By appearances, the deck was stacked against Linda Barnes Popham and Rick Warren before they ever took the microphone at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting Tuesday, June 13.
Just an hour or so before, the nearly 13,000 messengers to the New Orleans gathering had adopted with little debate two resolutions against the very case the two veteran pastors would plead.
One resolution commended Christian women for their contribution to fulfilling the Great Commission and committed Southern Baptists to create an environment “where women are fully respected, valued and mobilized as co-laborers for the fulfillment of Christ’s Great Commission and the glory of the Triune God” — as long as they are not pastors.
The second resolution further qualified that respect and mobilization to exclude women from pastoral ministry. It declared “bishop,” “elder,” “pastor” and “deacon” are the only biblical offices for church leadership and urged SBC churches “to uphold all the biblical qualifications” the New Testament requires for such offices — meaning men only.
The message was clear, especially when messenger Brian Gunter of Livingston, La., attempted to amend the second motion, which he said was “unclear” in stating explicitly that “we recognize that God only calls men to serve in the office of elder/pastor/bishop.”
His amendment appeared to have widespread support until the person who drafted the amendment — ultraconservative Florida pastor Tom Ascol — rose to offer a better solution. His fix, which Gunter agreed with and messengers easily approved, was to remove the small bit of conciliatory language the Resolutions Committee had inserted into the document: “while autonomous churches may differ in their uses and categories regarding titles for staff members.”
Two churches appeal
Against that backdrop, Warren and Popham stood to appeal their churches’ ejection from the SBC because they support the ordination of women and women as preachers.
Popham’s appearance was notable because she has been pastor at Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., for 33 years and described herself as “more conservative than most Southern Baptist pastors.” Warren’s appearance was notable because he is the founding pastor of what had been the SBC’s largest and most evangelistic church, Saddleback Church in Southern California.
Each pastor was given 3 minutes to make a case for why messengers should reinstate their churches to the SBC, and each was cut off at the microphone when they exceeded the allotted time. Unlike anything that had happened to any speaker previously that day, both pastors went suddenly silent in mid-sentence as their mics were turned off.
And each pastor faced a rebuttal not from the SBC Executive Committee and not from the SBC Credentials Committee — which together had voted to expel their churches — but from Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Each time, Executive Committee Chairman David Sons called on Mohler to speak for the two committees. Mohler is a member of neither committee.
Fern Creek’s case
Popham gave a fiery evangelistic message about the spiritual and scriptural commitments of her 70-year-old church located in a modest suburb in the far southeastern corner of metro Louisville.
“We know that Jesus is the only way to the Father. We know that his word is perfect, and we know that one day he’s coming again. But we also know that the Spirit gives illumination to our hearts and minds and therefore we don’t all interpret every Scripture the same way,” she said in a rapid cadence. “We believe the Bible allows women to serve in ways in which all of you do not agree but we should still be able to partner together.”
“We believe the Bible allows women to serve in ways in which all of you do not agree but we should still be able to partner together.”
She explained: “We’re not here to seek 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 and practice — I mean look at you extreme Calvinists, I don’t agree with you; look at all of you who closed your churches during COVID, I don’t agree with you — but I don’t want to kick you out because you are a part of the family.”
The Baptist Faith and Message — the doctrinal statement of the SBC — is a “confession and not a creed,” she declared. Her church fully affirms the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, before it was amended to declare only men may be pastors, she said.
She blamed the division of her church remaining in the SBC on Satan: “He’s tearing this convention apart. He loves deeds done in darkness. He loves seeing religious leaders sitting on protected and padded pontifical thrones being consumed by tradition and opinions and power and non-salvific” agendas, she said before her mic cut off.
Mohler also gave an animated rebuttal, looking somber and waving his hands frequently.
“The congregations of the Southern Baptist Convention are autonomous, and we do not seek to invade the autonomy of any local church,” he said. “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.
“This comes down to two key words — ‘doctrine’ and ‘policy’ or ‘polity’.”
He declared: “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. That is the only question that is addressed by the messengers today but it’s an inescapable question.”
Warren, who had launched an all-out public relations campaign on behalf of his church in recent weeks, spoke firmly and defiantly. He also called out Mohler by name, noting Mohler “for some reason gets to speak twice” in this debate and declare what Southern Baptists ought to believe.
Prior to the meeting, Warren had told BNG and others SBC Executive Committee staff had stalled in replying to his phone calls and emails, had not allowed him to address the Executive Committee or Credentials Committee — even though Mohler did.
In his 3-minute appeal to messengers, Warren appealed for diversity with unity in the SBC, which he said was the heritage of the denomination in which he was raised.
“If you think every Baptist thinks like you, you’re mistaken,” he said. “What we share in common is a mutual commitment to the inerrancy and the infallibility of God’s word and to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. No one is asking any Southern Baptist to change their theology. 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.”
“Will we treat egalitarian Baptists with the same grace we showed the Calvinists?”
In a pointed reference to Mohler — who has been a chief exporter of Calvinism into the SBC — Warren said: “In 2013, when the Calvinists were under fire, Baptists agreed to disagree, and the split was averted. Now 10 years later, will we treat egalitarian Baptists with the same grace we showed the Calvinists?”
SBC churches should be removed from fellowship “for all kinds of sexual sin, racial sin, financial sin, leadership sin, sins that harm the testimony of our convention,” Warren urged. “But the 1,928 churches with women on pastoral staff have not sinned. If doctrinal disagreements between Baptists are considered sin, we all get kicked out.”
The SBC Constitution says churches must “closely identity” with the Baptist Faith and Message, not “completely identify,” Warren added. “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?”
Warren further called out Mohler, who has said publicly the committee that drafted the 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message — a committee on which Mohler served — intended the prohibition on women as pastors was intended to apply to “every staff position” with the title pastor and therefore prevents women from teaching. Warren said he personally contacted more than half the original drafting committee, and” seven of them told me Al was wrong. In fact, before the vote on the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, even Al in his hometown newspaper said it didn’t limit women from being assistant pastors. Go read it in the Courier Journal.”
The Louisville Courier-Journal archives for May 19, 2020, show an article about the revisions to the Baptist Faith and Message and interpretation from Mohler about the role of women in ministry. The article states:
Mohler said the clause affirms that women can work as assistant pastors, but, “there is no doubt that in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of Paul,” that men and women’s roles are “not identical but complementary. He said it is “not an issue” for most Southern Baptist churches because few have ever ordained women. “For nearly 2,000 years, Christian churches unanimously understood the preaching office as restricted to men,” he said.
Mohler’s second rebuttal
In his own animated rebuttal to Warren, Mohler claimed his earlier views on women as pastors was “misrepresented” by Warren.
Further, Mohler said he alone does not get to say what the Baptist Faith and Message means, but messengers to the annual meeting get to determine that.
The 2000 language about the office of pastor being limited to men “was inserted because 30 years ago this issue threatened to tear this denomination apart,” he said. “The definition of ‘friendly cooperation’ came down to the fact that that was an issue that would endanger the cooperative cohesion and faithfulness.”
Specifically, “we look to this issue because Southern Baptists decided this is not just a matter of church polity, it is not just a matter of hermeneutics, it’s a matter of biblical commitment, a commitment to the Scripture that unequivocally we believe limits the office of pastor to men,” Mohler continued. “It is an issue of biblical authority. It is one that has actually led to the unity of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Saddleback Church must be removed from fellowship with the SBC not because the church hasn’t done “good gospel” things but because “it rejects the confessional understanding of the Southern Baptist Convention on this issue.”
The kind of egalitarianism now on offer from Saddleback and Warren are “not where the Southern Baptist Convention is going to go,” he said.
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