Religion

Southern Baptists are poised to ban churches with women pastors. Some are urging them to reconsider

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(AP) — From its towering white steeple and red-brick facade to its Sunday services filled with rousing gospel hymns and evangelistic sermons, First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia, bears many of the classic hallmarks of a Southern Baptist church.

On a recent Sunday, its pastor for women and children, Kim Eskridge, urged members to invite friends and neighbors to an upcoming vacation Bible school — a perennial Baptist activity — to help “reach families in the community with the gospel.”

But because that pastor is a woman, First Baptist’s days in the Southern Baptist Convention may be numbered.

At the SBC’s annual meeting June 11-12 in Indianapolis, representatives will vote on whether to amend the denomination’s constitution to essentially ban churches with any women pastors — and not just in the top job. That measure received overwhelming approval in a preliminary vote last year.

Leaders of First Baptist – which has given millions to Southern Baptist causes and has been involved with the convention since its 19th century founding — are bracing for a possible expulsion.

“We are grieved at the direction the SBC has taken,” the church said in a statement.

And it’s not alone.

By some estimates, the proposed ban could affect hundreds of congregations and have a disproportionate impact on predominantly Black churches.

The vote is partly the culmination of events set in motion two years ago.

That’s when a Virginia pastor contacted SBC officials to contend that First Baptist and four nearby churches were “out of step” with denominational doctrine that says only men can be pastors. The SBC Credentials Committee launched a formal inquiry in April.

Southern Baptists disagree on which ministry jobs this doctrine refers to. Some say it’s just the senior pastor, others that a pastor is anyone who preaches and exercises spiritual authority.

And in a Baptist tradition that prizes local church autonomy, critics say the convention shouldn’t enshrine a constitutional rule based on one interpretation of its non-binding doctrinal statement.

By some estimates, women are working in pastoral roles in hundreds of SBC-linked churches, a fraction of the nearly 47,000 across the denomination.

But critics say the amendment would amount to a further narrowing in numbers and mindset for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which has moved steadily rightward in recent decades.

They also wonder if the SBC has better things to do.

It has struggled to respond to sexual abuse cases in its churches. A former professor at a Southern Baptist seminary in Texas was indicted in May on a charge of falsifying a record about alleged sexual abuse by a student in order to obstruct a federal investigation into sexual misconduct in the convention.

SBC membership has dipped below 13 million, nearly a half-century low. Baptismal rates are in long-term decline.

The amendment, if passed, wouldn’t prompt an immediate purge. But it could keep the denomination’s leaders busy for years, investigating and ousting churches.

Many predominantly Black churches have men as lead pastors but assign pastor titles to women in other areas, such as worship and children’s ministries.

“To disfellowship like-minded churches … based on a local-church governance decision dishonors the spirit of cooperation and the guiding tenets of our denomination,” wrote Pastor Gregory Perkins, president of the SBC’s National African American Fellowship, to denominational officials.

The controversy complicates the already-choppy efforts by the mostly white denomination to diversify and overcome its legacy of slavery and segregation.

Amendment proponents say the convention needs to reinforce its doctrinal statement, the Baptist Faith and Message, which says the office of pastor is “limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

“If we won’t stand on this issue and be unapologetically biblical, then we won’t stand on anything,” said amendment proponent Mike Law, pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Virginia.

Since Baptist churches are independent, the convention can’t tell them what to do or whom to appoint as a pastor.

But the convention can decide which churches are in and which are out. And even without a formal amendment, its Executive Committee has begun telling churches with women pastors that they’re out. That included one of its largest, Saddleback Church of California.

When Saddleback and a small Kentucky church appealed to the annual meeting in 2023, delegates overwhelmingly refused to take them back.

The amendment would give such enforcement actions more teeth.

Some churches with women pastors quit on their own in the past year. They range from Elevation Church, a North Carolina megachurch, to First Baptist of Richmond, Virginia, which had close SBC ties from the convention’s founding.

Law contended the issue has been a “canary in the coalmine” for liberal denominations, several of which began ordaining women and later LGBTQ+ people.

“Southern Baptists are facing a decisive moment,” he said in a video on a pro-amendment website. “Here’s the trajectory of doing nothing: Soon Southern Baptist churches will start openly supporting homosexual clergy, same-sex marriage and eventually transgenderism.”

Others point out that Pentecostal and other denominations have had women pastors for generations and remain theologically conservative.

Some SBC churches with women pastors are heavily involved with the convention, while others have minimal connections and identify more closely with historically Black or other progressive denominations.

Also, some SBC churches interpret the 2000 faith statement as only applying to senior pastors. As long as a the church leader is male, women can serve other pastoral roles, they say.

Such churches may leave if SBC leaders interfere with congregations following “their conscience, biblical convictions, and values by recognizing women can receive a pastoral gift from God in partnership with male leadership,” said Dwight McKissic, a pastor from Arlington, Texas, on the social media platform X.

Other churches say women can be in any role, including senior pastor, and churches can agree to disagree if they embrace most of the SBC faith statement.

That category includes First Baptist of Alexandria. Though its current senior pastor is male, it recognizes “God’s calling to ordain any qualified individual, male or female, for pastoral ministry,” the church said in a statement.

First Baptist leaders declined interview requests, but it has posted extensively about the issue on its website.

It said while it plans to send representatives to the SBC annual meeting, it was warned to expect a motion to deny them voting privileges.

“I do believe we need to be heard and represented,” Senior Pastor Robert Stephens told members in a video-recorded meeting.

The SBC’s top administrative body opposes the amendment. Investigating churches’ compliance would consume an unsustainable amount of time and energy over something that shouldn’t be a litmus test for fellowship, wrote Jeff Iorg, president of the SBC Executive Committee, in a Baptist Press commentary.

Baptist Women in Ministry, which began within the SBC in the 1980s but now works in multiple Baptist denominations, has taken note. The Rev. Meredith Stone, its executive director, said some women pastors within the SBC have reached out for support.

The group plans to release a documentary, “Midwives of a Movement,” about 20th century trailblazers for women in Baptist ministry, on the eve of the SBC meeting.

“As they are saying women have less value to God than men in the church, we want to make sure that women know they do have equal value and that there are no limits to how they follow Christ in the work of the church,” Stone said.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.



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