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Female Christian leaders reflect on the Southern Baptist Convention’s decision to remove women-led churches

<i>Allison Dinner/AP/FILE</i><br/>Congregants arrive at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest
Allison Dinner/AP/FILE
Congregants arrive at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest

By Leah Asmelash, CNN

(CNN) — For Southern Baptists, the last week has been one to remember.

The Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant Christian denomination in the country — voted last week at its annual meeting to uphold the expulsion of two churches led by women pastors: Fern Creek in Louisville, Kentucky, which has had Rev. Linda Barnes Popham as its pastor since 1993, and Saddleback Church, a major southern California congregation with more than a dozen campuses founded by pastor and “The Purpose Driven Life” author Rick Warren.

That vote alone prompted questions from some Christian women, both inside and outside the SBC. But then, the denomination also moved to expand an amendment to its constitution completely restricting all pastoral and elder roles only to men. Previously, only the role of pastor was limited to men, according to the denomination’s constitution.

Though the controversial amendment would require a second vote next year before becoming official, it could affect even more churches and female leaders within the SBC.

The move to expel the churches has been contentious. Within the SBC, the votes were not unanimous: about 8% of members voted in favor of keeping Fern Creek, and 11% in favor of Saddleback. (Five churches with female pastors were expelled from the SBC. Only Fern Creek and Saddleback pursued an appeal.) Votes for the amendment proposal banning women from elder positions were not publicly released.

“We’re shaped by what we read in the New Testament and Southern Baptists, just as we said in the year 2000, when we last amended the Baptist Faith and Message, we’ve reiterated that over the course of this meeting, that we believe that the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by scripture,” said SBC President Bart Barber in a press conference following the meeting. (The SBC did not provide further comment to CNN, instead pointing to the recording of the press conference.)

The SBC is not the only Christian denomination to preclude women from pastoral and leadership roles. Though some denominations have allowed female pastors and leaders in recent years, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church both have not.

For some Christian women, though, the expulsions and the expanded amendment are cause for concern. Rev. Brittany Edwards attended a Southern Baptist church, which she declined to name, when she first received the call to join ministry. She went on to begin her training at that church, by leading Bible studies and conducting social media campaigns.

But there was a limit to how much that church would actually let her use her skills. At a leaders training, she overheard someone say that in co-ed Bible studies, female leaders could not lead the small group without a male partner.

“(That) really puzzled me when I heard that, because that was something that was actively going on in many small groups,” Edwards told CNN. “What was being said in the front was not consistent with what was actually happening.”

Edwards went on to get ordained at Macedonia Baptist Church, a church dually aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the SBC. She currently attends an Episcopalian church.

With this new ruling, Edwards said she was saddened by the decision, but it simply affirmed what “everyone knew” churches in the denomination believed. Now, she said she’s concerned that churches in the denomination will have to hide the role of women in their congregations.

“Baptist women have been laboring to make Baptist churches thrive for centuries,” said Edwards, who also owns a line of women’s clergy wear. “This event in the SBC is not going to change that.”

CNN did not receive a response from Macedonia Baptist Church about the SBC decision and whether the church’s practices would change.

Women have had a long history in the church, and have played significant roles in the Bible. When Jesus first appeared after the resurrection, for example, it wasn’t the disciples he appeared to, it was Mary Magdalene.

And church historians have found that early Christian women had significant roles in the church, serving as teachers, theologians, and even, like Mary Magdalene, witnesses of Jesus Christ.

Women’s roles were later relegated, in a move that historian Justo González, in his book “The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1,” notes may have been a reaction to the increasing popularity of heresies at the time.

But those who are in support of restricting women in leadership roles often point to verse 1 Timothy 2:12, written by the Apostle Paul, which reads “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” Therefore, allowing female pastors, some argue, is unbiblical.

Others say that the verse, and others like it, can be interpreted differently.

Jess Gaul is a minister at Washington Community Fellowship, a multi-denominational church in Washington, DC. Gaul, who grew up in a Southern Baptist church, said she respects differences of belief and theological convictions. But she also noted that all Christians should be open to conviction of whether their beliefs and actions are bringing forth the “fruits of the spirit,” characterized in the Bible as traits that come from God: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

“As I’ve been open to that, I have seen the fruits of the spirit alive and well in ministries and in churches where the affirmation of women in all areas of leadership is upheld,” Gaul told CNN.

Still, the SBC decision saddened her.

“There are women who have served faithfully in Southern Baptist churches for centuries,” Gaul said. “And they will continue to, but they will not get the recognition that they’re due, or their gifts will not hold the same value for the church.”

Because of the amendment, Gaul also noted that some women may leave the SBC, realizing that their gifts might be grown and valued more elsewhere. Some churches may disaffiliate from the SBC altogether, Edwards predicted.

The fate of Saddleback and Fern Creek may already be sealed, but Warren — who founded Saddleback in 1980 — seemed hopeful that, eventually, the SBC will change.

“Change will happen at some point,” he said, in a statement following the news. “Truth inevitably triumphs over tradition, but it takes time.”

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