Southern Baptist Convention messengers on Tuesday agreed to disfellowship Saddleback Church and another congregation for hiring female pastors, upholding a previous decision by the denomination's Executive Committee that cited a conflict with the SBC's statement of faith.
The SBC's Baptist Faith and Message states that "while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."
Pastor and author Rick Warren founded Saddleback, which is located in California. He retired last year.
In February, the Executive Committee voted to disfellowship Saddleback Church and Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. Both congregations appealed the decisions to the messengers, who upheld the decisions. Each side was given three minutes to speak and make their case.
By a vote of 88 percent to 11 percent, messengers upheld the decision by the Executive Committee to deem Saddleback Church not "in friendly cooperation" with the SBC. Fern Creek Baptist Church was deemed not in friendly cooperation by a vote of 91.85 percent to 7.63 percent.
Both congregations have female pastors on staff.
"No one is asking any Southern Baptist to change their theology," Warren told messengers. "I'm not asking you to agree with my church. I am asking you to act like a Southern Baptist, who have historically agreed to disagree on dozens of doctrines in order to share a common mission. … [The SBC] Constitution says that churches must closely identify — not completely identify — with our constant confession. The Baptist Faith and Message is 4,032 words. Saddleback disagrees with one word – that's 99.99999999999 in agreement. Isn't that close enough?"
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, responded on behalf of the Executive Committee. Mohler served on the committee in 2000 that added the amendment to the Baptist Faith and Message about pastors.
"In the year 2000, the words' the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture' was inserted, because 30 years ago, this issue threatened to tear this denomination apart," Mohler told messengers. "The definition of friendly cooperation came down to the fact that that was an issue that would endanger the cooperative cohesion and faithfulness of the church, of the Southern Baptist Convention. … This is not a convention responsibility to offer a comprehensive verdict on the ministry of Rick Warren or Saddleback Community Church. We can thank God for every good gospel thing that is represented by that church and its ministry. It is a question about the Southern Baptist Convention and what it means for a church to be in friendly cooperation in doctrine and in order with this convention."
Linda Barnes Popham, the pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church, urged messengers to allow her congregation to remain in the denomination.
"I've served Fern Creek Baptist Church for over 40 years – the last 33 preaching the Word of God. So why now?" she asked. "We're not here to seek and to convince any of you to allow your church to have women pastors. That's not the issue here. We disagree with some of you in your faith practice. … We at Fern Creek Baptist Church love you very much. We want to partner together to share the Good News to the end of the earth."
Popham added: "I am personally more conservative than most Southern Baptist pastors I know."
"Satan loves dividing us. He's tearing this convention apart," Popham said.
Mohler also spoke on behalf of the Executive Committee on the Fern Creek issue.
"It is not the task or the responsibility of the Southern Baptist Convention to render a comprehensive verdict on any congregation," Mohler told messengers. "We do not seek to invade the autonomy of any local church. At the same time, this convention has the sole responsibility to establish its own membership and to define what it means to be a cooperative Southern Baptist Church – a church in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention.
"... The issue of a woman serving in the pastorate is an issue of fundamental biblical authority that does violate both the doctrine and the order of the Southern Baptist Convention," Mohler added. "That is the only question that is addressed by the messengers today, but it's an inescapable question. We dare not render a comprehensive verdict on a congregation."
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.