JEFFERSON CITY, TN — As Georgia Baptists gather for their annual meeting next week in Lawrenceville, fellow Baptists in Tennessee will also meet to conduct business.
But the Tennessee gathering at First Baptist Church of Hendersonville will deal with an issue that has come before messengers for the first time: how to relate to a church that has called a woman pastor.
On June 25, First Baptist Church of Jefferson City elected Ellen Di Giosia as its lead pastor. That decision may cost it its affiliation with the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
The thorny issue is no stranger to Georgia Baptists, who have addressed the issue in recent years.
Last month a committee of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board determined that the 187-year-old congregation is no longer a cooperating church and is in violation of Southern Baptist polity.
Lonnie Wilkey, editor of the Baptist and Reflector state newspaper, wrote on Oct. 24 that if a church with a woman senior pastor tries to register messengers, the request will be denied. But the decision to seat messengers from the church ultimately will be decided by a vote by messengers, the committee said.
That vote will come to the floor next week.
Though Southern Baptists stress the local autonomy of its member churches, it does have guidelines in the Baptist Faith and Message which stipulate biblical guidelines which must not be compromised. In recent years, churches have been removed from affiliation due to hiring of women pastors or being “welcoming and affirming” of homosexuals in leadership positions.
However, the decision is made on a state-by-state basis.
Georgia Baptists have dealt with both issues in the past decade, according to the History of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, 1972-2017, which will be released at next week’s annual Convention meeting. On page 354 it records that, in 1999, the Convention withdrew membership from both Virginia-Highlands Baptist Church in Atlanta and Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur for affirming homosexuality by allowing practicing homosexuals to serve in leadership positions. And in, as recorded on page 487, it records how, in 2008, messengers disfellowshipped First Baptist Church of Decatur for hiring Julie Russell Pennington as its first woman pastor.
“It is regrettable when one of our churches makes a decision that results in a broken confessional relationship with out TBC network of churches,” Tennessee Baptist Mission Board President and Executive Director Randy Davis told The Tennesssean newspaper.
Pastor Ellen, as she is introduced on the church website, joined the church staff on Aug. 1 and preached her first sermon on Aug. 6. It is the only known church affiliated with Tennessee Baptists that has a woman pastor.
Di Giosia previously served as associate pastor with Woodland Baptist Church of San Antonio, TX.
According to the state paper, the church issued a statement saying it “is saddened by the decision of the Credentials Committee not to seat the messengers of First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, at the upcoming [annual meeting of the] Tennessee Baptist Convention. We have been partners in mission for more than 140 years and the severance of such a connection is painful.”
The statement also observed: “The Tennessee Baptist [Convention] has the right to choose its partners just as our congregation has the right to affiliate with whomever we choose. Baptist principles require it and may it ever be so. But the number of things on which we agree is vast and the list of things on which we disagree is very small. It is unfortunate that the committee chooses to dismiss us without conversation or consultation.
“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. In choosing a different way we believe that together we can be a witness of unity which was Jesus’ desire for His people.”
The statement also said the church will continue to “pray for our brothers and sisters at the Tennessee Baptist [Convention] as they seek to be faithful to God and we ask that Tennessee Baptists and other believers to pray for our congregation as we do likewise.
“We will continue in mission with other partners and friends as we seek to be faithful to Scripture, believing that ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female’ as we ‘seek to be one in Jesus Christ.’”
The Tennessee Baptist Convention has 3,200 affiliated churches.