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Southern Baptists Affirm Ouster of Saddleback & Fern Creek Over Women Pastors

By Bob Smietana and Adelle Banks
fern creek woman
The Rev. Linda Barnes Popham speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, La., on June 13, 2023. (RNS photo by Emily Kask)

Delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting affirmed a decision to expel two Southern Baptist churches, including Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, because they employed women as pastors. The churches had appealed to the meeting, the denomination’s ruling body, to be allowed to remain. 

Both churches were denied by a strong majority of the delegates, known as messengers. 

The body affirmed the ouster of Saddleback by a vote of 9,432 to 1,212. The vote went against Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, by 9,700 to 806. 

A third church, Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Florida, was also voted out after the SBC’s credentials committee had recommended it be expelled for its “lack of intent to cooperate in resolving concerns regarding a sexual abuse allegation.”

After the drama of Tuesday’s session at the annual meeting, when representatives of the church were given three minutes to appeal the decisions made by the SBC’s Executive Committee earlier this year, the announcement of the vote totals on Wednesday was greeted with muted applause, but mostly silence, from the meeting floor.

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rick warren ouster
Former pastor Rick Warren speaks in support of Saddleback Church at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Ernest N. Memorial Convention Center in New Orleans, La., on June 13, 2023. (RNS photo by Emily Kask)

Saddleback, whose case was argued by founding pastor and bestselling author Rick Warren, had been ousted for naming Stacie Wood, wife of Warren successor Andy Wood, as “teaching pastor” since she and her husband arrived at the Lake Forest, California, megachurch last summer.

Warren and the Rev. Linda Barnes Popham, who leads the Louisville church, each argued that Baptists don’t agree on a range of matters — from Calvinism to COVID-19 — but that hadn’t halted the ability of them to have a shared commitment to spreading the gospel.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued against keeping either Saddleback or Fern Creek within the Southern Baptist fold. He said the idea of women pastors “is an issue of fundamental biblical authority that does violate both the doctrine and the order of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Newly reelected SBC President Bart Barber appeared before the outcome of the votes were announced to urge an appropriate response. “I believe in the sanctity of marriage, but I know sometimes in our churches people wind up in biblical divorce,” he said. “But we don’t throw divorce parties at our church, OK?”

After Baptists responded with applause, he added: “And whatever these results are, I’m asking you: Behave like Christians, OK?”

bart barber
Southern Baptist Convention president Bart Barber speaks during the first day of the SBC annual meeting at the Ernst Memorial Convention Center in New Orleans, La., on June 13, 2023. (RNS photo by Emily Kask)

After Wednesday’s vote, Warren appeared resigned. “We lost,” he said at a press conference. “I wasn’t expecting to win. We actually got about 700 more votes than I expected.”

Warren said he took on the appeal for the sake of pastors of other churches who don’t have the same kind of platform that he does and who worry that SBC leaders will come after them. “They can’t hurt me,” he said. He noted that Saddleback will still be part of its local Baptist association and the California Baptist state convention. 

But Warren criticized the move for its shortsightedness. “It’s not really smart when you are losing half a million members a year to kick out people who want to fellowship with you,” he said.

The pastor, known for his wisdom on the topic of planting and growing churches, said, “The messengers voted from conformity and uniformity, not unity. … The only way you can give unity is to love diversity.” He added, “Truth wins out over tradition.”

Popham was equally undaunted. Dressed in green t-shirt from her church’s children’s music program, the pastor said the church will keep doing what they’ve been doing for decades. Last week, she said, three kids in the church had accepted Jesus as their savior during the church’s Vacation Bible School.

“I think God has greater things for us now because the God we serve is so much bigger than the Southern Baptist Convention,” she said, adding. “I need to say thank you Southern Baptist. You’ve given us great publicity.”

Freedom Church also had its say in front of the delegates on Tuesday, with Donald Stewart, an elder of the Florida congregation, saying in his three-minute speech that the church’s former pastor resigned and is “no longer involved in the leadership of the church.”

But Executive Committee member Doug Inserra cast doubt on whether that pastor would remain resigned. He added that the state convention and a local association in Florida “provided Freedom Church with the confirmed and admitted sexual misconduct of the individual serving as the senior pastor, yet Freedom Church took zero action.”

The closely watched decisions about women pastors demonstrated that many Southern Baptists remain committed to the Baptist Faith and Message, their doctrinal statement that declares: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Mary DeMuth*, a popular evangelical teacher and author who attends a nondenominational church in the Dallas area, shared the vote totals to oust Saddleback and commented on SBC messengers’ decision.

“Let me just say how exhausting it is to have a preaching gift continually maligned and thwarted and demonized,” tweeted DeMuth.

The three churches were among eight congregations officially disaffiliated by the denomination’s Executive Committee since last year’s annual meeting.

The appeals that reached the convention floor on the first day of the two-day meeting marked a new juncture for Southern Baptists. When the Executive Committee announced in May this would occur, its chairman, David Sons, called it “the first time in SBC history for this particular item of business to come before the Convention.”

Josh Shepherd contributed to this article. *Mary DeMuth is a speaker at Restore Conference, sponsored by The Roys Report. 

Bob Smietana and Adelle Banks are national reporter for Religion News Service.



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27 thoughts on “Southern Baptists Affirm Ouster of Saddleback & Fern Creek Over Women Pastors”

  1. Christopher Hanley

    Here’s some obvious advice from a Captain Obvious person to Rick Warren: 1. Start over and this time debate first. Your “power move” (appointing first, talking later) didn’t work. You’re bulldozer broke down.
    2. Thoroughly investigate the situation and make things right if need be. Much SBC opposition can be traced down to lack of trust towards you or at least your public image.
    3. “Jim-and-Tammy” family business co-pastorates where one family controls everything engender(pardon the pun) mistrust and suspicion. Him or her, not both.

  2. Michael Barley

    Rev. Popham is right that God is so much bigger than the SBC. She was a lighthouse of faithfulness in a sea of opposition.

    1. So what are you aiming at here? Most of the well known heretics throughout church history were men.

    2. Cheryl L Wooldridge

      Uh… Mr. Francis, are you making the point that women who teach God’s covenant of grace to men are in jeopardy of being disfellowshiped? Or worse?

  3. Rev. Popham’s testimony after the vote, echoes my own feelings and thinking. Each of us has a responsibility, perhaps the fundamental responsibility in being human; to act out of our own integrity, our own life-experience given thinking and feeling regards all things. If we allow received and collective understanding to compromise our individual integrity, then we weaken what we can bring to the table. Be civil and kind and compassionate in the exercise of personal integrity, but never hide its reading of things. My sense is, that we get in touch somewhat with the truth of being made in God’s image, only when we act out of personal integrity.

  4. Susan Perricone

    so what are these women doing? preaching about God, Jesus, salvation, christian life, victory over sin? from something called a pulpit? where are pulpits in the early church? when did a piece of furniture get to be so holy?

    if she were to say these things on a street corner on a monday morning the sbc would not consider it sin –or even if a woman were to preach on sunday morning in front of a bunch of natives in a jungle on the mission field she would be lauded….but on sunday morning in front of other believers behind a pulpit and it all becomes agregious sin ?

    somethng is just not right here.—

    1. A street corner is not a church. And the New Testament says quite a bit about what goes on the a church meeting. It is not a haphazard affair. It has nothing to do with “furniture” either way. Women can and should preach about God, Jesus, salvation, christian life, victory over sin to other women. It is a great honor to do so. I have never understood why a woman would look so down on other women that they would think proclaiming the word to them is somehow inferior.

  5. warren has no respect for the authority of scripture. saying that “it’s not really smart when you are losing half a million members a year to kick out people who want to fellowship with you” really makes that point. he seems to think that numbers are more important than the word of god. scripture is crystal clear on the issue, women cannot be pastors, elders or deacons. it was great to such an important denomination stand firm.

  6. Rev. Popham is right that God is so much bigger than the SBC. She was a lighthouse of faithfulness in a sea of opposition.

  7. Rev. Popham is right that God is so much bigger than the SBC. She was a lighthouse of faithfulness in a sea of opposition.

  8. One point that seems to get lost in this discussion – if one observes the trend in membership and attendance over the past 50 years in the mainline denominations – and I include Southern Baptist in that category – it is clear that those numbers have declined in direct correlation to the way those denominations have revised their stand on issues such as this one, as well as gay marriage and gay pastorates. One can conclude that those that stand in the way of ‘progress’ are in the wrong. One can also conclude that God is jealous of His word and He is not open to our revisions to keep up with culture.

    1. Jeff, to your initial point, I think you’re mistaking correlation for causation, but I’ll grant that the correlation is quite strong among mainline protestant groups. The causes underlying the symptoms you point out involve theological drift in mainline denominations, and an accompanying de-emphasis of evangelistic outreach.

      However, there are theologically conservative denominations, including breakaway mainline movements, that do ordain women to various offices. The EPC and ACNA come to mind. Beyond these groups, the evangelical Free Methodist Church started ordaining women decades before the mainline Methodists did. Various Pentecostal and charismatic groups ordain women, including the Assemblies of God, the largest evangelical/charismatic denomination, if memory serves correctly.

      Having spent time in and around mainline churches and their confessional evangelical cousins, though, I challenge the notion that the SBC is mainline, despite its size and regional prominence in the South. Its denominational structure is far too decentralized; congregations are relatively free to come and go (or be voted in or out) without having to worry about who controls local church property. Also, theological liberalism was stamped out in the SBC a long time ago. Unfortunately, it was replaced by an increasingly strident form of evangelical fundamentalism, driven by a very loud Calvinist minority faction with very sharp elbows.

      1. Rev. D Gordon Braun Jr

        Please check your facts. The schismatic ACNA does accept women as ordained clergy, including priests.

        1. I have checked my facts, Gordon, and I would suggest you read more carefully. You just restated my exact point about the ACNA as just one example among several doctrinally conservative denominations that ordains women. Perhaps you think that makes these denominations not conservative?

          To be more specific, the ACNA ordains women to deacon and/or priest, differing by diocese. This is based on each diocesan bishop’s view of men and women in the tri-fold ordained ministry, based on their interpretation of scripture. Yes, it has been a point of contention among bishops.

          As for the ACNA being schismatic, point me to a protestant group that isn’t.

  9. Can anyone recall how God defines true religion?

    The patriarchal hierarchy of the SBC has not only fallen short of prioritizing protection of women and children, they have consistently demonstrated victims are a menace and threaten church business.

    The historical abuse to women and children is evidence that there is a Biblical disconnect deeply rooted in SBC.

    I’m curious what the benefits are from being a card carrying member of SBC, when flagrant abuse to women and children are seen as mere historical collateral damage from church business.

    Don’t be deceived. God is not mocked. Whatever the SBC men of power sowed, that is what is being reaped.

    Love for one another is how Jesus people are identified according to Scripture.

    He asked His closest followers,

    “Do you love me?”

    His address to the SBC in 2023 would remind attendees that religious business is all about prioritizing the sheep.

    Or maybe He would be there turning over tables and cracking whips.

    Or maybe He wouldn’t be there at all.

  10. The Bible is crystal clear as to whom God has qualified to lead and Pastor His Churches: Qualified Men! The following Scriptures leave no doubt of that fact: 1 Timothy 1:11-15; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4. The Holy Spirit who is God, knew what He was doing when He authored the Scriptures through Paul and other godly Men. There is a place for Women in the Church to exercise their gifts of teaching and leadership, but that does not include exercising POSITIONS OF FINAL AUTHORITY OVER MEN IN THE CHURCH. Further, the wife of the new Pastor is not called to be a “teaching pastor” just because her husband is the lead pastor. Where is that in any place in Scripture? Where is any example of that model in the Scripture?

    The Word of Faith and Charismatic Churches and some ARC Churches are the ones that practice that unbiblical model, and now they want to bring it in mainline Churches in the SBC. While I don’t like infighting amongst the body of Christ, I do understand that the SBC must stand on biblical truth concerning this subject!

  11. I can’t help but notice the women in the picture all seem to have short hair and aren’t wearing head coverings as well, so, there you go! Another flagrant challenge to biblical authority!!!

    1. Not to mention that they are not being silent in the church “Ecclesia=congregation”. There they are running amok voicing opinions! Where are thier husbands? Shouldn’t only men be taking the microphone? “Women must remain silent” -Paul
      I guess some sexist passages carry more weight than others when necessary.

  12. The problem is not the Biblical model of infrastructure from the early church.

    It’s the patriarchal power grab that manipulates Scripture, to long uphold abuse of women and children, since the SBC inception. The deception to cover it up, says even more about sin pollution infiltrating the SBC.

    No amount of card carrying benefits from being a bonafide member of SBC, should outweigh this violation of Scripture and God’s Word.

    The SBC continue an ongoing undertow of maltreatment to born again daughters of God, and joint heirs with Jesus.

    Females are still being gaslighted by SBC to believe they are second class citizens in the Kingdom of God.

    The proper treatment of women and children is paramount to God throughout history.

    “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27

    The bottom line is who SBC is serving. Looks like many other religious organizations, who have trampled over women and children, to serve themselves, not the One Most High.

  13. 1. The Apostle Paul’s main command to women in a church setting is: BE SILENT. See 1 Corinthians 14:34,35; 1 Timothy 2:11,12.

    2. Christ called/ordained only men as His Apostles. No women.

    3. The Holy Bible was written by God-inspired men. No women.

    1. Cheryl L Wooldridge

      Yikes. That is a scary post. But to be fair, the Bible also says… in that same 1st Timothy passage … that women are not to wear gold or pearls ( I guess silver and diamonds are ok) to church.

      Perhaps we should get wiser about cultural context?

  14. Women embracing their roles in SBC has never been the problem.

    Uprising has occurred to the power grid, because women have consistently been the victims of predatory wolves.

    These wolves in sheep clothing, have been allowed to run amok in the flock, devour the weak, and suffer no consequence from SBC.

    SBC patriarchal hierarchy choose over decades not to address this sin, but to cover it up, often sheep shaming and blaming.

    Who chose to ignore this systemic sin, perpetually turning themselves away from the Lord’s directives? The men in charge.

    Need to thoroughly examine and assess this institutional betrayal, abuse of power, and life altering trauma, to women and children.

    Apologize and make restitution.

    And be sure SBC is never again serving their own agendas and egos, while calling it God’s work.

  15. Johnathon Wright

    I was raised as a Southern Baptist but left that church as soon as I left home. The intense racial, national, and sexual bigotry I found there made it impossible to believe it had anything to do with Christ. Given how very political the S B convention has become, I no longer see it as a religious organisation but rather a right wing political group that uses Christ for political purposes.
    This bit of political bigotry has nothing to do with Jesus or his message and it comes as no surprise when you consider that the Southern Baptists split from other Baptists over the issue of white supremacy, which SB ardently believed in.

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