Issues Affecting Women Take Center Stage as Southern Baptists Hold Annual Meeting


Southern Baptists are poised to vote at their annual meeting Tuesday and Wednesday on whether to crack down on women in pastoral leadership and whether to condemn the use of in vitro fertilization, setting up a referendum on the role of women in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and in American society.

With almost 13 million church members across the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention has long been a bellwether for American evangelicalism. Its reliably conservative membership makes it a powerful political force, and its debates have attracted widespread interest from outside pundits and politicians this year. The denomination has experienced the same turmoil over politics and priorities that has divided the conservative movement more broadly in the wake of the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump as president.

“I hope every single person in this room is voting not only in November but is voting tomorrow because of what is at stake in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Ryan Helfenbein, the executive director of a think tank at Liberty University, told attendees at a lunch on Monday in Indianapolis near where the annual meeting will take place.

Mr. Trump recorded a brief message for the “very respected people” gathered at the lunch, which was hosted by the Danbury Institute, a new conservative Christian advocacy group with Southern Baptist ties.

“You just can’t vote Democrat,” Mr. Trump said in the video message, which some attendees had waited two hours to hear. “They’re against religion, they’re against your religion in particular.” He assured them that under a second Trump presidency, “you’re going to make a comeback like just about no other group.”

Delegates, known as “messengers,” include male pastors from the more than 45,000 Southern Baptist churches across the country as well as many church and staff members, including women.

The group is expected to vote on Wednesday on whether to amend its constitution to mandate that Southern Baptist churches must have “only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.” The group’s statement of faith already forbids female pastors, and in recent years messengers have ousted several churches over the issue, including Saddleback Church in California, which had been one of its largest and most prominent congregations. The amendment would strengthen enforcement and remove the ability of individual Baptist churches to make their own leadership decisions, a defining feature of Baptist life.

“We understand this to be a major cultural battle line,” said William Wolfe, the executive director of the Center for Baptist Leadership, a new advocacy group founded out of concern that the denomination was drifting leftward. “If we can’t hold the line here, we won’t hold the line five years from now, and you and I will be talking about whether to affirm homosexuality in our churches.”

Mr. Wolfe, 35, said he considered passage of the Law Amendment, as it is known, to be his organization’s top priority. The group is co-hosting a lunch for some 800 attendees on Tuesday with the theme “S.B.C. at a Crossroads.”

Messengers are also poised to vote on whether to oppose in vitro fertilization, as anti-abortion activists seek to build on their gains after the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022. The resolution, put forth by an ethicist and the president of a Southern Baptist seminary, calls for Baptists to “reaffirm the unconditional value and right to life of every human being, including those in an embryonic stage, and to only utilize reproductive technologies consistent with that affirmation.”

It will be the first time the denomination has asked its members to confront the issue in this form. A vast majority of delegates oppose abortion, but fertility treatments are widely used by evangelicals. Although in vitro fertilization often results in the destruction of unused embryos, many Southern Baptists see fertility treatments as fundamentally different from abortion because the goal is to create new life. Some pastors expressed concerns about the prospect of returning to their home churches and reporting that they voted to condemn a process that created their congregants’ children and grandchildren.

Former Vice President Mike Pence will speak on Tuesday at an event hosted by the denomination’s policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Other items on the Baptists’ agenda include the election of a new president and resolutions, including one discouraging the use of many nondisclosure agreements and another affirming support for Israel and condemning “anti-Israel and pro-Hamas activities” on college campuses and beyond. A task force that is addressing sexual abuse in Southern Baptist settings will also present its final report on Tuesday afternoon.



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