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Impassioned appeals by ousted churches spotlight Southern Baptists' stance against women pastors


NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Longtime pastors of two churches — one massive and one modest-sized — made their final appeals to Southern Baptists on Tuesday, asking to have their churches returned to the denomination's fold after being ousted for having women pastors.

Rick Warren, the retired founding pastor of Saddleback Church and author of the best-selling phenomenon, “The Purpose Driven Life," called for the reinstatement of the California megachurch in a brief but impassioned address here at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Rev. Linda Barnes Popham of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, made a similar appeal to rejoin the convention.

“We should remove churches for all kinds of sexual sin, racial sin, financial sin and leadership sin – sins that harm the testimony of our convention,” Warren told the convention. But churches with “women on pastoral staff have not sinned,” he said. “If doctrinal disagreements between Baptists are considered sin, we all get kicked out.”

The more than 12,700 messengers, or church representatives, voted by ballot on whether to uphold the decision by the denomination's Executive Committee in February to deem the two churches not in friendly cooperation.

Results aren't expected until Wednesday morning. But if crowd reaction is any indication, Warren may be accurate in his earlier prediction that he'll fall short, as a far louder applause went to the person he sparred with — Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who gave rebuttals to both churches' appeals.

“Thirty years ago, this issue threatened to tear this denomination apart,” Mohler said, citing controversies of the late 20th century that culminated in the denomination's conservative shift. He said the denomination has had a consensus in the past two decades on the issue that is now being threatened.

Saddleback had been the denomination's second-largest church and until recently was deemed a model of church growth in a denomination experiencing membership decline overall.

Popham, pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville for the past three decades, described her congregation as a “very conservative, evangelical mission-minded … church like many of you.”

She said she's a lifelong Southern Baptist who disagrees with fellow Baptists on some issues, “but I don’t want to kick you out. … We don’t all interpret every Scripture the same way. 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.”

Mohler said churches have the right to choose their practices, but so does the convention.

“We do not seek to invade the autonomy of any local church,” he said. “At the same time, this convention has the sole responsibility to establish its own membership.”

Mohler had a leading role in revisions to the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000. The faith statement says the office of pastor is limited to qualified men.

Warren said he spoke with several members who served on the commission that revised the faith statement and disputed Mohler’s claim that this was referring to more than just the senior pastor of a church.

Mohler disputed that and said the issue is one of “biblical authority.”

He said the action is based on Saddleback "establishing a woman as a campus pastor and having women with the title of pastor to teach in the teaching role on Sunday morning.”

That’s not to discredit “every good gospel thing that is represented” by Warren and Saddleback, but the convention has to uphold its beliefs, Mohler said.

Saddleback began ordaining women in 2021 and in May appointed Katie Edwards as campus pastor of its flagship Lake Forest location. Warren retired as lead pastor last year and was succeeded by Andy Wood, whose wife, Stacie Wood, serves as a teaching pastor. The church is led by an all-male elder board.

Warren recently issued an apology to Christian women for only belatedly embracing their ordination as pastors.

The convention also heard an appeal from Freedom Church of Vero Beach, Florida, which the Executive Committee ousted for what it said was a failure to address a situation of sexual misconduct. The church said it had addressed the issue, but a committee representative disputed that.

The Executive Committee ousted five churches in February over the issue of women pastors, but only Fern Creek and Saddleback opted to appeal.

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 men, but this is believed to be the first time the convention has expelled any churches over it.

Also Tuesday, the convention overwhelmingly voted to re-elect Texas pastor Bart Barber to a second term as president over Georgia pastor Mike Stone. It was a contest between Barber, a staunch conservative with a folksy manner conveyed in video talks from his Texas cattle farm, where livestock are named for famous Southern Baptists, and Stone, part of a movement seeking to move the denomination even further to the right.

Barber received 68% of the votes to Stone’s 31%.

Houston pastor Jarrett Stephens, nominating Barber, said he has spoken with “compassion, composure and conviction” in insisting on reforms over sexual abuse.

Barber has described himself as staunchly conservative and among other things used his presidential talk earlier Tuesday to briefly address LGBTQ issues: “Boys can’t become girls. Marriage is between a man and a woman.”

But it’s the third year in a row that a candidate with ties to the Conservative Baptist Network, which has contended the denomination is in liberal drift, has come up short. Stone was also defeated as a candidate in 2021. Barber defeated Florida pastor Tom Ascol in 2022.


Deepa Bharath reported from Los Angeles.


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