Why are non-SBC Christians so upset about the SBC vote?

Short Description: Some non-SBC Christians may disagree with the denomination’s vote to exclude any congregation that allows women to be ordained, but no one is forcing any individual Baptist church to continue to walk in relationship with churches that adhere to a doctrine that its members truly don’t believe.


At its 2023 annual conference, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) voted overwhelmingly to affirm its position that women could not seek ordination to ministry, and ousted from the Convention two churches at which women were serving as pastors. Saddleback Church, formerly led by author Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life), was one of the churches, the ouster of which was upheld by a reported vote of 9,437 in favor of removal, and only 1,212 votes objecting to removal.

The Southern Baptist Convention is reported to be the largest group of Protestants in the U.S., numbering well over 16 million affiliated members. The churches are not part of a hierarchical structure but rather have accepted a set of core beliefs that allow them to continue to walk in fellowship together. Clearly, if at any time a church disagrees with some tenet within that set of core beliefs, that church is free to disaffiliate – and either join other Baptist affiliations or become independent. If churches remain but are unwilling to accept the core beliefs of the affiliation, they may find themselves removed.

The issue of the ordination of women in SBC is far from a new question, however, as the SBC has never in its history affirmed the ordination of women. Both Saddleback and Fern Creek Baptist Church had women serving as pastors, but neither church had voluntarily left the SBC.

While some in the denomination might continue to advocate for the SBC to reconsider its position (and might have chosen to remain in the denomination in order to advocate from the “inside”), the overwhelming vote suggests that SBC members are comfortable and confident that the scriptural and theological bases for their position are sound. Churches that disagree with this core tenet of the denomination’s beliefs surely are aware of the uphill battle before them to attempt changing the denomination’s beliefs.

So, what happens, then, if a Baptist church believes that it has raised up women who should express their gifts for ministry as pastors? Should that church walk away from the SBC even before the SBC can vote for its removal, and join with another affiliation of Baptists (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship comes to mind…) that affirms the ordination of women?

And, what proverbial dog does any other Christian denomination have in that fight?

After SBC conventioneers (“Messengers”) voted to oust Saddleback Church and Fern Creek Baptist Church, the backlash from non-SBC Christian America was swift – prompting me to wonder if we really think that the Christian tent is not large enough for different beliefs.

The Roman Catholic Church does not allow for the ordination of women. The Eastern Orthodox Church traditions do not allow for the ordination of women. Church of Christ, Church of God in Christ, Presbyterian Church of America and other Christian denominations do not ordain women as pastors.  These churches rely heavily on the language from Paul’s letters to early followers of Christ:

 “As in all the churches of the saints, 34women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35

These churches have interpreted scripture as prohibiting women to serve as ordained ministers. And, women who believe and affirm these churches’ doctrines clearly number among these churches’ members.

In response, other Christian denominations point to words from the same Paul, praising women in the church in Rome:

 “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” Romans 16:1-2

None of Paul’s words, of course, give any indication of the thoughts of Jesus – who sent forth Mary Magdalene and other women as the first messengers (Dare we say, “preachers”?) of the news of the Resurrection.

Should the rest of the Christian world be so heavily invested in telling the Southern Baptist Convention – or any other Christian church which does not allow the ordination of women – that they are wrong? Are we in a position to claim that women who worship in traditions that do not allow the ordination of women have been denied the opportunity to fully express their gifts for ministry?

Personally, I am unwilling to declare my sisters in traditions that do not allow the ordination of women to be either brainwashed, misled or uninformed. I do not choose to “feel sorry” for the women of the SBC who some would claim are not being allowed to express their gifts for ministry; I have to believe that if SBC women felt a call to ordination, they would seek out a denomination which allowed their gifts to be expressed in that way. Neither do I feel a need to convince any person in an SBC church to read scripture differently or persuade them that my beliefs are “right.”

From my vantage point, the tent is clearly large enough for our differences.

My parents were Baptists. I knew as a child – long before I answered a call to ordained ministry or even understood what that meant – that attitudes toward women in their church didn’t register well with me. I simply moved on as a young adult to a place that I could truly call home. I didn’t feel a need to impose my will on those who chose to remain.

I guess that’s what seems so unfathomable to me about churches like Saddleback which desire to remain in the SBC in spite of such a huge chasm between them and other member congregations. Somewhere along the way, Christians failed rather miserably at being “one”. Our doctrinal divisions are significant.

Now, I have to believe that God’s hope for us all is to love God and neighbor as we have been commanded and find that place of worship where we are welcome, where we may pray and praise God in truth and in love, and where we may continually grow in relationship with God.


Photo by Gregory Hayes on Unsplash

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  • Bill Nelson says:

    Having served within the SBC as the pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., for over thirty years, I’m not sure it is as easy for Linda Barnes Pophamhad and other women currently pastoring the SBC to pivot as it was for you. Rick Warren advocated more for especially African American women and churches than he did for Saddleback Church. Also, some feel legitimately disturbed by how SBC’s issues surrounding the denomination-wide abuse crisis were subordinated to create space for debate and voting on issues of women in ministry. “With the female-pastor debate getting the most attention, the slow work to address abuse plods on,” says Kate Shellnut in her most recent CT article.

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