Southern Baptists reject ban on women pastors in historic vote

INDIANAPOLIS — The Southern Baptist Convention rejected Wednesday a constitutional ban on women pastors, a major victory for those within the nation's largest Protestant denomination seeking to maintain local church autonomy and soften what many considered a growing antagonism toward women in ministry.

The narrow outcome resolved a two-year political dispute about church policy, though it might not subdue the ensuing debate about women’s roles in the church. The proposed amendment was by far the most animating issue headed into this year’s SBC annual meeting, one that even colored other decision-making — including the election for SBC president.

If the measure passed, more churches were expected to voluntarily leave the Nashville-based denomination. For some, it would be due to a message downplaying women’s contributions to the church, while others saw the SBC becoming overbearing about certain doctrinal beliefs.

"Is this amendment necessary for the convention to respond when churches in our convention act in a way contrary to our complementarian doctrine?" North Carolina pastor Spence Shelton said in the only speech against the measure during a brief floor debate.

"We showed last year we have an effective mechanism," Shelton said. "It allows us to act with conviction and unity when it comes to this issue.”

Had the measure succeeded, it would have allowed SBC leaders to more strictly enforce doctrinal beliefs surrounding the role of women in ministry by disfellowshipping churches that do not adhere to those standards. But even without the constitutional change, the SBC has disfellowshipped seven churches over these standards. The most high-profile cases were that of Southern California megachurch Saddleback Church and Louisville's Fern Creek Baptist Church, which both unsuccessfully appealed their ouster at the 2023 SBC annual meeting.

"We are also grieved that this vote has ever even taken place," Meredith Stone, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, a nonprofit with partners across various Baptist denominations, said in a statement on Wednesday. "Women in ministry were used as props for the display of extreme conservatism in order to advance the power of a faction within the SBC."

Heather Deal, left, and Nikki Hardeman, with the Baptist Women in Ministry, protest for the right for women to be clergy, while standing outside the Southern Baptist Convention, Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
Heather Deal, left, and Nikki Hardeman, with the Baptist Women in Ministry, protest for the right for women to be clergy, while standing outside the Southern Baptist Convention, Tuesday, June 11, 2024.

This year's vote was the second consecutive decision on the measure — commonly called the “Law Amendment,” bearing the namesake of the original petitioner Virginia pastor Mike Law — after receiving initial approval at the 2023 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans.

During the floor debate, Law sought to impress upon the convention the proposal is "not about women in ministry, it's specifically about women in the pastoral office."

"We gladly celebrate the myriad women who serve the church in many essential ways," Law said.

But Law also said others' perception of the SBC based on this debate shouldn't compromise Southern Baptists' commitment to their understanding of what scripture says about women's role in the church.

"Our culture may see this prohibition as harsh, but our God is all wise," Law said. "And he wrote His word for the flourishing of both men and women."

On Tuesday, the convention overwhelmingly approved the ouster of First Baptist Church Alexandria in Virginia for holding to an egalitarian view of women in ministry instead of complementarianism — referring to a belief that men and women have different assigned roles.

“First Baptist Alexandria stands before you as a testament that we can maintain a fruitful partnership with churches that take a different stance on women in ministry,” said FBC Alexandria senior pastor Robert Stephens during a floor debate Tuesday afternoon.

Local church autonomy is an important belief among Southern Baptists, and the idea of partnership, or cooperation, was a major theme going into this week’s SBC annual meeting mostly due to the Law Amendment. Critics warned against the SBC becoming overly prescriptive about certain doctrine for autonomous churches, while proponents said cooperation shouldn’t come at the risk of adherence to certain tenets.

SBC President Bart Barber and the SBC Cooperation Group, an ad hoc task force that Barber appointed to study the denomination’s standards of affiliating with churches, admonished the convention to extend a spirit of generosity across differences. But even if Southern Baptists took that message to heart, the resolution to this debate came down to cold, hard numbers.

Messengers voted 61% in favor of the Law Amendment on Wednesday morning, falling short of the required two-thirds majority for constitutional amendments.

Lauren Buss, from the First Baptist Church in Okmulgee, OK, joins others in song during the Southern Baptist Convention, Tuesday, June 11, 2024 at the Indiana Convention Center.
Lauren Buss, from the First Baptist Church in Okmulgee, OK, joins others in song during the Southern Baptist Convention, Tuesday, June 11, 2024 at the Indiana Convention Center.

Battle over women’s authority in church to persist

Specifically with the debate on women’s authority in the church, the fallout of Wednesday’s decision likely won’t deviate much from the current climate.

"We know that even though the amendment failed, women who pastor in Southern Baptist churches will continue to be diminished, demeaned, and denigrated," Stone said.

Stone's nonprofit organized a virtual prayer vigil on Monday night and a demonstration outside the Indiana Convention Center as the SBC met.

Meredith Stone, executive director with the Baptist Women in Ministry, reads community prayers of solidarity and affirmation as the group protests, while standing outside the Southern Baptist Convention, Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
Meredith Stone, executive director with the Baptist Women in Ministry, reads community prayers of solidarity and affirmation as the group protests, while standing outside the Southern Baptist Convention, Tuesday, June 11, 2024.

“We swallowed our grief when we were told we weren’t ready to lead,” speaker Anjie Hong said during the prayer vigil on Monday. “These untruths and these lies have hurt us. These lies have wounded us, made us question ourselves and worse, made us question the God who created us in God’s image.”

If anything, the past couple years have cemented the means by which the SBC can exclude churches with women pastors. The mechanism the denomination uses to initiate that exclusion, a group that evaluates reports against churches called the SBC Credentials Committee, was initially reformulated in 2019 to only address sexual abuse and racism in churches.

This conflict over policy limiting church leadership to men isn’t exclusive to the SBC. The Presbyterian Church in America, a smaller yet similarly influential evangelical Christian denomination, is set to deliberate a legislative proposal to add a clause to the denomination’s policies that “only qualified men may be invited to preach in any of the churches under our care.”

Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at ladams@tennessean.com or on social media @liamsadams.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: SBC: Southern Baptist ban on women pastors fails in historic vote

Advertisement