NEW ORLEANS (BP) – Three churches deemed not to be in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention by the SBC Executive Committee in February had the opportunity to appeal that decision June 13 during a business session of the 2023 SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans.
The EC based its decision on recommendations from the SBC Credentials Committee, which is tasked to “consider questions that arise concerning whether a church is in ‘friendly cooperation’ with the Convention as described in the SBC Constitution, Article III.”
The three churches – Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.; Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Fla.; and Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. – had three minutes each to state their case before messengers.
Both Fern Creek Baptist Church and Saddleback Church were deemed by the EC not to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention because of their positions on women filling the office of pastor. Freedom Church was so deemed because the church failed to cooperate to resolve concerns regarding an abuse allegation. Both the Florida Baptist Convention and the Treasure Coast Baptist Association disfellowshipped Freedom church last year.
The Executive Committee also presented a response to each church’s appeal. The response to both Fern Creek and Saddleback was given by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the architects of The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Southern Baptists’ statement of faith. The response to Freedom Church’s appeal was given by EC member and Florida pastor Dean Inserra.
After each appeal and response was heard, messengers voted via ballot vote either “yes” to affirm the EC’s decision and consider the church out of fellowship or “no” to reinstate the church.
Fern Creek Baptist Church
Linda Barnes Popham presented the appeal on behalf of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., where she is in her 31st year as full-time pastor of the church founded in 1954 as a Southern Baptist congregation.
SBC Executive Committee Chairman David Sons invited Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, to present the EC’s position.
Popham expressed the church’s commitment to the Southern Baptist Convention while upholding her church’s authority under the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer to interpret the Bible as it feels the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
“We know that Jesus is the only way to the Father, we know that His word is perfect, and we know that one day He’s coming again,” Popham told messengers. “But we also know that the Spirit gives illumination to our hearts and minds, and therefore we don’t all interpret every Scripture the same way. We believe that 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, as the prophet said, by enlarging the place of our tent, and lengthening our courts.”
She presented herself as a lifelong Southern Baptist, conservative, evangelical and in disagreement with some of the doctrines other Southern Baptists uphold that are not at issue, including Calvinism. But Popham said she sees no reason to end cooperation based on such beliefs.
Popham presented the pastorate as her God-given calling, describing herself as a “student of the Word.”
Mohler countered that the SBC has the right to choose its standards for determining whether churches are in friendly cooperation with the SBC.
“It is not the task of the Southern Baptist Convention to render a comprehensive verdict on any congregation,” Mohler said. “It is the responsibility of the Southern Baptist Convention to understand what it means for a church to be in friendly cooperation with this Convention. That’s an essential part of our responsibility and our identity.”
Affirming local church autonomy, Mohler said the convention “has the sole responsibility to establish its own membership and to define what it means to be a cooperative Southern Baptist church.”
He presented the issue of a woman serving in the pastorate as an issue of “fundamental biblical authority that does violate the doctrine and the order of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. “That is the only issue that is addressed by the messengers today.”
He described the issue as inescapable but said the messengers’ decision would not be a “comprehensive verdict” on the congregation. Rather, he implored messengers to take Popham and Fern Creek “at honest word, as to a difference in both doctrine and order.”
Freedom Church’s appeal was made by Donald Stewart, an elder at the church.
“Freedom Church has a long-standing history with the Convention as a cooperating church,” Stewart said. “Being in fellowship with the SBC is very important to us, therefore we have addressed the issue that deemed us as uncooperative.
“Although innocent of these charges, our former pastor wants the focus of Freedom Church to be on Jesus Christ, not on him. Therefore, on May 22, he (Richar Demsick) resigned and is no longer involved in the leadership of the church.”
Stewart previously told Baptist Press Freedom Church currently has a local minister named Joshua Robinson, pastor of Vero Beach Baptist Church, serving as an interim pastor.
“Our long-standing policies and practices show that we very much act in a manner consistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse. At the time our former pastor was called, and even to this day, there have never been any allegations of sexual abuse brought against him by any women, anywhere under his pastoral care or otherwise. This has been confirmed through an independent investigation done by the Anglican Church of North America,” Stewart told messengers.
Inserra told messengers the EC and the SBC Credentials Committee stand behind the decision to consider Freedom Church out of cooperation.
“The individual was investigated by another denomination, which found credible allegations of sinful conduct and reported an admitted pattern of sexual misconduct with women under his pastoral care and supervision,” Inserra said. “Both the Florida Coast Baptist Convention and the Treasure Coast Baptist Association provided Freedom Church with a confirmed and admitted sexual misconduct of the individual … yet Freedom Church took zero action.”
Inserra said the church’s claim that the pastor has resigned is deceptive.
The resignation has been described as a “strategic move,” he said “to get the church back into the Southern Baptist Convention while the individual remains in a leadership role and is only stepping back until things are settled with the SBC.”
Inserra said a church staff member hung up on a committee member during a phone call, and the church failed to respond to several mailed inquiries sent by the CC, including one certified letter and one letter sent via UPS. The church responded only after the EC voted to consider the church out of cooperation.
A Southern Baptist vote to disfellowship with Saddleback Church would be a vote to disregard a history of ministry amid disagreement, said Saddleback Church founding pastor Rick Warren.
“For 178 years, the SBC has been a blend of at least a dozen different tribes of Baptists. If you think every Baptist thinks like you, you’re mistaken,” Warren said.
Southern Baptists have worked in a spirit of “mutual commitment toward the inerrancy and infallibility of God’s Word and the Great Commission of Jesus Christ,” Warren said, adding that such a spirit of cooperation cannot exist without looking past those disagreements.
“No one is asking any Southern Baptist to change their theology. I’m not asking you to agree with my church. I am asking you to act like a Southern Baptist,” he said.
Mohler agreed with Warren that Saddleback has every right to have women pastors. Saddleback just can’t do it and remain in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Thirty years ago, said Mohler, the matter “threatened to tear this denomination apart.”
“… We look to this issue because Southern Baptists decided that it is not just a matter of church polity. It is not just a matter of hermeneutics. It’s a matter of biblical commitment, a commitment to Scripture that unequivocally – we believe – limits the office of pastor to men.”
Those supporting Saddleback’s position stood outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in the days prior to the vote, handing a four-page document to messengers that outlined reasons to uphold the appeal. This followed a weekslong online campaign by Warren to the same end.
Results from the messengers’ vote are expected June 14.