Southern Baptists expected to reaffirm ban of women in pastoral roles

Controversial Law amendment would ban churches that appoint or hire women with pastoral titles
Southern Baptist Convention’s headquarters

Southern Baptist Convention’s headquarters

Southern Baptists attending the denomination’s annual meeting in Indianapolis next week will consider a variety of resolutions, such as affirming support for Israel, reproductive technologies, religious liberty and integrity in leadership.

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination will also elect a new president from a field of six candidates.

The issue drawing the most attention, though, is the continuing debate over the role of women in ministry in the denomination’s network of more than 40,000 affiliated churches. Women are not allowed to hold the title of pastor in Southern Baptist-affiliated churches.

According to the statement of faith, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

At the convention, delegates sent by member churches will consider whether to double down on the practice by adding it to the denomination’s constitution.

The constitutional amendment would ban churches that appoint or hire women with pastoral titles of any kind, including children’s pastor, youth pastor, associate pastor or co-pastor, and those who take on duties of a pastor.

Supporters say the amendment will clarify the denomination’s stance on churches with women in those roles. Others say it’s not needed because it’s already in the statement of faith and there is a process to deal with churches that are found in violation.

Some warn it could result in a mass exodus, particularly among African-American congregations where women have historically held greater ministerial roles, even if not senior pastor.

The proposed amendment is known as the “Law Amendment,” named after Virginia Pastor Michael Law, who is behind the proposal.

The Rev. Jéan Ward is senior pastor of ImPower Church in Atlanta and executive director of the African American Fellowship, a coalition of 325 African American churches in Georgia. He has strong opinions about what he would like to see discussed at the annual convention.

“Atlanta is a more encompassing city, spiritually,” he said. “A lot of churches here are not as conservative as a lot of the rural SBC churches. That’s why some of them have pulled out of the convention and others are more or less loosely aligned with the convention.”

He said some issues that keep his church and others aligned with the SBC is missionary work, and a belief in the Baptist faith and message. “However, there are some issues pertaining to critical race theory, (which) is one of our biggest fights,” Ward said.

He acknowledges the good work by women in ministry. While he said he cannot scripturally support women as senior pastors, he believes women should be allowed to hold leadership roles and hold associate pastor and elder titles in the church.

“I’m not God and I can’t say who God calls,” said Ward, whose wife is a minister.I know some great women pastors and see the great work that they do. Black churches use the titles of elder and pastor for leadership positions in the church (but) that doesn’t mean they are the senior pastor of the church.”

Many fear the denomination is shifting further to the right and may lose some members as a result.

“The SBC has unleashed a dynamic in which each annual meeting includes considerable focus on how much further to go in terms of restricting diversity of conviction and practice and expressing hard-line conservative moral and political positions,” David P. Gushee, distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and author of “Defending Democracy from Its Christian Enemies,” wrote in response to emailed questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Law Amendment was approved during last year’s SBC annual meeting in New Orleans and needs a second vote of approval to amend the constitution, Gushee said. “It is likely to pass again, but it is opposed by those who think it goes too far — not in the basic concept, but in authorizing the SBC to purge churches that should not be purged.”

The Nashville-based denomination, which was established in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia, has purged churches that ran afoul of that doctrine. Last year, for instance, at the 2023 annual meeting, messengers overwhelmingly upheld the ouster of California’s Saddleback Church and Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky over the ordination of women in leading pastoral roles.

Maina Mwaura, a metro Atlanta-based journalist who has covered the denomination for years, believes the SBC is “putting themselves in a box that is completely where the rest of the country is not. What do you do with that when you have so pigeonholed yourself in a country where women do lead? It’s the most bizarre thing ever,” he said. “I don’t know how they are going to reach Generation Z acting like this, but I don’t think they care.”

The SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, is grappling with diminishing numbers and an aging membership. According to the Annual Church Profile compiled by Lifeway Christian Resources, the total membership of Southern Baptist-affiliated congregations is 12.9 million, down 241,000 from 2022. The three previous years saw declines of 2.9% or more. This past year, membership fell 1.8%. States home to the most Southern Baptists include Texas (2.46 million), Georgia (1.14 million), North Carolina (989,872), Tennessee (849,306) and Florida (768,437).

Despite the overall membership decline, the profile survey found that baptisms, worship service attendance and small group participation all grew.

So far, there are 728 messengers, also known as delegates, who have preregistered from 235 churches in Georgia, making the state the fifth highest in terms of sending messengers to the annual meeting.

For years, the denomination has had to deal with a major sex abuse scandal that rocked Southern Baptists and victim’s advocates. The denomination launched a landmark third-party investigation of how abuse allegations were handled and victims treated.

Reforms instituted after that investigation are still hot topics. The report named hundreds of church staffers, volunteers and leaders who had credible allegations against them for abuse.

“On the sex abuse issue, the SBC pastors clearly are divided on their level of support for efforts to implement the recommendations of the Guidepost Solutions report on sex abuse in the Convention,” said Gushee.

Among the heavy hitters attending the meeting is former Vice President Mike Pence. He will discuss topics like his journey into politics and how pastors can partner with elected officials.