HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. (USA Today)—After a more than 140-year relationship, First Baptist Church in Jefferson City and the Tennessee Baptist Convention are breaking up over the church’s decision to call its first female senior pastor.
The Tennessee Baptist Convention opted not to allow members of the East Tennessee church to vote at the convention’s annual business meeting since Ellen Di Giosia now leads the congregation.
The decision effectively means First Baptist no longer is part of the convention, said Di Giosia, who was hired by the church earlier this fall. Previously, she was associate pastor for faith formation at Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio.
“It’s sad for us because we believe that cooperation is a hallmark of Baptist life,” Di Giosia said. “Anytime that cooperation is broken or fellowship is broken, it’s a grievous thing.”
Di Giosia was one of the seven messengers from First Baptist who tried to be seated as voting members at the annual meeting, held at First Baptist Church in Hendersonville.
Earlier this fall, the convention’s credentials committee declared First Baptist in Jefferson City is “not a cooperating church” because its senior pastor is female.
The messengers voted overwhelmingly to affirm the committee’s decision by declining to seat the representatives from First Baptist in Jefferson City.
Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, said he hopes the vote shows the convention is committed to Scripture. While the convention respects the rights of others to interpret Scripture differently, the convention is firm in its position that only men can serve as senior pastors, he said.
“It’s not a matter of the Tennessee Baptist Convention voting to kick them out,” Davis said. “It’s a matter of there was theological differences and it was handled with grace and it was handled with dignity and respect on all sides.”
Before the vote, about a half-dozen messengers from across the state rose to the microphones erected in the aisles of the sanctuary and spoke to both sides of that theological disagreement.
Speakers in support of First Baptist highlighted local church autonomy and that God calls women to ministry. One messenger equated the convention’s current position on female senior pastors to its past support of slavery, which the convention has denounced.
Those opposed pointed to the importance of local church autonomy, but also to the convention’s autonomy to set and follow its own rules based on its biblical interpretation.
The vast majority of messengers seated in the rows of pews raised their hands in support of not permitting representatives of the Jefferson City congregation to be seated.
‘Disagreement between brothers and sisters’
While she was disappointed, Di Giosia was not surprised by the decision given the convention’s history of believing only men can serve as a congregation’s senior pastor. It would have been easier to stay home, but she and her church’s other representatives came for clarity, she said.
“This is not a battle. This is a disagreement between brothers and sisters,” Di Giosia said. “We had hoped that disagreement did not have to mean a broken fellowship, and unfortunately the messengers at the convention did not agree, but now there is clarity for all concerned.”
The congregation, also affiliated with other Baptist groups such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, still may decide to continue to financially contribute to Tennessee Baptist Convention’s institutions and mission work, Di Giosia said.
For decades, Southern Baptists debated the matter of women in ministry. In 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention amended its Baptist Faith & Message summary of beliefs to read, “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, with about 3,200 affiliated churches, adopted the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message in 2006.
“We have affirmed the Baptist Faith and Message since 2006 and on four different occasions and four different kind of ways,” Davis said. “We feel like First Baptist Jefferson City chose to go another direction.”
John McGraw, First Baptist’s chair of deacons, and others at the church believe God had a hand in the church’s decision to hire Di Giosia.
“We didn’t choose her because she was a woman. She just happened to have all the best characteristics as a pastor that we needed in our local church,” McGraw said. “There is not one doubt in my mind that God and our church called Ellen to be our pastor.”
(Amy McRary contributed to this report, distributed by Religion News Service.)