US Southern Baptists reject two churches over women pastors

The denomination’s annual convention affirms stance maintaining the role of pastor is exclusively for men.

Pastor Linda Popham
Pastor Linda Barnes Popham of Fern Creek Baptist Church has served as a pastor since 1993 and spoken in favour of women holding such roles [Jessie Wardarski/AP Photo]

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in the United States has voted to confirm the expulsion of two churches over the presence of female pastors, in what critics see as part of a conservative shift within the denomination.

At the group’s annual meeting in New Orleans on Wednesday, an overwhelming majority of delegates upheld the expulsion of Saddleback Church in southern California and Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

The vote was 9,437 to 1,212 to reject Saddleback’s appeal, and 9,700 to 806 against Fern Creek.

“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,” said Saddleback founder Rick Warren following the vote.

Evangelical Christians have become a highly mobilised and stridently right-wing force in US politics over the last several decades. However, points of disagreement over issues such as equality and diversity exist within various evangelical groups.

Wednesday’s vote, however, underscores the Southern Baptist Convention’s unwillingness to soften its stance on women as pastors, a role that it maintains is exclusively reserved for men.

Saddleback, the second-largest Southern Baptist congregation in the country, had named a husband-wife team to its leadership after Warren announced his retirement in 2021. Three other women were also ordained as ministers that year.

The smaller church Fern Creek, meanwhile, had been led by female pastor Linda Barnes Popham for nearly 30 years.

The Southern Baptist Convention had largely turned a blind eye to female pastors until recently, when its executive committee expelled five churches in February for having female leaders.

The committee explained that those five institutions were out of “friendly cooperation” with the convention and its rules.

“While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture,” the convention said on its website.

Fern Creek and Saddleback decided to appeal, leading to Wednesday’s vote.

The convention is made up of about 47,000 churches and 13.7 million members, with each church handling its own internal policies and practices. An estimated 12,700 delegates were in attendance at the New Orleans gathering.

Warren, one of the most famous Evangelical figures in the country, posted on Twitter over the weekend that he regretted not doing more to stand up for Christian women before the vote.

“I held them [women] back from using the spiritual gifts and leadership skills that the Holy Spirit had sovereignly placed in them. That breaks my heart now,  and I am truly repentant and sorry for my sin. I wish I could do it all over,” his post reads. “Christian women, will you please forgive me?”

Addressing the crowd in New Orleans on Tuesday, Fern Creek pastor Barnes Popham said, “We believe the Bible allows women to serve in ways in which all of you do not agree, but we should still be able to partner together.”

But in the wake of the vote, the pastors expressed regret at the outcome.

“Messengers voted for conformity and uniformity rather than unity,” Warren said at a news conference on Wednesday. “We made this effort knowing we were not going to win.”

Wednesday’s proceedings are not the first time that the Southern Baptist Convention has experienced controversy. In 2022, a report detailing efforts to cover up complaints of sexual abuse by clergy and staff sent shockwaves through the group.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies