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‘A very dangerous course’: What Saddleback Church ouster means for Southern Baptists

Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention expelled Saddleback Church, one of its largest and most prominent member churches. The reason? Because the Orange County megachurch has appointed three women as associate pastors and has named Stacie Wood, wife of the church’s senior pastor, Andy Wood, a teaching pastor.

The SBC added a ban on female pastors to its statement of core beliefs, the faith and message doctrine, in 2000, but the decision to remove Saddleback, a rare success story in a time of declining church membership, was not met with uniform enthusiasm among the SBC’s approximately 47,000 member churches.

Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, shared his dismay on Twitter. to write that the decision to “exclude” Saddleback was not about scripture or adherence to the Baptist faith and message. “It is driven by power, male supremacy; and it stinks in the nostrils of God,” he wrote.

Adam Greenway, who served as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from February 2019 to September 2022, was among many to argue that the decision sets a bad precedent: Convention, and sees “women pastors” as a huge threat to biblical authority and a slippery slope towards liberalism and aberration,’ he wrote on Twitter. “A few years ago it was Calvinism. Maybe it will be something else later.”

The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845, conceived as an organization of individual churches with a set of shared beliefs that pool some of their resources, but are ultimately autonomous. Now some Southern Baptists fear that an ultra-conservative ideological wing of the organization is imposing its own beliefs and values ​​on other churches.

Among those concerned about an increasingly authoritarian stance from the SBC is Benjamin Cole, 46, a former Southern Baptist pastor in Texas who has attended Southern Baptist conventions for nearly 30 years.

Benjamin Cole is a former Southern Baptist pastor in Texas who has attended Southern Baptist conventions for nearly 30 years.

(Benjamin Cole)

“What’s happening now seems to me to be a major divorce from the history and heritage of the Baptists,” said Cole, who tweeted his thoughts on the SBC below the handle @baptistblogger. “Maybe we’re not just losing Saddleback Church and Rick Warren. We may lose our identity.”

Cole, a cocky and self-proclaimed Baptist nerd, spoke to The Times about the origins of the tension between Saddleback and the SBC, why women pastors are not accepted in most Southern Baptist churches and why he hopes Saddleback will appeal the decision .

“Southern Baptists have always been more concerned about handing out life jackets to drowning people than straitjackets,” he said. “And what the convention now has to answer is whether or not we will hand out straitjackets to our churches instead of life jackets to the communities around us that need hope.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did Saddleback get removed from the SBC?

Someone or some groups of people formally submitted the Saddleback Church for examination by the Credentials Committee to investigate whether or not the church no longer had a close relationship with Southern Baptists. In this case it was a theological issue of women in pastoral positions.

It came in the wake of Saddleback’s determination to ordain women pastors as an autonomous local church—not as senior ministers of the church, but as associate ministers of the church.

So having a female pastor is completely against SBC rules?

The confession statement (the Baptist Faith and Message) says that the office of minister is limited to men as qualified by scripture. But we only seem to be interested in them being men. Scriptural qualifications also say that ministers must be fit to teach, they must be the husband of one wife, they must not be given to wine – it’s all in the Bible in 1 Timothy Chapter 3. It also says that an overseer—a minister—should be faithful to his wife. Are we going to start kicking out churches that have pastors who are unfaithful to their wives?

It says they should be moderate. Are we going to kick out churches that have pastors who are immoderate? A scroll through Twitter is all you need to do to find out how many immoderate pastors Southern Baptists have.

We are just on a very dangerous course right now.

The SBC allowed up to 2,000 women to serve as pastors. What changed then?

The Southern Baptists have never had a significant number of churches led by women. There have been occasions throughout history where it happened. It really became a problem in the 1980s. There were some churches that hired or elected women as their senior pastors. Those churches were excluded (removed) from their local associations, and it never came to a vote in the national convention like this happens.

How likely is it that the SBC will admit women as pastors?

I’d be less shocked if Southern Baptists had a gluttonous, drunk, mardi-gras-esque orgy at the 2023 convention in New Orleans than if there were any attempt to affirm women as pastors in Southern Baptist churches.

Now let me add a caveat. Our seminary enrollment has dropped. All trends in theological education indicate that fewer and fewer men are going to seminary and seeking the degrees historically awarded to pastors in Southern Baptist life. When there are 47,000 Southern Baptist churches and only 20,000 men wanting to be pastors in 20 years, tough decisions will have to be made.

Rick Warren has just left Saddleback after more than 40 years in charge. Is it a coincidence that the SBC expelled the Church so soon after he left?

There is no such thing as chance in the Southern Baptist creed. Whether individuals who are both employed by SBC agencies and trustees of those entities and agencies took the opportunity of Rick Warren’s retirement to remove Saddleback from the community, I don’t know. But I think it’s likely that Rick Warren’s retirement will make it easier for people who have long wanted Saddleback to pursue it.

Saddleback is perhaps the SBC’s most well-known church. Why would SBC members want it out of the organization?

For Rick to do what he did in Southern California, it required a number of different strategies and different ways of communicating, which was troubling to the traditional Southern Baptist hardline. His critics would have been delighted if he had failed. It would prove them right that God does not bless that kind of ministry model.

Rick changed the culture of the community he lives in, and there’s nothing that makes a retarded Baptist angrier than the church growth success of someone like Rick Warren. He allows people who prefer authoritarian evangelical structures to stand up.

Do you expect Saddleback Church to protest or appeal this decision?

Even if Saddleback eventually agrees to disfellowshipping and wants to move forward, I hope they will appeal, if only to allow their brothers and sisters in Christ, who don’t want this to happen to other churches, to debate about this on the floor of the annual convention in an orderly process governed by Robert’s Rules of Order. That is how our polity should work. So I hope Saddleback appeals to it. I will do everything I can to help that appeal process.

You wrote that the impeachment of Saddleback is not about liberalism, but about “something much worse”. What do you mean?

There have always been many different ways to be a Baptist. There used to be Moderate Baptists, Conservative Baptists, Fundamental Baptists, and even Liberal Baptists, but everyone allowed each other to worship as they pleased and still worked together for missions, ministry, evangelism, and theological education. Today, the Southern Baptist Convention is increasingly homogeneous. People not on the right and increasingly on the far right of the theological political spectrum find no home in SBC.