(OPINION) In mid-June, when the Southern Baptist Convention affirmed it would sever ties with massive Saddleback Church in California, the rupture made national headlines.
Saddleback is among the biggest and best-known congregations in America. It was founded by Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” a Christian mega-hit.
What got less attention was that a much smaller Kentucky church — Louisville’s Fern Creek Baptist, with a Sunday attendance of 150 — was also disfellowshipped for the same reason: Both congregations recognize women as pastors, a huge no-no to many other Baptists.
Saddleback had lately ordained several women as assistant pastors.
At Fern Creek, the Rev. Linda Barnes Popham has served as lead pastor for 30 years.
The votes against the congregations came at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, held this year in New Orleans.
As if to put an exclamation point on the expulsions, the country’s largest Protestant denomination voted to amend its constitution to say only men can be pastors or elders. That change must pass a second vote in 2024.
In addition to the national upheaval, the Kentucky Baptist Convention, a state-level association of Southern Baptists, will seek to sever ties with Fern Creek Baptist at its 2023 annual meeting in Somerset, Kentucky, in November, according to multiple sources.
The SBC differs from some denominations in that each congregation is — in theory — independent. Churches cooperate by pooling their money for missions. If a congregation is kicked out, that amounts to the denomination saying, “We don’t want your missions money anymore.”
Paradoxically, Popham is no firebrand for progressive causes but a theological and political conservative who finds herself baffled by recent developments.
“Those in control think they have won,” she said. “But no one has won. Our missionaries have lost. They’re going to lose even more funding.”
She’s well-liked by some of the same right-leaning folks who think she has no place in a pulpit. As recently as 2016, she served as moderator of the Louisville Regional Baptist Association, a network of more than 160 congregations.
“She’s been very gracious. She’s a kind individual,” said the Rev. Hershael York, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky.
York said Popham hasn’t attempted to convince others to accept women as ministers.
But as a messenger, or delegate, in New Orleans, York cast his ballot against Fern Creek. He says the Bible prohibits women from being pastors, period.
“I was sad because I like Linda Barnes Popham very much,” he said, “but my personal friendships do not alter the meaning of the biblical text nor my commitment to it.”
(The meanings of Scriptures regarding women’s roles in church are widely disputed.)
Popham said she’s felt a range of emotions since her church was targeted: surprise, sadness, anger, even optimism.
“I’m surprised it ever happened,” she said. “I’m sad because of the loss of relationships. … I’m angry about the hypocrisy and about what I keep calling the deeds done in darkness.”
But she still believes the future bodes well for Fern Creek Baptist, even if it’s not going to be Southern Baptist.
A native of Alabama, she attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She came to Fern Creek as minister of music and youth in 1983. In 1990, she became interim pastor and in 1993 pastor.
She’s never had any desire for this kind of spotlight, she said.
“That has never been my motive. I’ve laid low. I’ve just tried to be about the mission that God has called me to.”
In the decades since she entered the clergy, though, the SBC has tacked hard to the right.
At roughly the same time Popham became a pastor, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and other seminaries were taken over by rigid conservatives. Seminaries train pastors, who then instruct their flocks. A strain of ultra-conservatism has gradually trickled down to pulpits and pews.
Although Southern Baptist congregations historically have been free to preach and practice largely as they desire, there’s been an increasing attempt to enforce uniformity.
The SBC’s statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, was revised in 2000 to reflect a dramatic conservative shift. There’s still not universal agreement about how binding that document is.
Prohibitions against women pastors and statements defining different roles for men and women have become a preoccupation. More purges are expected.
Support for such actions is not gender specific. Many Baptist women oppose women pastors as adamantly as men do.
Women made up 30.2% of the more than 12,000 messengers at the meeting in New Orleans, for instance.
“I think I am safe to say that the vast majority of women messengers voted against Fern Creek since the vote was 9700-806,” York observed.
He thinks that, in Kentucky, Popham was so quiet and respected that critics had previously just left Fern Creek alone. Popham is approaching retirement age. Opponents figured that once she stepped aside a man would step in.
But Warren’s outspoken defense of women’s ordination led to a big backlash.
“I think Fern Creek just got caught in the wake of Rick Warren making waves,” York said.
At 67, Popham has no plans yet for retirement. From her days as a teenage volunteer, she’s spent a half-century laboring in Baptist churches.
Even as a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where she initially earned a master’s degree in church music, she believed she’d end up in the pulpit.
“I knew I was called to ministry,” she said. “My passion was there, to preach and evangelize.”
She doesn’t understand what the big deal is about Fern Creek Baptist.
“Why are we such a threat to the Southern Baptist Convention?” she has asked other Baptists. “And no one will tell me.”
She still loves Southern Baptists, including many who voted against her.
She has less conciliatory words for powerbrokers at the top of the SBC.
“They remind me of a cult,” she said. “I don’t even know those people. They do their work in the dark.”