© 2024 Public Radio Tulsa
800 South Tucker Drive
Tulsa, OK 74104
(918) 631-2577

A listener-supported service of The University of Tulsa
classical 88.7 | public radio 89.5
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘A bit of a shock’: local pastors respond to ousting of women-led congregations by Southern Baptists

The emblem of the Southern Baptist Convention
Southern Baptist Convention
Wikimedia Commons
The emblem of the Southern Baptist Convention

Local pastors are reacting to a Wednesday vote by delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention further restricting leadership by women within the church.

At its annual meeting in New Orleans, thousands of representatives from Southern Baptist churches across the country approved by a raised ballot vote an amendment to the denomination’s constitution saying congregations must have “only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.” A subsequent request for a formal ballot tally was voted down.

According to national media reports, the shift, which would go into effect if approved by a second vote next year, has been driven by ultraconservatives within the denomination responding to countrywide political divides.

William Hester, lead pastor for Southern Hills Baptist Church in Tulsa, said the result of the vote decided by what he said was a small faction of the SBC was "a bit of a shock." Hester attended the convention and voted against the amendment, as well as the expulsion of two churches in Kentucky and California that currently have female pastors.

“It’s couched by so many with scary terms, such as churches that allow women in positions that include the term pastor as part of the title, they’re just on a slippery slope to embracing cultural norms and degrading God’s truth, and it’s just simply not true. If that was the case, our church has been sliding for nearly 30 years now and yet we’ve only gotten stronger,” said Hester.

Hester said Southern Hills has a female pastor who’s worked with families and children for about ten years. At the convention, leadership didn’t answer questions about how churches with women pastors should proceed, though Hester said they’ve typically allowed time for questions in the past.

“Where does that leave churches like ours, for instance? Does that mean that we should just go ahead and voluntarily withdraw from the Southern Baptist Convention or should we wait until we’re publicly called out to be disfellowshipped as well?”

Hundreds of churches with female pastors could be designated for expulsion. The far-reaching mandate is a break with Southern Baptist tradition — typically, SBC churches have been autonomous and free to use or discard ideas, Hester said.

“When resolutions are passed at the convention, you can go back to your home church and say, ‘We like that,’ or ‘We don’t like that,’ or ‘We’ll do that’ or ‘We won’t do that,’ but this is different. This has never been a test of fellowship before.”

President of Oklahoma Baptists and pastor at First Baptist Owasso Chris Wall echoed concerns over the absolute nature of the potential change. Wall said though he agrees men and women should serve different roles within the church, he thinks the blanket expulsion of female pastors is out of sync with what appeals about Southern Baptist culture.

“I’m of the opinion that it’s our local churches that should deal with these things first, and the amendment put a little too much power on the national entities,” said Wall. “We tell our entities what to do, they don’t tell us what to do.”

Eric Costanzo, pastor at South Tulsa Baptist Church, said he’s hoping some questions will be answered in the interim between votes.

“Why are they being so adamant about what sounds like putting women in their place? I’ve actually been very thankful that our church members are saying, ‘Hey, we want to make sure that our convention of churches doesn’t start speaking in ways that devalues the roles of women,” said Costanzo.

The final vote on the expulsion of churches with women pastors from the Southern Baptist Convention will take place in Indianapolis in June 2024.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.