WACO, Texas, June 12--Every Sunday morning of her first semester in Baptist seminary, Julie Pennington-Russell rose early to pray ''for those poor, misguided women who wanted to be ordained.''

''I prayed for months -- until some wiser people opened some sky over my understanding of the Bible,'' she recalls with a wry smile.

She's the Rev. Pennington-Russell today, ordained by a Southern Baptist church in 1986 and now senior pastor of Waco's 850-member Calvary Baptist Church.

But this week, when 16,000 messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meet in Orlando, the leadership of the nation's largest Protestant denomination will brand female pastors like her ''unbiblical.''

Pennington-Russell won't be there for the vote.

She's a leader in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), an alliance of thousands of former Southern Baptist Convention churches and individuals, formed in 1991 by people unhappy with the convention's fundamentalist theology and restrictive polity. They are the women and men methodically driven from positions of influence in seminaries, churches, publishing, missions and management, outvoted at every turn by such archconservatives as outgoing convention president Paige Patterson.

On June 29, nearly 4,300 fellowship messengers will hold their annual gathering in Orlando.

Same faith. Same meeting hall. Same Bible. Different page.

The differences between these Baptists can seem as goofy as Disney, as deep as doctrine:

The Southern Baptist Convention shuns all things Disney, since it voted in 1997 to boycott the company for offering domestic-partner benefits to gay employees. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will hold youth meetings at Walt Disney World and enjoy discount passes.

The upstart CBF is not a denomination, distinguishable by a distinct confession or creed. It won't issue any resolutions, proclamations or instructions to churches at the gathering.

However bluntly Patterson invites, urges or provokes the CBF to secede, the fellowship is reluctant to go. CBF founder and coordinator the Rev. Daniel Vestal insists his group has a say in what it means to be an authentic Baptist in a post-denominational age in which few spiritual seekers know -- or care -- about the boundaries dividing believers.

Many churches in the fellowship, including Calvary in Waco, maintain their affiliation with the SBC while sending most of their mission money to the CBF.

''We're so decentralized, they can't kick us out,'' jokes Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics, which receives some CBF funding. Agreement within the fellowship, which has no ideological purity tests for members, is an iffy thing. It's a network that works ''like herding cats.''

Many -- but not all -- CBF churches view the Bible as the inspired truth of God, if not necessarily inerrant.

Many -- but not all -- accept women as senior pastors.

Most -- if not all -- chafe at the spiritual combat waged by the SBC, which is conducting an urban evangelism campaign aimed at Jews, Muslims and other Christians in the USA.

The CBF's founding documents say, ''An ecumenical and inclusive attitude is basic to our fellowship.''

Meanwhile, the monolithic SBC proclaims a stirring ''call to holiness,'' Patterson says. It trumpets an exclusive vision of the only ''true'' church, rejecting ''inclusivism and pluralism in salvation, for these compromise the Gospel itself,'' past president Adrian Rogers says.

Rogers will be in the spotlight at the SBC meeting. He led a committee that proposes radical revisions to the Baptist Faith and Message, a statement that spells out the ways Southern Baptists define their beliefs and their church.

Written in 1925, the statement was last revised at length in 1963. In 1998, an addition that directed women to graciously submit to the servant-leadership of their husbands caused a hullabaloo outside the meeting hall but was overwhelmingly approved by the messengers.

The convention's top agenda this year item will be to ''clarify our doctrines for this present age, and to define our beliefs against the backdrop of modern confusion,'' Rogers says in his committee report. The hot-button addition to the Faith and Message, to be voted on Wednesday, focuses on women pastors.

The new statement would say, ''While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men, as qualified by Scripture.'' The 1963 statement called all members ''under the Lordship of Jesus Christ equally responsible.''

''It used to be that the Southern Baptists would try to point everyone toward the mountain of God and let you find your own way,'' Pennington-Russell, 39, says during lunch at Fudruckers after Sunday services recently. ''Now, they order you to take Route 66. They want to control the pathways. That's so opposite of so many people's understanding of what it means to be a Baptist.

''This summer may finally be the turning point for churches who want to be free from SBC baggage, more fluid. I'm embarrassed to death by the SBC's confrontations, but I'm still very proud of my Baptist heritage.''

A mother of two, Pennington-Russell preaches this day on adults' obligations to cherish children. As she always does, she sits in the pews during many of the prayers, a shepherd among the flock rather than its commanding officer.

While a high school girl sings a hymn, Pennington-Russell gazes up toward her with radiant enthusiasm.

''Every congregation is expected to let the Holy Spirit lead them along the parameters of the big tent that is the Baptist faith,'' the pastor says.

''In Calvary and the CBF, we are interested not in what Paul said, but in what Jesus did, choosing women to be his first evangelists,'' she says.

''Between when I was called to the church and when I arrived, a number of people left Calvary. We have found ways to bless this. Here at Calvary, the woman issue is a non-issue. I'm just pastor Julie. And they have gone to churches where they feel more attuned.''

They could choose from 34 Southern Baptist churches among 86 Baptist churches listed in the phone book for 200,000 people in the Waco area. Next year, if the vote goes as expected this week, there will be only 33 SBC choices.

The pastor says, ''I expect there will be a new heading in the Waco Yellow Pages in 2001: Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.''

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad