JEFFERSON CITY — First Baptist Church of Jefferson City hired a woman as its lead pastor this fall and now may lose voting rights at next week's Tennessee Baptist Convention.
A TBC committee last month deemed First Baptist — which traces its start to the 1830s — is "not a cooperating church" because the Rev. Ellen Di Giosia is its senior pastor.
Though the committee action speaks to a single church, it also goes to the heart of Southern Baptists' affirmation that only men can pastor a congregation. It also points to the Baptist belief that each church is autonomous and can make decisions without a hierarchy of denominational authority.
“It is regrettable when one of our churches makes a decision that results in a broken confessional relationship with our TBC network of churches,” Tennessee Baptist Mission Board President and Executive Director Randy C. Davis said.
“We appreciate the efforts of all our churches to advance the Gospel together. I have the utmost respect for the long-held Baptist polity of the autonomy of the local church. But I also deeply respect and appreciate the clear convictions expressed by our Committee on Credentials,” Davis said in a statement.
Di Giosia, previously associate pastor with San Antonio's Woodland Baptist Church, is First Baptist's 32nd pastor. She's also the only female pastor leading a church affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Other women lead Tennessee Baptist churches, but those congregations aren't part of the TBC.
Southern Baptists nationwide debated the role of women as ministers for decades before the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 amended its “Baptist Faith and Message” statement. The changes eliminated women from consideration with the sentence "while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."
The Tennessee Baptist Convention, which is the Southern Baptist Convention's statewide affiliate with some 3,200 affiliated churches, adopted the Faith and Message in 2006.
The current division results from preparation for TBC's annual meeting. "Summit: The Gathering of Tennessee Baptists" is Nov. 12-15 at First Baptist Church of Hendersonville. Each church affiliated with TBC sends messengers to vote on matters like finances, committee reports and resolutions.
But First Baptist of Jefferson City representatives won't be seated if the TBC credentials committee has its way. That committee determined “a church whose office of pastor is held by a woman is not a cooperating church,” according to the “Baptist & Reflector” news journal.
The committee sent First Baptist a letter about its decision, Tennessee Baptist Mission Board Communications Director Chris Turner said Tuesday. The mission board oversees daily activities of the churches in the TBC.
The letter told First Baptist that the committee would recommend church messengers not be seated or given credentials at the convention. The entire convention would have to vote on that recommendation, Turner said.
Turner said the committee’s action and the convention's possible rejection of First Baptist messengers didn’t mean Tennessee Southern Baptists are dropping the church from its rolls.
"There is no formal process within the constitution and bylaws that removes a church from the TBC," he told USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee.
But First Baptist leaders apparently feel a disconnect. Di Giosia and Dr. John McGraw, the church's chair of deacons, said in a statement they "are saddened" about the committee decision and that it "is unfortunate that the committee chooses to dismiss us without conversation or consultation."
"We have been partners in mission for more than 140 years, and the severance of such a connection is painful," Di Giosia and McGraw said. "The Tennessee Baptist Mission Board has the right to choose its partners, just as our congregation has the right to affiliate with whomever we choose. … But the number of things on which we agree is vast, and the list of things on which we disagree is very 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,” the statement continued. “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. "
This isn’t the first time First Baptist earned the disapproval of other Baptists. Last year the Jefferson County Baptist Association dismissed the church because it ordains women as deacons and ministers.
Other Tennessee Baptists are supporting First Baptist. The moderate Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, with 35 partner churches, issued a letter of "love and support" for the church and a pledge to support Di Giosia’ s ministry.
Twenty-seven active Tennessee Baptist pastors and some 700 other ministers, church leaders and members signed the letter, TCBF Field Coordinator Rick Bennett said. Begun in 1991, The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship supports both men and women as ministers.
“CBF has historically affirmed that God can call a woman to whatever God desires,” Bennett said.
First Baptist partners with both Southern Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The church website says that "for the most part” it “relates to the ministry and mission" of the CBF and TCBF and "maintains ties" with the Tennessee and Southern Baptist conventions.
Days before the convention, it’s uncertain what may happen. Di Giosia said Tuesday that First Baptist hasn't decided whether to send messengers to the session. Turner said the committee's recommendation won't be acted on if the church doesn't send messengers.
"Honestly, this has not bothered me on a personal level," Di Giosia told USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee. "This is a difference in biblical interpretation. ... It's a disagreement between brothers and sisters. I would hope that brothers and sisters would find a way to still be family even if they disagree.
"I feel like we have said pretty clearly we want to continue to be partners, but it will be up to the other Tennessee Baptists who come to the convention," she said. "We don't want to have a fight; we are not trying to make trouble. We are just being who we are and responding. We see this as an opportunity to be clear about who we are but also to say we are a family."