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What's next for the Southern Baptist Convention after it ousted 5 woman-led churches?

Holly Meyer/AP
A cross and Bible sculpture stand outside the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., in 2022.

Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., recently ousted five churches across the U.S. because they allow women to serve as pastors — including Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of the convention's largest member churches.

The SBC's policies state, "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

The other four that were expelled are New Faith Mission Ministry in Griffin, Ga.; St. Timothy's Christian Baptist Church in Baltimore; Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss.; and Fern Creek Baptist Church near Louisville, Ky., according to the Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. A sixth church, Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Fla., was removed for issues related to sexual abuse allegations.

Observers outside of the faith say this convention's executive committee decision will contribute to a growing schism between conservative and moderate members of the SBC.

The move has also drawn criticism from within and outside of the religion.

Monique Moultrie, an associate professor of religious studies at Georgia State University, told NPR, "I think it is interesting that more swift movement was made towards removing these churches from their union, but there has not been as swift a response to the churches with leaders who were found to be predatory abusers of women and children."

The Southern Baptist Convention was rocked by the emergence of widespread sexual abuse problems, with some survivors coming forward in 2018. And last summer, the Justice Department announcedseveral of the denomination's "major entities" are under investigation in the wake of its multiple problems related to clergy sex abuse.

Beth Moore, once a Southern Baptist, previously sold out popular arenas all over the country with her women-focused Bible study events. She made headlines when she left because of disagreements over the SBC's approach to harassment and abuse.

She told NPR's Weekend Edition she believes the SBC's leadership focusing on female pastors is a diversion tactic from those bigger issues.

What disfellowship means for these churches

The SBC pointed NPR to the convention's bylaws for clarity on how the ousted churches will have the opportunity to appeal the executive committee's decision in June during the annual meeting in New Orleans,

Until then, the disfellowship effectively means those churches no longer have a vote or say in the direction of the SBC.

New Faith Mission Ministry, Calvary Baptist Church and Saddleback didn't respond to NPR's requests for comment on the ouster.

In an interview with Morning Edition , the Rev. Linda Barnes Popham of Fern Creek Baptist said this move by SBC leadership seems to be over power and control.

"I, myself, and our church would be considered very conservative. So therefore, it has to be more than that. It has to be something about power," she said.

Popham said she has been serving as her church's pastor for 30 years. She said SBC leadership investigated her role as pastor three years ago, and her church was not punished.

"I'm not sure who the exact folks are who've spearheaded this movement to get rid of female pastors," she said. "Why now? I mean, is it to divert attention away from all the sexual abuse scandals? I don't know."

Pastor Minnie R. Washington of St. Timothy's Christian Baptist Church said in an emailed statement to NPR that the church has had no relationship with the SBC and is not under their authority.

"We are not tributary to them, nor have we ever supported them. And our church has never needed anything at all from them," Washington said.

Washington said that she counts her ouster "an honor and a privilege."

"Perhaps those individuals will remember that their first preacher/teacher was their mother," Washington said. "And in Timothy's life it was his mother and his grandmother. St. Timothy's Christian Baptist Church of Baltimore Maryland follows Jesus Christ and not the SBC."

And Saddleback's founding pastor, Rick Warren, who retired last year, said on Instagram that the church would respond in "OUR time & our way thru direct channels."

Some members of the community turned to social media to criticize the executive committee's decision.

Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, wrote on Twitterthat the disfellowship of Saddleback specifically wasn't about adhering to Baptist teachings.

"It's driven by power, male supremacy; and it stinks in the nostrils of God," he said.

The debate over female leadership has been happening for a long time

According to Matthew Gabriele, the chairman of the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech, the SBC has always been a conservative organization slow to embrace or acknowledge societal change. Historically, the SBC has been reluctant to embrace LGBTQ communities and has resisted the civil rights movement.

"I think that you're seeing the continuation of a trend in which there's a particular type of leadership that has led them for a while and they're fighting against the moves that society seems to be making or even that some of their churches are making right now," he said.

Moultrie, of Georgia State, added that the SBC has long preached "gender complementarianism," the belief that women and men are divinely gifted and ordained by God for different roles. And since 2000, the SBC has explicitly stated that the role of senior pastoral leadership was restricted to men.

The data indicate Southern Baptists are losing members

The SBC's continued stance against female pastors may actually contribute to more members leaving to join a growing number of nondenominational churches in the U.S, said Eric McDaniel, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

"I would expect, especially with the growth of nondenominational churches and the growth of female leadership amongst white religious conservatives, for this to have an effect on the denomination," McDaniel said.

Christianity Today reportedin November that there are "3.4 million more people in nondenominational churches than there are in Southern Baptist ones."

It added that, "If 'nondenominational' were a denomination, it would be the largest Protestant one, claiming more than 13 percent of churchgoers in America."

And research indicates that the number of nondenominational churches surged by about 9,000 congregations over the last 10 years, according to reports citing data by the U.S. Religion Census.

McDaniel said the trends indicate that people who do stay with denominational churches "are the ones who are really the fundamentalists." For women in the Southern Baptist faith who are seeking more opportunities for leadership, a nondenominational church is likely a preferable choice.

"It provides more opportunity for female religious entrepreneurs to kind of create their own congregations, have their own leadership," he said. "You are seeing this kind of take shape now."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.