(RNS) — Bestselling author and former pastor Rick Warren made an impassioned plea for reinstatement of Saddleback Church’s affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention, after the megachurch he founded four decades ago was ousted from the Protestant denomination for naming a woman to its pastoral team.
“I’m not asking you to agree with my church,” Warren told the messengers, or delegates, who totaled more than 12,700 on Tuesday (June 13). “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.”
The debate — which has been fought over social media, via documents and through a website campaign spearheaded by Warren — came to the floor of the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center late on the first day of the two-day meeting.
The SBC’s Baptist Faith & Message states the role of pastor is limited to men. But Baptists differ over whether the SBC faith statement currently refers to barring women from all pastoral roles or only from serving in the role of senior pastor.
Saddleback has embraced women in ministry in recent years.
The Southern California church ordained three women who were longtime staffers on Mother’s Day weekend in 2021. Stacie Wood, wife of Andy Wood, who replaced Warren as lead pastor last summer, has the title of “teaching pastor.” And in May, Katie Edwards was announced as the new campus pastor of the church’s Lake Forest, California, location.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a rebuttal to Warren’s remarks, outlined some of those steps Saddleback has taken while also highlighting other actions by the megachurch that Southern Baptists have welcomed.
“We can thank God for every good gospel thing that is represented by that church and its ministry,” Mohler said. “Without making a comprehensive verdict on a congregation that is no longer among us, we simply say that our credentials committee and Executive Committee have done the right thing.”
A total of eight congregations were removed from official affiliation by the denomination’s Executive Committee since last year’s annual meeting, but three appealed those decisions.
In addition to Saddleback, two other churches also had representatives speak during their allotted three minutes in hopes of reversing the decisions about their affiliation.
One church, Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, also appealed its ouster for having a woman pastor, the Rev. Linda Barnes Popham.
She spoke prior to Warren, describing her church’s and her personal longtime affiliation with the denomination, which she credited with teaching her to spread the gospel and believe the Bible. Popham noted that, while all Southern Baptists may not agree with her role as pastor of her church, she differs with some Baptists on their views of Calvinism or on closing buildings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t agree with you (on those issues), but I don’t want to kick you out, because you are a part of the family, and we at Fern Creek Baptist Church love you very much,” she said. “We want to partner together to share the good news to the ends of the earth.”
Mohler, whose seminary is located in the same city as Fern Creek, spoke in favor of the decision to oust the church, saying the idea of women pastors “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.”
The third church making an appeal was Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Florida, removed from affiliation “based on a lack of intent to cooperate in resolving concerns regarding a sexual abuse allegation,” according to a February statement from the Executive Committee.
Its representative, elder Donald Stewart, also came to a microphone and said, “Our former pastor wants the focus at Freedom Church to be on Jesus Christ, not on him.” He said that person resigned in May and is “no longer involved in the leadership of the church.”
Executive Committee member Dean Inserra questioned whether the pastor would remain resigned and said the credentials committee never received responses to three letters of inquiry it sent about him. He also said the state convention and a local association in Florida “provided Freedom Church with the confirmed and admitted sexual misconduct of the individual serving as the senior pastor, yet Freedom Church took zero action.”
The messengers voted by ballot about each church, and the outcomes are expected to be announced on Wednesday.
SBC President Bart Barber, giving his address prior to the time when the appeals were heard, implored his fellow Baptists to be sober about the potential disaffiliations.
“Any time our convention parts company with a church that’s no longer in cooperation, let us not be those who applaud and cheer and revel in it,” he said, acknowledging that he did not know as he spoke what the outcome of the appeals would be.
“Instead, let us be the people who, even while we sadly explain why we can no longer move forward together, are unafraid to say what is beautiful about those churches,” Barber said, drawing applause, “and unafraid to articulate a hope for them in the future. Being that kind of Christian is not weakness. It is strength.”
Warren’s extensive campaign included an open letter, a website and a video series detailing why he thinks Saddleback should be permitted to remain within the Southern Baptist fold. In an “apology to Christian women,” he tweeted that he had failed for 50 years to properly study Scripture and “hindered them in obeying the Great Commission command (and Acts 2:17-18) that EVERYONE is to TEACH in the church.”
On Tuesday, members of a local church distributed to messengers arriving at the SBC meeting a four-page pamphlet from Warren that notes that the Baptist Faith & Message is described in its preamble as “a consensus of opinion” and that “Baptists should hold themselves free to revise their statements of faith.”
“Using the threat of disfellowship to control who our churches hire on staff as pastors is an unconstitutional attempt to exercise authority over churches, associations and state conventions,” he wrote (emphases by Warren).
On Wednesday, messengers, or delegates, are expected to vote on whether to amend the SBC’s constitution to say churches are not in “friendly cooperation” if they “affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”
The SBC Executive Committee, at a meeting on Monday, approved the amendment reaching the floor of the convention but nevertheless stated it was opposed to amending the constitution, which explains the purpose and the composition of the SBC. Some members said during the meeting that the SBC’s faith statement, a statement of doctrines and religious convictions, is the more appropriate place for such doctrinal issues.