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Southern Baptist Convention votes to uphold removal of Saddleback Church over women pastors after appeal by Rick Warren

June 14, 2023

The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention voted to affirm a decision made earlier this year to remove Saddleback Church, a major southern California congregation founded by the pastor and author Rick Warren, due to its having women pastors.

Representatives at the conference in New Orleans overwhelmingly supported the decision to expel the church, according to the vote count reported Wednesday morning, despite pleas a day earlier by Warren, the author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” The representatives, known as messengers, also voted to affirm the ousters of two other churches, including Fern Creek in Louisville, Kentucky, which has had a female pastor since 1993.

The vote to uphold those removals came just a few hours before a two-thirds majority of the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Protestant denomination in the United States – separately voted to approve an amendment to its constitution that would more broadly prohibit churches from having women hold any pastoral title.

The amendment must pass by a two-thirds vote two years in a row, with Wednesday’s vote marking its first.

The Baptist Press, which describes itself as the SBC’s official news service, reported Saddleback was found “not to be in friendly cooperation” with the SBC’s “statement of faith,” which says in part that “the office of pastor is limited to men.”

Warren was among those who asked the SBC to reverse the February decision on Tuesday. He appealed to the representatives to “act like Southern Baptists who have historically ‘agreed to disagree’ on dozens of doctrines in order to share a common mission,” per the Times, which reported Warren appointed a husband and wife to succeed him after his retirement in 2021. Three more women were ordained as pastors at Saddleback that year, according to Baptist Press.

Voters were unconvinced: Per the Baptist Press, 9,437 votes were cast in favor of upholding the decision, compared to 1,212 against. Fern Creek Baptist’s appeal was similarly rejected, with 9,700 voting in favor of upholding the decision and 806 voting against.

CNN has reached out to the SBC, Saddleback Church and Fern Creek Baptist for comment.

The ousting of a third church, Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Florida, was also upheld. That church was expelled for a separate reason unrelated to the question of female pastors.

Churches not found in friendly cooperation effectively lose their affiliation with the wider convention, though they could still operate congregations.

The fight at one of the nation’s most important evangelical bellwethers is playing out against the backdrop of broader political and cultural battles over the rights of women and LGBTQ people.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, an energized, conservative faction within the GOP has pushed for strict abortion restrictions and limits on gender-affirming care for transgender people in statehouses across the country. That push has also triggered a backlash among the broader electorate, with Democrats notching victories in competitive 2022 midterm races and 2023 elections where those cultural clashes have taken center stage.

Andy Wood, who currently pastors Saddleback Church, pushed back after the SBC’s decision to remove the church in a video in March, noting that all the church’s elders were men but that they could “empower women and mobilize women to use their spiritual gifts in the local church.”

“This is a historic moment,” Wood said. “The church at large, the global church is looking for good Bible believing examples of empowering women for ministry. So Saddleback, we want to lead the way in that conversation.”

“If we can be a part of mobilizing and empowering a whole generation of women, we would love nothing more than to lean into that conversation and empower women for ministry.”

The proposed amendment taken up Wednesday would add a qualification to Article III of the SBC Constitution, saying churches will be considered in friendly cooperation only if they do “not affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”

Mike Law, the pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia, has identified himself as the person who introduced the amendment. In a video, he explained the goal was to “encourage Southern Baptists to keep in step with the spirit and the scriptures on the subject of the Pastoral office.

“The Baptist faith and message announces our belief that the office of Pastor is limited to men as qualified by scripture, and this amendment would clarify that our cooperation as churches is in accord with this particular belief.”

(CNN)

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