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Southern Baptists may bar female pastors

Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, proposed revising the denomination's basic statement of faith on Thursday to say that the Bible allows only men to be church pastors.

The proposed change _ to a document called the Baptist Faith and Message _ would declare that "the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

The proposed phrase reflects the theologically rightward turn by the denomination, historically a conservative body in which few women have been hired as pastors. If adopted by the denomination, it would strongly discourage Southern Baptist congregations from calling a woman as pastor. But it could not legally prevent them from doing so, as such congregations are self-governing.

The proposed revision would also be another in a series of recent moves that sharply distinguishes Southern Baptists from other major Protestant bodies.

Since the denomination underwent a wrenching power struggle in the 1980s, Southern Baptists have been guided by leaders who regard the Bible as "inerrant," literally true in all matters, and have been firm in saying Scripture prohibits women from being spiritual leaders over men.

Two years ago, at their annual convention, Southern Baptists amended the faith statement to declare that "a wife is to submit herself graciously" to her husband's leadership.

In 1997, the convention adopted a resolution calling for new efforts aimed at converting Jews to Christianity.

In addition to saying women should not be pastors, the proposed revisions to the faith statement call on Christians to oppose racism, homosexuality and pornography, to speak out against abortion and to bring government and society "under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth and brotherly love." The revisions will be voted on at the 15.8-million-member denomination's convention, in Orlando on June 13-14.

The proposed changes are "historically significant," said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a member of the committee that proposed the revisions.

"A confession of faith is a very concrete representation of what Baptists believe," he said, adding that it was "appropriate that every generation" have the opportunity to consider such revisions.

"One of the issues that is important here," he added, "is that the opposition to the idea of a woman serving as pastor is not culturally driven. It is a matter of biblical conviction."

He also said that the proposed revision was consistent with what most Southern Baptists believed, as expressed in a resolution at a convention in 1984.

But Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler, a former executive director of Woman's Missionary Union, the major women's organization within the Southern Baptist Convention, said she disagreed with the proposed revision of the faith statement and would not support it. "I think it's a misinterpretation of Scripture," said Crumpler, who is also a former moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a network of theologically more moderate congregations within the denomination.

The Rev. Daniel Vestal, the fellowship's top official, also said the proposed revision "is based on a bad interpretation of Scripture, an insensitivity to the Holy Spirit and an unwillingness to see what God is doing in the world today."

Vestal said that incorporating the clause against women as pastors into the faith statement would have a profound effect among the denomination's 40,000 congregations.

"Symbol is sometimes substance," he said. "It will definitely affect the local congregation over time, because the document is a document for hiring and firing in all institutions, so it's going to affect faculty and it's going to affect missionaries, and that has an effect on all congregations."

The faith statement was written in 1925 and revised in 1963. Since the last major revision, several Protestant denominations (as well as the Reform and Conservative rabbinates) have ordained women as clergy.

These days, women make up a significant proportion of the clergy within, for example, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church. All three denominations also ordain women as bishops. In one small religious body, the Unitarian-Universalist Association, women now make up a slight majority of all clergy members.

Sarah Frances Anders, a retired sociology professor who is moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said that in 1964, the first Southern Baptist woman was ordained as a minister since before the Civil War. But that woman, she said, found a job as a pastor in another denomination, the American Baptist Churches.

Since then, she said, about 1,600 Southern Baptist women have been ordained, although many work as chaplains or ministers of music or supervise educational programs in churches.

She said that about 100 women serve as pastors and about 100 others as associate pastors in Southern Baptist congregations.