(RNS) — Days before the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, former megachurch pastor Rick Warren has appealed to his fellow Southern Baptists to overturn a denominational decision to oust his Saddleback Church because it permits women to serve with the title pastor.
“This should be the moment where 47,000+ autonomous, independent, freedom-loving churches say NO to turning the Executive Committee into a theological Magisterium that controls a perpetual inquisition of churches and makes the EC a centralized hierarchy that tells our congregations who to hire and what to call them,” Warren wrote in an open letter released Friday (June 2).
The SBC’s Executive Committee voted in February to oust Saddleback, approving a recommendation of its credentials committee that determined the congregation was “not in friendly cooperation” because Stacie Wood, wife of Warren successor Andy Wood, had the title of “teaching pastor.”
On Mother’s Day weekend in 2021, Saddleback ordained three women who were longtime staffers. Nearly two years later, Katie Edwards was announced as the new campus pastor of the church’s Lake Forest, California, location.
In May, Saddleback announced it would appeal the decision. Since that time, Warren has mounted a campaign that includes the open letter, a website and a video series detailing why he thinks the church should be permitted to remain within the Southern Baptist fold.
“Your own family members often hold opposing opinions, but you don’t disown them for that,” he wrote. “You still love them in spite of disagreement.” (Italics are Warren’s.)
Warren also cited Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, two women missionaries in whose names major denominational missions funds are collected in SBC churches every year. The letter encouraged fellow Baptists “to say NO to those who would have silenced these Southern Baptist women.”
Delegates to the annual meeting, set for June 13-14 in New Orleans, will vote on whether to affirm or overturn decisions about Saddleback, along with two other churches that have appealed their ousters — one for having a woman in a pastoral role and the other for “a lack of intent to cooperate in resolving concerns regarding a sexual abuse allegation.”
In addition to seeking to overturn the Executive Committee decision, Warren hopes for a change in the SBC constitution that would override a section first approved in 2014 and voted on a second time and implemented in 2015. It said the denomination would include only churches with “a faith and practice which closely identifies” with the Baptist Faith and Message. That statement of faith restricts the office of pastor to men.
Any change in the constitution that would update that amendment would have to be passed by votes over two consecutive years by the messengers.
Virginia Baptist pastor Mike Law proposed a constitutional amendment at the 2022 annual meeting that would officially bar churches that “affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”
“Why is it wrong for women to serve as pastors?” Law said in a video sent to Executive Committee members. “Because it is contrary to God’s design for his church. It is that simple. Don’t overthink this issue.”
Warren says the denomination has changed direction in the past, lamenting slavery and apologizing in 1995 to African Americans for condoning racism, and more recently attempting to address the concerns of victims of sex abuse.
He argues that the debate is far larger than what might happen to the church he founded, pointing to the continuing decline in membership of the Protestant denomination, which totaled 13.2 million in 2022, a drop of more than 3 million members since 2006.
“This is a vote to affirm the God-given freedom of every Baptist to interpret Scripture AS A BAPTIST – by saying NO to those who deny that freedom,” he said. “This is a vote to affirm evangelism by saying NO to factionalism.” (All boldface and italics are Warren’s.)