By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
HENDERSONVILLE — Messengers to the annual meeting of the Tennessee Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly during the opening session on Nov. 14 to not seat messengers from First Baptist Church, Jefferson City.
First Baptist attempted to register seven messengers, including new pastor Ellen Di Giosia, who has been in the position since Aug. 1.
In mid-October, the TBC’s Committee on Credentials met and agreed that a church with a woman pastor does not fit the definition of a “cooperating church” as defined by convention bylaws. The committee based its decision on Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 declaring that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
On Tuesday morning at Summit, Di Giosia and the FBC contingent met with TBC Registration Secretary Dan Ferrell and was presented guest name badges and a bag of materials which included everything given to messengers except ballots.
Curt Wagoner, chair of the Credentials Committee, moved that messengers affirm the committee’s decision to not register messengers from the church based on the fact the church has a woman pastor.
Several messengers spoke for and against the motion.
Tim Fields, a messenger from Immanuel Baptist Church, Nashville, spoke against the motion, noting that churches are autonomous and that Baptists traditionally have supported the concept of the priesthood of the believer.
Frank Bowling, pastor of First Baptist Church, Medina, agreed that churches are autonomous but also noted that so are conventions. The question is not about calling, he said. “The question is the autonomy of the local church and this body being able to express that same self autonomy.”
Tambi Swiney, associate pastor of Immanuel Baptist in Nashville, spoke against the motion, noting that FBC, Jefferson City, “has a long legacy of faithful service to God.”
Chris King, of Hickory Grove Baptist Church, Winchester, urged the messengers to affirm the committee’s decision on the grounds of biblical compliance. “Compromising the gospel is destructive to our cause,” he said.
Kelly Moreland-Jones, a messenger from First Baptist Church, Nashville, had a question for the committee. “Did Jesus tell you not to seat the messengers?” She cited soul competency, the priesthood of the believer, and local church autonomy. “We trust God to call pastors of churches,” she said.
Kevin Shrum, pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church, Nashville, agreed that First Baptist Church has every right to organize as it sees fit. “The Tennessee Baptist Convention has the right to organize on the principles it has adopted,” he said. Shrum then called for the question and messengers voted to end discussion.
By a show of ballots, the motion was overwhelmingly approved with less than 20 opposing votes.
Di Giosia and messengers met with the media following the vote. She also provided a statement.
The statement acknowledged that while “some spoke to oppose this action, a majority vote of the messengers speaks on behalf of the entire fellowship of churches, according to Baptist polity. Therefore, our church is no longer a part of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
“While the outcome saddens us, it is fair to say that we are not surprised. Our congregation’s long-held position that God calls all people into service regardless of gender has not always been received well, even by some brothers and sisters in Christ. We have been heartened, however, by a tremendous outpouring of support we have received from Christians, both Baptist and non-Baptist, from Tennessee and around the country in recent weeks.”
The statement also noted that “although one of our Baptist affiliations has changed, FBC, Jefferson City, is the same congregation we were yesterday. We will still gather to worship, study, and pray. We will still nurture children and youth in the way of Jesus.
“We will still serve our community and partner with those who further the work of God’s kingdom throughout the world. We will still proclaim the name of Jesus to the best of our abilities.”
In response to a media question, Di Giosia acknowledged that it would have been simpler for the church to not send prospective messengers and to have stayed home. “We came because there needed to be clarity for our church and for the convention,” she said. Di Giosia noted that had the church not sought to seat messengers, the convention itself would not have had opportunity to vote on the issue.
She stressed “this was not a fight or a battle. It’s a disagreement between brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, also spoke to media following the vote.
He described Di Giosia as “a good and godly sister in Christ. There was just a theological difference in how we interpret Scripture that relates to the female being the senior pastor of a local church.”
Davis said he is appreciative of how TBC messengers conducted themselves during the discussion. “They were very civil and they exuded everything that we hold dear about our relationship to Christ,” he said.
The TBC leader said he hopes the action sends the message that “we are going to be committed to Scripture and that in spite of how others may interpret this action, it is very important that we have some anchors and that we have a belief system that is tied to Scripture.”
He acknowledged that the TBC’s confessional statement (the Baptist Faith and Message 2000) is not inerrant or infallible, “but it reflects what we believe about the Word of God.”
Davis also noted that while other denominations and churches may affirm women pastors, “our network of churches, on this issue, has clearly stated where we stand.”
He said the convention adopted the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 in 2006 and has affirmed it on four different occasions in four different ways since. “First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, chose to go in a different direction.
“It is not a matter of the Tennessee Baptist Convention voting to kick them out. It is a matter that there were theological differences and that it was handled with grace and it was handled with dignity and respect on both sides.”