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Issues Affecting Women Take Center Stage as Southern Baptists Hold Annual Meeting

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Delegates will vote on whether to tighten restrictions on women in pastoral leadership and whether to condemn the use of in vitro fertilization.

The Southern Baptist Convention meets this year in Indianapolis and has become a barometer of conservative thought and politics.Credit...Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

By Ruth Graham

Reporting from the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis.

Southern Baptists are poised to vote at their annual meeting on whether to crack down on women in pastoral leadership and whether to condemn the use of in vitro fertilization, setting up a referendum on the role of women in the nation's largest Protestant denomination and in American society.

The meeting opened in Indianapolis on Tuesday, when the denomination voted overwhelmingly to expel a church in Virginia that has had a female pastor for women and children for nearly two decades. The church also told the convention that it would be open to employing a woman as senior pastor. That position is in violation of the denomination's ban on women in pastoral leadership, which the denomination may tighten further on Wednesday.

The congregation, First Baptist Church of Alexandria, was deemed "not in friendly cooperation" with other Southern Baptist churches by a denominational committee, a recommendation that more than 90 percent of convention delegates affirmed. The move is largely symbolic, because Southern Baptist churches typically own their own buildings and hire their own staff; it will not restrict the church's operation as a congregation.

The church was founded in the early 19th century. It stands just a few miles from the church headed by Mike Law, the pastor who introduced the move to tighten restrictions on female pastors. In documents submitted to the convention, First Baptist Church of Alexandria said that it was Mr. Law's church that first reported it to the convention.

With almost 13 million church members across the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention has long been a bellwether for American evangelicalism. Its reliably conservative membership makes it a powerful political force, and its debates have attracted widespread interest from outside pundits and politicians this year. The denomination has experienced the same turmoil over politics and priorities that has divided the conservative movement more broadly in the wake of the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump as president.

"I hope every single person in this room is voting not only in November but is voting tomorrow because of what is at stake in the Southern Baptist Convention," Ryan Helfenbein, the executive director of a think tank at Liberty University, told attendees at a lunch on Monday, before the meeting officially opened.

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