NEW ORLEANS (AP) — 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 here 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 the two-day annual meeting 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-to-1,212 vote, delegates — known as messengers — 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.
“I knew they would uphold the expulsion. However, I guess I am a bit naive. I did not think it would be that drastic a result. I thought there were more people left in the Southern Baptist Convention who support the autonomy of the local church, if not women in ministry,” said the Rev. Linda Barnes Popham, Fern Creek’s pastor.
She said some messengers came up to her to say while they disagree with her, they “appreciate our passion for the Gospel.”
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 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.
In February, the SBC’s Executive Committee voted to oust the two congregations, along with three others that chose not to appeal, for having women pastors.
Warren and Barnes Popham made their final appeals to Southern Baptists on Tuesday.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, spoke on behalf of the Executive Committee in calling for the ouster of Saddleback and Fern Creek, saying it’s a matter of biblical authority.
”The issues were clear, and the messengers were clearly united. … There was no rancor,“ Mohler said Wednesday after the results were announced. “This was a real defining moment, and making certain that those doctrines that must be common among us be publicly acknowledged.”
For years, questions about women’s ministry roles have caused turmoil in the SBC. On Wednesday, the messengers pressed to make those roles more clear by voting to amend the convention’s constitution to specify that Southern Baptists churches must “affirm, appoint or employ only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.” To go into effect, it needs to be approved at the next annual meeting.
Sarah Clatworthy, member of Lifepoint Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas, advocated for the amendment, urging the SBC “to shut the door to feminism and liberalism.”
“In a culture that is unclear about the role of men and women, we have to be crystal clear,” she said. “We should leave no room for our daughters or granddaughters to have confusion on where the SBC stands.”
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 years now, said Scott Thumma, a sociology of religion professor and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
“It’s pretty clear 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. … This is all probably more symbolic.”
Following the results, Warren issued a critique of the direction of the SBC.
“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.”
As for Fern Creek, Barnes Popham said she doesn’t know whether the church will join a new denomination or remain independent, but “I also believe God has great things for Fern Creek Baptist.”
The church is now facing a possible expulsion from the Kentucky Baptist Convention, the SBC’s state affiliate, based on a recommendation from its credentials committee.
Messengers also addressed sexual abuse issues on Wednesday, including upholding the expulsion of Freedom Baptist Church in Florida over its alleged mishandling of a sexual misconduct allegation.
They also voted to give a task force in charge of implementing abuse reforms more time to work. The task force launched last year.
Marshall Blalock, pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who leads the task force, announced the creation of a new website, which contains the messenger-mandated database of pastors and church workers credibly accused of sex abuse as well as resources for congregations. He said this tracking is necessary because sexual abuse is underreported.
Messengers approved a resolution condemning gender-affirming care and all forms of gender transition interventions, referring to them as “a futile quest to change one’s sex and as a direct assault on God’s created order.”
The Rev. Jim Conrad, pastor of Towne View Baptist Church in Georgia, which was expelled from the SBC three years ago because of its LGBTQ-affirming stance, said the denomination’s anti-transgender stance doesn’t surprise him.
He said he hopes the SBC “can find their way back to a time when their mission was to cooperate on missions, service and evangelism, and not requiring uniformity of thought.”
Bharath reported from Los Angeles.
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