An Unexpected Turn in the Evangelical Culture Wars

On Wednesday, in Indianapolis, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant body in the United States, rejected a proposed ban on allowing women to be called “pastor.” The measure, which would have amended the S.B.C.’s constitution, fell just short of a two-thirds-majority vote. The S.B.C. has officially barred women from leading churches since 2000. Yet this ban would have gone further, threatening to “disfellowship” churches that allow women to use the title of pastor in any way. I called Rick Warren, the founder of Saddleback Church, in Southern California, and one of the most influential evangelical pastors, shortly after the vote with the news. “That’s a relief for over two thousand S.B.C. churches who have women pastors, whether they lead churches or not,” Warren told me.

The vast majority of evangelical Christians, who number about a quarter of adults in the U.S., oppose the idea of female pastors. For most, the Bible’s stance against female pastors is starkly clear. “Women should be silent in the churches,” the apostle Paul writes to the members of the early Church. “For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is something they want to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Other passages reinforce this injunction. “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission,” Paul writes to Timothy, a leader of the church in Ephesus. “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

In spite of these verses, many Protestant denominations—including the Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians—ordain women. Most Christians view these verses as anachronistic and subject to historical context, much like other Biblical passages on stoning adulterers to death and ordering slaves to be obedient to their masters.

“Paul also tells women not to braid their hair or wear jewelry,” Linda Barnes Popham, a sixty-eight-year-old pastor, who leads Fern Creek Baptist Church, in Louisville, Kentucky, told me recently. Popham attended Southern Seminary, the Southern Baptists’ leading academic institution, in the nineteen-eighties—a time when women were allowed to study preaching. “Women still won the preaching award,” she told me. “And all of my professors affirmed women in ministry.” That attitude of openness changed quickly. When Popham graduated from the seminary, in 1985, fundamentalist leaders were staging a coup within the S.B.C., known as the conservative resurgence, firing liberal professors and barring women from taking courses that prepared them to become pastors.

Though the S.B.C. now claims that the Bible is clear in its strictures against female pastors, scholars point to scriptural contradictions. Katherine Ellis, a doctoral student at Baylor University, noted that, in addition to silencing women and grousing about their hair, Paul praises female leaders: he refers to Phoebe, who travelled to Rome to preach, as a “deacon”; calls Junia, imprisoned for her faith, an “apostle”; and describes Prisca and Aquila as “co-workers in Christ Jesus.” From the first to the twelfth century, the historian Gary Macy writes in “The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination,” women held roles as priests, deacons, and even bishops, beginning with Mary Magdalene, who left her home to follow Jesus, alongside his twelve disciples. In addition to Mary, whom Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century theologian, calls “the Apostle to the Apostles,” Scripture recounts the stories of multiple women among Jesus’ earliest converts and first teachers.

During the COVID pandemic, Rick Warren read these accounts of women in the early Church. Since he’d begun preaching, at the age of sixteen, Warren, who is theologically conservative, had vehemently opposed women pastors. However, the isolation of lockdown allowed him to question that position. “One of the things that really stood out to me was the hidden history of how much women were involved in the early growth of the first four hundred years of Christianity,” Warren told me. “This has been completely written out of tradition and culture.”

To Warren, ordaining women wasn’t simply good theology; he also believed that it could help save the Church, which, in the U.S., was rapidly shrinking. During the past three decades, some forty million Americans have left their churches; the number of Southern Baptists has dropped from sixteen million members to about thirteen million since 2010. “Why have we not been as fast at getting the good news out as they were in the first four hundred years?” Warren asked. “You’ve heard the old saying that women hold up half the sky? Well, women hold up half the Church. Why would you keep fifty per cent sitting on the bench?” In 2021, Warren ordained three women as pastors at Saddleback: Liz Puffer, Cynthia Petty, and Katie Edwards. In 2022, he commissioned a fourth, Stacie Wood, to succeed him in leading Saddleback alongside her husband, Andy.

Wood, who is forty-two and a mother of three, welcomed the role. “I’m serving Jesus under the authority and in alignment with my spiritual leaders,” she wrote on Instagram. “We believe that women can be gifted and empowered as teachers and as pastors.”

Warren’s ordination of the women inflamed a far-right strain within the S.B.C., which he labelled “fundamentalism.” Although the S.B.C. has long been both theologically and culturally conservative, differences within it had sharpened in 2020, when a splinter organization arose, calling itself the Conservative Baptist Network. “It began with twenty people from around the country who shared the same concerns that the S.B.C. was moving away from Biblical principles, and against the gains of the conservative resurgence,” Ronnie Rogers, one of the founders of the Conservative Baptist Network, told me. In a thirty-eight-page document, they listed their concerns: principally, a softening around the role of women and issues of social justice. The S.B.C. was investigating hundreds of claims that its leadership had covered up sexual abuse by clergy members; Rogers’s group doubted that the accusers, mostly girls and women, were telling the truth. “In Christianity, both women and men lie,” Rogers told me. Their manifesto drew more interest. “Now we have ten thousand members,” he told me.

Warren told me, “This is a fight between fundamentalists and conservatives. All of us believe that the Bible is inerrant, but the fundamentalists believe that their interpretation of the Bible is also inerrant, and that’s the problem.” By pressing the issue of female pastors among his fellow Southern Baptists, Warren was striving to make a point about a dangerous direction in which he saw the Church moving. “Rick Warren is a brilliant tactician,” Ryan Burge, a Baptist minister and a professor at Eastern Illinois University, told me. “He knew that, by forcing this conversation, he would either help bring Southern Baptists along, or they’d have to kick out one of their most influential and beloved pastors.”

In February of 2022, not long after Warren ordained the three female pastors, the S.B.C. declared that Saddleback Church was “not in friendly cooperation with the convention.” That spring, on the floor of the S.B.C. convention in Anaheim, California, Warren defended his decision and called for an end to “bickering about secondary issues.” He asked his fellow Southern Baptists, “As Western culture becomes more dark, more evil, more secular, we have to decide: are we going to treat each other as allies or not?” Warren’s actions fuelled a further hardening of the far right of the Church. A new, more vociferous strain of opposition to female pastors arose, and, at the 2023 convention, the delegates, known as messengers, voted to disfellowship Saddleback. At that same meeting, in New Orleans, the messengers endorsed the Law Amendment: the proposed ban, named for Mike Law, the Virginia pastor who proposed it, on women even being called pastors.

There was other, unintended blowback. In Louisville, Kentucky, about ten miles from Southern Seminary, Pastor Linda Barnes Popham had been happily leading Fern Creek Baptist, a quiet congregation of some hundred mostly elderly members. After Warren ordained the women, Popham learned that she was under investigation by the S.B.C.’s credentials committee as to whether she was qualified to lead her church. Popham had addressed concerns about her sex when she was officially hired as lead pastor at Fern Creek in 1993. “I was kind of conflicted about having a woman as a pastor,” one longtime parishioner named George told me. Later, George fell in love with Linda, and, for the past twenty-two years, they have been happily married.

In myriad ways, George Popham, who is eighty-two and facing health issues, supports his wife in leading the church. I visited Fern Creek last year, and watched George, without any fuss, drive Linda to visit church members at the local hospital, wash dishes after a church luau, and patiently wait for hours for her to return from a pastoral call so that the two could go to Graeter’s Ice Cream together. (When she got caught up chatting about Jesus outside the ice-cream shop, George waited some more.) Despite her unconventional marital role, however, Linda Popham is no liberal. “I’m more conservative than some of the pastors who oppose me,” she said. She was staunchly against same-sex relationships and abortion, because she believed both were explicitly forbidden by the Bible. “But there’s nowhere in Scripture that says it’s a sin for a woman to be a pastor,” she said. As the fight over women unfolded within the S.B.C. last year, Popham’s congregation took a vote on whether they wanted her to remain as their pastor, even if the S.B.C. decided to kick them out. Their support for her was unanimous.

Warren, who’d come to know and admire Popham, felt terrible about pulling her into the fray. “Linda Popham is a pistol,” he told me. “I’m sorry I got her into trouble.”

Reverend Linda Barnes Popham standing in front of a choir singing holding a hymnal.

Popham attended Southern Seminary in the nineteen-eighties—a time when women were allowed to study preaching.Photograph by Jessie Wardarski / AP

The rejection of the Law Amendment signalled that the radicals of the S.B.C. may have overestimated their support. Hershael York, the dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary, told me, “Sometimes I suspect that the guys who were too young or not yet born when the conservative resurgence happened feel like they missed the war, so they try to start one.” York supported the expulsions of Saddleback and Fern Creek. But, he said, of the Law Amendment, “I fear it will only drive out some churches that we can otherwise strengthen and encourage.” The enthusiasm for the insurgent Conservative Baptist Network was, to York, another sign of trouble. “When we treat everything like an existential threat and feel the need to form splinter organizations, we lose the cohesion and unity we desperately need to face legitimate threats,” he added.

To many observers, the confrontation over female pastors is simply one salvo in an internal power struggle over the future of evangelicalism. “It’s a sign that the center held for now, but the culture-war faction is already saying they are regrouping, and their main aim is to turn the Church into a political weapon,” Kristin Du Mez, the author of “Jesus and John Wayne,” a history of American evangelicalism, told me. The real tension lies between conservatives who possess little interest in influencing secular politics, and those for whom politics are paramount. At this year’s convention, messengers also approved a resolution condemning reproductive technologies, such as I.V.F. Another resolution, called “On Defending Religious Liberty,” warned against the influence of Christian nationalism and opposed “any effort to use the people and the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to establish Christianity as the state religion of the United States of America.” It was overwhelmingly approved. Yet another, which drew attention to the ongoing scandal over sexual abuse and called for an end to the S.B.C’s use of nondisclosure agreements, never made it to a vote. Al Mohler, the seminary president, said, “Given the secularizing pressures of the age, I don’t think anyone thinks that list is going to get shorter.”

For all practical purposes, life after the S.B.C. has proved fruitful for Fern Creek Baptist Church. Linda Popham told me that her regular group of Sunday churchgoers has grown from a hundred to almost two hundred people, including some young families who saw Popham on the news and joined to support her. When she heard the news that the Law Amendment had failed, she was getting a group of kids ready for Bible camp. “It makes me happy for the women who are still there,” she said.

In Orange County, Stacie Wood, at Saddleback Church, didn’t really know what the Law Amendment was. Her focus, she told me, was on growing the Church and bringing people to Jesus. She noted with delight that, on Pentecost, Saddleback had joined with some three hundred other churches in California to baptize twelve thousand people. “God is on the move here doing amazing things,” she said. “Leaving the S.B.C. was barely a bump in the road.” ♦

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