Complementarianism,  SBC

What does the failure of the Law Amendment mean?

Last month, pastor Willie Rice said something about the Law Amendment that was prescient. He predicted that after the SBC annual meeting, we are going to find one of two headlines. Either “Southern Baptists oppose women pastors” or “Southern Baptists keep the door open on women pastors.” He said that messengers would decide through their vote which headline we would be written.

After the Law Amendment failed to meet the necessary supermajority earlier today, Rice’s prediction proved pretty accurate. Here are some of the headlines that began to appear almost immediately after the vote:

“Southern Baptists reject ban on women pastors in historic vote.” –USA Today

“Southern Baptists Reject Tighter Ban on Women in Pastoral Posts: The denomination voted against adding language to its constitution saying that ‘only men’ could be affirmed or employed ‘as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.’” –New York Times

“The Southern Baptist Convention… rejected a constitutional amendment barring women from all pastoral positions, a move that would have affected hundreds of churches, especially minority congregations…” –Washington Post

“Southern Baptists narrowly reject ban on women pastors.” –BBC

The group Baptist Women in Ministry also released a statement saying,

“Baptist Women in Ministry offers appreciation to all the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) who voted against the Law amendment BECAUSE of their commitment to support and affirm women serving as pastors of all kinds in the SBC.”

Casual readers not following all the ins and outs of SBC politics will likely conclude from such headlines that the SBC has indeed kept the door open to female pastors. But most Southern Baptists know that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there is no evidence at all for such a conclusion. So if these headlines give a misleading impression, then what does the failure of the Law Amendment actually mean?

It doesn’t mean that Southern Baptists are backing away from complementarianism. The fact remains that when messengers are presented with churches that have female pastors who clearly function as pastors, messengers vote overwhelmingly to remove such churches. It happened with Saddleback and Fern Creek last year, and it happened again this year with FBC Alexandria, Virginia. In such cases, the SBC votes about 90% or more in favor of removing such churches from friendly cooperation. This isn’t a close call. It’s an overwhelming demonstration of complementarian conviction.

Indeed, even though the Law Amendment did not meet the 66% supermajority, it did win the support of 61% of the messengers who voted. In other words, a near supermajority wanted the Law Amendment to pass while only a 38% minority wanted it to fail. This is a remarkable result given the fact that the new leader of the executive committee, important pastors like J. D. Greear, and President Barber were all on the record opposing the Law Amendment. Given that formidable opposition from mainstays of the platform, it’s incredible that the Law Amendment retained a solid majority of support.

It’s also worth mentioning that in the presidential election, there were three ballots. On all three ballots, a decisive majority of messengers voted for candidates who publicly supported the Law Amendment. Indeed, the candidate who ended up winning, Clint Pressley, was an early proponent of the Law Amendment and campaigned on it. All of this demonstrates that a clear majority of messengers want what the Law Amendment called for—that cooperating churches should only call qualified men to serve as any kind of pastor.

But this does raise the question why messengers would vote so decisively to remove FBC Alexandria (92%) while not voting with the same decisiveness on the Law amendment (61%)? I believe the argument that carried the day was the one that says the Law Amendment isn’t necessary. This was always the strongest argument against the Law Amendment. The one person who spoke against the amendment during the debate made this argument. And I think that it was enough to keep the Law Amendment just shy of the supermajority and final ratification.

Unfortunately, it is a flawed argument. It’s an argument that doesn’t address the central rationale for the amendment. The amendment was never about whether or not we have a process in place to remove such churches. We clearly do, and that was never in dispute. The amendment was always about whether those presiding over the process—especially the credentials committee—had adequate clarity about what a pastor is. The committee said that they weren’t clear about this in Anaheim two years ago, and there is no evidence that they are any clearer about it today.

But that is all water under the bridge at this point. The Law Amendment is gone, but the need for vigilance on this issue is not. We still have churches in friendly cooperation who have female pastors. We still have churches who are in direct defiance of the BF&M and who know that they are. We still have a credentials committee that sometimes doesn’t recommend the removal of such churches until after the committee’s inaction becomes public. None of this has changed, which means that we still have the same problem that we had before our meeting in Indianapolis.

The Law Amendment was our chance to put an end to this debate and to give clarity about which direction the SBC is going. The failure of the Law Amendment means that we are likely to see more credentials challenges brought directly to the floor at future meetings. In other words, the failure of Law means that this debate is going to continue to bedevil our annual meetings for the foreseeable future. I think we missed an opportunity to avoid that.

Nevertheless, what’s done is done. We now move forward, and I for one am happy to do so with my fellow Southern Baptists—including those who voted against the Law Amendment. We will sort this out one way or the other, and I’m confident we will eventually get to the right place whether or not it involves an amendment to the SBC constitution. We’ll see. Until then, the Lord knows. The Lord reigns. And we will trust his wise providential care of the churches of the SBC.

Update, 6/14/24: Andrew Hebert has written a piece for Baptist Press reflecting on the 2024 annual meeting. Andrew is a long time friend, and I am grateful for him. So I hope this will be received as friendly push-back to how he described what happened. Two observations:

1. Hebert says, “the Convention determined that requiring conformity in how staff members are titled is not something we are willing to do.”

When a near supermajority of messengers (61%) vote in favor of the Law Amendment to pass, it’s wrong to conclude that the convention wanted it defeated. No, a clear majority of the convention wanted the Law Amendment but of course were thwarted by the minority.

If you opposed the Law Amendment, it’s important to keep in mind that although you defeated the amendment, you hold the minority position. It’s an error to make representations about the “Convention” based on the 38% who thwarted the Law Amendment.

2. Hebert writes, “the messengers have determined not to require conformity in terms of how staff positions are titled.”

Again, it’s wrong to make generalizations about the “messengers” when a majority of them voted contrary to the claim that you are making about them. But leaving that to the side. The Law Amendment was not about “conformity in terms of how staff positions are titled.”

The Law Amendment was about whether we should provide greater clarity concerning what the SBC Constitution already requires—that cooperating church’s ought to fill the office of pastor with men as qualified by Scripture. A minority decided that we already have what we need to enforce that standard. A majority decided that we could have used the clarity.

Again, those who voted against the Law Amendment are in a clear minority, and any lessons that we draw from this convention ought to reflect that.