Tennessee church leaves Southern Baptist Convention amid debate over women pastors

Contributed photo / Monte Vista Baptist Church in Maryville, Tenn., is seen Wednesday.

Note: This article was updated Thursday to correct the membership status of First Baptist Church in Downtown Chattanooga.

Monte Vista Baptist Church in Maryville, Tennessee, has withdrawn from the Southern Baptist Convention following a unanimous vote of the membership, the church announced this week.

The decision is a response to the Southern Baptist Convention's recent decision to expel two churches for having women pastors and its move to prohibit women pastors in general.

"Monte Vista has ordained women to serve as deacons, chaplains and in positions of leadership within the local church," Jerry Mantooth, the church's senior pastor, said in a statement. "We currently have a woman serving on our pastoral team. It has become increasingly difficult to remain associated with a ministry partner that does not share our deepest values."

The largest Protestant group in the United States, the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention is a loose collection of tens of thousands of churches bound together through several institutions and a common statement of faith.

One or two churches per year indicate they are withdrawing for various reasons from the Tennessee Baptist Convention, said Chris Turner, the communications director for the statewide Southern Baptist-affiliated group. But to date none have indicated they were leaving for Monte Vista's stated reasons, he said by email.

(READ MORE: Southern Baptists refuse to take back megachurch because it has women pastors)

As of Wednesday, Turner said, the state convention has not received a notification from Monte Vista Baptist Church indicating a desire to withdraw.

Monte Vista Baptist Church has been aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention since the 1950s, though its news release said the relationship began shifting during the convention's so-called conservative resurgence in the late 20th century.

In the 1990s, the church also aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a breakaway group founded in Atlanta by moderate Baptists committed, in part, to allowing women in all positions of church leadership.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship lists a few Chattanooga-area churches as partners, including First Baptist Churches in Ringgold and Dalton, Georgia as well as First Baptist Church in Downtown Chattanooga, which in 2019 voted to adopt the values of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

The Chattanooga church did not at the time formally announce it was leaving the Southern Baptist Convention, and it is still a member of the Hamilton County Baptist Association, which is primarily made up of Southern Baptist Convention congregations.

The debate over womens' fitness for church leadership was a flash point at the convention's annual gathering in June, when delegates affirmed the expulsion of two churches for having female pastors — including the legendary Saddleback Church in California — and raised the possibility of further expulsions in the future.

All Southern Baptist churches are independent, so the convention can't tell them what to do, but it can decide which churches are "not in friendly cooperation" — an expulsion in effect.

The convention's official statement of faith says the office of pastor is reserved for qualified men, but that was believed to be the first time the convention has expelled any churches over it, according to The Associated Press.

In his statement, Mantooth said that equality in ministry has long been part of his church's DNA.

"God may call whomever God desires and places them wherever God wants them to serve," he said.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at [email protected] or 423-757-6431.