The California church founded by Pastor Rick Warren remains a Southern Baptist congregation – for now – after a contentious debate Tuesday and after Warren himself appealed to messengers at the SBC Annual Meeting.
The affiliation of Saddleback Church became an issue when the congregation ordained three women as pastors – an action that critics said conflicts with the denomination's statement of beliefs. The SBC statement of beliefs says, "while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."
A messenger at the 2021 annual meeting made a motion asking that the SBC "break fellowship" with Saddleback over the issue. The committee assigned to examine that issue – the Credentials Committee – came back to this year's annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., recommending that a study committee be formed to provide "clarity regarding the 'office of pastor'" within the statement of beliefs, known as the Baptist Faith & Message. The recommendation noted that Baptist churches sometimes have employees with "pastor" in the title but who have "very different responsibilities and authority."
But after pushback by messengers – including from seminary president Albert Mohler, who was speaking as a messenger from his church – the Credentials Committee withdrew the recommendation. The result is that Saddleback remains an SBC church, for now, although the Credentials Committee could make a different recommendation in the future.
Mohler served on the committee that revised the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000 and added the "officer of pastor" language.
Mohler opposed the Credentials Committee recommendation.
"The words mean what Southern Baptists said in the year 2000," Mohler said. "At that time, the word 'pastor' was used by the committee and adopted by the convention because we were told that is the most easily understood word among Southern Baptists for pastoral teaching and leadership."
Mohler said he hopes that "churches that use the word 'pastor' mean it."
Warren spoke to messengers, reading what he called a "love letter" to Southern Baptists. He graduated from an SBC seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was there that he was inspired to plant Saddleback Church in California.
"I love Southern Baptists," said Warren, who is retiring in September. "I am a fourth-generation Southern Baptist pastor. My great-grandfather was led to Christ by Charles Spurgeon and sent to America as a church planter."
Speaking to the issue of Saddleback possibly being disfellowshipped from the SBC, Warren said, "You're never going to find another Baptist who agrees with you completely on everything. … As Western culture grows more dark, more evil, more secular, we have to decide: Are we going to treat each other as allies or adversaries? … Are we gonna keep bickering over secondary issues, or are we gonna keep the main thing the main thing?"
This week, Denny Burk, professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College – an SBC school – posted a blog arguing that the SBC should disfellowship Saddleback.
"The Credentials Committee has withdrawn their recommendation, and we will have to wait to see what they come up with next," Burk wrote. "When they do bring a recommendation, I hope it takes into account the recent news of Warren's retirement and the news that his successors are a husband and wife pastoral team. For all the division in the SBC, I was really grateful to see the messengers so unified on this point – that the BF&M's position on the office of pastor is a clear, faithful statement on the Bible's teaching."
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Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla/Staff
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.