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For the first time in decades, the Southern Baptist Convention is losing members. It lost former President Jimmy Carter nine years ago. Recently, Mr. Carter wrote that a big reason for leaving was its treatment of women. The Southern Baptist Convention says women cannot hold positions of leadership over men. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: A few years ago, when Julie Pennington Russell showed up for her first Sunday as pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, she was greeted by a crowd of protesters.

Pastor JULIE PENNINGTON RUSSELL: I was walking through the picket line with my son Taylor, who was seven at the time. All of a sudden he squeezed my hand and pulled me down and I head him say, Mom, who is Jezebel, and why are they calling you that?

HAGERTY: The protesters were from other Baptist churches that disapproved of Calvary calling a woman a senior pastor. Baptist churches are independent and can hire anyone they want, but if they hire a woman, they run the risk of being disfellowshipped, or kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Richard Land, a senior officer of the SBC, says the reason is simple.

Mr. RICHARD LAND (Southern Baptist Convention): We believe that the Bible says that while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

HAGERTY: Land is referring to writings of the Apostle Paul, who said women should not have authority over men in the church or the home. The Baptists reaffirmed that teaching in 2000.

But Wade Burleson, who pastors a Southern Baptist megachurch in Enid, Oklahoma, believes the leaders got it wrong.

Pastor WADE BURLESON (Southern Baptist church): That is not what God says. You are badly misinterpreting the word of God, and the consequences of your misinterpretation are enormous.

HAGERTY: Burleson says Jesus treated women as equals, and if Southern Baptists ignore his example, the denomination will die. Burleson believes there's an underground movement within the convention to rethink women's roles.

Mr. LAND: No.

HAGERTY: Richard Land says Burleson is dreaming. He says Southern Baptists are united. Of their 44,000 churches, fewer than 100 have women leaders. Land concedes they've lost members in recent years. But, he says, tacking leftward is not the answer.

Mr. LAND: Those people who are saying, well, we need to broaden, and we need to be more accepting of divergent views, those are the same people who have led the mainline denominations to death's door.

HAGERTY: In fact, there's some evidence of a conservative crackdown. Consider the case of Sheri Klouda, who taught Hebrew at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. All was well until 2003 when Paige Patterson, a former president of the SBC, arrived to run the seminary.

Ms. SHERI KLOUDA (Teacher): I was told that I would not be considered for tenure because I was a woman and because he believed that women should not be teaching theology to men.

HAGERTY: Klouda found another teaching job at a non-Baptist university. In the meantime, Southwestern has developed a new track for women seminarians, which includes home-making and home-schooling.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, acknowledges they're going against culture.

Mr. ALBERT MOHLER (President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary): Ultimately, I'm not so fearful that the times will judge us as I'm aware that God will judge us. And I hope with all my heart that he will find our church is faithful to his word.

HAGERTY: Still, Pastor Wade Burleson hopes the days of disparate treatment of women are numbered.

Pastor BURLESON: I'm not a betting Baptist, but if I were, I would put money on the table that 50 years from now, Southern Baptists will look at women and the role of women the way we now look at slavery.

HAGERTY: Until that happens Southern Baptist women can be spiritual leaders to other women or children - anyone but men.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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