Southern Baptists narrowly reject formal ban on churches with any women pastors

Messengers stand for worship during a Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting Tuesday, June 11, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Southern Baptists narrowly rejected a proposal Wednesday to enshrine a ban on churches with women pastors in the denomination’s constitution after opponents argued it was unnecessary because the denomination already has a way of ousting such churches.

The vote received support from 61% of the delegates, but it failed to get the required two-thirds supermajority. The action reversed a preliminary vote last year in favor of the official ban.

But it still leaves the Southern Baptist Convention with its official doctrinal statement saying the office of pastor is limited to men. Even the opponents of the ban said they favored that doctrinal statement but didn’t think it was necessary to reinforce it in the constitution.

Opponents noted that the SBC already can oust churches that assert women can serve as pastors — as it did last year and again Tuesday night.

The vote was perhaps the most highly anticipated of the annual meeting, reflecting years of debate in the United States’ largest Protestant denomination. It is the final day of the SBC’s two-day annual meeting in Indianapolis.

Since 2000, the SBC’s nonbinding statement of faith has declared that only men are qualified for the role of pastor. It’s interpreted differently across the denomination, with some believing it doesn’t apply to associate pastors so long as the senior pastor is male.

The proposed amendment, which received preliminary approval last year, would formally exclude churches that have women in any pastoral positions, from lead pastor to associates, or even affirms them in that role. Supporters believe it is biblically necessary, estimating hundreds of Southern Baptist churches have women in those roles.

The rejected amendment would have said any church deemed in “friendly cooperation” — the official term for SBC affiliation — must be one that “affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.”

Opponents argued the convention already has the power to remove churches over this issue, and the amendment will have unintended consequences, including disproportionately affecting Black Southern Baptist congregations, which tend to have women on their pastoral staffs.

But the motion went swiftly to a vote after only brief debate.

Ryan Fullerton, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, said the measure is “not about preventing women from exercising their gifts” in the church, in roles on church staff such as “children’s ministers.” But he said the Bible is clear that the office of pastor is for men.

He said there is “confusion about gender” in the wider culture and cited what he called “the ravages of the LGBTQIA agenda.”

But Spence Shelton, pastor of Mercy Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, argued that it was unnecessary.

He said there is no doubt that Southern Baptists are “complementarian,” as they describe the view that men and women have equal value but different roles that complement one another.

But he noted that the convention voted to affirm the ouster of a historic Virginia church Tuesday and two other churches last year, including the California megachurch Saddleback, which all have women pastors and affirmed they could hold top pastoral positions.

The reason for ousting them was that they don’t have a faith and practice consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message, the document approved in 2000 that includes the affirmation that the pastoral position is reserved for men.

“Y’all, we have shown the mechanisms we currently have are sufficient to deal with this question,” Shelton said.

Mike Law, pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Virginia and author of the amendment, cited a report that there are about 1,800 women pastors working in the denomination. He cited Bible verses limiting the pastoral office to men.

“Our culture may see this prohibition as harsh, but our God is all wise, and wrote this word for the flourishing of both men and women,” he said.

“This amendment is not about women in ministry,” Law added. “It’s specifically about women in the pastoral office.” He did not spell out the difference in his brief floor speech.

The denomination can’t tell its independent churches what to do or whom to appoint as a pastor. But they can say which churches are in and which are out.

Last year, Southern Baptists refused to take back Saddleback, one of the convention’s largest congregations, and a small Kentucky church over the issue.

Both churches, which had women in top pastoral positions, appealed their ouster to the 2023 annual meeting and were overwhelmingly rejected by the delegates. A similar scenario played out in Indianapolis on Tuesday, when messengers voted overwhelmingly to kick out First Baptist Church of Alexandria in Virginia, which has a woman in an associate position and also asserted that women can hold the top job.

Supporters of the amendment say it probably won’t result in an immediate, large-scale purge, but opponents expressed concern it would burden SBC volunteers and staffs with numerous investigations of churches.

Delegates also elected a North Carolina pastor and longtime denominational statesman to be the next president of their convention in a contest between six candidates that went into two run-off votes.

Clint Pressley, who is senior pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, will be the next Southern Baptist Convention president after winning 56% of votes in the final run-off race.

The SBC president — one of the most prominent faces of the conservative evangelical network of churches — presides over the annual meeting and appoints members to the denomination’s committees.

Pressley’s nearest opponent, Tennessee pastor, Dan Spencer, received 44 percent of the votes after four other candidates were eliminated in earlier rounds.

Pressley has said he favors a measure being voted on later Wednesday to amend the SBC constitution to ban churches with women pastors.

Pressley earned a master of divinity from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisiana, one of the SBC’s official seminaries. He has led Hickory Grove since 2011 after pastoring churches in Alabama and Mississippi. Pressley was first vice president of the SBC in 2014-15 and served on numerous other denominational boards.

Messengers early Wednesday rejected a proposal to abolish the SBC’s public policy agency, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The measure reflected the views of some that the the staunchly conservative commission wasn’t conservative enough.

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