Downgrade in the SBC?

Grant Castleberry

A Warning from Charles Spurgeon for Southern Baptists

At the end of his life, Charles Spurgeon faced a great controversy in the Baptist Union, which he called the “downgrade.” The Baptist Union would even censure him for his outspoken warnings against it in his magazine, The Sword and the Trowel. The Baptist Union would go on to adopt a compromised doctrinal statement on biblical inerrancy by a vote of 2000 to 7.

Evidence of Downgrade

By God’s grace, the Southern Baptist Convention is nowhere close to that type of compromise. However, the evidence of theological downgrade within the Convention is present. How can I utter such a statement when nearly everyone within the SBC affirms biblical inerrancy? The downgrade in the twenty-first century evangelical church is not primarily over inerrancy but on biblical authority—specifically on the issues related to human sexuality. It is at this point that Satan is attacking. At this year’s Convention in Indianapolis, a super-majority of 66% was needed to pass the so-called “Law Amendment,” which delineates that partnering churches should only have qualified men serving in the office of “pastor” or with the title of “pastor.” Specifically, the amendment proposed adding this clause to the SBC Constitution:

“Affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.”

Unfortunately, the amendment did not pass, receiving a solid 61% of the vote but failing to reach the super-majority of 66%, which was needed. The bright side is that there is a broad majority within the SBC, which stands as thoroughly complementarian and affirming biblical authority in the area of men’s and women’s roles. The bad news is that nearly 39% of the Convention voted against the amendment.

Arguments were made that there are better ways to convince churches to comply with the SBC’s doctrinal commitments. Or there is just a problem with nomenclature and not theology (I am not sure how you can legitimately argue that a title in a church is not theological). My friend, David Schrock, does a very helpful job of summarizing all the more egalitarian-leaning arguments against the amendment here.

However, these arguments fail to consider what the Bible plainly states about the issue. The question is really about biblical authority and Christ’s Lordship over His church, or in this case, a denomination. If this were a matter in which God’s will was not clearly defined, then it should be debated. But if God’s will is defined on an issue, as R. C. Sproul used to say, “If the Bible says it, that settles it!” After the Convention ended, I posted this on X:

“Somewhere along the way the evangelical church lost the truth that the Church does not belong to us but to Christ.

The issue of who should pastor or carry the title of pastor is not for us to decide, but rather is dictated clearly by Christ through His Word through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To willingly allow churches to violate God’s Word on this matter for the sake of broader cooperation is to walk in disobedience to Christ’s Lordship.”

Again, it is Christ’s Church. Not ours. No one has the authority to say it is permissible to willingly violate the Lordship of Christ as expressed in His Word. So, ultimately, this issue is about the authority of the Word of God and the authority of Christ Himself.

I will not make a biblical case for complementarianism in this article. I have done that here and here. But I must reiterate that the failure to pass the Law Amendment was a massive failure on the part of the SBC to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The SBC has a biblical authority problem.

What Will Happen in the Future

The result of the failure to pass the amendment is that the practice of women serving in church roles with the title of “pastor” will be normalized in Baptist life. Many will see it as a license to press further into the practice because, essentially, the SBC communicated that as long as a woman is not serving as a “senior pastor,” then the credentials committee will not take issue. To put it bluntly, the camel’s nose is in the tent, and the Convention failed to push the camel out.

What is sanctioned, though with disapproval, eventually becomes normalized. What is allowed by one generation is practiced in excess by the next. A little leaven inevitably leavens the whole lump (Gal. 5:9). Because the SBC failed to bring further doctrinal clarity on the issue, the doctrinal downgrade will continue unless decisive action is taken. As the prevailing culture moves further left, the practice of calling women “pastor” will only increase. This is how theological downgrade happens. It does not happen overnight. Satan is too clever for that. It happens inch by inch. One church at a time. One year at a time. One allowance at a time.

My prediction is that if the SBC fails to take a stand on this issue in the future, in ten years, the debate will not be about whether women can have the title of “pastor” but if they can be “senior pastors.” The debate after the “women pastor” debate will be about gender and marriage. Historically, the issues have always fallen in that order in every mainline denomination.

So yes, the downgrade is here. It is present in seed form. The question before us is whether Southern Baptists will be determined to submit themselves to biblical authority and, ultimately, the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

This article was first published at Unashamed Truth. It is republished here in full with permission.

  • Grant Castleberry

    Grant Castleberry is the senior pastor of Capital Community Church, Raleigh, NC and the president and founder of Unashamed Truth Ministries. Grant is a regular contributor to Tabletalk Magazine and the author of the forthcoming, "The Honor of God," published by Ligonier Ministries. Grant and his wife, GraceAnna, have five children and live in Raleigh.