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Southern Baptists reject constitutional ban on women in pastoral roles

Shelia Poole, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

A day after the Southern Baptist Convention expelled a Virginia church for affirming women in pastoral roles, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination voted down a resolution to add an amendment banning the roles in its constitution.

The amendment failed to meet the two-thirds threshold necessary for adoption, a vote that surprised many at the annual meeting.

Although the amendment failed, the denomination still opposes women in pastoral roles and a church that goes against that part of the statement of faith can still be found to be “not in friendly cooperation” and expelled.

The issue of women in pastoral roles was among several major resolutions that the nation’s largest Protestant denomination considered during its annual meeting this week at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis. Resolutions also included support for religious liberty and opposition to in-vitro fertilization,

The denomination also elected Clint Pressley, senior pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, as its new president.

“We know that others voted against the amendment for other reasons, but we hope the message of your support for female pastors will be amplified,“ said Meredith Stone, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry.

“But even though the amendment did not pass, we are also grieved that this vote has ever even taken place. Further, the 61% of messengers who voted for it (66% was required to pass) demonstrate that women in ministry are still devalued,” Stone said.

The amendment would have reaffirmed a ban that prohibits women from serving as pastors in its roughly 40,000 cooperating churches.

The denomination’s Baptist Faith and Message states that “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

“It is hard to see how anyone outside this increasingly restrictive and parochial religious subculture could find this move anything other than misogynist, backwards and reactionary,” said David P. Gushee, distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and author of “Defending Democracy from Its Christian Enemies,.

SBC churches are autonomous and can hire their own staff and own their own property. A church can be found to no longer be in “friendly cooperation” for any number of reasons, including how it handled allegations of sexual abuse.

If it is ruled that a church is not in friendly cooperation, they cannot seat messengers at the annual meeting but they can still come as guests. They also cannot participate in education assistance programs for seminary students and could lose access to health care and insurance programs.

On Tuesday, messengers — the name for convention delegagtes — voted to expel First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia, for affirming women as pastors even as senior pastor. The church’s senior pastor is a man and its pastor of children and women is a woman.

Last year, the denomination rejected appeals over the ouster of two churches: Saddleback Church of California and Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Saddleback, founded by Rick Warren, the best-selling author and influential preacher, was one of the largest SBC-affiliated megachurches in the nation.

The ouster of Saddleback was a shock, leaving many wondering what or who would be next.

Even before the 2023 Saddleback vote, though, the Rev. Allen Jackson, senior pastor of Dunwoody Baptist Church, had decided to postpone his retirement until after the annual meeting. He wanted to make sure that whatever happened the church would navigate through it without any pressure.

A woman serves as the children’s pastor at the Mt. Vernon Road congregation.


“When all this came up, the thought of trying to find a new head pastor, given the uncertainty of our role in the Southern Baptist Convention, it just felt like it was a better idea to push it back a little bit.”

Dunwoody Baptist Church has a woman who is named the children’s pastor. She came in under Jackson’s leadership and succeeded another woman who held that same role and had retired.

When the search team began to talk with possible candidates, many wanted clarity about “what they would be getting into. Are you a Baptist church, a Southern Baptist Church, an independent Baptist church, are you a nondenominational church? And it was important for them to be able to provide that answer.”

Jackson thinks there are good people on both sides of the issue who are passionate about their interpretation of certain passages in Scripture. Is Scripture for all times and all places and all situation, he asked. Or is Scripture influenced by the events of the time?

The roots, he thinks, “parallel our times politically. We have a lot of fear in this culture.”

Many critics of the proposed constitutional amendment, named The Law Amendment after the Virginia pastor who proposed it, said it was unnecessary since the SBC already has a ban in place, or fear it will result in Black and Hispanic churches leaving the denomination.

Despite the amendment failing, there are still questions about the SBC’s commitment to difference and inclusion, especially in Black churches and those from other racial and ethnic majorities, said Nichole R. Phillips, associate professor in the practice of religion and society and director of Black Church Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology

“Opposition against the amendment by wider margins would have been a radical statement about the Baptist tradition of local church autonomy, the doctrinal legitimacy of Christian women’s voices and authority in all aspects of church life, including church leadership, and at the least, the SBC’s interpretation of inclusion and difference,” she said.

Georgia is among the top five states with the highest number of messengers in Indianapolis with 710. Tennessee had the most at 944.

The Rev. Pennon Lockhart, is a retired Southern Baptist pastor from Georgia. When he pastored a church in Decatur, he once named a woman in a temporary assignment as interim executive pastor.

It didn’t cause a stir in his congregation because people already knew her. “When women come to a pastor and say they’ve been called to pastor, teach or preach, who am I to argue with God?” he said. “They are the ones who have to justify their calling and stand on it.”

Would he ever embrace the idea of a woman leading the congregation as senior pastor? Probably not, he said. “It would not have nothing do with the individual, but on biblical grounds.”

For the thousands of messengers who return to their home churches, gender roles are still firmly in place.

“So there is not much changed here at the end of the day,” said Ed Stetzer. dean of the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. “It just appears that they are comfortable where they are on the roles of women in the church and the way they have already set up their governance.”


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