There seems to be some confusion recently among Southern Baptists about women in the pastorate. At first blush, it would seem that our formal doctrinal consensus is clear. After all, the Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M) states the matter rather plainly:

VI. Church: A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers… Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

Southern Baptists have traditionally understood this to mean that only qualified men are allowed to serve in the office of pastor. At some point, however, some cooperating Southern Baptist churches began calling women as pastors as well. The common justification that I have heard for this practice involves a tortured interpretation of the BF&M. They claim that the BF&M only limits the office of senior pastor to men but that there is no limitation on women serving in a variety of associate pastor positions.

This justification does not hold water. It falls short of what the BF&M actually says and more importantly of what the New Testament teaches.

So what does the BF&M actually say with respect to female pastors? The short answer is that it identifies only two offices and categorically limits the pastoral office to qualified men. The basis of this limitation is not arbitrary but based on God’s design as it is revealed in Scripture.

Equal but Fitted for Complementary Roles

The Bible teaches that while both men and women are equally created in the image of God and are both gifted for ministry, God has designed men and women for distinct and complementary callings within the church and the home. In the home, God calls husbands to be the head and for wives to graciously submit themselves to the servant leadership of their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24). In the church, God intends for qualified men to lead and to fill the teaching office of the church—the office of pastor.

That is why there is such a stark prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” Again, this prohibition is not arbitrary but based on the order of creation (1 Tim. 2:13); cf. 1 Cor. 11:8-9), and it prohibits women from the two main functions required for the office of pastor—teaching and authority.

Likewise, the Apostle Paul makes clear that pastor/elder must be the “husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6). As a husband, he must “manage his own household well” (1 Tim. 3:4) because family leadership is the proving ground of church leadership: “if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?” (1 Tim. 3:5).

Since a woman obviously can’t be a husband and since she is not called to be the head of the family (Eph. 5:22-24), it is clear that Paul does not have women in view for the pastoral office. That doesn’t mean that she can’t have a meaningful, spirit-filled ministry according to her gifting. It just means that she cannot be a pastor/elder.

Allowing female associate pastors suggests that some pastors are subject to the biblical qualifications for pastors while others aren’t. This is an absurdity that cannot be squared with the BF&M, much less with Scripture. While churches are free to have pastors and associate pastors, the Bible does not free them to redefine “pastor” in such a way that it is no longer a biblical office of the church. And that is why the BF&M’s statement is so important. It makes no distinction between senior and associate pastors. It speaks categorically about the office of pastor and says that the office is limited to scripturally qualified men.

Implications for Southern Baptists

What are the implications of this teaching for Southern Baptists?

First, it’s important to point out that we believe in the autonomy of the local church. That means that the local church alone has the authority to determine its doctrine and order. No person or group or denomination has any authority whatsoever to tell a local church how to conduct its affairs. The upshot of this means that if a Baptist church wants to appoint female pastors, there is nothing that the Southern Baptist Convention can do to prevent that.

Second, this does not mean that the SBC can do nothing. Nor does it mean that the SBC has no interest in a cooperating church that defies our doctrinal consensus. Our denomination is built upon a foundation of voluntary cooperation for the purposes of the Great Commission and theological education. Our ability to cooperate is materially compromised when a cooperating church ignores what we have all agreed upon as the doctrinal basis for our work together—the BF&M.

That is why you will see from time to time local associations disfellowshipping churches with female pastors. But this isn’t what anyone wants for the SBC at large. All of us would prefer that we be united in the truth and not strain our cooperative efforts. For that reason, the best outcome of recent discussions would be for churches with female pastors to cease this unbiblical practice.

Mind Both the Boundaries and the Field

A friend once said to me that complementarians often run the risk of minding the fences while ignoring the field. What she meant was that we can be so focused on boundaries that we forget the wide places in between. And it is in those spaces that there is great freedom and opportunity for both men and women to have meaningful ministries within the church. She is right. Yes, there are clear boundaries in scripture for both men and women in ministry, but no Christian—male or female—should ever feel they are without a ministry. There is plenty of room to roam in the field, and proper biblical boundaries help us to see that.

There is tremendous diversity within the SBC, and that should surprise no one. There have always been a wide array of differences among us on a variety of issues. But those differences are not unbounded. Whatever our differences are, they need to be within the parameters of the BF&M if our cooperation is going to survive and flourish over the long haul. For that reason, we need to renew our commitment to what the Bible teaches about who God calls to serve as pastors. I’m hoping and praying that renewal will come very soon.

Editors’ note: This article originally appeared on Denny Burk’s blog.