Southern Baptists vote to forbid women pastors; National convention adopts provision with little dissent

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. - Asserting that scripture dictates only men should lead churches, the Southern Baptist Convention voted yesterday to prohibit women from serving as pastors.

The measure was part of a revision of the Baptist Faith and Message, the church's statement of faith, last reworked in 1963. The document also uncompromisingly asserts opposition to abortion, homosexuality and racism.

And the new Faith and Message includes the provision adopted two years ago that "a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ."

Outside the church, the provision prohibiting women pastors in the 42,000 Southern Baptist congregations was the most controversial issue on yesterday's agenda.

Inside the Southern Baptist meeting, however, the subject drew few opponents. It was not even broached during more than an hour of debate on the revisions to the statement of faith.

The new statement clearly enunciates the Bible-based, conservative stance of the nation's largest Protestant denomination, with 16 million members, culminating a process that began 21 years ago in a battle between conservatives and moderates that resulted in conservatives asserting control in 1991.

"What you saw here today was resounding affirmation," said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a rising star in the Southern Baptist Convention.

"It is clear that the vast, overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist churches said this document is precisely where we stand. This is where we want to declare ourselves."

The revised Baptist Faith and Message is binding on any employee of a national Southern Baptist organization, including its seminaries. But under Baptist doctrine, which asserts the autonomy of individual congregations, a local church is free to abide by it or to ignore it.

And the statement did not address whether women could continue to be ordained.

"We're not trying to force our beliefs upon any individual, upon any church, upon any other denomination on the face of the Earth," said the Rev. Adrian Rogers, a pastor from Memphis, Tenn. who chaired the revisions committee. "We are trying to say ... what ... we as Baptists do believe, as a witness and a testimony and as a guide for those who work alongside us."

Outside the annual meeting, about 100 protesters, most of them gay or lesbian, declared their opposition to the Baptists' beliefs. They carried signs outside the Orange County Convention Center that read, "Stop Spiritual Violence." About two dozen were arrested.

The demonstrators were members of SoulForce, a group of gay Christians led by former Baptist minister Mel White, who disrupted last month's United Methodist convention in Cleveland and plan to do the same at a national Presbyterian gathering this month in Long Beach, Calif.

As the Baptist "messengers," as the delegates are known, arrived yesterday, many passed by Jessica Thuiller and Debbie Nelson, a gay couple from Cape Canaveral, Fla. They were holding signs that said, "It's OK to be gay," and "I am a proud lesbian."

Although Nelson described the content of the Faith and Message as "awful," she was pleasantly greeting the arriving messengers.

"They're basically praying for me, which is a pleasant thought, a comforting thought," she said. "There have been a lot of smiles."

Church officials made it clear that they expect little opposition to any provision of the statement, including the one limiting the pastorate to men.

They pointed to a survey conducted by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that found there were between 50 and 75 female pastors of Southern Baptist churches in the country.

The Rev. Richard D. Land, president of the denomination's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, argued that this was convincing proof that Southern Baptists believe pastoral authority should be retained by men, since each church hires its pastor by congregational vote.

"So when you have somewhere between 50 and 70 churches out of 42,000, this is as pure a representation of a democratic vote of where Baptists actively are on this issue as you could have," Land said, "because these people all chose their own pastors.

"It's one reason why so many moderate churches, who want to plead for women in the ministry, don't have woman pastors. They can't get their own churches to vote to call women as pastors. That's how unpopular it is among the rank-and-file folk."

The Rev. Tony Woodell, a pastor from Little Rock, Ark., was among a few moderate Southern Baptists at the convention who dissented from the majority.

"We have cheapened the role of women inside of our denomination," he said. "We have let the right wing set our agenda of lessening the call of a woman inside of Southern Baptist churches."

The new statement of faith covers other theological issues. It asserts that there is no salvation except through Jesus Christ and that "Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality and pornography."

During yesterday's debate, most of the discussion centered on the bedrock Baptist principle of the autonomy of the believer. In the draft document, the revisions committee omitted references to "soul competency" and "the priesthood of the believer," which assert the ability of people to directly reach the divine without the mediation of clergy.

Some critics of the Southern Baptist leadership interpreted the omission as a bid to create a church hierarchy. Bowing to vocal concerns, explicit mention of those two concepts was added yesterday morning by the revisions committee.

But the committee refused to budge on a change that critics found equally disturbing: It removed a statement from the 1963 Faith and Message that said, "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ."

This issue unearthed the deep divisions within the denomination between those who believe in biblical fundamentalism vs. those who believe in the individual's spiritual relationship with God.

This prompted a group of moderate pastors, most of whom had not attended a convention since conservatives asserted control in 1991, to attend this meeting to force a showdown.

They were, however, outvoted.

"This is a sub-Christian statement," said the Rev. Bruce Prescott, pastor of First Baptist Church in Norman, Okla.

"Jesus is the perfect revelation of God. The Bible is the record of God's revelation. They've exalted the Bible to the point that it is part of deity.

"We have a quaternity now, and not a trinity. They worship God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit and God the Holy Bible."

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