One of the United States’ best-known pastors made a surprise visit to the floor of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 14.
Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and pastor of Saddleback Church—one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s largest churches—told delegates, known as messengers, that he was grateful for the SBC.
“I love Southern Baptists,” he said.
He then urged Southern Baptists to set aside their differences and work together to spread the gospel around the world. Warren also said Baptists are able to overcome all kinds of theological differences and still cooperate.
“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?” he said.
Warren’s appeal came as members of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination were considering expelling Saddleback for violating a ban on women pastors.
While Saddleback does not use the word “Baptist” in its name, the church is affiliated with the 13.7 million-member SBC. Warren started the Southern California church in 1980 after graduating from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The bestselling author spoke at the SBC Pastors’ Conference in 2011.
In May 2021, the church ordained Liz Puffer, Cynthia Petty, and Katie Edwards as staff pastors. That move put Saddleback in the middle of a divide over the SBC’s statement of faith, which restricts the office of pastor to men. Some Southern Baptists say that the ban on women pastors only applies to the senior pastor of a church. Others, like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler, say no woman should serve as a pastor in any capacity.
The issue of women pastors and women preachers caused a national debate in 2020, after Bible teacher Beth Moore tweeted about speaking at a church on Mother’s Day. That led to claims that women preachers were proliferating in the SBC, which remains an issue for critics of current SBC leadership such as Florida pastor Tom Ascol, a leading candidate for SBC president. Moore would eventually leave the denomination in part because she said the uproar over women preaching was overshadowing the SBC’s abuse crisis.
Raising the stakes, Saddleback also recently announced Warren would retire this fall and Andy and Stacie Wood, who pastor a Silicon Valley church, would succeed him. Andy Wood is currently lead pastor at Echo Church, a multisite church, while Stacie Wood serves as a teaching pastor. They would have the same roles at Saddleback.
Mohler told Religion News Service in 2021 that ordaining a woman pastor violates Baptist and biblical teaching: “Saddleback has taken actions that place itself in direct conflict with the stated doctrines of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Last year, Shad Tibbs, pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church in Trout, La., called on the SBC to “break fellowship” with Saddleback and any other church that has women pastors. That request, made at the SBC’s 2021 annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., was referred to the credentials committee, which is charged with deciding whether or not churches are in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC.
Earlier Tuesday, Linda Cooper, chair of the credentials committee, told messengers that the committee was not yet ready to make a recommendation about Saddleback, given that Southern Baptists disagree about whether the ban applies to the lead or senior pastor of a church—or to any staff member at a church being called a pastor.
It recommended creating a study group to look at the issue, but after Warren’s speech, the credentials committee withdrew its recommendation. Doing so postponed any further action on the motion for now. The credentials committee will continue to meet during the year and might make a decision about Saddleback in the months to come.
Churches have been expelled from the SBC in the past for having gay members, for mishandling sexual abuse and for racist actions. While churches have left the SBC after naming women pastors in the past, no church had previously been expelled for having a woman pastor.
Before he left the floor, Warren challenged messengers to focus on finishing the Great Commission—Jesus’ command to spread the gospel around the world. Warren plans to spend his post-Saddleback years working with the Finishing the Task Network, which hopes to expand missionary work.
“Are we to keep bickering over secondary issues?” he said. “Or are we going to keep the main thing the main thing?”
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