We Baptists need to talk

A few weeks back Victorian Baptists had a difficult conversation. It was all to do with marriage, more particularly our response to the possibility of same-sex marriage in Australia. Anticipating future change to the Marriage Act to include same-sex couples, a motion had been tabled to affirm our Baptist commitment to marriage as between a man and a woman; further, to ensure that pastors who marry according to Baptists rites act within that definition no matter what legislative change lies ahead.

Breaking previous records, our attendance at the delegates’ assembly illustrates the importance of the issue. While we may not all agree, when it comes to matters of sexuality we are a zealous bunch. Understandably, our Union leadership struggled with the best way to frame and conduct the conversation. Consequently the possibility for open debate was minimized. Prior to the gathering, two one-page documents were circulated to the churches, one making the case in favour of the motion and the other against. Similarly on the night, one person was asked to speak in support and one opposed. Discussion was then limited to the tables at which delegates were seated after which there was a secret ballot. As expected, the motion passed.

It is no secret where I stand on this. My appointment to Union Council in 2014 drew considerable opposition, and I was also the one who made the case against the motion on the night. Though disappointed by the outcome, I was not surprised. I understand that I hold a minority view on this issue and as much as I personally grieve the implications of the decision, I remain committed to our Baptist community. My purpose here is not to argue the case any further, but to name my concern over the continuing tenor of our conversation.

As much as I would love to simply move on – to conclude that our talk is done and our decision made – this is not an option. Firstly, the conviction of those Baptists who believe marriage equality is a gospel issue is not so easily shelved. When it comes to the gospel, we Baptists are a stubborn lot. And secondly, a steadily growing majority of our neighbours consider this an issue of some urgency. Whether we judge it to be so or not, the strategy of labeling the issue ‘non-core’ or blocking our ears to community views won’t flush. The conversation, internally and externally, has to continue. How it continues is crucial. In a context where sensitivity to issues of perceived discrimination and the violation of human rights is heightened, our neighbours are listening. Indeed, I would go as far to say that how we have the conversation is as important as the conclusions we argue for. In light of that, I reckon there are some things worth holding onto.

We Baptists listen: By conviction, we are a listening people. Without a formal creed or governing council to guide us, we have always had to take the tasks of listening and discerning seriously. We listen in our congregations and communities, and we listen within our wider fellowship of churches. That said, I fear we are losing opportunity for this sort of listening. Forums for rigorous discussion – discussion that takes us beyond one-liners and one-pagers to a more nuanced conversation – have almost disappeared. Our aversion to conflict has whittled away opportunities for real and respectful debate. While I certainly don’t want to return to the ‘good old days’ of denominational trench warfare, the loss of opportunities to listen to perspectives other than our own diminishes us.

We Baptists reflect deeply: Most Baptist would agree that the days of ‘the bible says it and that settles it’ are gone. We have had to wrestle with too many issues, culturally and theologically, to be so naïve. That said, as those who continue to hold to the authority of the Bible, the business of its interpretation is deeply challenging. Early last year a pastor who holds a different view from my own on homosexuality contacted me. He asked is we could meet periodically to talk through our approaches to the Bible on this issue. We have done so now several times and it has been one of the most enriching and challenging disciplines I’ve experienced. Each time we have prayed, read the scriptures and laid our questions on the table. While our differences remain, we have pressed and honed each other along the way and with a common commitment to the gospel. What’s more, neither of us has asked the other to check our critical faculties at the door. I long for more of this in our Baptist community.

We Baptists are sensitive to the power of testimony: The truth is, whenever we talk about these issues, there are those within our own communities – sitting at the same tables, hearing the same arguments, even within our own families – for whom being gay is not an issue for debate but the daily reality of their lives. Some may be open about this while others keep it hidden. Even in that meeting of delegates, there were men and women who could not so easily separate themselves from the issue. Their personal testimonies are deeply entwined. Whatever our view on marriage equality, we do well to remember that our words, inferences and convictions are heard and felt. Indeed, each time we talk about these things we could do worse that imagine a person from the LGBTI community sitting at the table. The question is important: how would this change the tenor of what we say?

We Baptists preference faith over labels: On both sides of this issue we have an unfortunate propensity to label those who oppose our position. Clearly labels make dismissing those in disagreement so much easier. I often cringe at the ease with which those in favour of marriage equality dismiss the opposition as ‘bigoted’ and ‘homophobic’. While I have no doubt that bigotry and fear are alive and well within segments of the church, in my experience the majority of Baptists who oppose same-sex marriage do so out a genuine desire to be faithful to God and to the Scriptures. Similarly among those opposed to same-sex marriage, to speak routinely of ‘gay lobbies’ and ‘liberal agendas’ simply dismisses those who come to their affirmative position out of a genuine desire to follow Jesus. Of course, lobby groups exist on both sides of this issue and agendas run rampant in all corners of the church. But assigning labels does nothing but shut down conversation and push fellow Christians further into their trenches.

We Baptists pray … together: Earlier this year I received a visit from some Christian leaders who had asked to meet with me to discuss issues of concern. I agreed. Once we sat down it was quickly evident that this was an intervention. They were grieved by my public position on the issue of marriage and felt compelled to call me to account. Once I realised where we were headed, I asked if we could begin in prayer. The leader of this group was quick to respond, ‘We cannot pray with you, but we will pray for you.’ With that he led a prayer outlining my errors in dot point and asking for the conviction of the Spirit. On one hand I am pleased that these leaders came to me rather than speak about me from a distance, but I was deeply troubled by their perception that I was not someone they could pray with, as though my perspective on this one issue rendered me spiritually suspect. At its essence, prayer is an act of humility, a means through which all people of faith bow in submission to the presence of God. If we cannot begin there, I wonder if the conversation is really possible.

All this said, we Baptists do need to talk, and keep talking. More important still, we Baptists need to listen, and keep listening. If we are to find ways ahead on this issue that honour God and flow out of our common allegiance to Christ, there really is no other way.

33 Comments

  1. This whole thing disturbs me.

    I have done a fair bit of reading and reflecting on this subject and continue to come up ‘conservative’ in my views. What’s problematic is that the theological position I find myself in often is occupied by the abrasive and unkind whereas the theological position I can’t take seems to be held by those with compassion and grace.

    I wish it weren’t so, as I don’t want to align with either option right now.

    Appreciate your thoughts and your heart here Simon, even if we sit in different places theologically.

    Reply

    1. Andrew, your response is all and more than I could hope for. The fact that you have ‘read and reflected’ on this issue as much as you have, regardless of the outcome, says that you have listened and are listening. It seems to me that as much as we chose to stay in the pastoral and theological struggle, we are well placed to provide leadership that is constructive, both for the church and our communities.

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  2. A (characteristically) gracious and wise word here Simon, inviting those who identify with the Baptist tribe to keep taking seriously faith’s risky claim that the Word of God always resists our domestication, always invites us to hear again and to do so together with others that the Lord has called. My only quibble of substance is with your claim that the ‘difficult conversation … was all to do with marriage’. It seems to me that the more important matter concerns how we understand our relationship with the State. The question of marriage’s definition might be merely the test case for this more important matter. And whether intentionally or not (and I assume the latter) what we Baptists confessed that Friday night a few weeks ago was that the church has nothing to say about marriage, has no particular theology of marriage at all, that the State has said for us all that we need to say. If we are to wrestle with what I think is the most pressing and underlying question here, we will indeed require all the habits you name in this post … and much more besides. And what a welcome invitation that promises.

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    1. Thanks Jason. As always, your words are challenging. I suspect you are right in highlighting the more pressing issues in our conversation. I would say the same about the more fundamental need for a theology of sexuality to precede and sit beneath our discussion on homosexuality (and those on marriage equality that flow from it). The difficulty for us is that our imagination is so limited that we fall back on very simple equations that really miss the point.

      Reply

      1. Simon, indeed you are right vis-à-vis a priority of developing a theology of sexuality and, by implication, of human personhood more generally. (Equally, Free Church Protestants, in particular, could also do with having an ecclesiology!). In the current climate, dominated as it is by political, social, and economic liberalism (wells from which theological ‘conservatives’ are drinking as deeply as are their more ‘progressive’ brothers and sisters) this is a task as pressing as it is difficult. But we are not alone …

        I wonder too if the kind of ‘talk, and keep talking’ and ‘listen, and keep listening’ that you are encouraging is best served by abandoning wholesale the current ‘the majority vote = God’s will’ approach and a taking up of a commitment to full consensus on these matters. Only then, perhaps, will the patterns of ecclesial discernment serve the kind of patient work that you seek. And here, you are not alone …

      2. As I understand it, the Uniting Church has long practiced a consensus model of decision making, is that right? It may well be something worth exploring more in our community.

  3. Thanks Simon for your thoughtful, dialogical and carefully crafted article on a fraught topic. I am one who takes a ‘conservative’ position on homosexual practice, gay marriage etc but seeks to cut the Gordian knot tying church & state together on gay marriage which raises the stakes to all or nothing, and produces more heat than light. As an Anglican but with some experience with Baptist colleges and advising BUV re ethics it seems to me that this is one possible way forward. Everyone, like the Europeans, can be married in the eyes of the State at the Town Hall or Registry Office & then go to their church, mosque, synagogue or atheist equivalent for a celebration/ ceremony. Baptist congregational polity might help them handle their differences better than others on this issue, but that will still require strenuous listening to God as you and your friend have been doing. Ethos hopes to facilitate something like this process on a larger scale and hope you might be able to participate at some time with a mix of others (Baptists, Anglicans, Uniting) of differing views, but for starters I’d love to publish your piece with your permission in our next issue of Equip along with other articles on the Gay Marriage and associated issues like Christian liberty and disagreement and wider religious liberty, law, the state etc. Thanks for your sticking your neck out bravely. I hope and pray it’s not chopped off for this. And, for the record, my Christian brother and friend, I’d be priviliged to pray with you about it.
    warmly,
    your friend Gordon

    Reply

    1. Thanks Gordon. Your consistent friendship has been sustaining in many ways. A mutual friend describes you as ‘the best sort of evangelical’, one who is clear and articulate about his convictions yet open to the broadest possible conversation. That has always been so with you and I respect it greatly. The possible way forward that you’ve outlined is one that has generated some serious discussion in my Baptist circles (as you know) and I agree it presents a way forward that sits well with me. While I am not sure this very context specific piece would add much to the broader conversation, I am happy for your use your discretion in its further use. Blessings my friend.

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      1. Many thanks Simon and good to see the thoughtful responses to your piece too. I’ve just been badly burned by comments I’ve made re some issues of religious liberty re gay marriage & how to appropriately express it to a regional Queensland Press agency apn. They have been headlined to make me say the exact opposite of what i was saying as they’ve been destructively spun by at least two regional newspapers. So there goes the week having to clean up all the crap, salvage what’s left of my reputation, and to salvage more importantly, space for civil conversation among Christians and between Christians and their neighbours, gay and straight.
        warmly,
        Gordon

      2. I am so sorry Gordon. These things certainly helps us better understand the choice to remain silent on difficult issues. Know that only last Friday I was sitting in a board meeting where a colleague was telling me how much your encouragement had meant to him. Peace to you my friend.

  4. As someone who was a baptist and has struggled with the conservatism of the church, I really appreciate your stance Simon and your willingness to risk public censure for what you hold to be important.

    Reply

      1. Thanks for the best wishes… I’m pretty sure I resolved my struggle with conservatism by leaving the church. I was mostly wanting to make the point that as someone outside of the church and someone who suffered as a woman within the church, I appreciate the attempts you and others make to open up the space for robust conversation and change.

  5. Well written Simon, what a blessing you are to the Union and to the body. Thank you for your wise words and Godly humble posture.

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  6. Hi Simon.
    Thanks for what you have written. I have recently been describing myself as a “Baptist by marriage”, or saying that some things are “so Baptist” as a backhander.
    The things you’ve written about what it is to be a Baptist, well, they’re values and practices I want to be part of. To listen, to reflect deeply, to value faith and testimony, to pray together. I wrestle with your issue here, but lately I’ve been wrestling more with truly valuing the community I belong to, in all of its complexity. Thanks.

    Reply

    1. Thanks Kathy. By birth, by marriage, conviction or accident, this is our family and the one we get to wrestle alongside and sometimes with. Like all families, we sometimes have to choose the worth of relationship over the extent of our differences. At least that is so for me. May the struggle continue. Every blessing to you.

      Reply

  7. Are the Victorian cases for and against the motion publicly available? I am not in favour of same sex marriage at this point because I think the ideal should remain one man and one woman committed to each other and any children they may have. I am a divorced single Mum and well aware of all kinds of families. It seems to me children and property in these circumstances is already (or can be) protected by various laws so do we even need any Government regulation of relationships? What benefit does the Marriage Act bestow that isn’t already available?

    Reply

    1. I guess, from my perspective Janelle, one of the great gifts of full participation in the rite and institution of marriage is the experience of really belonging, of having one’s sense of family completely affirmed and received by society. The issue, i think, is so much more than legal recognition. It goes to the values of a society that embraces all expressions of covenat love, faithfulness and family.

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  8. TO SIMON
    My dear friend of 60 years Ian, suggested I read your message of last Sunday. I read it with interest and want to say a sincere thankyou for taking this important step. I only wish to strongly endorse your whole approach to the subject , but more broadly to the whole LGBTI Community.
    You may recall that we at CFLL(Center for Faith Life and Living) at E Doncaster invited Bishop Gene Robinson to Melb and Sydney in June 2013. The only openly Gay Bishop! The whole story of this event and the issues leading up to it is a wonderful story of a family, lovingly going thru the journey of a trans-gender process.Love, and support helped this family reach a remarkable achievement. During that time we also invited Andrew Martin, an ordained man from BOYSTOWN Chicago, where he leads a large GAY support operation. He is also a writer and you may already have his book “Love is an Orientation”.
    This is a limited response, but did want to be part of the community, giving mature and considered encouragement to these important people who are so often marginalised in our society.
    Sincerely
    Howard Neilson

    Reply

    1. Thank you Howard. It is good to hear again of creative steps within the church to give voice to these issues. I appreciate your encouragement (and you taste in dear friends!).

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  9. Simon…no comment on the issues at stake, but simply a message to say you are an inspiration, and I have a deep, sincere love for you and what you stand for. Rob

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  10. wonderful piece Simon. And your grace towards those who came to you and decided they needed to pray for you, not with you, is inspirational. I know I would have gone for the upturn the tables approach at that point – and upturned them all towards the door.

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  11. […] My heart is for this large middle group whom I am calling the silent majority.  The Bible says there is a time to speak and a time to be silent.  I believe that now is a time to speak, even if we don’t have it all figured out.  My brother Simon wrote on his blog recently an article entitled, ‘We Baptists Need to Talk’.  It was a passionate plea to not only engage in conversation on this issue, but to do it well.  https://simoncareyholt.wordpress.com/2015/06/15/we-baptists-need-to-talk/ […]

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  12. I looked at your website after being surprised at seeing media coverage of leaders of the Collins St Baptists at a gay-pride rally. As a long-term Bible student my surprise turned to concern when I read the reasoning behind this approach. I am afraid that the reasoning sounds very much like fulfilling Paul’s concerns that there would come those “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” (2 Tim 3:5)). What else can one determine from statements about continuing to hold to the authority of the Bible but questioning its interpretation. Certainly there can be various interpretations on matters of complex doctrine and prophecy but God’s advice on lifestyle is clear. What is hard to understand about verses such as 1st Corinthinians 6v 9&10? “neither the immoral, adulterers, homosexuals etc etc will inherit the kingdom of God.” Pray tell – are you suggesting that God should not stipulate standards of behaviour for those who wish to enter His kingdom?
    Romans chapter one in its entirety sets out unequivocally the distaste God has for homosexuality (“shameless acts” v 27) and the fact that the inappropriate actions produce undesired outcomes (“receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error”).
    It is depressing to see the extent to which humanist thought is replacing Scripturally-based reasoning.

    Reply

    1. Sid, thanks for dropping by and adding your perspective. As you’ve indicated, you did so after seeing an ABC report on the presence of our church at what you describe as ‘a gay-pride rally’ here in Melbourne. We’ve had a number of people respond in a similar way so you are not alone.

      What you saw on the TV was actually a public demonstration in favour of a free vote in our federal parliament on marriage equality. It included a broad spectrum of citizens from across the political, religious and social spectrum. Speakers included elected members of state and federal parliament from Liberal, Labour and Green parties, leaders from the community sector along with religious leaders from Jewish and Christian communities. So to call it a gay pride rally is really to misunderstand its purpose.

      Indeed, we did contribute to the day and with a great sense of conviction — conviction that flows directly from our faith. It embodies our commitments to justice, mercy and the radical hospitality of God’s kingdom. Clearly you disagree with our presence and with my approach to the Bible and I am sure there is nothing I could say here that will change your mind on that point.

      I do note that your writing on the necessity of head coverings for women in church and your considerable writings on the second coming of Christ say much about the way you read the Bible and the priorities that you set in your work of interpretation. I am happy to leave such things to you.

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  13. Hi Simon
    Thank you for your reply and for the opportunity to express a view. Very gracious of you to allow the presentation of alternative opinion. That is in contrast to the strident reaction of many when this topic is addressed.

    It is an important matter to debate for two reasons. Firstly, endorsing homosexual relationships and legislating for same-sex marriage encourages young people who are questioning their sexuality to continue on a path from which there is generally no return. They will end up in a relationship in which they will never have a family and they may later regret that. In prior eras community objection would cause many to move on and forget their questioning as the grew-up.
    Secondly, primarily for Christians, it raises the question of whether or not to accept scriptural directives. If directives on that are rejected, where is the line drawn on the authority of all scripture?

    As mentioned I only engaged in this because of surprise at support given to the rally. It seemed at odds with views held by my Baptist acquaintances. I had also noticed your observation about the authority of scripture whilst apparently skirting around its directives on homosexuality and, with respect, I must say that your reply does not address that. Entirely up to you as it is your blog but would you like to expand on why you apparently consider that the God’s objection to homosexuality as expressed in both Old and New Testaments is not incumbent upon us?

    Your observation that neither of us is likely to change our mind is probably correct but I appreciate the opportunity to engage in an exchange of views.

    Reply

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