Southern Baptists approve ouster of Saddleback, Fern Creek Baptist

Vote upholds prohibition of women in senior pastoral roles in the denomination

Delegates to the Southern Baptist annual meeting reaffirmed the ouster of two churches for having women pastors, including one of the largest in the denomination.

The decision sent a strong message that the denomination was not going to budge from its ban on women in the pulpit.

It’s not really about Saddleback Church and Fern Creek Baptist Church, said Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “What it means long term is that any woman who wants to preach or feels called to the pulpit, they will not be part of the Southern Baptist Convention,” she said.

It’s an issue the denomination has wrestled with for decades.

The messengers voted that Saddleback Church in Southern California and Fern Creek in Louisville, Ky., were “not in friendly cooperation” with the Southern Baptist Convention.

The question on returning Saddleback to the SBC came back with 88%, or 9,437 of voting delegates in favor of upholding the ouster, and 11% or 1,212 against. Regarding Fern Creek Baptist Church, the vote was 92% voting to uphold the removal, versus 7% voting no.

In an event that was highly anticipated, Rick Warren, the founding pastor of Saddleback Church, one of the largest megachurches in the denomination and nation; and Fern Creek Baptist Church, which is led by the Rev. Linda Barnes Popham, on Tuesday made impassioned speeches about why they should stay.

“No one is asking any Southern Baptist to change their theology,” said Warren, speaking to nearly 13,000 messengers gathered in New Orleans for the 2023 annual meeting.

Author of the international best-seller “The Purpose Driven Life,” Warren said he was not asking messengers to agree with Saddleback. “I am asking you to act like Southern Baptists who have historically ‘agreed to disagree’ on dozens of doctrines in order to share a common mission”

A third church, Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Fla., also appealed their removal over concerns regarding a sexual abuse allegation, although the church said the matter had been investigated and resolved. The minister in question later resigned. The ouster of Freedom Church was also upheld.

Churches addressing a national convention in such a public way to appeal their removal is unusual.

Warren pastored Saddleback Church for more than four decades before before transitioning leadership to his successor, Pastor Andy Wood. He is currently coordinator of Finishing the Task, a global coalition of faith leaders and organizations that evangelize around the world.

Warren said he expected to lose the vote. He said one goal was to push a conversation that had stagnated.

“I wanted to speak up for millions of Southern Baptist women who I believe their spiritual gifts, and their leadership gifts and talents are being wasted. And we cannot complete the Great Commission if 50% of our population sits on the shelf,” Warren said.

He said the fight began two years ago and scared a lot of pastors. He said he was probably the right guy to take this on.

“They can’t hurt me, I’ve been criticized all my life. It doesn’t bother me.”

“I understand Rick Warren wanting to step up for other pastors,” said the University of Pennsylvania’s Butler. “But in the end, the Southern Baptist Convention is bleeding members. He has so many books and such a huge following He really does not need the Southern Baptists nor does Saddleback.”

A rebuttal to Saddleback and Fern Creek’s appeal was delivered Tuesday by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, who was representing the Executive Committee. He called the issue a matter of biblical commitment. Mohler said, “The words, ‘the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture’ was inserted because 30 years ago this issue threatened to tear this denomination apart.”

Ashleigh Thompson, from Florida, reached at the conference, said she feels strongly that “women are called to support men. There are so many things that women can do to minister to other women without being the lead pastor,”

The divisive issue of women in the pulpit has been around for decades. Those churches and members disagreeing with that stance simply moved to other more moderate denominations or become independent.

One is the Decatur-based Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which was launched in 1991 and has about 1,400 churches, most of them in the southeastern United States. Many people at the denominational body’s early beginnings came out of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Executive Coordinator Paul Baxley.

Members joined based on a whole series of issues, he said, “but certainly many of those who formed our fellowship more than 30 years ago held the belief that God calls women to all places of leadership in the church. That God is just as likely to call a woman to a pastoral preaching ministry as to call a man.”

A 2021 study conducted by Baptist Women in Ministry showed there were 105 women serving as senior pastors or co-pastors in churches affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Membership in the SBC has been in decline for years. The denomination has roughly 13 million members, down from a peak of more than 16 million in 2006, according to Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. That fact was noted by Warren during a press conference after the vote tallies were announced.

He said the vote represents the voice of those at the convention, not every Southern Baptist. He said the face of the Southern Baptist does not typically look like what you see at the annual meeting. The people who attend are typically older.

“The next generation of Southern Baptists, they’re not here,” he said. “I guarantee that change will happen at some point.”