Southern Baptists expel Virginia church for claiming women can be pastors

Southern Baptist members – or ‘Messengers’ – voting during the annual meeting in Indianapolis (AP)
Southern Baptist members – or ‘Messengers’ – voting during the annual meeting in Indianapolis (AP)

Southern Baptists have voted to expel a historic Virginia congregation from its ranks after it affirmed that women can serve in any pastoral role, including as senior pastor.

Delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting voted 6,759 to 563 on Tuesday to oust First Baptist Church of Alexandria after the denomination’s credentials committee deemed the church to be not in “friendly cooperation” on the grounds that it conflicts with the Baptist Faith and Message.

That statement of Southern Baptist doctrine declares that only men are qualified for the role of pastor.

“We find no joy in making this recommendation, but have formed the opinion that the church’s egalitarian beliefs regarding the office of pastor do not closely identify with the convention’s adopted statement of faith,” said Jonathan Sams, chair of the credentials committee.

Two congregations, including a California megachurch, were expelled last year from the convention for the same reason.

The Alexandria church, which has been involved in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination since its 19th century founding and has contributed millions toward denominational causes, is currently led by a man, Robert Stephens, but the church has made clear it believes women can serve as senior pastors, too.

Stephens said his church has had women in ministry for more than 44 years and wants to continue cooperating with Southern Baptists who disagreed on this issue.

“First Alexandria stands before you today as a testament that we can maintain a fruitful partnership with churches that take a different stance on women in ministry,” he said. “We at First Baptist are advancing the gospel, and we hope that we will continue to work alongside you all.”

He continued: “This is a sad moment for us, but we also recognize that God has a future for First Baptist Church.”

“We have good news to share with the world, and we will keep doing that,” added Kim Eskridge, the pastor for children and women.

Following the vote, Southern Baptist held a vote to enshrine a ban on churches with any women pastors in the organization’s constitution. On Wednesday, delegates voted to reject the ban.

Early Tuesday, a small group of women stood outside the Indiana Convention Center in a low-key demonstration in support of women in ministry.

“I hope that people know women have equal value and can be pastors,” said the Rev Meredith Stone, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry.

Among the women was Christa Brown, who has long advocated for fellow survivors of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and criticized the denomination’s resistance to reforms, an effort she has chronicled in a new memoir, Baptistland.

She said that there is a direct connection between issues of abuse and the equality of women in ministry. “When you squash some people, it sets up a lot more people to be squashed,” she said.

The SBC recently settled a high profile lawsuits that accused a former leader of sexual assault,

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a collection of loosely affiliated member churches, boasting just under 15 million members, and is dominated by white members, who are usually deeply socially conservative. The convention has often been a powerful tool for rightwing organizing in recent years, especially on issues around abortion.