ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) â€” The Southern Baptists are debating the latest proposal dividing the nation's largest Protestant denomination: A measure that says women should no longer serve as pastors.
The group will vote on the revised statement of belief at its annual convention, which begins here Tuesday.
``I think you'll see a lot of women leaving'' the denomination if the proposal passes, said the Rev. Martha Phillips, interim pastor of the Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Arlington, Va., where Vice President Al Gore is a member. ``For me it's the last straw.''
The Southern Baptists will also discuss new wording against abortion and homosexuality that reflects the rightward shift in recent years in the 5.9 million-member denomination.
The chairman of the drafting committee, the Rev. Adrian Rogers of Memphis, Tenn., said the panel is ``unembarrassed to take our stand,'' which, he said, is based on ``doctrines revealed in the Bible.''
The Rev. David Key, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, called the statement a litmus test of who's in and out of conservative circles.
``Instead of building a consensus statement, (Baptist leaders) are using it as a club to drive out people they disagree with,'' he said. ``After they pass this, every denominational bureaucrat, every missionary, every seminary professor is going to have to adhere to the statement.''
The statement of belief reads: ``While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.''
While the statement opposes the future ordination of women, the 1,600 or so current Southern Baptist clergywomen, about 100 of whom are pastors leading congregations, would not lose their credentials.
The statement is not binding on individual Southern Baptists, and the 41,000 local congregations would remain free to ordain women. But the statement could affect the denomination's hiring decisions.
In 1998, the Southern Baptists declared that a wife should ``submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.'' About a dozen congregations quit the denomination.
Approval of the men-only clergy clause will probably drive out other congregations, said the Rev. Daniel Vestal of Atlanta, coordinator for a group of 2,000 theologically moderate congregations.
The Rev. Raye Nell Dyer, president of Baptist Women in Ministry, said female pastors would be among the first to go. ``They're going to go to other churches and denominations where they have opportunities to minister,'' she said.
Other proposed changes in the church statement underscore that the Bible is ``totally true'' and that God is ``all-powerful and all-knowing,'' and insist that ``there is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.''
The statement also urges Christians to oppose racism and reject homosexuality.