The nation’s largest Protestant denomination has grappled with issues around gender, sexuality and politics.
The Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday decided to expel one of its largest and most prominent churches, Saddleback Church in Southern California, over the church’s installment of a woman as pastor.
The move is largely symbolic: Saddleback still operates as a church, and its members will not be overtly impacted.
But the Southern Baptist leadership’s ejection of such a high-profile member church underlines the denomination’s internal struggles with gender, sexuality, abuse, politics and race, including criticisms from an energetic right flank that the group is drifting to the “woke” left. The convention also removed several other churches over their placement of women in certain leadership roles, as well as a Florida church over its handling of a sex abuse case.
The convention, with 13 million members and 47,000 churches, has long served as a bellwether for American evangelicalism.
Saddleback was founded in 1980 by pastor Rick Warren, who built a national profile thanks in part to the church’s then-innovative posture as “seeker-sensitive,” attuned to the questions and preferences of those unfamiliar with or wary of traditional church experiences. Saddleback grew quickly during the 1980s and ’90s, and Mr. Warren also wrote one of the best-selling books of all time, “The Purpose Driven Life.”
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Mr. Warren announced in 2021 that he was retiring from the pulpit at Saddleback after more than 40 years. He handed the church’s leadership to Andy and Stacie Wood, introducing them last summer as “the couple that will lead Saddleback into our future.”
The choice was immediately controversial in Southern Baptist circles.
While Mr. Wood heads the church, his wife, Stacie Wood, serves as a “teaching pastor,” a role that includes preaching, and that many see as a violation of the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of beliefs.
The statement says, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Southern Baptist leaders determined five churches, including Saddleback, “to be not in friendly cooperation with the Convention due to the churches continuing to have a female functioning in the office of pastor,” the convention’s executive committee chairman, Jared Wellman, said in a statement on Tuesday.
The other four ejected churches in which women serve as lead or senior pastors are: Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss.; Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.; New Faith Mission Ministry in Griffin, Ga., and St. Timothy’s Christian Baptist Church in Baltimore.
“These churches have been valued, cooperating churches for many years, and this decision was not made lightly,” Mr. Wellman said in the statement. “However, we remain committed to upholding the theological convictions of the S.B.C. and maintaining unity among its cooperating churches.”
Though Saddleback was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the church did not use the word Baptist in its name or foreground any connection to the denomination. Mr. Warren rarely attended denominational meetings.
Saddleback’s website lists Mr. Wood as the only lead pastor, but refers to “pastors Andy and Stacie Wood.” Ms. Wood has preached at the church as recently as Jan. 22, when she delivered a sermon on “how our inner thoughts can propel our growth instead of hinder it.”
The church did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday afternoon.
Saddleback has been a focus of previous scrutiny over the ordination issue, starting when the church ordained three women as ministers in 2021, an event the church called historic at the time.
The role of minister or pastor can have many meanings in different Christian settings; children’s ministers, for example, are often women even in theologically conservative churches. The 19 “campus pastors” currently listed on Saddleback’s website are all men.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee includes about 30 staff members and a board of 86 elected representatives, comprising men and women. The group is meeting this week in Nashville.
At the convention’s larger meeting in 2022, Southern Baptists debated whether to oust Saddleback. Mr. Warren spoke from the floor, delivering a valedictory “love letter” to the denomination but seeming to stand by his church’s approach.
“We have to decide,” he said, “if we will treat each other as allies or adversaries.”
Saddleback and the other churches will have an opportunity to appeal the committee’s decision this summer at the next annual gathering, which takes place in New Orleans.