The messengers from First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, Tennessee, will not be seated at the annual meeting of the Tennessee Baptist Convention because they have called a woman as “senior pastor.” According to the organization’s constitution and by-laws, this means that First Baptist is no longer a “cooperating church” although they still send funds to the state convention. Of course, the church’s members also have the option of supporting other Baptist organizations as well. This process is an expression of the Baptist principle of congregational autonomy.
After 140 years of relationship, the convention is leaving the church. Some have responded to the church’s desire to continue to cooperate with other Tennessee Baptist churches through the TBC as “ridiculous” and “co-dependent.” They fail to understand several things about Baptist churches in Tennessee.
First, believe it or not, members of a congregation have different opinions. In most Tennessee churches of the Baptist persuasion, including those with progressive members, there are still SBC sympathizers. These individuals will continue to support the Cooperative Program, Lottie Moon, and Annie Armstrong until they die. Their moderate friends in the church accept this and love them. They are willing to overlook differences about denominational connections because they want to get along within their fellowship. The main lesson here is that most church members care more about each other than they do about denominational ties. They can live and work with each other locally on the things that are important to them.
Second, moderate churches would rather be rejected than to take the initiative in leaving a denomination that they have invested in over the years. For one thing, this causes less trouble in the local church (see item one above) and their rejection illustrates the narrowing perspective of the state and national organizations of which they have been a part. Moderate churches who have been the cornerstone of Baptist work in the south are being cast out and finding new ways to do Kingdom work. Who is losing here? I would submit that these churches are going to continue their mission and ministry work no matter who their partners may be.
Third, in the case of First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, there is the close relationship to Carson-Newman University. The two are separated by a street but joined in many ways. For example, the college uses the church’s sanctuary for various meetings and many of the faculty and staff of the school are members of the church.
I served as campus minister at Carson-Newman in the 80s and our family were members of the church. My office was on the campus across the street from the church. I was in the church several times a week in relation to my campus responsibilities and was in worship and Bible study there on Wednesday nights and Sundays. The dividing line was often indiscernible.
This creates a challenge. The university continues to be affiliated with the state Baptist convention but the church is no longer considered a “cooperating church.” How will this play out on the local level where people work, worship, and serve daily?
While some will see the convention’s rejection of the church as an opportunity for the church to move on, many members will experience grief and a feeling of abandonment. They need a time of healing and for friends to come alongside them to speak a good word. Many friends have done that by signing a letter of support which was presented by Rick Bennett, the TCBF coordinator, at the installation of pastor Ellen Di Giosia.
To my friends at First Baptist Church, I acknowledge your courage and faithfulness. You have followed God’s leadership in your selection of a pastoral leader. You have nurtured and encouraged generations of lay and clergy leaders from Tennessee and across the nation. You have been “good and faithful servants.” I have no doubt you will continue to follow that path.