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  • Meredith Flynn

Appeals over removing churches from SBC spark larger debate

SPRINGFIELD, IL – The announcement that three churches will appeal the decision to deem them not in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention is a key point in a larger discussion likely to happen when Southern Baptists convene in New Orleans this summer.

On June 13, messengers to the SBC Annual Meeting will vote on whether to uphold the decision to withdraw fellowship from Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky; Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Florida; and Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. The SBC’s Executive Committee (on recommendations from the Credentials Committee) deemed the churches not in friendly cooperation in February.

Two of the churches — Fern Creek and Saddleback — were disfellowshipped due to concerns over women serving as pastors. The action regarding Freedom Church stems from reports it did not properly handle an allegation of sexual abuse.

Historic vote

“SBC bylaws plainly outline the process for churches determined to be not in cooperation with the Convention to appeal their cases before messengers cast their votes,” David Sons, chairman of the Executive Committee, said in a statement May 16.

“Since this is the first time in SBC history for this particular item of business to come before the Convention,” he noted, “it’s important for everyone coming to New Orleans to be prepared and informed about the process.”

The SBC Credentials Committee announced in a statement May 16 that the Committee on Order of Business will consider the appeals during the miscellaneous business portion of the afternoon session on that Tuesday.

A representative from the appealing church and a representative of the Credentials Committee or EC will be allowed to speak to the question of whether to sustain the decision to deem the churches not in friendly cooperation.

Founded by pastor Rick Warren 43 years ago, Saddleback was one of the SBC’s largest churches before its removal in February. In 2021, the church ordained three female staff members, resulting in a review by the Credentials Committee. At the 2022 annual meeting in Anaheim, the committee initially proposed waiting to make a decision on Saddleback’s relationship with the SBC until they could gain more clarity on the use of the title “pastor.” After debate on the convention floor, including an appearance by Warren, the committee withdrew its recommendation.

Warren, who has given five reasons for Saddleback’s appeal, retired in 2022 and Andy Wood succeeded him as lead pastor.

Wood’s wife, Stacie, is a teaching pastor at Saddleback. Earlier this month, the church announced Katie Edwards, one of the women ordained in 2021, will serve as campus pastor at its Lake Forest location.

At Fern Creek, Linda Barnes Popham has served as pastor since 1993.

A closer look at structure, governing documents

Bart Barber, president of the SBC, devoted a recent Twitter video to the larger issue of how the SBC’s structure and governing documents impact the process of determining which churches are in friendly cooperation with the convention.

Article III of the SBC constitution says that to be considered cooperating, a church needs to have a faith and practice that is closely identified with the Baptist Faith and Message, Barber noted.

“The thing is, nobody knows what ‘closely identified with’ means in terms of actually applying it to the case of individuals churches,” he said.

Furthermore, Barber said, recently revamped responsibilities for the Credentials Committee require it to “fill in the blanks” on what kind of relationship a church needs to have with the Baptist Faith and Message in order to be in cooperation with the SBC.

Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message states, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Barber said he is in favor of motions likely to be proposed in New Orleans to review the constitution and bylaws and suggest changes with regard to what cooperation means in the SBC, and also to review the Baptist Faith and Message to see if updates or clarifications are needed.

He is also in favor of allowing messengers to vote on a proposed amendment to the constitution that would disqualify from friendly cooperation a church that affirms, appoints, or employs a woman as a pastor of any kind.

Barber recently announced the program for the annual meeting includes more time for convention business, including discussion of proposed motions.



Meredith Flynn is the managing editor for Illinois Baptist.



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