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Southern Baptists refuse to take back megachurch because it has women pastors

The statement of faith for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination asserts that only qualified men can serve as pastors

Delegates vote at the Southern Baptist Convention at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans
Delegates vote at the Southern Baptist Convention at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, on June 13, 2023.Scott Clause (AP)

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The Southern Baptist Convention has refused to welcome Saddleback Church back into its fold, rejecting an appeal by the California megachurch over its February ouster for having women pastors. Southern Baptist church representatives at their annual meeting also rejected a similar appeal by a smaller church, Fern Creek Baptist of Louisville, Kentucky, which is led by a woman pastor.

The results of the Tuesday votes were announced Wednesday morning on the concluding day of the two-day annual meeting here of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, whose statement of faith asserts that only qualified men can serve as pastors.

The convention hall packed with about 12,000 Southern Baptists was quiet after the announcement, appearing to have listened to the earlier urging by SBC President Bart Barber for them to show restraint.

“I know sometimes there are churches where people wind up in biblical divorce,” he said. “But we don’t throw divorce parties at church. And whatever these results are, I’m asking you, behave like Christians.”

Saddleback had been the denomination’s second-largest congregation and until recently was widely touted as a success story amid larger Southern Baptist membership declines.

With the 9,437-1,212 vote, delegates rejected an appeal by Rick Warren, the retired founding pastor of Saddleback and author of the best-selling phenomenon, “The Purpose Driven Life.” Warren had urged Baptists to agree to disagree “in order to share a common mission.”

“Messengers voted for conformity and uniformity rather than unity. The only way you will have unity is to love diversity. We made this effort knowing we were not going to win,” Warren said at a news conference after the results were announced.

Church representatives also voted 9,700-806 to deny an appeal by a smaller congregation, Fern Creek Baptist Church of Louisville, Kentucky, which has had a woman pastor for three decades but came under heightened scrutiny this year.

Warren and the Rev. Linda Barnes Popham, pastor of Fern Creek, made their final appeals to Southern Baptists here on Tuesday during the denomination’s annual meeting.

Warren has been a lifelong Southern Baptist, and the church he founded being removed from the denomination was something he might have never expected even though he has pushed the boundaries for several years now, said Scott Thumma, a sociology of religion professor and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

“It’s pretty clear (from his speech Tuesday) that Warren did not think the SBC was going to reinstate Saddleback,” he said. “But, he’s had a platform to say what being Baptist means, what the Scripture says about women in ministry, that Southern Baptists are under a big tent and what is means to exclude any congregation. This is all probably more symbolic.”

Following the vote results, Warren issued a critique of the direction of the SBC that contributed to Saddleback’s ejection.

“There are people who want to take the SBC back to the 1950s when white men ruled supreme and when the woman’s place was in the home. There are others who want to take it back 500 years to the time of the Reformation,” he said. “I say we need to take the church back to the first century. The church at its birth was the church at its best.”

In February, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee voted to oust the two congregations, along with three others that chose not to appeal, for having women pastors.

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. The SBC’s official statement of faith says the office of pastor is reserved for qualified men, but this is believed to be the first time the convention has expelled any churches over it.

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