NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Southern Baptist Convention leadership disfellowshipped Saddleback Church from the convention on Tuesday, concluding a long-running debate about one of the largest and most well-known churches in the denomination.
The California megachurch’s stance on a woman serving as head co-pastor led the convention’s Executive Committee to consider a recommendation for the SBC to break with Saddleback.
The executive committee approved similar recommendations for five other churches, one for a sex abuse-related issue and four others for women serving in senior pastor roles. There is a mechanism for the churches to appeal the decisions.
The convention’s Executive Committee is comprised of about 30 staff and an 86-member board of elected representatives and manages denomination business outside the Nashville-based SBC’s annual meeting. It met for a major two-day meeting in Nashville on Monday and Tuesday.
With 23,000-plus members and 12 locations in Southern California, with its flagship campus in Lake Forest, California, Saddleback is a household name in American evangelical Christianity that long flourished under the leadership of Pastor Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life.”
Warren retired from Saddleback in August, handing the reins to pastors Andy and Stacie Wood.
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Even before Warren announced his retirement and the Woods as his successors last year, Saddleback has been at the center of a multi-year controversy in the SBC over the role of women in church leadership. In May 2021, the California church ordained its first three women pastors.
The ordinations led some Southern Baptists to try and oust Saddleback from the SBC for the first time at the 2021 SBC annual meeting in Nashville. Critics pointed to the denomination’s statement of beliefs, called the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which says “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Southern Baptists hold to a complementarianism, a theological idea that teaches men and women have certain assigned roles.
At the 2021 SBC annual meeting in Nashville, Southern Baptist voting delegates, called messengers, made a motion for the convention’s Credentials Committee to consider disfellowshipping Saddleback. The credentials committee evaluates whether a church is in “friendly cooperation” with the convention and determines whether to recommend disfellowship. The executive committee then votes on that recommendation.
At the 2022 SBC annual meeting in Anaheim, California, a discussion on Saddleback ended with indecision about the church’s permanent status in the SBC. The possibility Saddleback would lose its affiliation remained.
Warren delivered an emotional speech on the floor of the 2022 annual meeting, reading what he called a “love letter” and seemingly resigned to an inevitable split between Saddleback and the SBC. It also led to a larger debate about Southern Baptist doctrine on women pastors and the criteria for SBC affiliation.
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Other churches disfellowshipped
In addition to Saddleback, the executive committee approved recommendations to disfellowship five other churches.
The decision to disfellowship Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Florida, was over a sex abuse-related issue. Freedom Church exhibited “a lack of intent to cooperate in resolving concerns regarding a sexual abuse allegation,” executive committee chairman Jared Wellman said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Freedom’s pastor, Richard Demsick, said he learned of the news of Freedom’s disfellowship in an interview with The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network. “There are no sexual abuse allegations,” he said. “There have been false reports based on gossip.”
Demsick declined to elaborate on the false reports he was referring to.
The executive committee approved a recommendation to disfellowship four churches in which a woman serves as a lead or senior pastor: New Faith Mission Ministry in Griffin, Georgia; St. Timothy’s Christian Baptist in Baltimore, Maryland; Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi; and Fern Creek Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky.
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“We are saddened to hear of this discriminating and judgmental decision that has been made by the Executive Committee of the SBC,” said Fern Creek Pastor Linda Barnes Popham said in a statement.
“The process has been unbiblical from the beginning stages with the Credentials Committee,” added Popham, who said Fern Creek is a “true Southern Baptist church.”
Saddleback, New Faith Mission Ministry, St. Timothy’s Baptist, Calvary Baptist, and Fern Creek, could not be immediately reached for comment.
In September, the executive committee approved recommendations to disfellowship two churches, one for its stance on sexuality and the other for alleged discriminatory behavior.
Contributing: Ross Reily in Jackson, Mississippi
Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Follow him on Twitter @liamsadams.