The issue of same-sex marriage has been swirling around the Baptist churches of New Zealand for the last few years, and seems to be coming towards a head.
After a debate at the annual Assembly a couple of years ago, a Working Party was set up to take submissions and consider a response, in the wake of the legalisation of such “marriages” and the apparent desire of some Baptist ministers and churches (probably a small minority) to participate in and officiate at, weddings of such couples. The Working Party has apparently reported, but not openly to congregations in the pews.
In a sense, it is an issue tailor-made to highlight the incoherence of the Baptist movement.
Probably most of those in the pews each Sunday are unware of the Baptist Union Incorporation Act 1923, which contains (as schedules) the constitution of the union of churches and the “articles of faith”. I’d long known about the Act, but in truth the Articles of Faith were relatively new to me.
The contradictions start early. The Constitution states
That the Union fully recognizes that every separate Church has liberty to interpret and administer the laws of Christ, and that the immersion of believers is the only Christian baptism.
The two clauses in that sentence seem at least potentially at odds – but perhaps baptism of believers by immersion is intended to be the exception to the “liberty”. And quite what “the laws of Christ” is intended to include, or exclude, is unclear.
Because in the first schedule to the Act are the Articles of Faith, described in the Preamble as the “general tenets” held by Baptists.
Articles of faith.
1 The inspiration of the Bible and its authority in all matters of faith and practice.
2 The true humanity and Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 The atonement made by our Lord on the Cross for the sin of the world.
4 Salvation by faith in Christ alone.
5 Membership in the Christian Church for the regenerate.
6 The immersion of believers as the only scriptural form of baptism
It is curiously watered-down quasi-creedal statement. For example, only one member of the Trinity is mentioned, and nothing of coming judgement, or of the hope of resurrection to eternal life. Come to think of it, there is nothing of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus himself. The Nicene Creed, supplemented by 1,5, and 6 might have been a more compelling statement.
No doubt it is of its era, and reflected specific points of concern at the time. But I’m sure the Baptists who formed the Union in the 1880s, and who saw through the Act in 1923, saw themselves as having rather more in common than is in those few provisions above. It was an age still more shaped by hundreds of years of Christian belief and practice.
But what holds them together now? After all, one might sign on to the first of the Articles, and yet know that there are as many interpretations as there are denominations (and possibly congregations or even Christians). This is why older Christian traditions put emphasis on the role of the church (Councils, Pope, or Tradition) in safeguarding, by the Holy Spirit, the interpretation of the Scriptures and their application to the life of the church.
And then there comes an issue such as same-sex marriage. Perhaps still only a modest proportion of Baptists support it, but even twenty years ago the idea that a Baptist church and Baptist mInister might be involved in solemnising a gay marriage would have seemed so shocking as to be almost incomprehensible. But it isn’t one of the handful of issues in the Articles of Faith, so who is to say no, or to attempt to stop them?
And it isn’t only gay marriage. Marriage gets particular salience because of the role Christian ministers have traditionally played in solemnising marriages, both as religious and civil matters. Tolerance for, say, abortion comes more subtly – no minister is typically directly involved, and church discipline seems to be a forgotten concept. Once something is no longer illegal is a Baptist stand possible, or something that even has a comprehensible meaning?
I strongly sympathise with the motivations of those who want to reformulate the rules to exclude congregations which allow their ministers to officiate at gay marriages, but why make the exception for this one departure from traditional – ages old, and and beyond Christianity – teaching and practice?
In fact, I suspect the Baptists will end up with a situation in which individual ministers and congregations are free to do as they like, and a few congregations may withdraw from the Union in protest. In that sense, it seems not so different from where the Anglican church in New Zealand seems likely to end up. On the one hand it will be more painful for most Baptists – who’ve had less experience of embracing and sanctifying the liberalisation of the sexual revolution – and on the other a little easier, since there is no episcopal hierarchy that individual clergy need to tread carefully around and through. But in what sense will it be a denomination recognisable for anything more than a name? A denomination defined by its overseas mission arm, itself at times a branch of the New Zealand development aid programme, rather than by anything else?
And perhaps for those mainstream Baptist congregations in fairly liberal suburbs – like my own – it will become one of those unspoken things. I suspect our pastor favours gay marriage, but no sin (social, sexual, financial) is ever named in his sermons, leaving us to guess and deduce. And so again the church is reduced to speaking barely at all on anything other than bland pieties and the conventional verities of the age.
Since I certainly don’t believe item 6 of the Articles, I’m pretty sure that I could not again be a member of a Baptist church. But when belief and practice are really just everyone for himself – pretty much what the Constitution says – one wonders whether the Baptists are not both the ideal denomination for the age, and yet also pointless. And since the age, in the West anyway, has little or no interest in the church – except to excoriate it when it does stand up for truth – again what is the point?