Here’s something I’ve been pondering…
I am a Baptist by conviction. My denomination isn’t perfect, but I feel a sense of belonging and I believe in core Baptist principles like the priesthood of all believers and baptism by immersion.
But imagine for a second that through reading and prayer, I came to the conclusion that God was calling me to baptise infants. Perhaps I met a couple who sincerely believed in infant baptism, who asked if I would baptise their child, and that led me on a journey to where I decided that I wanted to affirm and practice the baptism of infants.
Perhaps then, I discussed this with my elders, then my congregation (let’s go with Sunnybrook Baptist, since – I hope – it doesn’t exist), and they agreed with me.
Of course, an issue would be that we had now taken a stance that would be hard to argue as “Baptist”. Would we be the first Baptist church in history to embrace and teach infant baptism? Possibly. Almost certainly if we only considered New Zealand Baptists.
I guess there would be two possible paths.
First, we could – as gracefully and graciously as possible – inform the Baptist Union that through a sincere and thorough process, we’d moved outside of historic Baptist tradition. Attempting to keep relationships intact, we’d still have to own the fact that we’d embraced a position that wasn’t a Baptist one. Maybe we’d change our church’s name to Sunnybrook Community Church. Or maybe we’d look to join with a denomination who shared the theological position we’d recently come to. This would be a necessarily sad process, but it would also be one we’d make with integrity.
The other path is more complicated.
We could, I suppose, argue that our unity as a denomination is more important than what our church teaches about baptism. We could argue that instead of just one view of baptism that is acceptable to the whole Baptist movement, the Baptist Union should be wide enough to include different views on baptism. That there should be space for you to hold to your conviction about baptism and for me to hold to mine. Not to mention, the Christian Church has always grown and changed. Maybe baptism by immersion is no longer as essential as it used to be.
…Option one is sad and difficult, but it seems to me that it would be the path of integrity. If the above actually happened, I don’t think many pastors would opt for the second path. After all, it would render our union kind of meaningless, or at the very least pretty shallow. As well as that, most theologically trained pastors would know that if we wanted to make a compelling case for calling ourselves “Baptist” while at the same time embracing a position that has never been taken by Baptists historically, we’d have to come up with a more convincing argument than, “Can’t we all just get along?”
I think you could exchange the issue but the above imaginary story would play out the same. Maybe Sunnybrook Baptist decides that they love me as their pastor so much, that they want to do away with congregational governance and ordain me as their priest. Whatever.
If the above were to actually occur, I don’t think many Baptists would be convinced that Sunnybrook was still a legitimate Baptist church. I don’t think Sunnybrook would think of itself as a legitimate Baptist church.
…This weekend at the Baptist Gathering, delegates (of which I’m one) are going to be voting on whether to affirm two proposals:
1. That Baptist pastors do not conduct same sex marriages.
2. That Baptist property is not used for the holding of same sex marriage ceremonies.
As you can imagine, this is a fraught and emotional issue. I tried to acknowledge that when I wrote about same-sex marriage here. I still feel that way.
The NZ Baptist magazine has of course been full of opinions, but more than that, I have friends on both sides of this issue who feel strongly. If Strengths Finder 2.0 is right, then I have the strength of “harmony” (I like how they manage to turn the weakness of conflict-aversion into a strength), but either way I absolutely hate conflict like this. I hate the feeling of picking a side. I hate being lobbied either way, and I worry that I always give the impression that I agree with whoever I’m speaking to at the time, because I really do empathise with how this all makes people feel.
I’m keen to go into Baptist Assembly with an open mind. There are a lot of good questions on this one. I am really keen to listen.
But in saying all of that, as I’ve thought about the proposal and the reaction it’s generated, here’s the question that I can’t shake: how is this different than the imaginary situation about baptism?
My hunch is that there aren’t a great many of them, but I do believe the sincerity of pastors who’ve wrestled with this issue, and decided that they would like to conduct same-sex marriages. I would really want to stay friends with a pastor who had reached this conclusion. But I’d need a heck of a compelling argument to be convinced that they could continue to call themselves historically Baptist.
I’m not trying to be divisive, I’m just saying that historically they would be taking a position that adopts an interpretation of scripture unheard of for nearly 2000 years, let alone in NZ Baptist churches. As N.T. Wright says, “Jesus’s own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behaviour outside heterosexual monogamy. This isn’t a matter of ‘private response to Scripture’ but of the uniform teaching of the whole Bible, of Jesus himself, and of the entire Christian tradition.”
It may avoid conflict (which I’m a fan of!) to say, “You hold your conviction and I’ll hold mine,” but if that’s the default stance on issues like this one, then being a New Zealand Baptist becomes meaningless. All our unity means then is that we’re okay with being in a room together every now and then.
That’s why – while I want to listen and learn – I’ll almost certainly vote “yes” to this proposal, even if it makes me worry that I might be perceived as a fundamentalist. And hey, if you vote “no” I hope we can still be friends.