Impassioned appeals by ousted churches spotlight Southern Baptists’ stance against women pastors

Rick Warren speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention at the New Orleans Ernest N Morial Convention Center, Tuesday, June 13, 2023, in New Orleans. (Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser via AP)

Linda Bames Popham speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser via AP)

Dr. Albert Mohler speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser via AP)

NEW ORLEANS — Longtime pastors of two churches — one massive and one modest-sized — made their final appeals to Southern Baptists on Tuesday, asking to have their churches returned to the denomination’s fold after being ousted for having women pastors.

Rick Warren, the retired founding pastor of Saddleback Church and author of the best-selling phenomenon, “The Purpose Driven Life,” called for the reinstatement of the California megachurch in a brief but impassioned address here at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Rev. Linda Barnes Popham of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, made a similar appeal to rejoin the convention.

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“We should remove churches for all kinds of sexual sin, racial sin, financial sin and leadership sin – sins that harm the testimony of our convention,” Warren told the convention. But churches with “women on pastoral staff have not sinned,” he said. “If doctrinal disagreements between Baptists are considered sin, we all get kicked out.”

The more than 12,700 messengers, or church representatives, voted by ballot on whether to uphold the decision by the denomination’s Executive Committee in February to deem the two churches not in friendly cooperation.

Results aren’t expected until Wednesday morning. But if crowd reaction is any indication, Warren may be accurate in his earlier prediction that he’ll fall short, as a far louder applause went to the person he sparred with — Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who gave rebuttals to both churches’ appeals.

“Thirty years ago, this issue threatened to tear this denomination apart,” Mohler said, citing controversies of the late 20th century that culminated in the denomination’s conservative shift. He said the denomination has had a consensus in the past two decades on the issue that is now being threatened.

Saddleback had been the denomination’s second-largest church and until recently was deemed a model of church growth.

Popham, pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville for the past three decades, described her congregation as a “very conservative, evangelical mission-minded … church like many of you.”

She said she’s a lifelong Southern Baptist who disagrees with fellow Baptists on some issues, “but I don’t want to kick you out. … We don’t all interpret every Scripture the same way. 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.”

Mohler said churches have the right to choose their practices, but so does the convention.

“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.”

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