Update: On Wednesday delegates at the denomination’s convention voted overwhelmingly to finalize the ousters of one of its largest churches, Saddleback Church in Southern California, and Fern Creek, a small church in Kentucky, despite impassioned appeals from their leaders.
The Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination that is often a bellwether for evangelical America, is making a move to purge women from its leadership.
The right wing of the Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in America, is now — like conservatives more broadly — cracking down on what it sees as a dangerous liberal drift. Most people in the denomination have long believed that the office of head pastor should be reserved for men. But an ultraconservative faction with a loud online presence is going further, pressing for what they see as ideological purity, and arguing that female pastors are a precursor to acceptance of homosexuality and sexual immorality.
Some ultraconservatives are now pushing for investigations and expulsions of the churches whose practices differ, like Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky which was expelled last Sunday by the Southern Baptist Convention after a complaint was made about its congregation being led by a woman. Pastor Linda Barnes Popham had served as pastor for over 30 years.
The fight over the place of women in the church, long contentious, has been escalating as the lines between religion and politics become increasingly blurred in America. Evangelicalism has been fusing with Republican politics and a vocal ultraconservative minority pushes for power.
The crackdown is part of a more pervasive movement in the U.S. when the country is broadly re-examining women’s rights, a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. For the Southern Baptists, it also comes as victims’ advocates continue to press the denomination to take action after devastating reports of sexual abuse of women and children, and are met with resistance from some men in the organization.
The Southern Baptist Convention is roiled by numerous crises.
Sex Abuse Crisis: Southern Baptist leaders said the church was under federal investigation for sexual abuse. In May 2022, a review found that top church officials suppressed reports of sexual abuse for two decades.
Deepening Divisions: Last year, in a tense and unusually politicized contest, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination chose a rural Texas pastor over an ultraconservative candidate as its next president.
Black, Evangelical and Torn: With America’s white conservatives increasingly drawn to Christian nationalism, many Black Southern Baptists feel caught between their faith and America’s turbulent history.
A High-Profile Expulsion: In February, the convention expelled one of its largest and most prominent churches, Saddleback Church in Southern California, over the church’s installment of a woman as pastor.
As the convention got underway on Monday in New Orleans, Mike Law, a Virginia pastor, pushed for his proposed amendment to the S.B.C. constitution that would further restrict the role of women in leadership, by stating that a church could be Southern Baptist only if it “does not affirm, appoint or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”
The letter was signed by more than 2,000 male pastors before the convention even began. Church officials decided on Monday to advance the proposal to a full floor vote this week, even as they cautioned that they opposed it, arguing that it was unnecessary given the denomination’s existing theological positions. The amendment would need to be passed twice, in consecutive years, to go into effect.
Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an influential voice in the denomination, was on the committee that revised the Southern Baptist statement of faith in 2000, adding an explicit statement that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
“Doctrinal clarity was needed,” Dr. Mohler said in an interview last week.
“It’s high on the list of contemporary concerns precisely because it’s one of the issues that has been a sign of creeping liberalism,” he said, which he points to as a reason other Protestant denominations have seen their numbers drop precipitously.
It is not clear exactly how many women are pastors in the denomination; estimates range from dozens to nearly 2,000 when a range of pastoral positions other than senior pastor are included.
At issue is the very definition of “pastor,” and whether a ban on female pastors should extend to titles like “children’s pastor” or “women’s pastor,” which have long been seen as appropriate roles for women because they are not teaching or in authority over adult men.