Saddleback Church wants to keep its place in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
The California megachurch—once one of the biggest in the denomination—plans to appeal the SBC’s move to disfellowship Saddleback for appointing women as pastors.
Saddleback is among three churches that will make their case before Southern Baptists at their annual meeting in New Orleans next month. The body can vote on whether to overturn the previous decision and allow Saddleback back into “friendly cooperation” with the SBC or to let the decision to remove the church stand.
The SBC Executive Committee, which is in charge of denominational business outside of the annual meeting, disfellowshipped Saddleback and five other churches with women pastors in February—the first time churches have been forced out for that reason. The congregations had until Monday to state their intention to appeal at the June 11–14 gathering.
“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,” said David Sons, the chairman of the SBC Executive Committee and a pastor in South Carolina. “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.”
A representative from each appealing church will be given three minutes to make their case. The credentials committee, which makes recommendations for churches that are out of alignment with the SBC, will be given three minutes to respond before the vote. The other appealing churches are Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Florida.
Saddleback, famously founded and led by Rick Warren until his retirement last summer, came under scrutiny after ordaining three women in May 2021. The ordinations reflected Warren’s shift on the issue.
“I actually had to change because of Scripture. Culture could not change me on this issue. Anecdotes could not change me on this issue. Pressure from other people would not change me on this issue,” Warren said earlier this year. “What changed me was when I came into confrontation with … scriptures nobody ever talked about that I felt had strong implications about women in ministry,” including the Great Commission.
Pushback from some Southern Baptists intensified last year when Warren’s successor, Andy Wood, brought on his wife Stacie Wood as a teaching pastor. And last week, Saddleback named one of the women ordained two years ago, Katie Edwards, as campus pastor at its Lake Forest location.
The Baptist Faith and Message, the SBC’s statement of faith, 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.”
Last year, the convention debated at its annual meeting whether the line implicitly referred to lead and senior pastor roles, or any role with that title. Southern Baptists, proudly an association of independent and locally led churches, also challenged whether the SBC has consistently enforced that congregations adhere to every position in the statement.
At the time, Warren spoke from the floor to encourage the SBC to continue to provide autonomy to local churches and focus on the work of evangelism.
After Saddleback was disfellowshipped three months ago, Warren opened up to CT editor in chief Russell Moore about how he disagreed with the decision, saying, “We should kick out churches for sin. We should kick out churches that harm the testimony of the convention. This isn’t harming the testimony of anybody. And it’s what’s a disputable issue, as Paul says in Romans 14.”
Warren also said he’s changed his position on women in ministry, based on his understanding of the Great Commission and the New Testament.
Weeks after the decision to disfellowship Saddleback in February, Andy Wood quipped that it was his second time getting “kicked out” of the SBC; his former congregation, Echo Church in Sacramento, had decided to cut ties with the denomination over the same issue.
This time, the disfellowship move was made publicly and drew national attention given Saddleback’s prominence. Leaders at Saddleback also had some interaction with the credentials committee to explain their position in hopes of remaining part of the SBC.
On a podcast with Carey Nieuwhof back in March, Andy Wood said the church had not yet decided whether to appeal the SBC decision, but leaders were in prayer over it. He affirmed that the church was committed to including both men and women in pastoral roles—a position they saw as both “open handed” and rooted in Scripture.
“I can see the unifying component of it, of empowering both men and women, doing it in a loving way, non-feisty, and even not feeling like we have to defend ourselves when we do it,” he said. “I don’t feel like every time I obey God I need to give a defense for why I obey God and do what he asks me to do.”
As of last December, the church assigned pastoral titles to all women in pastoral roles.
“It felt incongruent, or almost hypocritical, to have a woman serving in the same position, a counterpart of a male, but then the male is called pastor but the woman is called minister or director,” Stacie Wood said.
As teaching pastor at Saddleback, a position she was given by Warren and the church’s elders, she preaches about once a month.
Warren, a fourth-generation pastor who founded Saddleback in 1980, was recently appointed the honorary chancellor of Spurgeon’s College in London. In April, he published a new book, Created to Dream.