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Southern Baptists Boot Saddleback Church for Having a Female Pastor

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The Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday ousted its second-largest congregation — Saddleback Church, the renowned California megachurch founded by pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren — for having a woman pastor.

The vote by the convention's Executive Committee culminates growing tension between the nation's largest Protestant denomination — which officially opposes women as pastors — and a congregation whose story has been one of the biggest church-growth successes of modern times.

The committee cited Saddleback's having "a female teaching pastor functioning in the office of pastor," an allusion to Stacie Wood, wife of the current lead pastor of Saddleback, Andy Wood.

But the controversy began in 2021, when Warren ordained three women as pastors, prompting discussions within the denomination about possibly expelling the megachurch.

Warren retired last year after more than 42 years at Saddleback. He made an emotional speech in June 2022 at the Southern Baptists' annual convention in Anaheim, standing by his ordination of women. He told delegates who debated the issue, "We have to decide if we will treat each other as allies or adversaries."

But the Executive Committee took the vote Tuesday without public discussion after meeting in executive session.

It voted to approve a recommendation from the denomination's Credentials Committee that Saddleback be deemed "not in friendly cooperation with the Convention" — the terminology used for ousting a church. While Southern Baptists' statement of faith officially opposes women as pastors, each congregation is self-governing, so the main enforcement mechanism is to oust it from membership.

The Executive Committee's motion said that Saddleback "has a faith and practice that does not closely identify with the Convention's adopted statement of faith, as demonstrated by the church having a female teaching pastor functioning in the office of pastor."

In a statement late Tuesday, the church didn't indicate whether it planned to exercise its right to appeal the decision at the Southern Baptists' next annual meeting, scheduled for New Orleans in June.

"We love and have always valued our relationship with the SBC and its faithful churches," Saddleback elders said in a statement. "We will engage and respond through the proper channels at the appropriate time in hopes to serve other like-minded Bible believing SBC churches. Meanwhile, we remain focused on following God's leadership to love and serve our church family and the communities around our campuses."

Mike Keahbone, an Executive Committee member and Oklahoma pastor, said an appeal "appears likely."

"This was the heart of the room; to let the messengers (delegates) of the SBC decide," Keahbone tweeted Tuesday.

With its main campus in Lake Forest, south of Los Angeles, Saddleback Church has grown over four to 14 locations in Southern California, with an average weekly attendance of 30,000. There are four international campuses —in Hong Kong, Germany, the Philippines and Argentina.

Wood told The Associated Press last year that the Bible "teaches that men and women were given spiritual gifts by God." His wife has served as teaching pastor for Saddleback.

"The church should be a place where both men and women can exercise those spiritual gifts," Wood said. "My wife has the spiritual gift of teaching and she is really good. People often tell me she's better than me when it comes to preaching, and I'm really glad to hear that."

The Executive Committee also voted to oust five other congregations -- four over the issue of women as pastors and one over the issue of sexual abuse.

When Southern Baptists last updated their official statement of belief — The Baptist Faith and Message — in 2000, they added this clause: "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.  

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