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Tennessee Baptists unfriend church with female pastor

Can a church with a female pastor be Southern Baptist? A Tennessee Baptist Convention committee says “no.”

A 15-member committee tasked with credentialing messengers for the upcoming annual gathering of the statewide Southern Baptist Convention affiliate agreed Oct. 18 that a church with a woman serving as senior pastor does not fit the definition of a “cooperating church” as defined by convention bylaws.

The vote, reported Oct. 24 by the denominational newspaper Baptist and Reflector, is apparently in response to the calling this summer of Ellen Di Giosia as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Tenn.

Ellen Di Giosia

Di Giosia, who previously served as associate pastor of faith formation at Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas, told worshippers Oct. 22 church leaders had received communication from the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board that if they send messengers to the Nov. 12-15 meeting in Hendersonville, Tenn., those messengers will not be seated.

“This is in essence the state convention saying that we are no longer welcome,” she said in her Sunday morning sermon. “They have taken this action because our congregation has a female senior pastor. To these institutions, our commitment to equal treatment of women and men in the church is the sum of what makes us ‘us.’”

Leaders of the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship responded with an open letter of affirmation to be delivered in time for Di Giosia’s official installation as pastor this Sunday, Nov. 5.

“We welcome your new senior pastor, the Reverend Ellen Di Giosia, and look forward to working alongside her in the years to come,” said the letter drafted by Tennessee CBF Field Coordinator Rick Bennett and Moderator Thomas Quisenberry, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn. “Rest assured, we shall support her ministry with our prayers, fellowship, and love.”

As of the end of the day Nov. 2, a total of 27 active Tennessee Baptist pastors and more than 500 ministers, lay leaders and other individuals with Tennessee connections added their names to the affirmation.

According to the Baptist and Reflector, the credentials committee interpreted the definition of a “cooperating church” in the state convention’s constitution and bylaws to include fidelity to the Baptist Faith and Message, which states “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

“It is regrettable when one of our churches makes a decision that results in a broken confessional relationship with our TBC network of churches,” Randy Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, is quoted as saying.

Di Giosia and deacon chair John McGraw responded with a statement also quoted by the newspaper saying they were “saddened” by the committee’s vote and believe any differences between the church and the Tennessee Baptist Convention are relatively small.

“We urge Tennessee Baptists to consider the picture this paints for those who have yet to hear the gospel. Our culture is polarized and angry. We have an opportunity to demonstrate a different way of living — one that does not capitulate to the spirit of the age which says that if we do not agree on everything we cannot cooperate on anything.”

“We urge Tennessee Baptists to consider the picture this paints for those who have yet to hear the gospel,” they pleaded. “Our culture is polarized and angry. We have an opportunity to demonstrate a different way of living — one that does not capitulate to the spirit of the age which says that if we do not agree on everything we cannot cooperate on anything.”

First Baptist Church in Jefferson City relates primarily to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Tennessee CBF but also maintains ties with Tennessee Baptists and the Southern Baptist Convention. It also has close ties to Carson-Newman University, a Tennessee Baptist Convention institution recently on record as affirming the Baptist Faith and Message.

While both organizations leave the decision of selecting a pastor to the local church, the CBF promotes both male and female pastors to pastoral search committees. The SBC debated the role of women in ministry in the 1980s and 1990s before officially reserving the role of senior pastor for men when the Baptist Faith and Message was amended in 2000.

The Tennessee Baptist Convention officially embraced the new Baptist Faith and Message in 2006, over objections that it would eventually be used as a “creed” to exclude local churches otherwise willing to cooperate for missions and evangelism.

The Georgia Baptist Convention took similar action in 2009, when it kicked out First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., for calling a woman as pastor two years earlier.

Recently the Mississippi Baptist Convention declared Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., which ordains women as ministers and deacons, no longer in “friendly cooperation” with the state’s Southern Baptists, citing an unspecified “difference in philosophy.”