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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / First Baptist Church on Gateway Avenue Oct 16.

CORRECTION: This story was changed on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019 to remove the reference to Signal Mountain Baptist Church. The church was dissolved in 2018.

Members of First Baptist Church in downtown Chattanooga have adopted the values of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group whose theology is more moderate than the Southern Baptist Convention.

The vote Sunday, which followed a year-long committee review of the church's history and values, is the church publicly embracing what it has been for decades, said the Rev. Dr. Thomas Quisenberry, pastor. The church, which has been an institution in the city since the mid-19th century, had been part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for years.

"Instead of running from anything, we are running and embracing this partnership that we have already been in partnership with," Quisenberry said. "We are making a more definitive claim on this partnership."

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, headquartered in Decatur, Georgia, formed in the early 1990s. Members of First Baptist helped form the cooperative, Quisenberry said. Its group of nearly 2,000 churches takes a more progressive approach to church issues than the larger, more conservative Southern Baptist Convention. First Baptist has hosted planning sessions for the Southern Baptist Convention multiple times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to the church website.

The Southern Baptist Convention does not allow women to serve in leadership positions in the church, but it says men and women have equal but different duties in the Christian church. Women are to work on building Christian values in the homes and are not to "assume a role of authority over men lest confusion reign in the local church," according to a resolution passed by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1984.

some text Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / First Baptist Church on Gateway Avenue Oct 16.

However, each Baptist church is allowed to pass its own policies for its church. First Baptist has long recognized women in leadership in the church, Quisenberry said. In the 1980s, the church ordained its first female deacon. The church has ordained women who are now serving in other ministries across the country, he said.

"We've found our partnership and the way we do church to be more aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, especially their encouragement of women in leadership," Quisenberry said.

The church in downtown Chattanooga joins several area churches already part of the CBF, including the First Baptist Churches in Ringgold and Dalton.

The church is not making a statement about leaving the Southern Baptist Convention, but it will support the Baptist fellowship with its money and missions, Quisenberry said. It will continue to partner with any groups that are doing important work in the community, such as the English-as-a-second-language classes the church hosts with the Hamilton County Baptist Association.

Dennis Culbreth, director of the Baptist association, said there is no rulebook for what happens next in terms of his organization's relationship with First Baptist, so it is too early to tell what will happen. The association is made up of mostly Southern Baptist Convention churches but will work with anyone who wants to partner with it.

The Southern Baptist Convention did not respond to a request for comment on the decision.

From the reporter

I became a journalist to help people see people as people. But highlighting the human side of every policy decision, and how it is affecting your community, takes time as well as support from readers. If you believe in telling the stories of people in your community, please subscribe to the Times Free Press today. Contact me at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Find me on Twitter at @News4Mass.

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