The October letter came as a shock to Linda Barnes Popham, pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., for 30 years, the first woman to lead her congregation. Since he began as a pianist at age 16, he has worked in the ministry for much longer.
But now, he read in the letter, Southern Baptist Convention officials have received a complaint that a woman is leading his church. The department is investigating, he said.
She responded at length, listing her qualifications and her church’s interpretation of the Bible that confirmed her worthiness to lead. Church deacons, including men, rallied to her defense.
Conference officials decided to expel her church anyway, along with four other congregations with female pastors, including Saddleback, one of the nation’s most prominent.
“I never believed this would happen,” Ms. Barnes Popham spoke about the move to expel his church, preparing to appeal the expulsion Tuesday afternoon before thousands of delegates at the annual SBC conference in New Orleans. “Why do you want to suppress the voices of the true churches? Why?”
However delegates vote on her appeal, the big message is clear: There is a movement in the Southern Baptist Convention, largely a bellwether for evangelical America, to remove women from its leadership.
The right wing of Southern Baptists, America’s largest Protestant denomination, is now bucking what it — broadly, like conservatives — sees as a dangerous liberal drift. Most people in the denomination have long believed that the position of head pastor should be reserved for men. But ultraconservatives with a loud online presence have gone further, pushing for ideological purity and arguing that female pastors predispose them to embrace homosexuality and sexual immorality.
Some ultraconservatives are now pushing for investigations and excommunications of churches whose practices differ, such as Fern Creek.
The fight for women’s place in the church, long contentious, comes as American evangelicalism increasingly aligns with Republican politics and a vocal ultraconservative minority pushes for power.
The crackdown comes a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and the country is taking a broader look at women’s rights. For Southern Baptists, victims’ advocates continue to pressure the denomination to take action following devastating reports of sexual abuse of women and children, and face resistance from some men in the organization.
As the convention opens Monday in New Orleans, Virginia pastor Mike Law touted his proposed amendment to the SBC constitution that would further limit the role of women in leadership, saying a church could be Southern Baptist. A woman is not to be confirmed, ordained or employed as a pastor in any way.
More than 2,000 male pastors and professors signed a letter in support of the proposed amendment before the conference began. Church officials decided to put the proposal to a full floor vote on Monday, arguing that it was unnecessary for the denomination’s existing theological positions, though they warned they would oppose it. This amendment must be passed twice in succession to take effect.
Some Southern Baptists see women leaders as “an early harbinger of other changes,” said Joshua Abodoi, whose church left the denomination last year because of concerns about liberal drift. Mr. Abodoi is the executive director of New Founding, a conservative organization. Analysis It is estimated that more than 1,800 women pastors are serving in SBC churches over the weekend.
Mr. As Abbotoy sees it, abandoning the belief in some distinct roles for men and women calls into question “whether the human being is distinguishable between two sexes,” and leads to broader questions about sexuality and gender.
Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback and author of one of the best-selling books of all time, has long been a hero in the tradition of prioritizing church growth and electric preaching. But his church was disaffiliated in February after he named a husband and wife as his successors.
Mr. Warren, who is appealing her church’s removal on Tuesday, said in recent weeks not only her congregation’s safety but her understanding of Baptist identity and evangelism have become more expansive.
A An open letter Addressing “all Southern Baptists,” Mr. Warren emphasized a history of religion that rejected formal religions as binding multiple traditions. “It is a vote affirming the God-given freedom of every Baptist to interpret the Scriptures as a Baptist — a freedom not possessed by those who deny it,” he wrote.
Historically, Southern Baptists have prioritized the autonomy of individual churches and have viewed their denomination as an association rather than a hierarchical organization.
Meredith Stone, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, worries that appeals to church autonomy are not enough to prevent a fundamentalist takeover of the religion, as happened during the Reagan administration.
“The argument we made 40 years ago has failed,” he said.
Mrs. Stone sees a pattern in religion’s periodic layoffs of women’s issues. Her organization was formed in 1983 to support women in church leadership; The following year, the Convention was passed Resolution It states that women should not serve in “pastoral duties”.
“It’s always something that women get, and then, there’s a reaction from the conference,” she said.
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an influential voice at the time, was on the committee that revised the Southern Baptist Statement of Faith in 2000, “The priesthood is reserved for qualified men. Scripture.”
“Theoretical clarity is needed,” Dr. Mohler said in an interview last week.
“It’s on the list of contemporary concerns precisely because it’s one of the issues that is emblematic of creeping liberalism,” he said, pointing out that it’s one reason other Protestant denominations have seen their numbers so quickly.
Membership in Southern Baptist Convention churches has been declining for more than a decade, although with more than 13 million members, it remains the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
During Tuesday’s breakfast, Georgia pastor Mike Stone, who is running for the presidency of the SBC, said Mr. He spoke in favor of the proposed amendment to the Act. “Is that unnecessary? Yes,” he said. “But it’s obviously necessary.”
At the breakfast tables, a sign that the Conservatives were treating the conference like a political campaign urged delegates to vote against Saddleback and Fern Creek.
It is not known exactly how many women are pastors in the denomination; Estimates range from dozens to nearly 2,000 when pastoral positions other than senior pastor are included.
At issue is the definition of “pastor” and whether the ban on female pastors should extend to titles such as “children’s pastor” or “women’s pastor,” which have long been seen as appropriate roles for women because they do not teach or have authority over adult men.
Although the denomination as a whole is overwhelmingly white, black women are overrepresented as pastors in churches with female lead pastors.
Saddleback and Ms. In addition to Barnes Popham’s church, three other churches were expelled in February for having female pastors, but did not intend to appeal the decision. Two of them are led by black women; Minnie R., pastor of St. Timothy Christian Baptist Church in Baltimore. McGee Washington said in a statement, “It is an honor and a privilege to be ‘fired’ from the SPC.”
The expelled churches would continue to function, but they would no longer be able to affiliate themselves with the Southern Baptist Convention or participate in its programs.
Mrs. Barnes Popham understood none of that. His congregation was vibrant and active while many SBC churches were stagnant. Fern Creek Baptists baptize people. They share their space with the Congolese Church and the Philippine Congregation. They’re starting an elementary school and adding showers to their gym for the homeless, he said.
On Monday night, Mrs. After Barnes Popham signed up as a guest at the conference, a man approached her and her supporters with a pamphlet urging delegates to vote to expel churches with female pastors.
“I’m one of those preachers,” she told him. “We can be great partners in the gospel.”
He disagreed. She goes one way, he goes another, he said.
She took his hand, called his name, and said, “What are you going to do when we enter heaven’s gates together?” she asked.