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Southern Baptists say no to women pastors, uphold expulsion of Saddleback megachurch

Congregants arrive at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. The megachurch founded by Rick Warren was one of two churches affected by a vote Wednesday at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting.
Allison Dinner
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AP
Congregants arrive at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. The megachurch founded by Rick Warren was one of two churches affected by a vote Wednesday at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting.

Updated June 14, 2023 at 4:16 PM ET

The Southern Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to uphold earlier decisions to expel two churches because they have women pastors.

The decision came during the group's annual meeting in New Orleans. The SBC heard appeals by California megachurch Saddleback and a smaller church, Fern Creek Baptist in Louisville, Ky.

Saddleback Church ordained a woman as a campus pastor, and the Kentucky congregation has had a woman pastor, Rev. Linda Popham, for more than three decades.

The SBC's 2000 statement of faith, called Baptist Faith and Message, asserts that only qualified men can serve as pastors, and the nearly 13,000 voters, who are called "messengers," voted to uphold the churches' removals.

During the floor debate in New Orleans, Popham argued that women should be allowed to serve as pastors and that she had been faithfully serving in churches since she was a teenager.

She said that her congregation adhered to an earlier version of the Baptist Faith and Message, adopted in 1963. That version of the theological document does not exclude women from holding the office of pastor.

"We have a faith and practice," Popham said of her congregation, "that identifies more closely with the Baptist Faith and Message than many other Southern Baptist churches, and I am personally more conservative than the most Southern Baptist pastors I know."

Popham also said it's not a problem for congregations to disagree with one another on the specifics of who's eligible for ministry and that she would never suggest any congregation had to have a woman as its pastor.

Defending the churches' expulsions was prominent SBC theologian and seminary president Albert Mohler.

He argued that the Bible restricts the role of pastor to men only.

"The issue of women serving in the pastorate," he said, "is an issue of fundamental Biblical authority that does violate both the doctrine and the order of the Southern Baptist Convention."

As Mohler spoke, voters interrupted him multiple times with applause in support of his position.

The women at Fern Creek and Saddleback will continue to serve as pastors there, but their congregations are no longer part of the Southern Baptist Convention.

After upholding the expulsions, messengers in New Orleans voted by a two-thirds majority to amend their constitution to state that the Southern Baptist Convention "Affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder."

The SBC's executive committee had urged messengers to not amend the constitution because it said the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message was already clear on the restriction against women holding the title pastor. That document includes the sentence "The office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

In order to go into effect, the amendment will need to be voted on a second time and pass by a two-thirds majority at the Southern Baptist meeting next year.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.