed and should be vigorously supported. 

Let’s listen to a few Southern Baptist leaders on the issue of slavery:

  • Richard Furman, founding father of the Southern Baptist Convention: “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”3Furman, Richard. Exposition of the Views of the Baptists, Relative to the Coloured Population, in the United States. Charleston: Office of the Charleston Baptist Advocate, 1822.
  • Basil Manly Sr., Southern Baptist pastor and professor: “I find slavery as an institution expressly recognized, sanctioned, and regulated in both Testaments, and pervading the whole structure of society under the Patriarchs, and sanctioned by the law and custom among the Jews.”4Manly, Basil Jr. Slavery and the Bible. Sermon delivered at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, 1851 
  • Richard Fuller, prominent Southern Baptist pastor and theologian: “Slavery forms an essential part of the Divine Revelation.”5Fuller, Richard. “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation.” A Sermon Delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Gardiner Thurston, as Pastor of the West Church and Society in Salem, Massachusetts. 1847.
  • R.B.C. Howell, Southern Baptist pastor and theologian: “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”6Howell, R.B.C. “The Evils of Free Society.” Published in 1857.
  • J.L. Dagg, Southern Baptist pastor and theologian: “The principles of the Bible, and the laws enacted by Moses, sanctioned the principle of slavery. The bondmen of the Jews were chattels, and the owner had a property right in their persons and services. The gospel left this relation undisturbed.”7Dagg, J.L. “Manual of Theology.” Published in 1857.
  • T.T. Eaton, Southern Baptist pastor and leader: “The New Testament so far from condemning slaveholding, gives explicit injunctions to masters how to treat their slaves and commands obedience and fidelity on the part of slaves.”8Eaton, T.T. “The Duties of Christian Masters.” A Sermon Preached before the First Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, February 13, 1859.
  • James P. Boyce, founder and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (of which Mohler is now president): “It is not only a right, but a bounden and solemn duty, on the part of masters, to govern their slaves.”9James Boyce, “Abstract of Systematic Theology.” Published in 1887

Supporters of slavery castigated abolitionists as apostates who were abandoning the literal truth of Scripture. As one pastor said, ‘the tree of Abolitionism is evil, and only evil—[it] is nourished by an utter rejection of the Scriptures.’’10Henry Van Dyke, ‘‘The Character and Influence of Abolitionism,’’ in Fast Day Sermons, 1861, 276. Alongside this was the charge that abolitionists were abandoning Scripture because they were compromising with and surrendering to the winds of changing culture.

We look back on those nineteenth-century Southern Baptist preachers as having a peculiar deafness. Other preachers across the US were making biblical and theological arguments that slavery was a sinful institution, which the Scriptures accommodated to as a pervasive cultural custom but did not endorse. Scripture, properly read and applied, leads to the end of slavery.11For example, Henry Ward Beecher, the North’s most renowned preacher, addressed his Church in Brooklyn, New York. In Beecher’s view, the evil for which the United States as a nation most desperately needed to repent, ‘‘the most alarming and most fertile cause of national sin,’’ was slavery. About this great evil, the Bible could not speak with less ambiguity: ‘‘Where the Bible has been in the household, and read without hindrance by parents and children together—there you have had an indomitable yeomanry, a state that would not have a tyrant on the throne, a government that would not have a slave or a serf in the field.’’ (Henry Ward Beecher, ‘‘Peace Be Still,’’ in Fast Day Sermons (New York: Rudd and Carleton). Beecher conceded that a defense of slavery could be teased out of obscure, individual texts of Scripture, but surely the defining message of the Bible was something else entirely.  Southern Baptists’ unyielding support for slavery helped to catalyze a war that cost more than 600,000 lives.12Mark Nolls’ 2006 book “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis” shows how the Southern certitude about slave-keeping, based on their reading of Scripture, led to the war. 

It is now widely accepted that Paul’s recommendations for how slaves and masters relate to each other do not assume the goodness of the institution.13On the contrary, Paul makes plain that slavery is an evil, which has no place in the kingdom of God (1 Timothy 1:10; 1 Corinthians 7:21–23; 12:13; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). He instructs Philemon to receive back his runaway slave not as a slave but as a brother in Christ (Philemon 8-21).

How did the Southern Baptists so steadfastly ignore the voices which said that they were wrong and were misreading Scripture? 

Like this: they would open up the Bible to a chosen passage—say Leviticus 25:44-46 or Ephesians 6:5-8. They would then claim that the plain reading of this passage teaches God’s endorsement of slavery. With exasperation, they would then often challenge the integrity or motives of any person who had the temerity to disagree with “the plain teaching of Scripture”.14For example, M.J. Raphell said, “I cannot explain to myself” how anyone who “has received a religious education, and is acquainted with the history of the Bible” would even think to ask, ‘‘Is slaveholding condemned as a sin in sacred Scripture?,” because, he thought, it so obviously was not. (‘‘Bible View of Slavery,’’ in Fast Day Sermons, 235-236) Conversation over.

So doing, they could altogether overlook the fact that many of the Southern Baptist pastors and theologians had a direct personal interest in the question, because they themselves had purchased slaves and benefited from their cheap labor. Perhaps they felt they need not consider whether that might influence them to read Scripture in one way and not another.

The whole Church now agrees that the SBC was wrong about slavery. A more careful reading of the Bible demonstrated the opposite of the SBC’s view, a fact that the SBC finally admitted unequivocally some 150 years later, in 1995.15In that year the SBC formally renounced racism, and apologized for its past defense of slavery. The formal statement included: “Many of our Southern Baptist forbears defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery; … In later years Southern Baptists failed, in many cases, to support, and in some cases opposed, legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans; … Racism has led to … oppression, injustice, and violence, both in the Civil War and throughout the history of our nation; … Racism has divided the body of Christ and Southern Baptists in particular, and separated us from our African-American brothers and sisters; … Many of our congregations have intentionally … excluded African-Americans from worship, membership, and leadership; … we lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past; …”

Now for our point: 

History is being repeated. The SBC’s present approach in regard to banning woman pastors is uncomfortably similar to their former approach to upholding slavery: 

  • In their campaign against woman pastors they use the same kinds of arguments that were used against abolitionists, such as claims about their heresy16According to Mohler, a “church that ordains women as pastors” is guilty of “obstinate refusal to be corrected by Scripture”; if a person remains in such a church, at some point “refusal to separate becomes complicity in the heresy.” (Mohler, 2009. ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ Ligonier Ministries. or capitulation to the winds of culture.17Another speaker said at the Convention that the banning of woman pastors was required “to shut the door to feminism and liberalism … Scripture is our authority and not the culture.” (Sarah Clatworthy, of Lifepoint Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas.)
  • They use proof texts, taken out of historical and literary context, without judicious consideration of the larger teaching of the Bible and call this “the plain teaching of Scripture.” 
  • They implacably turn a deaf ear to the wider church that is urging them to reconsider, instead dividing the church with their overconfidence and brash denunciation of alternate interpretations as heresy, and as rejection of the authority of Scripture. 
  • Despite Rick Warren’s frank admission, they do not consider the possibility that their interpretation might be influenced by the convenience of protecting existing privileges and positions.

We fear that, failing to humble themselves by listening to others, they may invite God’s patient but approaching intervention—some form of humiliation to bring them to their senses. 

(Though beyond the scope of this article, we also note that the complementarian claim that suggests that arguments for a woman’s subordination and a slave’s subordination are completely different18“Apples and oranges,” is the term George Knight, arguably complementarianism’s conceptual founder, used. is unsupportable.19See, for example, chapter 9 of How God Sees Women: The End of Patriarchy. 


How to escape these errors

Mohler’s book, “The Conviction to Lead” contains some thought-provoking words:

“… we are to devote ourselves to understanding reality rather than denying it. 

Why is reality such a difficult concept for so many people? The answer is simple—we are often dissatisfied with or afraid of reality, and so we are resistant to accepting it.  

The leader faces the facts, … 

… The leader must be unafraid of data and facts, and he must surround himself with people who know the information he needs and will give it to him.”20Albert Mohler Jr, The Conviction to Lead, 2012 (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group), 62.

For the earnest seeker of truth regarding women, where might they turn for a wider intake of facts and data?

The crucial step is to do what Rick Warren did: read alternative viewpoints and give them genuine consideration. 

You could read our own books—Men and Women in Christ or How God Sees Women—which seek to articulate both views in detail, while showing how the SBC’s view does not match the actual teaching of Scripture. 

And there are plenty of other books. A recent one is Nijay Gupta’s “Tell Her Story”. Or, if you are looking for free resources, you could catch up on our engagement with Mike Winger, who seems to have become the most noticed defender of complementarianism. Start here.

This journey will require patience, humility and work, but it is well worth it. As Terran writes in his book: 

“I did not change my mind carelessly. I especially applied the counsel of Proverbs: ‘The first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.’ (Proverbs 18:17) Making doubly and triply sure, I turned every stone—every text and every argument—looking at it from all sides, over and over and over. Upon reflection, it has proven to be one of the most liberating of journeys.”

For Terran, it was liberating to come to see women through better theological lenses. In his case he now enjoys leading a mixed gender pastoral leadership team and a mixed gender preaching team. He notes, not only from biblical conviction but experience, that local churches only benefit from the genuine partnership of men and women, whose complementary perspectives provide better decisions and pastoring for the church and richer insights into Scripture.

We propose that for women who continue to accept their subordinate position based on the complementarian arguments they have imbibed, their liberation might involve seeing themselves as genuine equals to men, much like the many Christian slaves of the 1800s who had once accepted their subordinate status based on pro-slavery interpretations, but came to read the Bible better on the matter.21See for example, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” by Frederick Douglass or “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs or “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” by Olaudah Equiano who tell their stories of breaking free from their earlier indoctrination regarding their own subordinate status to seeing themselves anew, and seeing their quest for liberation as divinely supported.  For this, we pray. 

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