We Baptists don’t talk easily about sex. It’s not taboo; it’s just complicated. With no creed and no pope, each congregation embraces faith with a high degree of freedom. That freedom comes with responsibility. Each church—autonomous in government, holding tenaciously to the Lordship of Jesus, and respecting the authority of the scriptures—has no choice but to discern the mind of God within its own context as faithfully as it can. There’s no handballing that discernment to someone further up the ecclesial chain. When it comes to our discussions about sex, the local conversation is loaded.
Given the current debate about same-sex unions and the good possibility that our definition of marriage will be broadened accordingly, we Baptists join all Christian traditions in having to discern a response. One pressing issue is, should such a change be made, will Baptist pastors like me be free to celebrate same-sex marriages? It’s a difficult question but one we can’t avoid.
The Baptist Union of Victoria, an association of some 250 churches in the state and one to which I’m proud to belong, is constantly asked to articulate an agreed ‘Baptist position’ on this issue. But how do we do such a thing? Wisely, our denominational leadership has initiated a statewide process of discernment, but one that honours our Baptist identity and form of government—a process that begins and is centered in the local church. Personally, I am very grateful for this. It has felt to me like there have been movements on the national level to bypass such a process, to make rulings and statements on behalf of all Baptists without conversation.
The fact is, Victorian Baptists—individuals and churches—hold a range of views on issues of sexuality and the prospect of coming to an agreed position is fraught. It’s hard enough in one community, let alone within the broader association. What I’ve always loved about Victorian Baptists is our diversity. It is our strength and our challenge. Read a good history of our community and you discover it’s always been so. We’ve had some good arguments over the years, heated disagreements over theology and practice. But we’ve done so as a family, holding together through thick and thin. With this in mind, the invitation from our denominational leaders to talk about these things comes with some good reminders.
First, how we engage in this conversation is as important as the convictions we bring to it:
‘Instead of rushing to the conventional adversarial positions, how can we model God’s abundant hospitality, and show Christ-like love, in the context of robust debate? Can we show the world how we engage in loving disagreement?’
And secondly, before these are issues of doctrine or dogma, they are missional and pastoral issues that we are debating:
‘Given the history of the church’s failings on matters of sexuality, we need to be as clear and wise as possible when communicating a public position. These issues have a missional dimension that we cannot avoid. If we exist to advance the Kingdom of God, we have to work out how we do that in our own context.’
I am certainly thankful for good state leadership in this issue, and I pray that as the conversation proceeds we will be known by our commitments to love and hope.