Southern Baptists vote to oust women-led congregations

Convention rules pastors must be men

Linda Barnes Popham, the pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church, holds up a Bible as she appeals the Southern Baptist Convention's decision to expel her church from the denomination during the church's annual meeting in New Orleans, Tuesday, June 13, 2023. Southern Baptists finalized the expulsion of two churches with female pastors on Wednesday, after a dramatic clash at their annual convention over moves by an ultraconservative wing on multiple fronts to reverse what it sees as a liberal drift. (Christiana Botic/The New York Times)

NEW ORLEANS -- Southern Baptists took the first step Wednesday toward amending their constitution so that churches with female pastors would no longer qualify to be part of the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

Baptists also reaffirmed the February expulsion of two congregations that have female pastors.

Saddleback Church, the southern California megachurch founded by Pastor Rick Warren in 1980, was deemed "not in friendly cooperation" with the 13.2 million-member Southern Baptist Convention.

So was Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.

Though the vote was cast Tuesday, the results weren't made public until Wednesday morning.

Convention president Bart Barber, a Lake City native, urged his fellow Baptists to "behave like Christians" no matter the outcome, telling them: "We don't throw divorce parties at our church."

The denomination's executive committee had already determined that the congregations had strayed from the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, which states that "the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

That decision was affirmed by Southern Baptist delegates, known as messengers, with them voting 9,437 to 1,212 -- or 88.46% to 11.36% -- for Saddleback's exclusion.

The Orange County congregation, one of the largest in the country, remains a member in good standing with the California Southern Baptist Convention.

The vote on Fern Creek, a church located less than 10 miles from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was even more lopsided: 9,700 to 806 -- or 91.85% to 7.63%.

Pastor Linda Barnes Popham, one of the school's alumna, had led the congregation since 1993 without denominational censure.

The denomination's credentials committee had deemed her "in friendly cooperation" just a couple of years ago, she said.

"What changed in SBC politics in the last few years? What is going on? Who 'pulls the strings now?'" she asked Tuesday.

At a news conference Wednesday, Barber was asked why Southern Baptists had waited 30 years to take action if Barnes Popham's role was contrary to the word of God.

"I actually think that's a beautiful thing because my desire for us, as Southern Baptists, when we reason with one another, is to give room and time for persuasion," he said. "We should seek persuasion, restoration. ... We should always be working toward unity. Working toward unity takes time."

"The fact is there has never been a moment in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention that the Southern Baptist Convention was supportive of the idea that women could occupy the office of pastor, elder and overseer. It's just that, I think we've had hope that people who had come to a different conclusion from us would rethink that and would have an opportunity to change," he said.

Wednesday, messengers took a first step to settle the issue moving forward, voting by a supermajority of two-thirds or more to add a bar on female pastors to the church's constitution.

If approved again at next year's annual meeting, a church would only be deemed to be "in friendly cooperation with the Convention" if it "affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture."

Dianne Hamm, a messenger from First Baptist Church in Mena, voted for the amendment, saying the job is for males only.

"The men are more disciplined. They have the wisdom of the way God wants the church to be ruled," she said.

Aaron Anglin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Vandervoort in Polk County, also supported the amendment, saying it aligns with Scripture.

"God's word says that the office of a pastor is for the husband of one wife," he said. "The Bible's clear on it, and we can just simply stand behind the Bible as the authority and as God's word."

Warren, who stepped down as Saddleback's pastor last year after four decades of service, had urged messengers during Tuesday's debate to allow room for dissenting views on ordination for women.

Wednesday, Warren portrayed the ousters as wrongheaded and short-sighted, arguing that the Holy Spirit has empowered women as well as men to proclaim the gospel.

"It's not really smart, when you're losing a half million [members] a year, to intentionally kick out people who want to fellowship with you, but as I've said, they've chosen conformity and uniformity over unity," he said.

After peaking at 16.3 million in 2006, convention membership has fallen 16 straight years.

The denomination reported membership last year of 13,223,122, a decline of 457,371 members -- or 3.34% -- compared to 2021.

Despite the name and its regional origins, the Southern Baptist Convention includes congregations in all 50 states -- 47,198 nationwide.

Of those, nearly 2,000 "have a woman on staff either called a pastor or ordained as a pastor," Warren said.

That includes those serving as children's pastors or youth pastors without leading a congregation.

"There's going to be an inquisition now, and it's probably going to go on for 10 years if they have to ferret out 2,000 [churches]," he said. "We cannot complete the Great Commission" -- Jesus's command to spread the gospel to the entire world -- "if 50% of our people sit on the shelf and are not allowed to be who God made them to be."

In many instances, Barber said Wednesday, churches "could change that title and not change anything about what that person is doing and be perfectly in compliance with everything that the messengers have voted on here."

Warren, whose mother, Dorothy, grew up in Northwest Arkansas, is the son of Southern Baptist church planters and one of the denomination's best-selling authors.

His book, "The Purpose Driven Life," has sold more than 50 million copies.

Despite this week's vote, he said he still considers himself a Southern Baptist, though not part of the national convention.

"I fought for this because if you love something, you fight for it," he said.

Barber said women "actually have broad participation in governance and decision-making in Southern Baptist churches and in the Southern Baptist Convention."

The convention, he noted, also passed a resolution this week reaffirming "the gifts, ministries and value of women in the kingdom of God" and praising them for "courageously, sacrificially and selflessly" serving the cause of Christ and his church.

Southern Baptists, he said, may debate at annual meetings, but they're united in their desire to spread the good news.

During the annual meeting, the convention commissioned 76 new missionaries to serve around the globe, he noted.

"We stay together ... because we're committed to the mission of letting everyone in the world know about and hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and have the opportunity to make a decision to follow him," Barber said.