Monday, November 11, 2013

Same Sex Marriage and Baptist Ecclesiology

My friend and fellow worker in the Lord's vineyards of western central Auckland, Rhett, has a couple of good posts first before last weeks national assembly of the Baptist Union of New Zealand and then one reflecting afterwards. I like and respect Rhett, I'm grateful for his provocative posts as they help me formulate my own thoughts for coming discussions with my own church and the union.

Like Rhett, I do consider the biblical teaching on marriage being between a man and a woman and the wrongness of homosexual behaviour to be clear.

However, his posts alert us to some issues not around sexual ethics but how we fellowship with other believers who do not hold to the same sexual ethics we do. In Rhett's first post he compares the issue of same sex marriage to that of infant baptism. He suggests if a church changed their stance on infant baptism the honest thing to do would be to stop pretending they were baptists. I would agree with that. However, I do not see it as being analogous with same sex marriage. Credo baptism has clearly always been a feature of baptist life, it is a defining characteristic of being baptist - much more than models of church government, it is why we have the name. But even on this issue there is not homogeneity. Some churches - mine for instance - actually have constitutionally open membership so that we can have members who were baptised as infants in other denominations without requiring them to be baptised as adults. Despite this serious breach of what it means to be baptist it doesn't seem to be a problem within the union.

Now the issue of same sex marriage is quite different. I would want to distinguish between two groups on this issue. Those who do not care what Jesus wants or what the Bible says and so embrace same sex marriage as a socially necessary evolution and those who sincerely believe that Jesus wants and the Bible teaches them to to embrace same sex marriage as theologically required progress. While one group have cast the essentials of Baptist unity aside, the second group are still within our statement of faith. More importantly the second group are still able to work with those more conservative on this issue because discerning Jesus' will and applying the Bible to our lives is still our common goal.

My impression with the tiny number of NZ baptist churches that have even indicated a willingness to accept same sex marriage is that they all fall into the second group. This is important because although we disagree on a very serious issue we still agree about the centrality of Christ and the scriptures. We are still united by what we have in common.

For me Jesus is bigger than same sex marriage, so even though I am quite convinced same sex marriage is not his will I will still recognise anyone who is honestly following him as my family.

For me biblical authority is bigger than my interpretation of a particular issue, so even though I think (and I do) that they are very wrong I want to win that argument by persuasion not by exclusion.

I know that many more conservative Christians see me as being soft on the issue and cannot accept that this second group really exist - anyone who holds this viewpoint must just be in rebellion. I am not soft on this issue, it is just I am stronger on the sufficiency of Christ.

Baptists are in union, not a denomination, because our unity is not confessional but Christological. Baptist understand themselves first and foremost as disciples of Jesus, not as those who have correct theology. Because our unity is based around our desire to follow the master the tendency for us all to sometimes mistake what the master is saying is not a cause for disunity but humility and patience with each other.
Let me know what you think :-)


  1. Good post Jonathan.

    If there is one thing that this whole discussion has made me keen to read up on and explore it's the whole confessional vs missional (or as you put it, Christological) unity. I've heard it stated a lot, "this is Baptist" or "this is not Baptist". Usually, as you've said, the point of view expressed has been that our unity is NOT based around our theology.

    I assume there are many people who are better read and informed about this than I am, but it does strike me as off that this is argued as if it is such a settled point when Baptist communities in history have in fact united around confessions at certain points. Not to mention, some of our Baptist "heroes", like Spurgeon, seemed to see this kind of unity as preferable.

    I'd like to learn more about it. "Confessional unity in Baptist thought" could be an interesting research paper, I imagine.

  2. absolutely, and you are right to say that "this is baptist" is a gross generalisation (whoever says it, much like "this is kiwi") and should certainly be taken as "this is what baptist means to me". I guess I am a sucker for relational rather than propositional Christianity, because Jesus is a real person it is personal relationship with him rather than right knowledge about him which is my first concern. Of course right knowledge about him is also very important but it is nothing without the relationship.

  3. OTOH I think my descriptioin of "baptist" does fit the constitutional and practical reality of the NZ BU at least ATM.

  4. Yeah , I agree it fits with the current realist of the NZBU for sure. I think the constitutional side is an interesting one; we do, after all commit to SOME doctrinal things together. I just think it's interesting to look at why we've chosen those, while excluding others (like a mention of Christ's resurrection - which I would say is pretty core).

    If I am advocating anything (and I'd like to do a lot more reading and talking before really doing that) it's that we should be open to revisiting our doctrinal commitments together.

  5. Sorry, that was "current reality".

  6. yeah, on reflection i think i may be changing my mind on this. i'll keep you posted.