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Three churches deemed ‘not in friendly cooperation’ plan to appeal

EDITOR’S NOTE: Baptist Press is publishing a series of articles in advance of the 2023 SBC Annual Meeting on the three churches that have indicated they will appeal the February 2023 decision by the SBC Executive Committee deeming them not to be in friendly cooperation with the SBC. The articles are intended to give messengers an opportunity to hear from church leaders at Saddleback Church, Fern Creek Baptist and Freedom Church. Statements made by representatives of the church should not be deemed to be endorsements by Baptist Press.

NEW ORLEANS (BP) – Three churches that were deemed not to be in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention by the SBC Executive Committee at its February meeting will be appealing that decision, it was announced Tuesday (May 16).

In total, eight churches have been deemed not in friendly cooperation with the SBC since the 2022 SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim – two at the SBC EC’s meeting last September and six in February of this year. Though the SBC has disfellowshipped churches for various reasons over the years, none has appealed that decision until this year.

“The Credentials Committee reports that it has received appeals from Fern Creek Baptist Church, Louisville, KY; Freedom Church, Vero Beach, Florida; and Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California,” the Credentials Committee said in a statement May 16.

The deadline to file an appeal was May 15, and the Credentials Committee announced the next day that the three churches would be presenting their case June 13 at the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans.

“SBC bylaws plainly outline the process for churches determined to be not in cooperation with the Convention to appeal their cases before messengers cast their votes,” EC Chairman David Sons said in a statement May 16. “Since this is the first time in SBC history for this particular item of business to come before the Convention, it’s important for everyone coming to New Orleans to be prepared and informed about the process.” Sons is pastor of Lake Murray Baptist Church in Lexington, S.C.

Both Fern Creek Baptist Church and Saddleback Church were deemed not to be “in friendly cooperation” with the Convention because of their positions on women filling the office of pastor.

Linda Barnes Popham has served as pastor of Fern Creek since 1993.

Questions surrounding Saddleback began two years ago, when it ordained three women, giving them the title of “pastor,” though it appeared the women’s roles remained largely the same in children’s and NextGen ministries. Since then, Stacy Wood, wife of the church’s new lead pastor Andy Wood, has been named teaching pastor and regularly preaches on Sunday mornings. Last week, Katie Edwards, one of the three women ordained in 2021, was installed as lead pastor of the church’s Lake Forest, Calif., campus.

The Credentials Committee declined to call for Saddleback’s disfellowship at the 2022 SBC annual meeting, requesting that clarity be provided regarding the use of the title “pastor” for staff positions with different responsibilities and authority than that of the lead pastor. The committee’s request was denied.

Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Fla., was deemed to be not in friendly cooperation because the church failed to cooperate to resolve concerns regarding an abuse allegation. Freedom Church has denied the charge to Baptist Press, saying the matter was investigated and resolved by the Anglican Church of North America. The local association and the state convention both severed ties with the church last year.

In its statement May 16, the Credentials Committee announced: “Pursuant to SBC Bylaw 8, the Committee on Order of Business shall propose a time for miscellaneous business during the afternoon session on Tuesday, June 13, for the consideration of the appeals received. Bylaw 8 also provides that one representative of the church will be recognized to speak and one representative of the Credentials Committee or Executive Committee shall be permitted to speak to the question.”

Messengers will then be able to vote “yes” to affirm the decisions of the EC and the Credentials Committee to disfellowship the church in question. “A ‘no’ vote will overturn the decision of the committees and allow the church to immediately be registered and to seat messengers in accordance with Convention rules,” the statement said.

The EC disfellowshipped the churches by affirming 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.”

Through a change in the SBC’s bylaws, messengers to the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting in Birmingham, changed the function of the Credentials Committee, giving it the responsibility to form an opinion about a church’s cooperation when questions arise.

Article III of the SBC Constitution says a church is in friendly cooperation with the Convention if it has “a faith and practice that closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith [the Baptist Faith and Message 2000].” It also delineates several reasons a church may be deemed not to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention, including affirmation or approval of homosexuality, racial or ethnic discrimination and acting in a manner inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse.