Rick Warren and His Legacy: A Change in Reflection on Women Pastors

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In the 1970s and 1980s, the Southern Baptist Convention quarreled over the inerrancy of Scripture. Connected to this debate was the ordination of women. The lines were clear. To affirm women in the pastorate marked one as a liberal or moderate who denied the inerrancy of Scripture.

If one believed in the inerrancy of Scripture, then such a one would de facto reject the notion of a female pastor. According to Albert Mohler, this issue fueled what became known as the Conservative Resurgence:

“In truth, the issue of women serving as pastors fueled the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC. The question was instantly clarifying. The divide over women serving in the pastorate served as a signal of the deeper divide over the authority and interpretation of the Bible. Simply put, the only way to affirm women serving in the pastoral role is to reject the authority and sufficiency of biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2.”

Mohler was instrumental in the formation of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. The very document, which was used on February 21, 2023, by the Credentials Committee of the SBC to disfellowship one of her largest churches, Saddleback Church. Why? Because in 2021, Saddleback ordained three women to serve as pastors of their church.

Rick Warren recently sat down with Russell Moore of Christianity Today (and a former Southern Baptist leader) to discuss his changing views on women in the pastorate. His answers show that this is not nearly as clear-cut as some would assume.

What Is Rick Warren’s Argument for Female Pastors?

According to Warren, he did not change his position in spite of the Bible; he changed it because of the Bible.

As he said, “I’m a Bible guy. And I actually had to change because of Scripture. Culture could not change me on this issue. Anecdotes could not change me on this issue. Pressure from other people would not change me on this issue.”

What are those Scriptures that changed his view? Warren cited three main passages which shaped his evolving view on women in ministry.

  • Matthew 28:19-20. This is the Great Commission. As Warren interprets this passage, “Women are to go, women are to make disciples, women are to baptize, and women are to teach — not just men. Who authorized women to teach? Jesus!”
  • Acts 2:17-18. This is on the day of Pentecost when the prophet Joel is quoted. In that text, it says that both men and women will be impacted. Women, just like men, were filled with the Spirit. According to Warren, this text tells us, “Everybody gets to preach, everybody gets to prophesy.”
  • John 20:11-18. This is when Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene at the resurrection. Jesus then charges her to go back and tell the men what has happened. Warren calls this the first Christian sermon: “I noticed that the very first sermon, the very first Christian sermon, the message of the gospel of good news of the resurrection, Jesus chose a woman to deliver it to men. He had Mary Magdalene go and tell the disciples.”

From his reading of Scripture, Warren has concluded that God has gifted women just as He has gifted men. One of these gifts is that of proclamation. If women are gifted to prophesy and preach, why should they be denied the exercise of these gifts?

Regardless of what you believe about Warren’s interpretation of the scriptures on this issue, it must be admitted that he is making his argument with Scripture. Nothing of what Warren is saying here denies the inerrancy of Scripture.

This might be a different interpretation of Scripture, and perhaps even different than that which is outlined in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. But it does not do to say that Warren arrives at this position by denying the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.

What Ought the SBC Do in Response?

Simply because Warren makes an argument from the Bible does not necessarily mean that his view still fits within the parameters of SBC's belief. After all, Presbyterians make arguments from the Bible for infant baptism.

Yet, this does not mean that they are able to have “a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.” That is the language of the SBC Constitution on what it considers a cooperating church.

What Warren is arguing for might be termed soft complementarianism. To outline the various differences between various iterations of egalitarianism and complementarianism fall outside the scope of this article.

For our purposes, note rather simply that one who holds to soft complementarianism will have a male as the lead pastor/elder but will encourage the full exercise of gifts of female congregants. This is why Saddleback ordained three women associate pastors but still has a male as the lead pastor.

This leads to two very different questions. First, is a soft complementarianism (similar to that of Warren) outside the Baptist Faith and Message?

The BF&M 2000 states, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” That seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

The problem, though, is that some believe the intention back in 2000 was regarding the lead pastor. It doesn’t mean that one cannot call a female associate pastor (or a children’s pastor, worship pastor, etc.) to serve within the local church. The SBC must decide whether or not soft complementarianism is outside the scope of the BF&M.

But even still, the debate is not settled. To be considered as a cooperative Southern Baptist church, one does not have to sign on to the Baptist Faith and Message. It is a deep-rooted part of the Baptist faith that there is “no creed but the Bible.”

While this statement of faith has been used with seminaries, other entities, and church plants, it is not something that, to date, has been binding on a local church.

This is why former SWBTS president Adam Greenway, at the SBC Annual Meeting of 2022, in a discussion on Saddleback, proposed an amendment to the credentials report.

The committee had suggested a report to study the role of the pastor, which was not well received by the floor. The committee eventually withdrew the recommendation.

During this discussion, Greenway proposed an amendment that would have changed the focus of the proposed study committee to a study of how closely a church must adhere to the Baptist Faith and Message to be considered in friendly cooperation.

That, in my opinion, is the question that is confronting the SBC in regard to Saddleback. What does the Baptist Faith and Message mean in regard to “pastor”? Does this mean that an SBC church cannot have a female children’s pastor?

If a woman is hired to lead worship, can she not be called a worship pastor? Is a church outside the BF&M if they refer to the pastor and his wife as a “pastoral team”?

If that’s the stance that the SBC wants to take, that is certainly within their purview. Yet, it must be made explicit so that local churches know that this action is placing them outside the BF&M.

And at this point, the other question must also be made explicit. If you are outside the Baptist Faith and Message on this issue (or on any other) are you to be considered no longer in friendly cooperation?

What Does This Mean?

Rick Warren’s soft complementarian position, echoed by more than a handful within the SBC, will push the SBC to further define its stance on women in ministry. It is dishonest to connect this with the “battle for the Bible.”

This is not about sufficiency or inerrancy. This debate is about interpretation. Is there a gift of “preaching” or “pastoring”? Is there a difference between office and function?

One might agree with Warren on his interpretation of Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:17-18, and John 20 and thus be more open to women serving in pastoral roles.

Others might view the terms pastor, elder, overseer as entirely interchangeable and disagree with Warren’s understanding of gifting. Both might agree on an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14 and 2 Timothy 2, which restricts a position of authority to a male.

Or some might even read Paul differently still here and believe hierarchical authority structures are part of the fall and not in accordance with the chain-breaking and world-changing nature of the gospel.

The key question confronting the SBC at this moment is whether the tent is wide enough to allow these different interpretations.

For further reading:

Should Women Be Pastors? What Does the Bible Say?

What Is the Significance of Women Within Ministry?

Why the Church Needs Women

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/fstop123

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake.
This article originally appeared on Christianity.com. For more faith-building resources, visit Christianity.com. Christianity.com


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