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Noun Courtesy

August 14, 2023

North Carolina pastor J. D. Greear has urged us fellow Southern Baptists to exercise “pronoun courtesy” in addressing “transsexual” people. If the person has both X and Y chromosomes but wishes to be referred to as “she” and “her,” then go with it so as not to cause needless offense and with the hope that this form of ingratiation will help pave the way into the Kingdom. Of course, the problem is that it indulges and perpetuates a lie. If Kim Jong Un asks you to call him “Comrade,” you should demur; if Richard Dawkins presumes to impute holiness to himself, you’re not obliged to call him “Saint Richard,” unless ironically.  And if I happen onto an NCAA swim meet where William “Lia” Thomas spots me in the stands and shouts, “Hey! Don’t I know you?” I won’t be answering back, “No, Ma’am.” 

Now, Greear tells us we should be pleased to count churches with “women pastors” as in good standing in our denomination, despite the fact that our doctrinal statement stipulates, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” He laments the Convention’s vote to exclude Saddleback Church from our expressly-confessional fellowship, urging us to stop our nitpicking. It’s reminiscent of the “moderates’” refrain during the conservative resurgence (for restoring devotion to biblical inerrancy in our seminaries and initiating opposition to abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade). They’d piously urge us, “Let’s stop fussing and get back to missions and evangelism”—as if we couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time by tending to both biblical fidelity and gospel outreach.

Granted, Pastor Greear’s church uses traditional titles, but he expressly appreciates the recent, open letter from Pastor Gregory Perkins, which pushes back against the move to amend the bylaws to reserve the term ‘pastor’ for men. Perkins, who leads The View Church in Menifee, California, is president of the National African American Fellowship, and, in that capacity, he wrote:

It has created division within the SBC and may disproportionally impact NAAF affiliated congregations . . .These actions, while within the rights of our messengers, undermine the tie that binds, i.e., the autonomy of the local church and are inconsistent with our shared Baptist polity . . . This may signal to churches in the SBC that do not believe that women should be the Senior Pastor but allow women the usage of a pastoral title, or appoints a woman to a pastoral role, are no longer welcome in the SBC . . . Many of our churches assign the title ‘pastor’ to women who oversee ministries of the church under the authority of a male Senior Pastor, i.e., Children’s Pastor, Worship Pastor, Discipleship Pastor, etc.

There are various estimates of how many churches follow this practice, black or otherwise, but Pastor Perkins’ church certainly does, with “Pastor Regina Bennett” serving as “Pastor of Discipleship, Family & Life” (which covers a lot a ground). I’m sure she’s a remarkable woman, but that’s not the issue.

Perkins argues that many of their churches apply the term widely, to include women, and in claiming this, he hopes to bend our corporate will to accommodate a practice we’ve found at odds with Scripture, including 1 Timothy 2:9-14 and 3:1-15, which are cited in the BF&M. But couldn’t the “many churches” comment just as well underscore the pressing need to address this issue, urging them to reconsider their choice of labels? And while we can appreciate the impulse to be irenic and accommodating to those who’ve not embraced our scruples on this matter, I think it's fair to suggest that coed application of the term ‘pastor’ to staff members serving under the senior pastor is akin to seeing how close to the hermeneutical rocks you can sail without running aground. And it’s not just a cautionary “steer clear”; it commends a more seaworthy design, commensurate with the Apostle Paul’s guidance. 

(And, perhaps, a topic for another day: Maybe we should go a bit easier on calling so many male staffers “pastor”; it may well contribute to the drive to spread the label across gender lines. If virtually every man on the payroll is a pastor of some sort, the title “minister” “leader,” or “director” seems to stigmatize pointlessly the women who bear these traditionally-honorable titles.)

Projected Slippery Slopes

Though there have been manifestly-slippery slopes in history (e.g., Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler; short-term “flatten the curve” directives re COVID), it’s tricky to project such slopes, given the threat of unintended consequences, partisan “Chicken Little” hysterics, etc. So, this form of argument has earned the label, “fallacy.” That doesn’t mean the person who deploys it will never be vindicated. He might be right. But his tack is notoriously insufficient. So, it’s reasonable to insist that he demonstrate how each step in the slide is plausibly ominous. 

The point is, you can sketch the path of downward ruin in a number of directions. Back in the 1990s, when we amended the bylaws to exclude churches affirming homosexuality, those against the change said that we were running roughshod over interpretational prerogatives. They asked rhetorically, “What’s next? Dismissal for social drinking at church fellowships?” But the fair retort was, “If we indulge homosexuality today, what’s next? Polygamy? Incest?” (Incidentally, on the national scene, court cases suggest that the slope favors this latter concern).

Some say that the Law Amendment will lead to widespread alienation and disaffection among a bunch of churches; that women will be discouraged from wholehearted participation in Kingdom efforts; that our polity will collapse. On the other hand, those supporting the amendment caution that by blinking at this juncture, we open the door to culture-driven scripture muffling and twisting; that we hitch a ride on society’s feminist bandwagon; that we signal indifference to the crisis in masculinity and the epidemic of fatherless homes; and that we begin to erase our convictional distinctives.

Interpretive Freedom

Greear and his co-belligerents on this issue warn that enforced conformity to the BF&M ignores responsible hermeneutical variation on secondary and tertiary matters. What I don’t see in their remarks is recognition that our doctrinal statement has done the sorting we think important, and it already provides vast leeway. We’ve decided that you only need to be a “one-point Calvinist” (“security of the believer”)—but at least that one point— to be a proper Southern Baptist; that we take no particular millennial stand—whether pre, post, a, pan (It’ll all pan out.) or my Daddy’s position, pro (He was for a thousand years peace any time.); that tithing is not to be treated as a hard-and-fast scriptural requirement; that pacifists and just-war partisans both have a place in our fellowship;  that you may watch the NFL on Sunday afternoon if you also avail yourself of opportunities to worship on the Lord’s Day; that you’re not limited to supporting a progressive, regressive, or flat tax system in the interest of justice; that you’re not obliged to marry and have children; and that it’s okay to have Jesus portrayed on the silver screen.

Furthermore, we don’t automatically dismiss as lost those who differ with us on mode of baptism (paedo vs. believer’s by immersion); denominational governance (hierarchical vs. democratic); instrumental music (a capella only vs. accompanimental options); church-state relations (Henry VIII vs. Roger Williams). You don’t have to be a Southern Baptist to be saved; we don’t labor under the old Roman Catholic position, extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. But we draw denominational lines where we think it important, and we insist that the employees under our funded purview (missionaries, publishers, and professors included) endorse these lines. We can draw thankfully (but selectively) from the writings of Paedo-Baptists, Quakers, Campbellites, and Independent Fundamentalists, but that doesn’t mean we’re indifferent to our own distinctives. 

Back in the day, inerrancy-detractors played a “priesthood of the believer” card in an attempt to trump objections to a female pastorate and other misinterpretational conceits. We didn’t buy it then, nor do we now. The same goes for the “church autonomy” card, since churches keen on this practice are quite free to go their way, perhaps toward one of the other groups who’ve injured themselves by a laissez-faire approach to this matter.



Pastors Greear and Perkins wonder why we can’t just lighten up and accommodate churches (whatever the ethnic cast) who want to call a woman, “pastor of discipleship.” “Relax,” they counsel. “It’s just a word, albeit an honorific one, to designate someone in charge of some aspect of the church’s ministry”—“You say tomayto, I say tomahto . . . You say director/minster/leader; I say pastor.” Besides, a woman music leader “shepherds” the musicians as well as the selection of songs and instrumentation. Right?

Well, on this model, we should also feel free to designate Regina Bennett, “Bishop of Discipleship,” since she “oversees” training; or “Apostle of Discipleship,” since she’s been sent by the church to enlist, equip, and organize trainers. Just words. But still, there is that thing about a pastor or a bishop’s being a “one woman man.” Yes, we’re told not to worry—the only thing that really matters is that the senior pastor be a man? So, I suppose, there’s nothing out of line in naming a woman volunteer as “teaching elder” of the grade-school Sunday School department. 

It's fair to ask what’s behind the drive to appropriate the term ‘pastor’ for the women? Again, are they demeaned by the titles ‘minister,’ ‘leader,’ and ‘director’? Is use of these titles tantamount to calling them ‘minions,’ ‘hirelings,’ or ‘flunkies’? Well, then somebody should tell the FBI Director, the Canadian Prime Minister, and the Senate Majority Leader that they’re being slighted. Those are respectful words, well suited to ascribe dignity and authority to the bearer. 

Of course, this is not the first time we’ve sought to “improve” on the plain meaning of Scripture to address women. Back in 2002, for Hebrews 12:7, the gender-neutral TNIV came out with, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their parents?” This departed from the traditional version that read, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” Never mind that this reading had served the Church for two millennia. We had to clear things up. No harm; no foul. Right? Well, maybe it put some women freshly on the spot, those who might have been whispering “Yay!” when they took this verse to mean that God’s discipline was designed especially for men. (Maybe one reason it took so long to make the change was that it came down harder on the boys.) But the new version lets slide the teaching that God is our father and not just a parent. (And yes, the fatherhood of God is an offense to hermeneutically-liberated women.) Why not just leave it well-enough alone, accepting the fact the original Greek words huios and pater are translated properly “son” and “father”? 

Sometimes, Jesus counseled, “Tighten up,” as when he pushed back against the Pharisees who were gainsaying his disciples for stripping off a few handfuls of grain on the Sabbath. Elsewhere, he said in effect, “Tighten up,” siding with the Shammai party’s strict take on marriage, as over against the laid-back approach of the Hillel party. In those terms, J. D. and Gregory favor the lighten up approach; I submit, regarding the use of the word ‘pastor’ in Southern Baptist life, that they would do well to tighten up.

An Amazon Search

Type in “pastor’s wife,” and you’ll find a host of book titles, with expressions such as “sacred privilege,” “strengthened by grace,” and “how to thrive.” (I stopped counting at two dozen.) Then run a search under “pastor’s husband,” and you’ll find only one. (Yes, a murky novel entitled The Pastor’s Husband.) Perhaps my research will stir up a publishing frenzy among ecclesiastical progressives wanting to build up and play off enthusiasm for fresh developments—The Bishop’s Spouse; The Joys of Being a Youth Pastor’s Husband; A Teaching Elder and Her Man

Well, maybe not a frenzy; perhaps a trickle. For, I submit, they’re going cross grain with “both books of revelation”—Scripture and Nature. (And you don’t have to take a redneck Southern Baptist’s word for it. The Anglican C. S. Lewis raised a red flag on the matter in his 1948 essay, “Priestesses in the Church?” Yes, a different context and angle, but another voice with a “hold your horses” warning.)

Notes on Triggering

What follows is not a fresh argument for declining to use the word ‘pastor’ for women. Rather, I’ll come at the matter from a different angle, one that might resonate with the experience and sensitivities of the NAAF members who have taken an expansive approach to this word and to those who take up their grievance. It’s an analogy, one that might help them sympathize with the concerns of us “traditionalists” who choose to be sticklers over terminology.

Since the sensitivities of black pastors have been pushed to the fore, let me rehearse some of the rebuke I’ve gotten over racial vocabulary shifts during my life. We’ve all been walking on eggshells. As the child of a Michigander who attended school with blacks (and yes, “blacks,” as in Black Lives Matter), I was convictionally fastidious in using the word ‘Negro’ in the Jim Crow South of my youth. (My father, an East Tennessee native was also happily scrupulous on this.) Here and there, I would hear “the N word” around school or town, but “Nigrah” was the far-more-common, “genteel” alternative. Occasionally, I could tell that someone thought I was trying to be fancy with my “Yankee talk” of Negroes.

But not so long ago, I heard that a former colleague of mine was called on the carpet for using ‘Negro’ in a classroom setting. As I recall, a black girl in a class was “triggered” by its use. She reported the offense, and the administrator was pleased to rebuke him and put a letter of reprimand in his file. Never mind that Martin Luther King used the word freely in a 1950 address, “The Negro and the American Dream,” delivered to the 2,700 souls who’d gathered for an NAACP event in North Carolina. So, that which was kosher mid-century is now poison circa 2020. 

And yes, NAACP. Therein lies another landmine. What was acceptable, even preferable, at the group’s founding in 1909, namely “colored people,” would now spark condemnation. Nevertheless, the expression, “People of Color,” is now approved, whether standing alone or aggregated under BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). To boot, failure to capitalize ‘Black’ can get you in trouble. In 2020, the Associated Press Stylebook declared the upper-case B was now the norm, but not an upper-case W for “white.”

By 1963, MLK had switched to ‘black’ and ‘colored,’ as in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Then, in 1966, the Black Panthers emerged, and, in 1968, James Brown released “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Accordingly, we took our cues, and ‘Negro’ fell into disuse. Fine, we’ll go with that. But then I got in trouble. In 1990, I was at Ridgecrest, the SBC conference center in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Several dozen of us state convention staffers with regular linkage to Home Mission Board (now NAMB) programs were gathered for updates and discussion. Things were sailing along nicely until an associate in the evangelism department, a black man, excoriated us for using the word ‘black.’ He informed us icily that the proper label was ‘African American’ (or maybe ‘Afro-American’). Yikes! We thought we were up to speed, but he’d called us out as ignorant or callous slackers. Yes, I’ve since visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC, but, again, I suppose you can still get away with saying “Black lives matter.” 

Choctaws and Evangelicals

Speaking of buildings on the Capitol Mall, I was surprised see construction of the National Museum of the American Indian up the way. Didn’t they know it should be a museum that focused on the Native American? When I visited it, I asked a docent near the entrance why they used ‘Indian,’ since it reflected the explorers’ conviction that they’d landed in India. She explained that ‘Native American’ had its own problems since ‘America’ honored the Italian merchant, explorer, and navigator Amerigo Vespucci. So, they preferred to be called according to their tribal alignment. But they had to go with something general, since putting all those groups on the sign—Cherokee, Creek, Lumbee, Cheyenne, Sioux, Choctaw, Miami, Objibwa (and not the offensive, Anglicized “Chippewa”), etc.—would be unwieldy. 

Of course, ethnic groups are not the only ones with a labeling bone to pick. Back in the 1990s, I was a one of a group of eight Southern Baptists who met annually with eight representing the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, a major purpose being to get a fix on our genuine differences so that we didn’t cheap-shoot each other. Along the way, we complained that they applied the term ‘Fundamentalist’ to all Evangelicals. Of course, we subscribed to such fundamentals as biblical inerrancy and the Resurrection of Jesus. But, as the AP Stylebook put it, the term had turned pejorative, implying contentious anti-intellectualism; it was so objectionable that one should avoid applying it to groups who didn’t choose it for themselves. And I think we made some headway on this with the Catholics.

Because so many sensitivities are in play, with the players determined to either alleviate or inflict pain, language is a perpetual battleground: ‘housewife’ has given way to ‘homemaker,’; ‘bum’ (or ‘hobo’) to ‘indigent’ to ‘homeless’; ‘garbage man’ to ‘sanitary engineer.’ On the other hand, one used to be able to express disdain for homosexuality without being labeled phobic. ‘Color-blind’ used to be a good thing before it became anathema to those not sufficiently “anti-racist.” Some of this amounts to nothing more than a game of “Gotcha”; some of it is admirably charitable, but much of it is ideological overreach. 

The sands of meaning do shift, subject to the winds of culture. In the KJV of my youth, ‘knew’ was sexual and ‘intercourse’ wasn’t. Somewhere along the way, ‘presently’ shifted in meaning from “soon” to “now.” Sportscasters can indicate that a player is really good by saying he’s a “bad” man. And the courts wrestle with what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment”; it used to mean “burned at the stake” or some other horrific form of execution, where today, some are appalled at “lethal injection” by anesthetic overdose.

So, what shall we make of the word ‘pastor’ and consequently the role of pastor. Well, again, it’s a biblical word, one with specific rules for application. The culture may say that such biblical expressions as ‘demon possession’ and ‘sin’ are outmoded, as are ‘man,’ ‘woman,’ and ‘marriage.’ But we hold to these concepts because they are firmly rooted in the Bible, as is the term ‘pastor,’ whose meaning is not only nailed down by clear-spoken New Testament passages, but is also consonant with and germane to the whole counsel of the Bible.  

But if this isn’t enough, would you maybe indulge our semantic protocols, counting it as an act of noun courtesy?