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Pastor blames ‘power-hungry men’ after U.S. Baptist group ousts churches with female leaders

Rev. Linda Barnes Popham says she’ll keep leading her Baptist church in Kentucky so long as her congregation stands behind her.

Southern Baptist Convention upholds expulsion of 2 member churches with female pastors

A woman with short grey hair, glasses and a rainbow scarf smiles brightly.

Rev. Linda Barnes Popham says she'll keep leading her Baptist church in Kentucky so long as her congregation stands behind her.

Popham is the pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, one of two churches that have been expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) because they employ women as pastors.

"Stepping aside? Oh, I offered that for the church, but the church obviously said no," Popham told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "They had to choose between the Southern Baptist Convention and me as their pastor. They clearly, in a vote, chose me unanimously."

The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., with 47,000 churches and 13.7 million members.

It expelled five churches for having female pastors in February, including Fern Creek and Saddleback Church, a megachruch based in California.

Fern Creek and Saddleback both appealed the decision. But on Wednesday, an overwhelming majority of members voted to uphold the expulsions at an annual meeting in New Orleans.

The SBC did not respond to a request for comment from CBC. The denomination's press arm, the Baptist Press, reported that the expelled churches were found not to be in "friendly co-operation" with the convention, which believes that scripture reserves the role of pastor for men.

'Deeds done in darkness'

Popham was at the meeting, and she made her plea to her fellow worshippers there on Tuesday.

"We believe the Bible allows women to serve in ways in which all of you do not agree but we should still be able to partner together," she told the assembled crowd.

But the members clearly didn't agree. According to the Baptist Press, 91.85 per cent of voters opted to uphold Fern Creek's expulsion, while 88.46 per cent voted to uphold Saddleback's expulsion.

A crowd of people holding bright yellow strips of paper above their heads.

It came as something of a shock to Popham, who has been with Fern Creek for 40 years, and served as its official pastor since 1993.

She says the convention deemed the church to be in "friendly co-operation" as recently as 2021.

"Whatever has happened in the last two years, I attribute to deeds done in darkness and power-hungry men, people who were trying to purify the Southern Baptist Convention to their standard of purity — which doesn't match biblical standards of purity," she said.

California megachurch has multiple women pastors

Saddleback Church, meanwhile, had been the SBC's second-largest congregation and, until recently, was widely touted as a success story amid larger Southern Baptist membership declines.

The California megachruch didn't respond for a request for comment, but in a letter posted on Twitter on Sunday, its founding pastor Rick Warren — who also attended the annual meeting — said he didn't have high hopes the convention would side with him.

"I don't expect to win in New Orleans and I certainly don't expect to change the mind of any angry fundamentalist. They are responsible to God, not to me. I'm doing this as a act of obedience to the Holy Spirit," he said.

A man smiles next to two women hugging.

Warren retired in 2022, naming married couple Andy and Stacie Wood as his replacements. Three other women were installed as pastors at Saddleback in 2021, according to the Baptist Press.

Warren also said he regretted not speaking up for the women in church leadership earlier in his life, during what he called his "years of ignorance."

What does expulsion mean?

Now that Fern Creek and Saddleback are no longer affiliated with the SBC, they can opt to continue as independent Baptist churches or align with other denominations.

Unlike hierarchical organizations like the Roman Catholic Church, Baptist churches maintain a large degree of autonomy and independence over their practices and policies. So being booted from the convention won't have many practical implications for Fern Creek Church, says Popham.

"Very little will change. They will just cease to get our offerings, and we will no longer use their literature," she said. "So we're not really losing. They're losing."

A woman with short grey hair, glasses, a long grey robe and a rainbow scarf stands on a church stage singing while holding a hymn book. She is accompanied by a choir, a pianist and two other church officials.

In Canada, Baptists are organized under several different denominations and organizations, many of which did not respond to the CBC's request for comment.

The Canadian Baptist Ministries — which partners with four regional Baptist associations — says its members have ordained women since the 1940s.

One of those regional members is the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. It's executive minister, Rev. Leanne Friesen, told CBC in an email: "We are thankful for our women pastors and leaders who faithfully serve in our family of churches and make a difference in their communities."

Interpreting the scripture

At the end of the day, Popham says it comes down a fundamental disagreement about the meaning of scripture.

"I know that the Bible is always right; we just may be fallible in our interpretation sometimes," she said.

"But there are those people in power now that believe their interpretation of God's holy word is the only way to interpret it. So I don't know what they're going to do when we walk through the gates of heaven together, 'cause they can't kick us out there."

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Interview with Linda Barnes Popham produced by Chris Trowbridge

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