NEW ORLEANS — The letter in October came as a shock to Linda Barnes Popham, who had been pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, for 30 years, the first woman to lead her congregation. She had served in ministry even longer, since she started as a pianist at age 16.
But now, she read in the letter, officials of the Southern Baptist Convention had received a complaint about her church being led by a woman. The denomination was investigating, it said.
She replied at length, listing her qualifications and her church’s interpretation of the Bible that affirmed her eligibility to lead. Church deacons, including men, rallied to her defense.
Convention officials decided to expel her church anyway, along with four other congregations that have female pastors, including one of the most prominent in the country, Saddleback Church, based in Southern California.
“I never believed this would happen,” Barnes Popham said of the move to expel her church, as she prepared to appeal the expulsion Tuesday afternoon before thousands of delegates at the annual SBC convention in New Orleans. “Why would you want to silence the voices of the faithful churches? Why?”
However the delegates vote on her appeal, the larger message is clear: There is a movement in the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination that is often a bellwether for evangelical America, to purge women from its leadership.
The right wing of the Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in America, is now — like conservatives more broadly — cracking down on what it sees as dangerous liberal drift. Most people in the denomination have long believed that the office of head pastor should be reserved for men. But an ultraconservative faction with a loud online presence is going further, pressing for ideological purity and arguing that female pastors are a precursor to acceptance of homosexuality and sexual immorality.
Some ultraconservatives are now pushing for investigations and expulsions of the churches whose practices differ, such as Fern Creek.
The fight over the place of women in the church, long contentious, has been escalating as American evangelicalism increasingly fuses with Republican politics and a vocal ultraconservative minority pushes for power.
The crackdown comes at a moment when the country is broadly reexamining women’s rights, a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. For the Southern Baptists, it also comes as victims’ advocates continue to press the denomination to take action following devastating reports of sexual abuse of women and children, and are met with resistance from some men in the organization.
As the convention got underway Monday in New Orleans, Mike Law, a Virginia pastor, pushed for his proposed amendment to the SBC constitution that would further restrict the role of women in leadership, by stating that a church could be Southern Baptist only if it “does not affirm, appoint or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”
More than 2,000 male pastors and professors signed a letter in support of the proposed amendment before the convention began. Church officials decided Monday to advance the proposal to a full floor vote this week, even as they cautioned that they opposed it, arguing that it was unnecessary given the denomination’s existing theological positions. The amendment would need to be passed twice, in consecutive years, to go into effect.
Some Southern Baptists view female leaders as “as an early harbinger of a raft of other changes,” said Joshua Abbotoy, whose church left the denomination last year because of concerns about a liberal drift. Abbotoy is managing director of New Founding, a conservative organization affiliated with American Reformer, a journal that published an analysis over the weekend estimating that there were more than 1,800 female pastors serving in SBC churches.
As Abbotoy sees it, letting go of the belief in some distinct roles for men and women calls into question whether “the human person is differentiated between two genders” at all, and leads to broader questions about sexuality and gender.
Rick Warren, Saddleback’s founding pastor and author of one of the bestselling books of all time, has long been a hero within a tradition that prioritizes church growth and electric preaching. But his church was ousted from the denomination in February because he had named a husband and wife as his successors.
Warren, who also appealed his church’s removal Tuesday, has in recent weeks mounted a defense not just of his congregation but also of his understanding of the Baptist identity and evangelicalism more broadly.
In an open letter addressed “to all Southern Baptists,” Warren emphasized the denomination’s history of rejecting the kind of formal creeds that bind many other traditions. “This is a vote to affirm the God-given freedom of every Baptist to interpret Scripture as a Baptist — by saying no to those who deny that freedom,” he wrote.
Historically, Southern Baptists have given priority to the autonomy of individual churches, and have seen their denomination as an association rather than a hierarchical organization.
On Tuesday night, Warren made that appeal from the floor of the convention to more than 12,000 delegates who would vote on whether to readmit his church.
“If doctrinal disagreements between Baptists are considered sin, we all get kicked out!” he said, noting that the SBC’s theological statement is 4,032 words. “Saddleback disagrees with one word,” he said. “That’s 99.99999999 percent in agreement! Isn’t that close enough?”
The crowd shouted back at him, “No!”(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Meredith Stone, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, worries that appeals to church autonomy are not enough to prevent a fundamentalist takeover of the denomination like the one that happened during the Reagan administration.
“This was the argument we were making 40 years ago that was unsuccessful,” she said.
Stone sees a pattern in the denomination’s periodic retrenchments over women’s issues. Her organization was formed in 1983 to support women in church leadership; the next year, the convention passed a resolution stating that women may not serve in “pastoral functions.”
“It’s always something where women will gain and then right after, there’s a reaction from the convention,” she said.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)Barnes Popham also appealed Tuesday to the idea of autonomy within the Southern Baptist tradition, arguing that she did not agree with pastors who closed their churches during the coronavirus pandemic, “but I don’t want to kick you out.”
She described her church’s ministry and her lifelong spiritual call. “There are millions of people groping in darkness, needing to know the good news of Jesus Christ,” she went on. “And you know what Jesus —”
Officials cut her microphone when she went past her three-minute time limit. No one heard the words of Jesus she planned to quote next: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You have neglected the more important matters.”
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an influential voice in the denomination, gave a rebuttal. The issue, he said, came down to “doctrine and order.” The crowd erupted in applause.
Mohler was on the committee that revised the Southern Baptist statement of faith in 2000, adding an explicit statement that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
“Doctrinal clarity was needed,” Mohler said in an interview last week.
“It’s high on the list of contemporary concerns precisely because it’s one of the issues that has been a sign of creeping liberalism,” he said, which he points to as a reason other Protestant denominations have seen their numbers drop precipitously.
Membership in Southern Baptist Convention churches has been declining for more than a decade, though with more than 13 million members, it remains the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
At a breakfast Tuesday morning, Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor who later that day lost his bid for president of the SBC to the sitting president, drummed up support for Law’s proposed amendment. “Is it redundant? Yes,” he said. “But it is apparently necessary.”
On the tables at breakfast were snazzy voter guides, an indication that conservatives were treating the convention like a political campaign, urging delegates to vote against Saddleback and Fern Creek.
The votes would be tallied by hand Tuesday night and the results released Wednesday morning, SBC officials said.(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)It is not clear exactly how many women are pastors in the denomination; estimates range from dozens to nearly 2,000 when a range of pastoral positions other than senior pastor are included.
At issue is the very definition of “pastor,” and whether a ban on female pastors should extend to titles such as “children’s pastor” or “women’s pastor,” which have long been seen as appropriate roles for women because they are not teaching or in authority over adult men.
While the denomination as a whole is overwhelmingly white, Black women are heavily represented as pastors among churches that have female head pastors.
In addition to Saddleback and Barnes Popham’s church, three other churches were also expelled in February for having female pastors but chose to not appeal the decision. Two of those are led by Black women; Minnie R. McGee Washington, pastor of St. Timothy’s Christian Baptist Church in Baltimore, said in a statement that she counted it “an honor and a privilege to have been ‘ousted’ from SBC.”
The expelled churches will continue to operate, but they will no longer be able to identify themselves as affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or participate in its programs.
None of it made any sense to Barnes Popham. Her congregation was dynamic and active when many other SBC churches were stagnant. The Fern Creek Baptists baptize people. They share their space with a Congolese church and Filipino congregation. They are starting an elementary school, and added showers for the homeless in their gymnasium, she said.
On Monday night, after Barnes Popham registered for the convention as a guest to be able to address the denomination, a man approached her and her supporters with a handout urging delegates to vote to eject churches with female pastors.
“I’m one of those women pastors,” she told him. “We could be great partners in the gospel.”
He disagreed. She was going one way, and he was going another, he said.
She took his hand, addressed him by name and asked, “What are you going to do when we enter the gates of heaven together?”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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