Southern Baptists addressed women in ministry, IVF and abuse reform: Key takeaways

INDIANAPOLIS — The Southern Baptist Convention this week brought to an end an abuse reform task face, took a major vote on women pastors and jump into national debate over in vitro fertilization.

During the SBC's annual meeting in Indianapolis, delegates, called messengers, settled a yearslong debate over a proposed measure to enshrine a ban on women pastors into the constitution of the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

Commonly called the “Law Amendment” after its original petitioner Virginia pastor Mike Law, the measure failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed for ratification.

Still, the role of women in ministry remains one Southern Baptists are divided over and the denomination continues to take a strong stand against churches that diverge from its doctrinal standard. The ousting of a Virginia church cemented the mandate of an all-volunteer committee in reviewing cases of churches with women pastors.

Meanwhile, the convention took on an issue it never previously deliberated — in vitro fertilization. The move came the same week Congress took up votes on the fertility treatment.

Ballots for voting are kept ready during the Southern Baptist Convention, Tuesday, June 11, 2024 at the Indiana Convention Center.
Ballots for voting are kept ready during the Southern Baptist Convention, Tuesday, June 11, 2024 at the Indiana Convention Center.

The conclusion of a task force-led abuse reform effort left little guarantees about some of the progress the convention has made in aftermath of a historic crisis. Now, that progress is in the hands of the SBC Executive Committee at a time when the denomination’s administrative arm is facing other financial and legal crises.

Here's what to know about how these decisions from one of the most influential groups in American Christianity.

More: Southern Baptists confront future change in wake of uncertainty and division

What happened?

Major legislative actions at the SBC annual meeting included:

  • An amendment to the SBC constitution to enforce the denomination’s doctrinal view that women cannot be pastors failed despite receiving 61% support. The measure needed a two-thirds majority to pass.

  • Messengers overwhelmingly adopted a resolution condemning in vitro fertilization, or IVF, in the first statement of its kind for the SBC following an emotional floor debate exhibiting divisions among evangelical Christians on the medical practice.

  • The SBC Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force concluded its work after completing a few of the original tasks it was established two years ago to oversee. A key success was creating new educational materials for churches on preventing and responding to abuse.  The needs the task force did not address in its two years of work, plus other needs the task force identified through its work, now moves to the SBC Executive Committee.

  • The ouster of First Baptist Church Alexandria in Virginia for its egalitarian stance on women in ministry instead of a complementarian one, referring to a belief that men and women have certain assigned roles. Messengers voted 91% in favor of the church’s ouster, echoing the convention’s similar support at the 2023 SBC annual meeting to uphold the ouster of two churches with women pastors.

  • The election North Carolina pastor Clint Pressley for SBC president following a three-round race in which candidates’ stances on the Law Amendment took higher priority than views on abuse reform, a defining issue in previous presidential elections.

What’s the impact?

The Law Amendment’s defeat might have avoided a mass withdrawal of churches from the SBC either of their own accord or at the denomination’s behest. But for critics of the measure, enough damage has already been done.

The debate over the Law Amendment has fueled disillusionment among some churches, including those which participate regularly in Southern Baptist life and hold to core Southern Baptist doctrinal beliefs. Meanwhile, some other churches with women in leadership roles have left due to the rhetoric that intensified with the debate over the Law Amendment.

Matt Hunter, center, and others sing during the Southern Baptist Convention, Tuesday, June 11, 2024 at the Indiana Convention Center.
Matt Hunter, center, and others sing during the Southern Baptist Convention, Tuesday, June 11, 2024 at the Indiana Convention Center.

There’s been a similar loss of confidence among abuse survivors and allies about the future of abuse reform in the denomination, a sharp contrast to messaging at the 2022 SBC annual meeting in Anaheim when the convention apologized to survivors and established the abuse reform task force.

There are processes in place to continue some of the abuse reform work, including a nonprofit comprised of members of the SBC Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force that’s still working on launching a database of abusive ministers. But the absence of plans for other abuse reform needs has dampened a larger sense of momentum.

What happens next?

The SBC Executive Committee, comprised of about 20 staff and an 86-member board of elected representatives that manages denomination business outside of the two-day annual meeting, will now decide how to address certain long-term abuse reform needs.

But the executive committee is also managing other priorities that demand significant attention, including financial instability and legal battles over abuse cases or that allege defamation for a third-party abuse report. The committee will meet next in September and likely take up the discussion about addressing certain long-term abuse reform needs.

People sing in praise during the Southern Baptist Convention, Tuesday, June 11, 2024 at the Indiana Convention Center.
People sing in praise during the Southern Baptist Convention, Tuesday, June 11, 2024 at the Indiana Convention Center.

Meanwhile, actions on the Law Amendment and FBC Alexandria have set a precedent for how the SBC Credentials Committee determines whether to recommend a church’s ouster for its views of women serving as pastor.

While the credentials committee won’t be responsible for recommending the ouster of every church with a woman who holds the title of pastor, the committee will likely continue recommending disfellowshipping churches with women in a senior pastor role or that hold to an egalitarian understanding of women in ministry.

Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at ladams@tennessean.com or on social media @liamsadams.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: SBC votes on women, in vitro fertilization at Indianapolis meeting