Southern Baptists expel Virginia church for believing women can serve as pastors

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Even as they prepare to vote on a formal ban on churches with women pastors, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to boot one such church from its ranks.

Messengers, as voting representatives are known, voted 6,759 to 563 to oust First Baptist Church of Alexandria, a historic Virginia congregation that affirms women can serve in any pastoral role, including as senior pastor. A similar scenario played out at last year’s meeting. Two congregations, including a well-known California megachurch, were ejected from the convention. Ninety-two percent of messengers approved the ouster.

The Virginia congregation has been involved in the nation's largest Protestant denomination since its 19th century founding and has contributed millions toward denominational causes. But it came under scrutiny after the pastor of a neighboring church reported it to denominational authorities over its having a woman as pastor for women and children.

The vote came after the denomination's credentials committee recommended earlier Tuesday that the denomination deem the church to be not in “friendly cooperation,” the formulation for expulsion, on the grounds that it conflicts with the Baptist Faith and Message. That statement of Southern Baptist doctrine declares only men are qualified for the role of pastor. Some interpret that only to apply to associate pastors as long as the senior pastor is male.

“We find no joy in making this recommendation, but have formed the opinion that the church’s egalitarian beliefs regarding the office of pastor do not closely identify with the convention’s adopted statement of faith,” said Jonathan Sams, chair of the credentials committee.

The Alexandria church is currently led by a man, Robert Stephens, but the church has made clear it believes women can serve as senior pastors, too. Stephens said his church has had women in ministry for more than 44 years and wants to continue cooperating with Southern Baptists who disagreed on this issue.

“First Alexandria stands before you today as a testament that we can maintain a fruitful partnership with churches that take a different stance on women in ministry,” he said. “We at First Baptist are advancing the gospel, and we hope that we will continue to work alongside you all.”

The decision was made before the delegates had a chance to consider enshrining a ban on churches with any women pastors in the convention's constitution. The proposed amendment received preliminary approval last year, and the final vote is still to come as Southern Baptists gather in Indianapolis for their two-day annual meeting. As of Tuesday afternoon, some 10,864 messengers were registered to take part.

Early Tuesday, a small group of women stood outside the Indiana Convention Center in a low-key demonstration in support of women in ministry.

“I hope that people know women have equal value and can be pastors,” said the Rev. Meredith Stone, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, an organization that originated within the SBC in the 1980s, but it now works with women in a variety of Baptist denominations.

Participants said that of the hundreds of messengers filing by, reactions ranged from sneers to subtle thumbs-up signs to a few voicing “thank you” out loud.

Joining them was Christa Brown, who has long advocated for fellow survivors of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and criticized the denomination’s resistance to reforms, an effort she has chronicled in a new memoir, “Baptistland.” The Southern Baptists ongoing struggles with sexual abuse reforms is also on this year's calendar.

She said there’s a direct connection between issues of abuse and the equality of women in ministry.

“When you squash some people, it sets up a lot more people to be squashed,” she said.

Politics is also a factor in sideline events. On Monday, former President Donald Trump appeared in a videotaped message to attendees of a staunchly anti-abortion conservative group that met next door to the convention center. Trump appealed to the attendees for their votes.

Later Tuesday, former Vice President Mike Pence told an audience of about 500 that he would “never” vote for President Joe Biden, criticizing him on border, abortion and other policies. But Pence stopped short of endorsing Trump, his estranged onetime running mate.

Without invoking Trump by name, Pence criticized those who would leave the abortion issue to the states. Trump has repeatedly taken credit for the overturning of a federally guaranteed right to abortion — having nominated three of the justices who overturned Roe — but has resisted supporting a national abortion ban and says he wants to leave the issue to the states.

Pence said he was proud to be part of the administration whose appointments helped put Roe v. Wade “onto the ash heap of history.” He also remains convinced he did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, in fulfilling his role in certifying Biden's election in the face of a riot and President Trump's insistence that Pence could do otherwise.

Bart Barber, a Texas pastor concluding his two-year tenure as SBC president, told messengers Tuesday that their churches need to provide a “safe place” to worship and gather.

An SBC Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force recently concluded its work. While it has provided a curriculum for training churches on preventing and responding to abuse, it has not achieved the mandate of previous annual meetings to establish a “Ministry Check” database of offenders, which could help churches avoid hiring them.

Abuse survivor and advocate Megan Lively on Tuesday morning made a motion to have the convention task the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission with raising awareness about abuse and providing resources on preventing and responding to it. She is a delegate from Peace Church in Wilson, North Carolina.

Though some have advocated for reforms for the past two decades, the convention has particularly struggled to respond to sexual abuse in its churches since a 2019 report by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. It said that roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers faced allegations of sexual misconduct in the previous two decades.

The denomination subsequently commissioned a report from a consulting firm, Guidepost Solutions. It concluded that leaders of the convention’s Executive Committee intimidated and mistreated survivors who sought help. The committee handles day-to-day business of the convention.

Jeff Iorg, the new president of the Executive Committee, told its members in a meeting Monday that the committee is facing a “financial crisis” because it indemnified Guidepost Solutions from any legal repercussions from the study. The convention is paying for the legal defense against two defamation lawsuits filed by two men named in the report.

“We have spent more than $2 million so far on that indemnification, and there is no end in sight,” Iorg said.


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06/11/2024 23:19 -0400

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