Congregation, Tennessee Baptist Convention split over church’s first female pastor

The Rev. Ellen Di Giosia, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, and John McGraw, the church's chair of deacons, stand outside First Baptist Church, Hendersonville after Tuesday's vote by the Tennessee Baptist Convention. The statewide church body declined to permit representatives from the East Tennessee church to vote during its annual business meeting. Photo by Holly Meyer/The Tennessean

(USA Today) — After a more than 140-year relationship, First Baptist Church of Jefferson City and the Tennessee Baptist Convention are breaking up over the church’s decision to hire the first woman to be its senior pastor.

The Tennessee Baptist Convention, made up of representatives from Southern Baptist congregations across the state, opted Tuesday morning (Nov. 14) not to allow members of the East Tennessee church to vote at the convention’s annual business meeting since the Rev. Ellen Di Giosia now leads the congregation.

The decision effectively means First Baptist is no longer a part of the convention, said Di Giosia, who was hired by the church earlier this fall.

“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.”

Convention, First Baptist differ on role of women in ministry

Di Giosia was one of the seven representatives, or messengers, from First Baptist who tried to be seated as voting members at the annual meeting. The yearly gathering is where messengers vote on church matters such as finances, committee reports and resolutions, and it is being held this week at First Baptist Church of Hendersonville.

Southern Baptists highly value the autonomy of the local church to make its own decisions, but they also believe the Bible dictates who can preach from the pulpit. Earlier this fall, the convention’s credentials committee declared that First Baptist is “not a cooperating church” because its senior pastor is female.

The messengers voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday morning to affirm the committee’s decision by declining to seat the representatives from First Baptist. The vote was not to remove the church from the convention; there is no formal process to do so.

Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, hopes Tuesday’s vote shows that 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.”

Few vote in support of First Baptist messengers

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 First Baptist representatives to be seated.

While she was disappointed, Di Giosia was not surprised by the decision given the convention’s history of believing that 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 and Baptist Joint Committee, still may decide to continue to financially contribute to Tennessee Baptist Convention’s institutions and mission work, Di Giosia said.

‘The office of pastor is limited to men’

What played out Tuesday morning in Hendersonville is just the latest example of the theological disagreement among Baptists over the role of women as ministers.

For decades, Southern Baptists — who make up the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., with more than 15 million members — debated the matter nationwide. In 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention amended its “Baptist Faith and Message” statement, or 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, which is the Southern Baptist Convention’s statewide affiliate and has some 3,200 affiliated churches, adopted the Baptist Faith and 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.) 

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  • Wouldn’t we rather talk about divorce in bible believing baptist churches instead?
    Maybe we could talk about Roy Moore, instead, and baptist support for Grabby McKitten..

    But no. What we are talking about is whether god could possibly view 1/2 the human race as worthy.

  • ahh yes home state…you stay classy, Tennessee.

    They claim to take the Bible literally and yet still have not stoned one disobedient child.

    But they did take the whole Bible precept about slavery straight to the hoop. SBC was formed to allow slaveholders to be deacons etc.

  • This is not a disagreement between brothers and sisters. This is a disagreement between satan and the church. They should be kicked out.

  • 1 Timothy 3English Standard Version (ESV)

    Qualifications for Overseers

    3 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer[a] must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,[b] sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

    Qualifications for Deacons

    8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued,[c] not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise[d] must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
    for starts…..

  • We have women lawyers, women doctors, women mayors, women in Congress, women governors and almost had a woman president. And the Southern Baptist Convention says ‘the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture???’

    Obviously the people in the SBC are slow learners..They don’t realize that clinging to the past is a sure path to irrelevancy.

  • “Earlier this fall, the convention’s credentials committee declared that First Baptist is “not a cooperating church” because its senior pastor is female.“

    A curious outsider looking into following a religion might say, ‘Wow, here is a group of people that knows how to relate to today’s culture. Taliban… Southern Baptist… Mohamed’s view of women…Jesus view of women…obedience to ritual…obedience to traditions…what’s the most important things we want people to know about is…’

    Lucky for me I’m not a outsider I don’t have to think about these things to cooperate.

  • Correction: bible idolatry mandates women have no agency beyond the maternity ward and the home.

    Conclusion: too blind with authoritarianism to see that a valuable tool for reaching into the dark recesses of man made chaos goes unused in the back of the tool shed.

  • Careful, Sandi will baste you with her typical pious condescension. You may be deemed unworthy if you fail to reach her level of bible worship.

  • I feel your pain, The Ham Man is an eye sore for us here in Kentucky. He has no idea of how much his greed is on display.

  • Indeed….and yet I would wager I am more knowledgeable of the Bible than she (2 years of seminary in an evangelical seminary).

    Of course, she will then condemn all seminaries as liberal clap trap

  • I would suggest you provide evidence for making such an ignorant claim. I will wager I know 10x more of the Bible than you do.

  • right…and says nothing about ministers in the 21sty century. Marginalizing women was a common cultural practice back then…not now

  • Plus he reminds you that the events of Genesis (and the God of Genesis) are solid fact. Doubtless an inconvenient reminder for you.

  • He’s yet to prove ANY solid facts yet he’s bilked the state and local area out of badly needed tax revenue for the next 10 years. His theocratic fiefdom is merely something for him to worship…and collect 30 pieces of silver.

  • Haven’t heard much, in this discussion, from the detractors of Pastor Di Giosia regarding Paula White, spiritual advisor to Donald Trump:

    Wonder how many will be willing to speak their ‘truth’ regarding the issue of pastoral women to one of the highest powers in the nation?

  • Just curious as to how you know that the scripture does not simply represent the historic/traditional use of masculine pronouns without being gender specific given that gender neutral language is relatively recent?

  • From above:
    2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,

    11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.

  • So easy to simply to switch the gendered roles and pronouns and come to the same list of qualifications.

    But you have simply neglected other verses that tell a contrary tale of women acting as apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors and teachers in the early church with historic accounts corroborating their significance. And quite amazing when one considers the patriarchal culture of the time.

  • A little bit of hard data: The progressive churches, which have the highest percentages of women clergy, are also the ones shrinking the fastest. Coincidence? No way.

  • Do you have a citation for this “hard data” you’re referencing? Also, correlation does not imply causation, as anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of statistics would understand.

  • I have not ignored them at all.
    Christ chose Paul to bring His church to the gentiles. He spent 3 years with Paul in Arabia teaching Paul by revelation (Gal 1). Paul knew what he was saying and as he was setting up the church, he, through Jesus, said no women.

  • I assure you the Church is non-monolithic on women’s contribution to the local church. Point of fact there are many that have a high view of Scripture, prestigious breadth and depth of academic training and education that do not alienate half the planets population and skill sets based exclusively on different plumbing.
    Also and I’m just spit balling here, I believe we do damage to reflecting the “Image of God”, when we continue to platform only half of what God created in His Image in Genesis. Yes women also were and are created in the “Imago Dei” and men are not diminished or lose not one thing by recognizing and benefiting from what God has invested in our Mom’s, Wive’s, Sister’s and Daughter’s.

  • It is quite clear when Paul had a revelation after his conversion experience. as it is specifically mentioned in scripture. For someone who uses a literal approach to scripture , you quite often play fast and loose with scripture to justify certain specific doctrines..

  • I have no need to play fast and loose, Linda. I even posted where the scripture I was discussing is. Perhaps you should look at all the facts?

  • Sandi here are just a few of many examples of Paul validating and encouraging women in leadership roles in the Church, Paul greets Junia, a Roman woman converted before Paul, praising her as “outstanding among the apostles,” Romans 16:7. “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” NIV
    Another would be Phil.4:-Adomonishes his women co-workers …”2 I urge Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you, my true yokefellow, to help these women who have labored with me for the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
    Last example of many, Phoebe at least a deacon, In Romans 16:1-2, Phoebe, a woman, was a “diakonon” of the church in Cenchrea. The same Greek word translated “servant” here, is translated “minister” in twenty-two other scriptures such as in Col 1:25 “Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God,” NAS
    These verses have to be reconciled contextually, and again there are many more…

  • Phoebe was a servant, sometimes referred to as a deacon.
    Christ chose Paul to set up His gentile church. I see your scripture as him thanking and giving credit and in Timothy, he gets into “this is how to build a church”, as directed by the Lord.
    1 Corinthians 14 has a lot to say on the matter also:
    As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
    Right there. Women are in church to learn.

  • [*mock horror*] Editorial bias with an AGENDA in the Bible? Surely you jest, Sir! [*/mock horror*]

  • I worship God and He/She/Whatever’s Creation, not the words that have been creatively misinterpreted, mistranslated, and misunderstood since the Bronze Age!

  • I would not even be that hard on Paul….the dude I think sincerely believed he was following what Jesus/God wanted. Paul seems to be a guy who was struck by “religious visions” (i.e. probable epilepsy) and so was a “true believer.”

    But then again, the scholarly consensus is that only 7 of the 14 epistles were actually penned by Paul.

  • You cannot call yourself something if you refuse to follow the rule book. You would then be either an impostor or something else entirely.