ArticlesA Historic Approach to the Women in Ministry Debate

A Historic Approach to the Women in Ministry Debate

By Jordan Villanueva

The Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting this summer in New Orleans is expected to be a pivotal gathering of messengers due to a number of issues expected to be discussed and decided on. One of these issues is related to the decision that was made by the Executive Committee when it affirmed the recommendation by the Credentials Committee to disfellowship Saddleback Church for its position on women as pastors. “The Credentials Committee cited Stacie’s role as teaching pastor of the church as the reason for the removal of cooperating status due to the church’s lack of a faith and practice that closely aligns with the Baptist Faith and Message which states in Article VI that ‘while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.’”[1] This divisive issue of women as pastors and women as preachers has raised the question on exactly how are Baptists to relate to the BF&M. This article is an attempt at beginning to answer that question through a historical examination of Baptist denominational polity. This historical research will seek to review recent historical evidence, meaning that this historical methodology does not necessarily include historical analysis that precedes the 19th century. This article is not intended to be in support of one side of the argument or the other. It instead intends to be an attempt at providing objective historical understanding in order for the readers and messengers to make an informed decision on the issue. 

Historical Analysis

The SBC in 1924 elected the following to form a committee to consider the possibility of formulating a statement of faith for Southern Baptists: E. Y. Mullins (President of SBTS) as chairman, L. R. Scarborough (President of SWBTS), C. P. Stealey (Oklahoma Baptist paper), W. J. McGlothlin (President of Furman University), S. M. Brown (Missouri Baptist paper), E. C. Dargan (Sunday School Board), and R. H. Pitt (Virginia Baptist paper).[2] This committee would go on to recommend the adoption of what would become known as the Baptist Faith and Message 1925 at the SBC annual meeting in Memphis the following year. William L. Lumpkin alludes to the original intent of the BF&M when he writes, “Obviously, the Confession was intended only as a general expression of the faith of Southern Baptists, and it has never been looked upon as authoritative or binding.”[3] This obvious observation by Lumpkin  can be supported by examining the preamble to the document itself when it states, “They constitute a consensus of opinion of some Baptists body… They are not complete statements of our faith… and have no authority over the conscience.”[4] Article XIV of the document entitled “Cooperation” states, “Such organizations have no authority over each other and over the churches.”[5] From the beginning, the BF&M was viewed as a non-binding document meant to bring about consensus on primary issues rather than division on secondary and tertiary issues so that, as Article XIV states, the great objects of the Kingdom of God (missionary, educational, and benevolence) are carried out.

It is also important to note how the committee formulated the document itself and the direction they chose to go. The Baptist statesman James Leo Garrett notes in his historiography that the committee chose not to use certain statements of faith already in existence and in use by Southern Baptists. The committee elected not to use the Calvinistic Philadelphia Confession as a framework for the BF&M, nor did they decide to use the Abstract of Principles of SBTS as a foundation for the new document despite the chairman being the then president of the seminary in Kentucky. Instead, the committee chose to use the less Calvinistic New Hampshire Confession of faith as its framework.[6] This could be a surprising detail considering that one would expect for the committee to utilize the confession of the SBC’s first seminary. However, when one understands Mullins in his context, it becomes clear that there was theological and methodological diversity in the SBC during the first half of the SBC. This diversity comes to light when one contrasts Mullins with one of his predecessors, James Petigru Boyce. Boyce the founder and first president of Southern Seminary, adhered to a defined theological blue print that is best represented by his pedagogy of teaching that could be classified as explicit catechesis best exemplified by the staunch Calvinistic theology that would permeate the seminary. When one contrasts Boyce’s hard lined theological positions with Mullins more individualistic freedom, it becomes evident that there was some diversity within the SBC denomination. 

This unrestrained methodology of Mullins has been addressed over the course of recent decades in SBC life. Dr. Mohler, the current president of SBTS states, “Mullins’s attempt to forge a mediating theological paradigm for Southern Baptists eventually failed because mediating positions are inherently unstable. Delicate compromises established in one generation are often abandoned in short order as new generations assume leadership.”[7] Unfortunately, this observation from Dr. Mohler is only partially correct. Yes, there was a lack of stability during the following decades, but to place the bulk of the blame upon the shoulders of Mullins is unfair and unfounded. Mullins represented an orthodox position along the SBC theological spectrum. He held to an authoritative view of Scripture that provided the fence lines for his theology and methodology. The instability that was to follow was not due to the position of flexibility that was demonstrated by Mullins, but by a lack of biblical fidelity that manifested in generations to come. 

This congenial position of Mullins in conjunction with the uncompromising posture of Boyce has continued throughout the course of the history of the SBC. One only needs to look at the differences in approaches between SBTS and SWBTS. The confessions that each faculty sign are different with Southern’s faculty signing the Abstract of Principles while Southwestern’s faculty sign a modified version of the New Hampshire Confession. Southern’s methodology can be classified as more academic and intellectual while Southwestern’s is more practical and evangelistic in nature. Southern today under Mohler has returned to a more stringent pedagogy in the same vein of Boyce. Southwestern has continued to follow Mullins’ living theology that can be traced through L. R. Scarborough, W. T. Conner, and James Leo Garrett to SWBTS today with the likes of Malcom B. Yarnell III. 

Contemporary Applications

After a brief consideration of the historical origin of the BF&M and the diversity that has existed in the SBC from its inception, this author would like to recommend three conclusions that could be drawn from the past in order to inform the present and shape the future. 

  1. The SBC is not a monolithic group. There has been a track record of diversity within the SBC that is again being realized in denominational life today. This diversity manifests itself in terms of ethnicity, linguistics, culture, and theology. This diversity, which has the potential to make cooperation challenging, is something to be celebrated. It reflects the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore, should not be something that should be erased or ignored. Instead, it is something to be embraced and should embody who we are as a denomination. 
  2. The SBC should seek cooperation over tribalism. It is inevitable for people to naturally drift into communities that one is familiar with. It is supernatural when there is unity in the midst of diversity. It has been unfortunate that the SBC of late has resembled more of the partisan political divide in our nation than the unity found in the early church as described in Acts 4, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” The SBC should continue in its heritage of being a collection of autonomous churches who choose to cooperate.
  3. The SBC should be more cataphatic than apophatic. In other words, the SBC should champion what they are unified around rather than what they might or might not be in agreement on. Cooperation requires a cataphatic mindset. This would manifest itself in our treatment of the BF&M not as a creed to be strictly adhered to but as it was intentionally used for, which was a general confession of faith. This attitude treats the SBC more as a convention of autonomous churches than a denomination. What allows for cooperation in the midst of diversity are our Baptists distinctives and mission. The rallying cry of the SBC has always been, and should always be missions, education, and benevolence.  


This summer has the potential to be a historic annual meeting for the SBC. It is unfortunate that secondary issues are going to dominate the conversation in New Orleans. While I have my personal convictions that tend to lean more conservatively, it is my belief that both sides of this argument need to allow this issue to be left as a local church issue. That means those who hold to a more complementarian perspective should be willing to cooperate with churches who might disagree with them for the sake of missions, education, and benevolence. Likewise, those who are proponents of women as pastors, are just as guilty for being apophatic by alienating those who might disagree with them. The SBC has a rich history of cooperation despite diversity. May the SBC continue in this legacy by the decisions that will be made this summer in New Orleans. 


[1]Howe, Jonathan and Porter, Brandon. “Saddleback Church deemed ‘not in friendly cooperation’ with SBC” Baptist Press, 2034.

[2] Garrett, James Leo Jr. Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2019, 442.

[3] Lumpkin, William Latane, and Bill Leonard. Baptist Confessions of Faith. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2011.


[5] Ibid.

[6] Garrett, James Leo Jr. Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2019, 444.

[7] Mohler, Albert. “Baptist Theology at the Crossroads: The Legacy of E. Y. Mullins” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 3 (Winter 1999): 19.




*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common


  • Daniel “Tiny” Dominguez

    Dr Villanueva, Thank you for sharing a brief history of the BFM. Praying for the meeting in New Orleans

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