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

Pastor Andy Wood and his wife, Stacie Wood, stand for a portrait
Pastor Andy Wood and his wife, Stacie, outside Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. She was recently named a teaching pastor and three other women were ordained as associate pastors.
(Allison Dinner / Associated Press)
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Last week the Southern Baptist Convention ousted Saddleback Church, one of its largest and highest-profile member churches, from its ranks. The reason? Because after the Orange County megachurch ordained three women as associate pastors, it 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, has not been met with uniform enthusiasm among the SBC’s roughly 47,000 member churches.

Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, shared his displeasure on Twitter, writing that the decision to “disfellowship” Saddleback was not about Scripture or adherence to the Baptist Faith and Message. “It’s driven by power, male supremacy; and it stinks in the nostrils of God,” he wrote.

Adam Greenway, who served as the president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from February 2019 to September 2022, was one of many who argued that the decision sets a bad precedent: “There seems to be a sentiment in today’s SBC that wants to purify the Convention, and sees ‘women pastors’ as a huge threat to biblical authority and a slippery slope toward liberalism and drift,” he wrote on Twitter. “A few years ago it was Calvinism. Perhaps it will be something else later on.”

The Southern Baptist Convention decided Tuesday to oust Saddleback Church, the second-largest congregation of the convention, because it has a female pastor.

Feb. 21, 2023

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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 which are ultimately autonomous. Now, some Southern Baptists fear an ultraconservative ideological wing of the organization is imposing its own beliefs and values on other churches.

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

Benjamin Cole is a former Southern Baptist pastor in Texas
Benjamin Cole is a former Southern Baptist pastor in Texas who has been attending Southern Baptist conventions for nearly 30 years.
(Benjamin Cole)

“What is happening now seems to me to be a great divorce from Baptist history and heritage,” said Cole, who tweets his thoughts on the SBC under the handle @baptistblogger. “We may not only be losing Saddleback Church and Rick Warren. We may be losing our identity.”

Cole, an opinionated and self-described Baptist geek, spoke to The Times about the origins of the tension between Saddleback and the SBC, why female 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 distributing life jackets to people who are drowning than straitjackets,” he said. “And what the convention is now being forced to answer is whether or not we will pass out straitjackets to our churches rather than life jackets to the communities around us in need of hope.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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How did Saddleback come to be removed from the SBC?

Someone or some groups of people formally submitted Saddleback Church for inquiry by the credentials committee to examine whether or not the church had fallen out of close fellowship with Southern Baptists. In this case, it was a theological issue of women serving in pastoral roles.

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

So having any kind of female pastor is completely against the rules of the SBC?

The confessional statement [the Baptist Faith and Message] says the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture. But we seem to only be interested in that it’s men. Scriptural qualifications also say pastors must be apt to teach, they must be the husband of one wife, they must be not given to wine — it’s all in the Bible in 1st Timothy Chapter 3. It also says that an overseer — a pastor— is to be faithful to his wife. Are we going to start kicking out churches who have pastors that are unfaithful to their wives?

It says they have to be temperate. Are we going to start kicking out churches who have pastors who are intemperate? A scroll through Twitter is all you have to do to find out the number of intemperate pastors Southern Baptists have.

We’re just on a very dangerous course right now.

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The SBC used to allow women as pastors until 2000. What changed then?

The Southern Baptists have never had any significant number of churches that have been pastored by women. There have been occasions throughout history where it happened. It really became an issue in the 1980s. There were some churches that had hired or elected females as their senior pastor. Those churches were disfellowshipped [removed] from their local associations, and it never came to a vote in the national convention in the way that this is happening.

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

I would be less shocked if Southern Baptists had a gluttonous, drunken, mardi-gras-style orgy at the 2023 convention in New Orleans than that there would be any effort to affirm women as pastors in Southern Baptist churches.

Now let me add one caveat. Our seminary enrollment is down. All trends in theological education indicate that fewer and fewer men are going to seminary and seeking the degrees that have historically been conferred upon pastors in Southern Baptist life. If there are 47,000 Southern Baptist churches and 20 years from now you only have 20,0000 men who want to be pastors, there are going to be some tough decisions to be made.

Rick Warren just left Saddleback after leading it for more than 40 years. Is it a coincidence that the SBC ousted the church so soon after he left?

There is no such thing as a coincidence in Southern Baptist confession of faith. Whether or not individuals who are both employed by SBC agencies or serve as trustees of those entities and agencies seized upon the opportunity of Rick Warren’s retirement to seek and pursue the removal of Saddleback from fellowship, I don’t know. But I find it likely that Rick Warren’s retirement makes it easier for people who have long wanted Saddleback out to pursue it.

Saddleback is arguably 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 required some different strategies and different ways of communicating, and that was unsettling to traditional hard-line Southern Baptists. His critics would have been delighted if he had failed. It would prove them right that God doesn’t bless that sort of ministry model.

Rick changed the culture of the community where he lives, and there’s nothing that makes a backward Baptist angrier than the church growth success of someone like Rick Warren. He makes people who prefer authoritarian evangelical structures bristle.

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

Even if Saddleback in the end is OK with disfellowship and wants to move on, I hope they will appeal it if for no other reason than to allow their brothers and sisters in Christ, who do not want to see this happen to other churches, to debate this on the floor of the annual convention in an orderly process governed by Robert’s Rules of Order. That is how our polity is intended to work. So I hope Saddleback appeals it. I will do everything I can to help that appeal process.

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You wrote that the ousting of Saddleback is not about liberalism, but “something far worse.” What did you mean by that?

There have always been many different ways of being Baptist. There used to be moderate Baptists, conservative Baptists, fundamental Baptists and even liberal Baptists, but everyone allowed each other to worship how they wanted and still cooperated for missions, ministry, evangelism and theological education. Today, the Southern Baptist Convention is increasingly homogeneous. Folks who are not on the right and increasingly the far right of the theological political spectrum do not find a home in SBC.

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