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Southern Baptist churches expelled for having women pastors fight to stay in a last-ditch effort

Southern Baptist will gather this week in New Orleans to decide this matter and others facing the nation’s largest Protestant denomination

Rev. Linda Barnes
The Rev. Linda Barnes Popham sings with the choir at Fern Creek Baptist Church during a service, Sunday, May 21, 2023, in Louisville, Ky.Jessie Wardarski (AP)

The robed choir performed a rousing missionary chorus, the worshippers sang from the Baptist Hymnal, and the pastor preached on the need to listen to God before inviting people to come forward and profess faith in Jesus.

If there was ever a blueprint for a traditional Southern Baptist worship service, Fern Creek Baptist Church followed it to a tee on a recent Sunday.

Except for one key detail.

The pastor is a woman.

And because of that, Fern Creek is no longer a Southern Baptist church.

In February, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee voted to oust Fern Creek for having a woman pastor — the same issue it cited for expelling four other churches, including the massive California-based Saddleback Church. All Baptist churches are independent, so the convention can’t tell them what to do, but it can decide which churches are “not in friendly cooperation,” the official verbiage for an expulsion.

Fern Creek and Saddleback are appealing the decision to the SBC’s annual meeting being held Tuesday and Wednesday in New Orleans.

The Rev. Linda Barnes Popham has been pastor of the modest-sized Fern Creek in Louisville for the past 30 years, and involved in church work since her teen years in her native Alabama.

“When I was 8 years old, I knew that God was calling me in some sense,” she recalled. She’s not doubting her calling now, and neither are Fern Creek churchgoers.

“I’ve never seen anybody with a more dedicated heart for the Lord than Linda,” said longtime attendee Rick Pryor.

The SBC’s official statement of faith says the office of pastor is reserved for men, but this is believed to be the first time the convention has expelled any churches over it. Both of the congregations say Baptists should be able to agree to disagree — while making a common cause for evangelism.

“I want to worship under that same umbrella and do missions together like Southern Baptists have done all of these years,” Popham said.

Plus, Popham and supportive members of Fern Creek said, it’s not just about her. “We want women to rise up and be able to answer God’s call, just like men do,” Popham said.

Holly Blansette, a recent college graduate who grew up in the church and was baptized by Popham, said the pastor is “not just an outstanding woman role model but a role model in general.”

Some members questioned whether there are other agendas at play — whether the denomination was seeking to divert attention from its struggles to address a sex abuse scandal, or if their removal was part of a wider political effort to push the conservative denomination even further to the right.

“I think that they’re very much fueling this conservative political ideology in religion that is going to be harmful in the long run, especially when you do lose out on great churches like Saddleback or Fern Creek Baptist,” Blansette said.

The controversy is not the only one anticipated at the SBC’s annual meeting, which will also feature a contested presidential election and deliberations on how and whether to continue reforms following a sexual-abuse scandal that has drawn a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.

They’re also gathering in the wake of a recent failed vote by the Executive Committee to elect its own leader.

And the denomination is aging and experiencing long-term declines in membership and baptisms.

The issue of women in ministry has long been debated among Southern Baptists, dating back to the late 20th century controversies that led to a sharp rightward shift in its leadership. That movement culminated in a revised statement of belief in 2000, which included a declaration that while “both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Much of the debate in the 1980s and 1990s had more abstract theological claims, but often the dividing lines centered on issues like who could stand in the pulpit.

“Something like, ‘Do you believe the Bible?’ is pretty hard to show one way or the other,” said Nancy Ammerman, author of “Baptist Battles,” a history of the denomination’s late 20th century controversies. “They needed a concrete issue, something they could point to.” Both sides backed their positions with the Bible.

Saddleback’s retired founding pastor, Rick Warren, is urging SBC delegates to reinstate the megachurch, one of the largest in the nation. He said the Baptist Faith and Message represents a consensus but should not be used to enforce uniformity.

“All we’re asking is that Southern Baptists ACT like Southern Baptists … who agree to disagree on many things in order to AGREE to fulfill our mission together!” Warren said in a written statement.

Saddleback’s current pastor, Andy Wood, said in a video statement the congregation believes women can be pastors — if male elders are ultimately in charge. His wife, Stacie, is a teaching pastor at Saddleback. The congregation recently appointed a woman as campus pastor of its flagship location in Lake Forest, California.

But Fern Creek’s position is different — that women are empowered to serve at all levels.

“If they’re called by the Holy Spirit — and you can tell when someone is — who am I to doubt that?” said Fern Creek Deacon Phil Shewmaker.

Many Southern Baptist churches that had women pastors left years ago.

But Fern Creek remained, and Popham’s status was no secret. A graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, she became the church’s youth and music minister in 1983, interim pastor in 1990 and pastor in 1993.

“Yes, it was a controversial issue, for some because of the whole female pastor concept, but just as many who thought I was too conservative,” Popham recalled.

Popham has been active in the local association of Southern Baptist churches, and guest speakers at Fern Creek have included some who went on to SBC leadership roles.

Fern Creek has had many traditional Southern Baptist hallmarks, including specific women and youth programs. Members value the opportunity to give to Southern Baptist missions funds, some bearing the names of stalwart women missionaries in past generations.

“We are in friendlier cooperation than most of the churches I know,” Popham said.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the primary author of the 2000 revisions to the Baptist Faith and Message, said the issue is not something members can agree to disagree on.

“Theological commonality at the most basic level is a part of friendly cooperation,” said Mohler.

“You’ve got some especially younger pastors who are startled to find out there are churches that have some kind of SBC connection that are clearly far outside of SBC convictions,” he said.

At 67, Popham shows no signs of slowing down. The church is launching a kindergarten, and recently expanded its services to the homeless. A church-affiliated coffee shop is in the early planning stages.

And Fern Creek is also not done ordaining women. Recently it ordained a longtime member, the Rev. Renee Bryant, director of a multidenominational social-service agency.

“We are feeding the hungry,” Bryant said. “We’re clothing those that need clothes. We’re working with the elderly, we’re working with the sick, all those community ministries that Jesus told us to do.”

When the deacons asked her to consider being ordained, she said, “it was reaffirming the ministry that I’ve been doing all along.”

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