June 22, 2023
Last week the Southern Baptist Convention met in New Orleans. There were over 12,000 messengers from Southern Baptist churches across the country. I did not attend the Convention, but watched much of the livestream that was available. While there were some things worth celebrating, the overall experience of the Convention left me feeling very discouraged.
At one point, it was reported that in 2022 the Southern Baptist Convention lost half a million members, the largest single membership drop in 100 years. That is a staggering statistic and one would think that the Convention would do some soul-searching about the reasons for such a depressing loss. But no. Most of the meeting was occupied with one issue: women in ministry.
In early 2023, the Credentials Committee of the SBC removed two churches from membership: Fern Creek Baptist Church in Kentucky and Saddleback Church in California. Both churches were removed because they believe in ordaining women into pastoral ministry. Fern Creek’s female pastor has served that church for over 30 years and Saddleback recently ordained a woman to serve as a Campus Pastor. In New Orleans last week, both churches appealed their removal. But the SBC Messengers upheld the Credentials Committee’s decision by an 80% vote.
Then, in a move that was even more firm, the Convention passed an amendment that reaffirmed and strengthened the Southern Baptist Convention’s belief that only men can serve as pastors of any kind. Now, not only can women not serve as Senior Pastor in churches, they cannot serve in any role and have the word “pastor” in their title.
Sometimes people roll their eyes at denominational politics and they think that none of this matters. Let me make this as plain as I can: this really, really matters. It is a fundamental issue that is at the very heart of who we are.
I am deeply disturbed by any denominational institution that believes it is its job to police the procedures and theology of individual churches, especially given that church autonomy is a fundamental freedom at the heart of what it means to be a Baptist.
I am deeply disturbed by any denominational institution that faces a loss of half a million members in a single year and yet removes one of its largest, most evangelism-minded churches in the entire country.
And, most important of all, I am deeply disturbed by any denominational institution that refuses to listen to voices of both men and women in pastoral leadership. Is it any wonder that the two Christian institutions that have the least amount of women in high-ranking leadership (Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church) are the two institutions facing the most overwhelming amount of abuse cases? I am not arguing for causation, but there is certainly some correlation. When we only listen to male leadership (or only to female leadership), we are missing half of the voice of God in our world.
About a year ago, I was asked to serve on a Task Force formed as a partnership between the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Baptist Women in Ministry. Our job was to plan a curriculum for church Small Groups and Sunday Bible Study groups to explore the issue of women serving in pastoral ministry. Little did we know how prescient and relevant our work would be. The curriculum is titled Equally Called. It’s a four-week journey through the story of the Bible, looking at the ways that God calls both men and women to serve as leaders. I hope that your Sunday Bible Study or Small Group will consider doing this study at some point in the future. Equally Called will be available after the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly meets next week in Atlanta.
Sisters and brothers, Ardmore has a long tradition of ordaining both women and men to pastoral ministry, as well as women serving as Deacons (our first female Deacon was elected in 1982). Half of our pastoral staff are female pastors who serve with wisdom, grace, creativity, and strength.
I am not angry. And, to be honest, I am not surprised. What I am is severely disappointed that the Southern Baptist Convention has chosen to further entrench itself into a position that divides rather than unifies. Christians of goodwill can certainly disagree on this issue, but I completely reject the authority of a denominational institution to dictate those lines for individual congregations.
There is much, much more for us to discuss. The Chair of the Deacon Council (Les Davis) and I have been in close contact. A sub-committee of Deacons will soon be created to determine what our future relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention should look like. I invite you to be in prayer for the men and women who will serve on this sub-committee as they discern what God may be calling us to do.