Fullstop theology

Dear Jeff,

Thanks for your letter. I’m glad you’ve taken time to write. Clearly you’ve read the things I have written on homosexuality and, more recently, in support of same-sex marriage. I am sorry you’re not happy with me. The truth is you join a good number of people who are disappointed by my views. Apparently I’ve been dropped off a few prayer lists and added on to others!

Among other things you’ve exhorted me to read my bible more. That’s good advice. I love the bible and have read it through, cover to cover, a few times now. In fact, the more I read it the more my regard for it grows. The fact is, the bible remains the most formative text of my life. Certainly as a Baptist I happily acknowledge its authority and am committed to taking it seriously. More particularly you’ve challenged me to read what the bible says about homosexuality. ‘Don’t try to interpret it to fit into your own thinking,’ you say; ‘God says it is wrong, fullstop.’ It’s here, Jeff, that you lose me.

You are right of course; there are texts in the bible that appear to make God’s view of homosexuality crystal clear. Words like ‘abomination’ and the command that perpetrators be ‘put to death’ make it a chilling read. It’s not your encouragement to read these texts that bothers me. It’s your final statement: ‘God says it is wrong, fullstop.’

The truth is, Jeff, I have some trouble with this ‘fullstop’ approach to the bible. It infers that I have no choice but to take the literal statements and commands of the bible just as they are, and that any effort at interpretation will lead me down the dark alley of compromise. If that’s the case, there is a long list of biblical exhortations that I simply don’t know what to do with.

  • ‘For I hate divorce, says the Lord’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling‘ FULLSTOP
  • ‘Women should be silent in the churches for they are not permitted to speak’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘If a man commits adultery both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘On the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘You shall not make any tattoo or any marks upon you for I am the Lord’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘All who curse father or mother shall be put to death’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘For no one who has a blemish shall draw near (to the presence of God), no one who is blind or lame, no one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles’ FULLSTOP

Good heavens, we’re all in serious trouble aren’t we?!

Yes, I know. For me to list these exhortations in this way is to take them completely out of context and thus to abuse any real truth they might point to. The fact is, every one of these statements has a textual, cultural and historical context absolutely essential to understanding how it applies to us today. You are right, Jeff; the art of biblical interpretation is a dangerous and risky business, but do we really have any choice?

I don’t mind at all that you disagree with my view on homosexuality. Join the queue! And I reckon having a respectful conversation about it is essential. But if we begin with a fullstop approach to the bible, then the conversation is over before it begins.

Regards,

Simon

[‘Jeff’ wrote anonymously to me some time ago, providing no surname or return address. My original posting of this response was provided in this form for want of no other way of replying to him]

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.

We can’t ‘move on’

With news today that the High Court of Australia has overturned the ACT’s marriage equality laws, Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby says that we should now ‘move on.’ He keeps saying it. It’s his line. He said it again on the news tonight: ‘It’s time to move on!’

In Shelton’s logic, with ‘nine parliamentary attempts’ (and 30+ weddings) behind us, any further agitation is stirring a pot that should no longer be stirred. To proponents of marriage equality, his advice is clear: take off your aprons and put down your wooden spoons. The stew is cooked.

To be blunt, it’s a silly thing to say. More than that, it’s insulting. Whatever we judge to be the rights or wrongs of a particular issue, suggesting that citizens of this country who feel passionately about that issue should just give up and give over after a few rounds in the political arena is extraordinary. Sadly, it betrays just how little Shelton and his lobby group understand what motivates those who fight for this issue or how deeply it touches their lives.

For me and others, this is an issue of justice. It speaks to the most fundamental values of cultural belonging and inclusion. I stand publicly for marriage equality because it flows directly from my commitment to the integrity of human relationships and to the sacred connections between love and fidelity. Agree with me or don’t, but surely you can’t wish me to just ‘move on.’

Imagine for a moment the issues that would never have been brought to resolution if courageous people just gave up and moved on. In his fight to end the slave trade, Wilberforce took his bills before the British parliament more than twenty times over as many years before he found success. The story is similar with women’s suffrage, Indigenous land rights, the end to the death penalty and so much more.

It seems especially odd to me that a lobby group like the ACL should propose a ‘move on’ approach to social issues.  Their continuing agitation around the legalities of abortion, for example, is surely testament to their resolve to remain actively engaged even when the movement of legislation is against them.

Truthfully, I don’t care much for the ACL and what it stands for, but I am glad it’s there. As a political voice, it operates out of conviction and represents the views of its constituency (however large or small) with energy and resolve.  I would only hope that Shelton and others will acknowledge those who support marriage equality as more than a marginal nuisance group that can simply ‘move on’, as though its concerns are of no lasting consequence.

A prayer of blessing

In as post a few days back I responded to an article published by the Baptist Witness. Written by a ‘bishop’ of the church, it was an article I felt to be grossly unfair and hurtful to members of LGBTI community. Intentional or not, the damage done by words like these is the damage I see played out every day in my own faith community and many others like it.

The responses to my own post have been many, and most have shared a similar sense of disappointment, but often in words much more poignant than my own. One response came from a friend and fellow Baptist Bronwen. As with so many others like her, Bron’s hold on the church is tenuous but persistent. That she is still able to offer a prayer like this one is a gift to us all.

Blessings on us, on all of us
who search for
our callings, our giftedness, our place to be.
Blessings on all of us
who must stop, and wonder, and ask
whether we are welcome
before we offer our talents, our time, our selves.

Affirm in us, God, the welcome born in us
when we first heard you call our names.
Affirm in us the rightness of our being
formed this way as we were knitted together
in our mother’s bellies.
Affirm in us the knowledge
that we have much to offer, and that the church
needs us, far more than we need it.

Grant us courage and strength
to walk paths that will lead us into light and truth.
Grant us hope and compassion
that we may walk with eyes for the outcast and lost,
creating welcoming banquets
out of the crumbs we scavenge along the way.
Grant us pride and tenacity
so that we may walk with heads held high
refusing to be bowed by ignorance,
by intolerance, by injustice.
Grant us laughter and celebrations
alongside the bitterness of tears.
Grant us warmth and humanity
when faced with the deserts of rejection,
hate and fear.
Grant us love,
above all, grant us love.
So that we can continue to grow,
and become, and discover,
and be wholly
who we are.

Those pesky gay activists

The Baptist Witness, the state publication for the Baptists of Victoria, is currently running an article by Bishop Joseph Mattera of the ‘Christ Covenant Coalition’ in New York. It’s entitled 10 ways homosexual activists have shifted culture and what the church can learn from it. The Witness has invited comment on the piece. This is mine.

Mattera’s thesis is that a pesky but savvy coalition of ‘gay activists’ has, in the span of just one generation, turned western society on its head. So much so the homosexual community has moved from being an ‘oppressed minority’ to a ‘protected elite’ exercising extraordinary and culture-changing influence. At the same time, the Christian majority has been sidelined and silenced. In fact, ‘Bible-believing Christians’ are now experiencing minority persecution, ‘bashed with impunity’ by the gatekeepers of this new order.

According to Mattera, this switch has taken place through the gay lobby’s clever implementation of a set of carefully devised ‘strategies’. What’s more, if the church is to regain its ‘ascendency’ in this battle of ‘world-views’, it must learn from these strategies and rally its troops with equal intent. The gay strategies that Mattera identifies include (i) hijacking language, (ii) infiltrating cultural and educational agendas, (ii) buying political influence, (iv) moving culture from tolerance to the celebration of difference, (v) humanising homosexual people though ‘sympathy and victimhood’, (vi) winning the propaganda war, (vii) lobbying for the changing of laws–the list continues.

Frankly, there is so much about Mattera’s article that is painful to read. Of course, it includes an element of truth. That a significant degree of change has come in societies like ours is undeniable. That the struggle of activists has advanced that change is also true. But that a ‘bishop’ of the Christian church thinks that through words like these he is doing nothing more than affirming the success of ‘the gays’ so as to stir up ‘the Christians’ to action is so breathtakingly ignorant and pastorally bereft. The barely veiled assumptions that underlie these ‘ten points’ are like rocks heaved at those who are already wounded. Mattera may not intend to wound, but like so many in his position, he does.

The assumptions:

The gay agenda: That the movement of a whole community from the hidden and persecuted margins of society to acceptance and participation should be reduced to the devious ‘agenda’ of a pesky group of pinko activists is so incredibly demeaning. Do we really believe that if those activists had just shut up and gone away we would no longer have this ‘problem’? Do we really think that by putting ‘Bible-believing Christians’ back on the cultural throne the real life stories of gay men and women will dry up? The liberation of sexual minorities is not about competing ‘agendas’ and which one wins. It’s about people.

The gay conspiracy: That we Christians could be so fear-driven and ridiculous as to really believe that the ‘homosexuals’ are organising to secretly infiltrate the halls of power, educational establishments and religious institutions so as to wrest power and shift culture is nothing short of insulting. It reads as if homosexuals are an alien race, until fifty years ago hidden away from us all, but now on the march. Surely the fact that there are more people now able to come out from the cultural shadows and be who they have always been–in whatever profession or context they are in–is a sign of cultural maturity not evidence of a creeping conspiracy.

The weapon of normalisation: That we would view the ‘normalising’ of homosexuality as the insidious plot of the ungodly is breathtaking. God forbid that a young gay man should consider himself normal! God forbid that we might begin to address the tragically high suicide rates among LGBTI youth by treating them as anything but ‘queer’. The fact that we have been moved from ‘abhorrence of the gay lifestyle’ to seeing homosexuals as ‘normal people with normal lives and problems’ is surely as it should be.

Claiming discrimination: To imply that we predominantly white, middle-class, western Christians–members of the largest and most influential religion in the world–are an oppressed and sidelined people, simply confirms that that when it comes to the debilitating power of real discrimination, we just don’t get it. We can only make such a pathetic claim because we have never in our lives experienced the real thing. We end up sounding like spoilt children who no longer rule the playground.

The language of ‘us’ and ‘them’: All the way though Mattera’s article he refers to the gay community as ‘them’ and ‘they’ as though ‘we’ are an entirely different race. As long as we Christians continue to describe members of the LGBTI community as ‘other’ than we are, we will continue to alienate and wound. The fact is, ‘they’ are ‘us’. And that, more than anything else, is why culture has shifted. More and more as a society, we are coming to understand that ‘they’ are the people we love, the people we work with, the children we parent, the neighbours we live next door to, the people who sit next to us in church. This is our story, not theirs. To so distance ourselves from it diminishes us all.

We may well struggle as Christians to discern what faithfulness to God means in the expression of our sexuality. Surely, though, as we wrestle with these issues together, we can do better than this.

Marriage equality and a search for belonging

Regardless of where one stands on the issue of same-sex marriage, there is much to be said for those who maintain a sense of calm and humility in the thick of debate.  It’s heated territory, so when I meet someone able to sustain a spirit of respect and avoid the temptation to dismiss or demonise, I find listening easier. For me, Rodney Croome is one of those people. I’ve heard him speak in a number of different forums now. Though as coordinator of Australian Marriage Equality he takes a very public role in the debate, I am always drawn in by the care with which he does so. What’s more, his family heritage ties him to the life of a small Baptist church in the farming hamlet of his youth. What’s not to love? Croome has contributed an essay in the latest issue of the Griffith Review, one that only underlines my respect. Entitled The Promise of Belonging, the essay is a very moving account of the journey of his native and beloved Tasmania from the last Australian bastion for the criminilization of homosexuality (laws tightly held in place until 1997) to the state with the most progressive anti-discrimination laws in the nation. Within this broader story of transformation is Croome’s own story as a gay man. The journey of change has been a torrid one, for Croome and many others. Some left Tasmania never to return. Croome stayed. His observation that it’s ‘impossible to be truly free until we are free in the place that has shaped who we are’ is one that propels his ongoing investment in the issue, his hope for full inclusion for all Tasmanians and all Australians.

“It is this hope that inspires me to campaign for marriage equality. Allowing same-sex couples to marry promotes inclusion because marriage is such an important social institution. To be admitted to such a valued legal and cultural space is a sure sign of belonging. But the link runs deeper than this; it is about features inherent to marriage itself. Marriage is not just a legal contract between two partners. It binds them closely to each other and to their families. It admits them to a universal language of love and commitment. For same-sex couples, the value placed on marriage is the most powerful antidote there is to the poison of prejudice and crimilisation same-sex relationships have endured for so long. In times past, the law’s recognition that women, servants, prisoners, people with disabilities and Aboriginal people were mature and responsible enough to choose their own marriage partner, rather than have that decision made for them by others, was the key to the recognition of their full humanity. It is the same today for same-sex attracted people. The kind of choices, commitments and sacrifices marriage entails run to the core of what makes us human. In the words of a young gay man, Jackson Tegg, in a letter to the Hobart Mercury published last year: ‘marriage equality is important not because of what the law says I can’t have, but what it says I can’t give.'”

For Croome, the journey of his home state continues as he and many others advocate for change to our marriage laws on a national level.

“To be at home among the rocky peaks and verdant valleys that are the contours of your soul, to be as one with the people who nurtured and shaped you, these are some of life’s greatest gifts. Correspondingly, to be driven out and cleaved from these sources of meaning and strength is to suffer a type of violence. Belonging matters all the more because it can neither be seized by those who are excluded, nor granted by those who exclude. When the promise of belonging is broken, as it was in Tasmania for so many for so long, it is only through the myriad daily interactions of all who lay claim to a contested identity that a sense of belonging is rebuilt and renewed. This is what happened in Tasmania over the past quarter century and it is what will happen nationally as we negotiate our way to marriage equality.”

Whatever your view on the issue, this is certainly an essay worth reading.

Let’s talk about sex

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.

Marriage equality and ‘the Christian constituency’

Kevin Rudd has caused a stink. His defection to the pro marriage-equality camp has the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) up in arms. In their media release today the warnings are dire.

According to the ACL, the consequences of marriage equality in Australia will include (i) the creation of a new ‘stolen generation’, (ii) the inclusion of gay sex ‘mechanics’ in our school curriculum, (iii) the destruction of Christian businesses, and (iv) the prospect of public servants and pastors being ‘hauled into court’ and prosecuted for their convictions. They end with the declaration that ‘no government has the right to create these vulnerabilities for the church-going 20% of the population in order to allow the 0.2% of the population who will take advantage of this to redefine marriage.’

It’s a frightening read and, I suspect, is intended to be so. Members of this lobby group are clearly troubled by the prospect of change to our definition of marriage and genuinely believe their fears are well grounded. Whatever I make of these assertions, the ACL has the right to voice them and to do so as passionately and directly as they can. They speak for their constituency. What troubles me is not so much what they assert but who they infer that constituency to be.

In today’s press interviews and media release, the ACL speaks broadly of ‘the Christian constituency.’ It infers, first, that there is such a thing, a uniform Christian community—perhaps that church-going 20% of the national population or the 64% of Australians who ‘declare themselves to be Christians’— that stands united against marriage equality and, second, that the ACL is their preferred public voice. This is not the case.

According to its own website, the ACL does not profess or presume to be ‘a peak body’ for the church. It is governed by a board of eight men—three conservative Anglicans, one Catholic, two Baptists, one Pentecostal, and one from an independent fundamentalist church in Toowoomba. None of them are appointed by their denominations. In deciding on policy positions, the ACL bases its decisions on ‘orthodox historical understandings of Biblical Christian teaching.’ It does so in consultation with unnamed ‘senior church leaders’ and ‘Christian subject matter experts’ but is clear that its board of eight men is its ‘final arbiter’ in all policy matters.

I do not know how many Christians the ACL represents. Their own publicity does not make those numbers available and they have no mechanism for membership. The only hint is that should I choose to ‘register my support’ with their organization I can add my voice to the ‘thousands across Australia’ who have already done so. What I do know is that no matter how many there are, on this matter I am not one of them.

Despite the posturing of the ACL, I want people to know that there are many sincere ‘church-going’ Christians around this country for whom the ACL does not speak. Not at all. We find their assertions and fear mongering as offensive and alienating as do many others. We may not be members of the Kevin Rudd fan club, but as fellow Christians we welcome Rudd’s support on this important issue.

Baptists and same-sex marriage

I am a Baptist and I support gay marriage.

I know that among Baptists I am in the minority on this issue. I also know this sets me apart from friends and colleagues I hold in high regard. But that’s OK. Given our aversion to creeds, our adherence to freedom of conscience among believers, and our commitment to the autonomy of the local church, we Baptists have room to differ. And we do. What troubles me is the energy with which some gatekeepers of Baptist life move to distance our denomination from people like me whenever our view is made public.

Back in July last year, my good friend and fellow Baptist pastor Nathan Nettleton appeared on ABC television’s Compass program expressing his support for same-sex marriage. That this is his personal view he made crystal clear. The very next day, Australian Baptist Ministries (ABM) hurriedly posted on its website a press-release entitled Marriage is not for same sex couples, say Baptists, claiming ‘the numbers’ and firmly distancing itself from Nathan, painting him some sort of ecclesial lone-ranger. Most notably, it expressed ABM’s regret that Nathan should ‘fail to consult with Australian Baptist leaders’ before expressing his views on national television. In fact, Nathan is one of the most open and consultative Baptist pastors I know, and he certainly did talk with denominational leaders prior to his public appearance on the issue. That he and his position should be dismissed so easily is poor form on our part.

Last week another piece appeared, this time penned more personally by Rod Benson, consultant ethicist to ABM, in response to the ‘renegade Baptist pastor’ Mike Hercock. Like Nathan, Mike also speaks in support of same-sex marriage and does so publically. Boldly titled Baptists overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage, a statement correct in itself, Rod’s article goes on to rather crassly discredit Mike as a lone promoter of an un-Baptist, un-biblical and un-Christian position. Again this ‘renegade’ Baptist is isolated from the faithful majority and summarily dismissed.

I don’t know Mike personally, but as colleagues in ministry surely we owe him more respect than that. Follow the thread of comments that flow from these pieces and you find others in our Baptist fold who want us to ‘distance ourselves’ from Mike ‘until he admits his error.’ It sounds like the old practice of shunning is making a comeback.

It feels to me as though we Baptists are afraid of the public perception that we hold a diversity of views on issues like this one and I really don’t understand why. If ABM can write submissions and ‘policy documents’ on behalf of the majority—ones that I personally don’t adhere to and have never been asked to affirm by any representative Baptist body—why can’t we allow Mike to write his submissions without branding him a traitor to Baptist truth and goodness? Aren’t we bigger than that?

I have no beef with the right of all Baptists to state their views on this and any issue with conviction. Absolutely. But please, wherever we stand on this issue or others, let’s do so without discrediting the integrity of the one we disagree with, belittling their commitment to faithful discipleship, or, worst of all, distancing ourselves from them. After all, we are Baptists together in ministry and mission.

I, for one, stand with Mike and Nathan on this issue. I am well aware that we hold a minority view among Baptist leaders. But I am grieved deeply when our perspective on this issue sees us branded ‘renegades’ who fly solo or unauthorized edge-dwellers who tarnish the good Baptist name. We are not members of some marginal far left faction who can be dismissed because ‘the numbers’ are against us. Personally, I would like to think that I have a little more credibility than that. To suggest that my ‘error’ renders me an unfaithful disregarder of what is true and biblical is simply ignorant of my position and my ministry.

Rod Benson, a fellow Baptist leader I respect, makes the claim that he is ‘not aware of any other Baptist minister in Australia [apart from Mike], ordained or otherwise, who has taken such extraordinary steps to express his personal views on the subject of same sex marriage.’ While this may be true as some technical tally of words written, what it infers more broadly is simply wrong.

Let me say again as I have said in many other places and forums: I am a Baptist and I support gay marriage.

Simon Carey Holt
Senior Minister
Collins Street Baptist Church