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Southern Baptists expel 5 churches because they have female pastors

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Southern Baptist Convention recently expelled five churches because they have women pastors. And in SBC's interpretation of Scripture, that position should only be held by men. Joining us now is Linda Barnes Popham. She's a pastor at one of the expelled churches, Fern Creek Baptist in Louisville, Ky. Good morning, pastor.

LINDA BARNES POPHAM: Good morning to you.

FADEL: So I want to start with what went through your mind when you got the news that your church was expelled because you, a woman, is the pastor.

BARNES POPHAM: The first thought that came to my mind, as well as the minds of many others, was, why now?

FADEL: Yeah.

BARNES POPHAM: I have served this church for 40 years. Thirty of those years have been as pastor. As a matter of fact, today is my 40th anniversary of being at the church.

FADEL: Wow. Happy anniversary.

BARNES POPHAM: And I'm not sure who the exact folks are who've spearheaded this movement to get rid of female pastors, but I do know that an email was sent a few months ago asking pastors to sign a letter to affirm an amendment to the Southern Baptist Convention bylaws which would say that women cannot serve as pastors. Now, I received that letter, too.

FADEL: Yeah.

BARNES POPHAM: Why now? I mean, is it to divert attention away from all the sexual abuse scandals? I don't know. But I do also know that about three years ago, I received a phone call from a member of the Credentials Committee who let me know that we had been under investigation. However, they found us in friendly cooperation with the SBC, and they assumed that because of my age, I would probably retire soon and that this would be a non-issue. But they didn't really want me to tell anyone. So our questions are, what changed and why now?

FADEL: Now, the SBC is saying, well, this is just about Scripture - interpretation of Scripture. But you think it's something else. I want to ask if you think this is signals - you know, an ultraconservative, ideological wing of the organization now dominating, making a decision like this.

BARNES POPHAM: I, myself, and our church would be considered very conservative. So therefore, it has to be more than that. It has to be something about power, those in control. I mean, we were shocked...

FADEL: Yeah.

BARNES POPHAM: ...Our congregation, because we're all about Jesus. And that's what our goal is - for people to know Jesus. We're evangelistic.

FADEL: What has your...

BARNES POPHAM: Oh, I'm sorry.

FADEL: What has your congregation been saying? I mean, you talk about being shocked. What are you telling congregants, and what are they asking you?

BARNES POPHAM: Oh, well, they have the copy of everything that the Credentials Committee sent to us and how we responded back in October, because that's when the Credentials Committee contacted me this go-around. In October, we had to answer several questions, and we had a meeting on Zoom. And then they said, we're going to send a recommendation to the executive committee that you should be disfellowshipped. That meeting is going to be Monday or Tuesday. And then I thought, well, we'll receive some kind of notification after that. But the first notification I've heard of was at 4 o'clock last Tuesday from a reporter in Nashville wanting to know my reaction.

So our congregation, I mean, their questions are the same. Why us? We've been - we consider ourselves very Southern Baptist. We would be more Southern Baptist than many of the other churches - like I said, conservative, evangelistic, mission-minded. Now, of course, there are many other emotions that the congregants share with each other. Yeah, we are not happy about their decision.

FADEL: What precedent do you think it sets to expel a church like yours and others - very successful churches who are bringing people in the door, like Saddleback, at a time where a lot of people aren't coming through the door of churches? What precedent does it set in the few seconds we have left?

BARNES POPHAM: That Southern Baptists no longer adhere to the priesthood of the believers and no longer believe in the autonomy of the local church and that those in power in SBC life do not value churches who are truly doing the work of the gospel.

FADEL: Wow. Pastor Linda Barnes Popham of the Fern Creek Baptist Church, thank you so much for your time.

BARNES POPHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.