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Southern Baptists Disfellowship Texas Church for Having Pastor Who is Registered Sex Offender

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee announced this week that it has disfellowshipped a Texas church whose pastor is a registered sex offender.  

The Executive Committee chairman Mike Stone told the committee Ranchland Heights Baptist Church in Midland is “no longer to be considered in friendly cooperation” with the convention, the Tennessean reported. The church’s pastor Phillip Rutledge was convicted in 2003 on aggravated sexual assault of a child charges and has reportedly been pastor there since 2016. 

The church is the first one to be recommended for removal by the SBC’s newly formed Credentials Committee. 

In June 2019, messengers to the SBC’s annual meeting approved a change in the convention’s bylaws, which revised the function of the Credentials Committee, reported Baptist Press (BP), the convention’s news service. This change now allows the committee to receive reports of a church’s “suspected departure from Southern Baptist polity, doctrine or practice and to make recommendations to the SBC Executive Committee regarding the possible disfellowship of churches from the SBC,” BP said. 

Credentials Committee Chairman Stacy Bramlett confirmed during a Tuesday news conference the pastor’s sexual offender status was the reason the church was recommended for removal from fellowship from the SBC. And the SBC’s Executive Committee affirmed that decision. 

The decision reportedly will stand unless the church appeals it. But Bramlett noted that based on the Credentials Committee’s previous interaction with Ranchland Heights, she does not expect the church to appeal the decision. 

While the 9-member Credentials Committee is not an investigative panel, it does make recommendations and handles cases other than those related to abuse, the Tennessean reported. But the SBC does not have control over local churches and can only remove a church from fellowship. Other churches have reportedly been removed from the SBC in the past for decisions related to LGBTQ lifestyle issues and racial discrimination.  

The changes to the convention’s bylaws and Credentials Committee came after media reports in 2019 of widespread sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches. The pastor of Ranchland Heights Baptist Church was among those named in series of Houston Chronicle stories, BP reported. One of the church’s deacons told KOSA-TV in Odessa that the “vast majority” of the church members were aware Rutledge was a registered sex offender. 

“We make sure children are never by themselves in the sanctuary or any activities alone with the pastor,” D.J. Rambo, a deacon at Ranchland Heights, told KOSA-TV at the time, BP reported. “He is very cautious of it as well.” 

The Executive Committee informed the church by phone and an email of its decision to disfellowship them, BP reported. Ranchland Heights Baptist Church can appeal the decision no later than 30-days prior to the SBC’s annual meeting in Orlando, June 9-10. The church has reportedly not released a comment on the SBC Executive Committee’s decision. 

The Credentials Committee, BP reported, meets regularly to review submissions submitted via an online portal, which was established last year. The submitted form may be used to report concerns related to a church’s handling of sexual abuse, racism and various other pertinent issues, BP reported. And unless the Executive Committee decides to disfellowship the church, the review process remains private.  

Ronnie Floyd, SBC Executive Committee president, affirmed the action taken at this week’s meeting. 

“We have spoken against matters of sexual abuse, and we have taken some major, demonstrative steps as a convention of churches,” Floyd told the Executive Committee, BP reported. “Also, churches are being equipped more effectively in matters related to sexual abuse. … Today, we’ve seen this process in action with the disfellowshipping of (Ranchland Heights).” 

Bramlett noted that Credentials Committee is continuing to “perfect the process” and make adjustments as needed, BP reported.   

“You have survivors when there’s sexual abuse, you have churches,” she said. “Every committee member takes it very much to heart.”