Slippery When Wet

A Presbyterian Plea to the SBC

Shocking polling data is making the rounds today. Per Ryan Burge, a political scientist, “Nearly three quarters of evangelicals agree that a properly trained and certified woman can preach on Sunday morning. Just 12% disagree with that statement and 15% have no opinion.”

As Burge notes, this is all pertinent to the goings on at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) this week as Mike Law’s amendment to clearly and definitively outlaw women pastors (functional and formal) in the SBC comes to a floor vote. (To get up to speed, see Megan Basham’s coverage of Law’s amendment for American Reformer.)

The question for the Convention is whether it will hold the line as the 12% or join the three-fourths mob in its descent into doctrinal incoherence. Of course, a lot of people in the SBC would not state the claim as strongly as I just did.  

From what I gather online, some SBC attendees, like Dan Darling, insist that a denominational determination as to whether women can hold and perform traditionally pastoral duties is unnecessary or superfluous. It is, allegedly, unnecessary because the trend is minimal—a claim since disproven by Kevin McClure here at American Reformer—and the issue itself is secondary.

In other words, egalitarians and non-egalitarians can happily and effectively fiscally partner together, indeed, have ecclesial fellowship, for the sake of mission work via the SBC Cooperative Program. The question does not get at fundamentals, say they, and to suggest that disagreement over non-fundamentals can serve as cause for separation is sinfully divisive—just get the Great Commission and the Gospel right, they say—and further, that any suggestion that mistaken opinion as to non-fundamentals will lead to compromise on fundamentals constitutes a so-called slippery slope fallacy.

Of course, the slippery slope is not a fallacy if the slope is, indeed, slippery. In this case, the slope is greased up with gallons of crude oil. The only misstep in logic would be to ignore the well-documented historical data on the trajectory of denominations that embrace egalitarianism, as McClure also highlighted.

The position of the compromiser camp in the SBC is dangerously mistaken and does not grant them the title of peacemaker. Indeed, there will be no peace, no future of Biblical fidelity, if compromise is adopted by the SBC on female ordination.

If my Baptist brethren will indulge me, a Presbyterian has something to contribute on this matter, to bolster the resolve of those in the SBC opposing egalitarian drift, and those still unconvinced of the urgency of the question at hand.

In the appendix to The due right of presbyteries, or, A peaceable plea for the government of the Church of Scotland (1644), Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) offered extended thoughts on the question of toleration addressed earlier in the same work. After confronting some preliminary issues contra certain Jesuit interlocutors, Rutherford turned to another denial (in a series of elenctic negations):

Nor can wee beleeve, that no other sinnes, in opinion, concerning God, his nature, attributes, worship and Church-discipline, (except onely such as are against those points, which are called fundamentall, and the received principles of Christianitie) should bee censurable by the Church, or punishable by the Magistrate.

As Rutherford goes on to explain, exegeting Matthew 18, that because the Church is to censure all obstinate sins against the brethren, against the Church, non-fundamentals too can be regulated as much as fundamentals. We will, for now, table the magistrate question and focus only on church discipline, as Rutherford does for much of the appendix.

Rutherford’s definition of a “fundamental” is simply those doctrines strictly necessary for salvation (the first principles of the oracles of God). On this narrow point, Rutherford is happy to acknowledge that many Christians holding to mistaken opinions on things unnecessary to salvation are not damned for believing them, especially if believed in ignorance. There have been many “holy Papists” that fit in that category, he says. Obstinately refusing ecclesial correction is another matter, of course.

In any case, none of this negates the Church’s duty to censor false doctrine, even on non-fundamentals. Both categories of doctrine, fundamental and non-fundamental, are subject to God’s law, and “Apostolick doctrine” pertains to both as well. Fundamental v. non-fundamental is, therefore, not the right dichotomy for church unity and purity. The relationship between the two is not easily bifurcated in theory or practice.

More directly, for Rutherford, the slope from non-fundamentals to fundamentals is usually pretty slippery:

Whatever tendeth to the subversion of fundamentalls, tendeth to the subversion of faith, and so doth much truly scandalize and bring on damnation, that Christ hath ordained to be removed out of the Church by Church-censures: but erroneous opinions, in points not fundamentall, and in superstructures, being professed and instilled in the eares and simple mindes of others, tend to the subversion of fundamentalls, as having connexion, by just consequent, with fundamentalls, and doe scandalize and bring on doubtings about the foundation, and so bring damnation. Ergo, erroneous opinions, in points not fundamentall, must be removed out of the Church by Church-censures… because a little Leaven leaveneth the whole lump… The assumption is proved by dayly experience, for corruption in Discipline and Government in the Church of Rome, brought on corruption in Doctrine, and the same did we find in the Churches of Scotland and England.

A few years ago, I wrote about the little-known preacher, Thomas Walley (1616-1678), who concurred heartily with Rutherford. In a nutshell, if you do not fight small battles on seemingly small errors, you will be fatally enveloped by big errors.

The history of Rutherford’s beloved Scottish church foreshadows where the Southern Baptists are headed if they traverse further down the egalitarian slope—the only question is how fast their skis will carry them. In the late nineteenth century, the Church of Scotland ordained its first deaconess. In 1969, Catherin McConnachie was ordained as a minister by the Presbytery of Aberdeen; three years later the first female parish minister was ordained. By 2014, over 25% of Scottish ministers were women. In this regard, the SBC may already be outpacing the Scots. And in 2011, the Church of Scotland voted to allow gay and lesbian ministers. Today, the same denomination is promoting gender transitions.

My Baptist brethren, behold a possible future. The slope is, in fact, slippery, and Satan is quite skilled at keeping it wet. Speaking of wet, it is puzzling to this erstwhile Baptist-turned-Presbyterian that even egalitarian-leaning Southern Baptists at least ostensibly maintain that the mode and medium of Baptism is a sufficient disagreement for separation from Presbyterians and other baby sprinklers. But Baptists on both sides of the debate must surely admit that the issue of the pulpit’s occupancy, his authority, role, and gender, is more perspicuous than the baptism question. It makes observers wonder what the real impetus for nascent egalitarianism in the SBC is, and whether the exegesis of the main actors therein can be trusted for, well, anything really.  

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