Messengers vote during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Anaheim, California, on Tuesday, June 14, 2022. RNS photo by Justin L. Stewart(RNS) — Membership in the Southern Baptist Convention’s constituent churches has been plummeting, its national leaders are feuding or quitting, and any good work the denomination could boast about has been largely overshadowed by a sex abuse crisis.
Just this week, one of the SBC’s major seminaries announced that its leaders had run up $140 million in deficits over the past two decades, depleting the school’s reserve and leaving it in an ongoing financial crisis.
Alongside these existential challenges, Southern Baptists, like other Americans, have indulged in the nation’s ongoing “woke wars,” in which discussion of policy governing race, education and other issues quickly devolves into a shouting match, especially on social media.
All these factors threaten to erode the SBC’s so-called “rope of sand” — bonds of trust, rather than official hierarchy or legal ownership, that bind together the 40,000 churches and 13 million members of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
Yet most of the denomination’s adversity will be overshadowed during the SBC’s annual meeting in New Orleans this week by a slow-simmering debate that has heated up among Baptists over the past few years: What should be done about the handful of women who serve as pastors at SBC churches?
During the opening day of the SBC’s annual meeting, which runs June 13-14, thousands of local church delegates, known as messengers, will consider appeals from a pair of congregations that have been expelled for employing women as pastors, which conflicts with the denomination’s statement of faith. The messengers will also likely debate a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it clear that churches with women pastors cannot be part of the SBC.
At stake is not only the role of women in the church, but a broader question about how closely a church needs to identify overall with the Baptist Faith & Message to remain “in friendly cooperation” with the convention.
Southern Baptists have long argued over the role of women in the church. In 1885, a group of Virginia women showed up at the annual meeting as messengers. Baptist leaders admitted that no rule barred their presence but barred them anyway, then changed the rules so that only “brethren” were allowed. The rules were later changed back.
In 2000, the statement of faith was updated to hold that men and women are “gifted for service in the church” but restricts the office of pastor to men alone. Some believe that means women cannot do any of the things that male pastors do — lead a church, preach during worship services or oversee both men and women. Others say that only the office of senior pastor of a church is limited to men.
Yet for decades, women served as missionaries, teaching and sometimes preaching. In the 1960s, women began to serve as SBC pastors, with their number growing to at least several hundred by the 1980s. That changed after the so-called Conservative Resurgence took over the convention and drove off more moderate Baptists who supported women pastors. Other women pastors left on their own, feeling no longer welcome.
Still, some remai …