Our family became members of First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, Tennessee, while I served as campus minister at Carson-Newman College. The church is located adjacent to the campus and is an integral part of campus life.
The first Sunday we were there, we noticed something interesting. Women were taking up the offering. We soon discovered that these women were deacons and that the church had been ordaining women as deacons for several years. This made a very positive impact on our eight-year-old daughter, Stephanie. When we left Jefferson City and joined another church in middle Tennessee, she began asking, “Why doesn’t this church have women as deacons?” This is how revolutions start!
Given this history, I was surprised to hear that the local Baptist association in Jefferson County took action this past fall to remove First Baptist Church from its membership citing the fact that the church ordained women as deacons and ministers.Evidently a practice that had been in place for 40 years was suddenly unacceptable.
Pastor Gene Wilder provided a gracious and well reasoned explanation of the church’s practice at the annual meeting of the association, but the vote was taken to remove the church from local rolls. I believe that this will have to be voted on one more time before it is final, but the outcome is clear.
In a Facebook exchange with a friend, he made the comment that he was surprised that the church had not left the association as well as the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention years ago. I pointed out to him that this is not the way that moderate Baptists work. Moderates tend to stay until they are asked to leave, hoping to continue to find ways to collaborate and cooperate with others in the group. After all, SBC entities use language like “in friendly cooperation with” as part of their legal documents.
Moderates are not party crashers, but people who helped to organize the party to begin with and are now no longer welcome in some situations.
Of course, it is true that when the “hostile takeover” of the Southern Baptist Convention occurred in the 1980s, some Baptists felt compelled to develop alternative structures like the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. A closer look at the grassroots—where the churches are located—shows an interesting dichotomy. Many of those churches that are listed as part of CBF are part of SBC as well. They send mission dollars to both. Their members have found ways to continue to work together on the local level for fellowship and ministry but allow each other to choose where their national and international mission dollars will go. They don’t want to waste their time on conflict but would rather pursue mission.
This is rather messy but we are, after all, Baptists. There are individuals who have tired of this messiness, picked up their baggage, and moved to other faith communities. They have enriched the work of other Baptist groups,Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Episcopalians and others (but I wonder how many are still Baptists in their hearts). As an itinerant educator, I find myself working more with non-Baptists than with Baptists.
The action of the Jefferson County Baptist Association to remove a church is not an isolated incident. This is happening across the region, especially related to churches that have called women as pastors. The tragedy is that we live in an era when Christians should be finding ways to unite rather than to divide and to work together rather than compete. There is one Kingdom of God but the tendency to divide that Kingdom into competing fiefdoms detracts from the mission that God has given to all believers.
Let’s find ways to unite rather than to divide.