With over fourteen million people across the United States claiming to be practicing Southern Baptists, we represent a substantial part of the American population. With such a large national community, you’d think people would know more about our spiritual practices. Who is our governing agency? Do we adhere to traditional values? Do we place restrictions on what their clergy can and can’t do?
Can Southern Baptist pastors marry? Because each Southern Baptist church is considered an independent entity, it is allowed to have whomever it chooses as a pastor, including someone who is married. In fact, traditional family values are an important part of our lifestyle. We often have traditional family values and see marrying and raising children as an important part of our lives.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a fellowship of over 47,000 Baptist churches across the United States. Each congregation is diverse and self-governing. The Convention does not provide any set rules or laws, and each church is free to enact our own mission and ministries. So, how exactly does that work? Who can become a pastor? And how important is marriage?
Many Churches, One Convention
Baptist churches that belong to the Southern Baptist Convention are called “cooperating churches.” We cooperate with the Convention’s purpose, mission, and ministries, and provide financial support for its work.
The Convention meets yearly in June. Its meeting is described as a combination “old-fashioned revival meeting with an open-microphone business meeting.” While at the conference, Southern Baptist Convention officers are chosen, reports are made, sermons are offered, and resolutions are proclaimed.
The Convention believes in “a free church and a free state.” We believe that one should not affect the other, although recognize that often they do influence one another. Churches should be free from government interference, but we should also do the right thing and adhere to rules and regulations (like fire codes) that aim to protect everyone.
The individual church itself has complete autonomy over its own ministries and policies. Our congregations tend to be remarkably diverse, and cross racial, economic, and ethnic groups. Each individual church keeps records of membership, baptism, and ordinations.
Individual Baptist churches are free to enter other alliances and organizations distinct from the SBC. In our autonomy, we’re allowed and encouraged to worship God and Jesus Christ as we see fit. Each individual church decides who will be an appropriate leader (or leaders) for our congregation.
Occasionally, a church might be expelled from the Convention or another Baptist governing body. When that happens, the Convention still recognizes that church’s autonomy to practice as it pleases (just not under the protection of the larger Baptist name).
Because our churches elect their own spiritual leaders, the requirements for the position can vary between congregations. The SBC doesn’t have any basic requirements for ordination in the Church. Some of our individual parishes require seminary training, some do not. Some congregations don’t require any kind of ordination at all.
Being called to the ministry is the most important requirement for anyone seeking a higher station within our congregations. Once the calling is heard, much work is done with the person’s pastor to determine if they are ready to serve. They may be called in front of a council of pastors or elders to hear their testimony of salvation, their experience of being called, and their spiritual and theological qualifications.
What Makes A Good Pastor?
While the SBC has no say in who a church decides to choose as a pastor, they do have recommendations for our membership to consider. In 1984 the SBC resolved that, while women were vital to the success and health of our community, it was best that they not become pastors.
In 1998, Richard Melick, Jr. wrote an article for the SBC offering multiple biblical references in support of a men-only clergy. He stated, “We have seen that the explicit texts of Scripture forbid women to serve as pastors. The biblical model for family roles supports that stance as well. It is not a matter of inferiority or worth, for all persons are of equal worth in their person . . . There is no compelling reason to encourage women as pastors . . .”
The SBC freely admits that these are just guiding principles, and our individual churches can elect anyone they choose to a leadership role, including a woman. The SBC says women offer priceless contributions to the service of God, and there are many avenues they might serve.
We tend to have a very traditional view when it comes to family. We believe a family consists of people related by blood, marriage, or adoption. Marriage is meant to be between a man and a woman and last a lifetime. While men and women are equal before God, we expect that the man be head of house and the woman to accept his leadership. Children are loved from the moment of conception and are meant to honor and obey their parents.
Our married pastors can find it difficult to meet the needs of their flock while also supporting their family. An article in Southern Equip offered some key advice for the struggling pastor. It cautioned couples to keep a safe space for each other at home, and to maintain good boundaries within the church. It also recommended taking time to reconnect to their family as a person and not a church leader and offered vacations and family time as good options.
Within our community, there is also some debate about whether someone who is divorced should be allowed to become a pastor. In Timothy 1:1-5 (KJV), it states, “This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach . . . One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity. For if a man knows not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the Church of God?”
Some of us use this to say divorced people can’t be qualified to become a pastor. However, in recent years our opinions have relaxed a little. With the whopping rate of divorce in the country, many of us have decided to look at the person’s current track record instead of their history. Are they living according to God’s will? Are they faithful and good providers to their family? Did the divorce happen before or after they found salvation? These are all important questions that must be answered before we can make any decisions.
In 2010, the SBC published a resolution denouncing the rate of divorce within the our Southern Baptist community. It called on our cooperating churches to unite in providing more support for struggling families, marriage enrichment opportunities, and to marry only those couples who understand that marriage is a lifelong undertaking and are ready for the challenge. It also called on our individual churches to have mercy on those who have divorced, and to help the broken families in the healing process.
We have a deep religious belief that enters everything we do. Our community and faith mean a great deal to us, and we know that Jesus can forgive us of all our sins. The autonomy we enjoy as part of the Southern Baptist Convention ensures that our communities can do what they need to support themselves. That means that the pastors and their families are an important part of our congregations and are often held up as examples of a good, proper family unit.
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