Southern Baptists don’t like women pastors? That means trouble for all of us.

The Southern Baptists are pushing back against women pastors. It is a sign of something bigger.

The Rev. Linda Barnes Popham speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, La., on June 13, 2023. RNS photo by Emily Kask

(RNS) — As Buffalo Springfield famously sang: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear …

Actually, it’s becoming exactly clear.

Consider what has happened to the Rev. Linda Barnes Popham, who has been the pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, for 30 years.

She received a letter, stating that officials of the Southern Baptist Convention had received a complaint about her church being led by a woman. The denomination was investigating, it said.

This week, the Southern Baptists confirmed the expulsion of two churches with female pastors — Fern Creek Baptist Church and Saddleback Church in Southern California, one of America’s largest and most prominent megachurches, which the popular preacher and best selling author, Rick Warren, founded and pastored.

According to Religion News Service, the delegates rejected the appeals of each church, voting to affirm the ouster of Saddleback by a vote of 9,437 to 1,212 and of Fern Creek by a vote of 9,700 to 806. 

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued against keeping Saddleback and Fern Creek within the Southern Baptist fold. He said 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.”

You are probably asking yourselves: “Why are you commenting on another faith community?”

You would be right. Normally, I would respect the scriptural interpretations that would dictate how another faith manages its polity. Normally, I stay in my own lane, theologically.

But, these are not normal times, and what has happened within the Southern Baptist system has implications that will resound far longer than the last notes of Sunday’s final hymn.

First, it makes me think about women in the ministry. It makes me think about the struggles of my women colleagues, who fight exclusion, significant income disparities, sexism and, most horrifically, sexual harassment.

For that reason, as a rabbi, I extend my hands in sympathy, and in solidarity, with my women colleagues in those churches. Suddenly, their very presence is anathema, threatening the communal status of their churches. I am proud that my male colleagues in those churches, including and especially the formidable Rick Warren, have stood up in support of those women.

When I view this situation through the lens of modern Jewish history, this is what I remember.

The Jews had rights in Germany, and then they lost those rights — with devastating consequences. Women have the right to be pastors, and then they lose those rights (or, more precisely, their churches lose the right to be part of the denomination).

Fighting for, and winning, rights is never a one-shot deal. It is ongoing. Rights once earned can become rights that are lost.

But, let me go beyond the ministry and beyond Jewish history.

Here is why I choose to comment on this situation.

It would be one thing if this were simply a random decision by a significant Protestant denomination.

Messengers vote during the first day of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, La., on June 13, 2023. RNS photo by Emily Kask

Messengers vote during the first day of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, La., on June 13, 2023. RNS photo by Emily Kask

But, I cannot see this Southern Baptist moment in isolation. This is just another chapter — a small chapter, you might say — in a pernicious war against women’s rights.

I believe there is a straight line — from the war on women’s control of their health care, to the smaller but significant war on women’s ability to serve as pastors.

This is a war the right wing is waging: roll back women’s rights.

Let me widen the lens for you.

If you are looking for the symptoms of incipient fascism in this country, pay attention to the signs: the growth of antisemitism, a parallel growth of misogyny and a powerful growth of anti-LGBTQ hatred.

Bigots become confused when the objects of their mistrust and contempt fail to know their places. Jews, women, Blacks, LGBTQ people, immigrants: They should know what they deserve, and they should be happy with what they get. 

So, a multi-pronged war: against women, LGBTQ Americans, Jews, immigrants, books, ideas.

So, let us return to Buffalo Springfield: “What it is ain’t exactly clear …”

Oh yes, it is quite clear.

Take a look at the hordes who are cheering for former President Trump in the wake of his indictment and arraignment.

Take a look at those who would dismantle a woman’s right to her body.

Take a look at those who would dismantle a woman’s right to her sacred profession — and would punish those churches that have the sacred audacity to let women serve as pastors.

Those societal forces are all connected.

Believe me, I know. I live in the state of Florida.

Someone recently asked me if I thought that Florida, 2023, was in danger of becoming Germany, 1938. As in Kristallnacht.

I respectfully demur. Ask any student of Nazi Germany, and that person would be happy to show you the differences between that historical moment and our time.

However, the way to prevent a 1938 is to start paying attention in, say, 1922 — and to recognize the warning signs. The true parallel between those dark times and our time is the temptation to complacency — the fear that we might all become “good Germans.”

(Was there a subtle, subliminal message in the Tony awards for both “Parade,” which deals with the Leo Frank lynching, a primal antisemitic memory in American history, and “Leopoldstadt,” which deals with the rise of antisemitism in Vienna? That two of the hottest tickets on Broadway are about antisemitism? Is the world of high culture nodding to the Jews and saying: “We see you; we hear you; we acknowledge your pain”?)

No, the danger is not that we are returning to 1938.

The danger is that we might return to 1958.

Back to the 1950s. Back to “Leave It to Beaver.” Back to the imagined mythic America of white picket fences, to women who do not work outside the home, to queer folks in the closet, to an America where Blacks were still in the back of the bus and where Jews and other ethnic and religious outsiders faced serious restrictions. That is the imagined “America” of MAGA.

So, if you are surprised Southern Baptists are turning against churches with woman pastors, then you simply have not been paying attention.

It is all part of the same societal struggle.

Will the forces of hatred, misogyny, social exclusion and anti-intellectualism win?

It is time for all of us to say: Not on our watch.


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