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Debate Intensifies as Southern Baptists Consider Banning Churches with Women Pastors

June 11, 2024

 

 

 

The First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia, with its iconic white steeple and red-brick facade, stands as a quintessential Southern Baptist church. Yet, its future within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is uncertain due to the role of women pastors within its ranks.

On a recent Sunday, Kim Eskridge, the church’s pastor for women and children, encouraged members to invite their friends and neighbors to the upcoming vacation Bible school, a traditional Baptist event. However, Eskridge’s position as a woman pastor puts First Baptist at odds with a proposed SBC constitutional amendment banning churches with women in pastoral roles.

This amendment will be voted on at the SBC’s annual meeting on June 11-12 in Indianapolis. The measure, which received overwhelming preliminary approval last year, would effectively ban any church with women pastors from the SBC, not just those with women in the senior pastor role.

Leaders at First Baptist, which has been a part of the SBC since the 19th century and has contributed millions to its causes, are preparing for the possibility of expulsion. “We are grieved at the direction the SBC has taken,” the church stated.

 

 

 

The proposed amendment could impact hundreds of congregations, particularly affecting predominantly Black churches. The controversy began two years ago when a Virginia pastor reported to SBC officials that First Baptist and four other churches were “out of step” with the denomination’s doctrine, which asserts that only men can be pastors. This led to a formal inquiry by the SBC Credentials Committee in April.

There is disagreement among Southern Baptists about which ministry roles the doctrine refers to. Some believe it applies only to the senior pastor, while others think it encompasses anyone who preaches and exercises spiritual authority. Critics argue that the SBC, which values local church autonomy, should not impose a constitutional rule based on one interpretation of its non-binding doctrinal statement.

With nearly 47,000 churches in the denomination, women are serving in pastoral roles in only a fraction of them. Critics of the amendment see it as a further narrowing of the SBC, both in terms of numbers and mindset, as the denomination has shifted rightward in recent decades.

 

 

 

The SBC has been grappling with other significant issues, including sexual abuse cases within its churches and declining membership and baptismal rates. The proposed amendment would add another layer of complexity, potentially keeping SBC leaders occupied with investigating and expelling churches for years.

Many predominantly Black churches have male lead pastors but also have women pastors in other ministries, such as worship and children’s ministries. Pastor Gregory Perkins, president of the SBC’s National African American Fellowship, expressed concern that the amendment would undermine the spirit of cooperation within the denomination.

The controversy adds to the SBC’s struggle to diversify and move past its history of slavery and segregation. Proponents of the amendment argue that the SBC needs to reinforce its doctrinal statement, which limits the role of pastor to men as qualified by Scripture. Mike Law, pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Virginia, has been a vocal supporter, warning that failing to uphold this issue could lead to broader theological liberalism.

However, other denominations with women pastors, such as Pentecostal churches, have maintained their theological conservatism. Some SBC churches interpret the 2000 faith statement as only applying to senior pastors, allowing women to serve in other pastoral roles. Dwight McKissic, a pastor from Arlington, Texas, defended this view, saying that churches should follow their conscience and biblical convictions.

First Baptist of Alexandria, while having a male senior pastor, believes in ordaining any qualified individual, male or female, for pastoral ministry. The church plans to send representatives to the SBC annual meeting but has been warned that they might be denied voting privileges.

The SBC Executive Committee opposes the amendment, arguing that enforcing it would be impractical and counterproductive. Jeff Iorg, president of the SBC Executive Committee, stated that investigating churches’ compliance would be an unsustainable burden.

 

 

 

Baptist Women in Ministry, a group that began within the SBC but now spans multiple Baptist denominations, has voiced its support for women pastors. The group’s executive director, the Rev. Meredith Stone, emphasized the importance of affirming women’s equal value in church ministry.

As the SBC annual meeting approaches, the future of First Baptist Church of Alexandria and other churches with women pastors hangs in the balance, reflecting a broader struggle over the direction of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

 

Credit: AP

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