RNS-The Southern Baptist Convention will no longer endorse women as military chaplains, the agency that regulates chaplains policy has announced.

"The majority of Southern Baptists are opposed to women's ordination for any reason," said Terry Fox, trustee chairman of the North American Mission Board, whose policy change was made Wednesday (Feb. 4.)

"It brought our agency in line with the larger family of Southern Baptists."

The trustees made their decision in response to concerns raised by military chaplains who wanted to ensure that Southern Baptist chaplains in the armed services would be required to be ordained.

"In the future the North American Mission Board will endorse only ordained men to the office of chaplain to serve in the military or any place where the role and function of the chaplain would be seen the same as that of a pastor," the board wrote in an official response to a motion made by a Navy chaplain at the denomination's 2003 summer meeting in Phoenix.

"We recognize ordination as a local church action, but endorsement and its requirement is the action of a national agency."

Fox told Religion News Service the policy change resolves a "dilemma" his agency faced after its 2002 decision that it would not endorse ordained women chaplains. Military chaplains had responded that ordination of their variety of chaplains was necessary since their role is similar to a pastor because they preach and perform baptisms, weddings and funerals.

"We asked them to either allow ordained females to come in or not allow them at all," said Chaplain (Capt.) Randy Cash, who joined other Southern Baptist chaplains in the Navy in pressing the mission agency on the matter. "For us, it was not a female issue. It was more an ordination issue."

Cash, who is the executive assistant to the Navy's chief of chaplains, said the Southern Baptist chaplains were concerned that if unordained females and ordained males were both serving as military chaplains, "it would almost create an uneven playing field. ... We did not see the equality in that or fairness in that."

Chaplain (Capt.) Al Hill, who made the formal request for a policy change, said the decision ended up being "the only honorable position" the agency could take, given a Defense Department requirement that chaplains be "fully and professionally qualified" and a denominational faith statement opposing women pastors.

"What we hoped to achieve was a reaffirmation of ordination," said Hill, command chaplain at the Naval Amphibious Base in Little Creek, Va. "The implication for women is an unfortunate consequence of the position."

Hill and Cash both pursued this issue in their role as Southern Baptists and not as representatives of the government.

Fox said the agency is "intent on affirming women chaplains all over the place" except in positions that have a pastoral role.

The agency's formal response cites "numerous institutional settings and roles" in which women serve without being pastors.

"They are called and gifted to serve in many caring roles and have a tremendous role in evangelism and spiritual care," it states.

The policy primarily will affect military chaplains but the 20 Southern Baptist women who are currently military chaplains will be grandfathered in and can remain in their positions.

Those seeking new endorsements or a change in the type of chaplaincy in which they serve would have to adhere to the new policy.

There are 196 women among about 2,500 chaplains endorsed by the mission board. Southern Baptist records indicate that women have been endorsed as chaplains since 1964, Fox said.

The original policy change was sparked by a change in the denomination's faith statement in 2000. The Baptist Faith and Message was amended to state that the office of pastor was not suitable for women.

Representatives of organizations that have advocated for women in ministry criticized the latest development in Southern Baptist policy.

"They continue to more narrowly define who God can call and who God can't and how God can use people in ministry or how God can't," said Karen Massey, president of Baptist Women in Ministry and an associate professor at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta.

"I think God can call and use whoever God chooses."

Mimi Haddad, president of Minneapolis-based Christians for Biblical Equality, agreed.

"The Southern Baptist Convention's desire to enforce male-only leadership is contrary to the entire tenor of the Scriptures, both in general and in specific," she said.

"Women throughout the history of the church have served as leaders because God has anointed them."

Hill said the decision was based on the agency's upholding of denominational doctrine rather than it being against women.

"My experience is that the North American Mission Board trustees are not anti-woman or anti-women ministers," he said.

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