Unpacking Baptist Assembly

The Baptist Assembly (or The Gathering) was held from Thursday to Saturday this week. As I posted about earlier, the big issue of contention was what we would decide about same-sex marriages. These are a few of my reflections and questions coming out of that. I should say that the rules and regulations can be a bit dizzying at times, so please don’t read this as a technical breakdown. Also, there are still a great deal of thoughts and emotions for me which have yet to completely crystallise. So this may be less clear and concise than usual.

In the end, after heaps of discussion, and so many motions and counter-motions I lost track, (at one point we voted on a motion to stop talking and vote on a motion… it was like Inception), the delegates voted through an amended proposal which turned the stance against pastors officiating same-sex marriages from a statement into a recommendation. We also voted to put together a working party which will explore the issue further and report back in future, potentially with more recommendations.

I tried my best to note down the positions expressed by those who spoke to the proposals, though I gave up after about an hour. While it’s not scientific, I generally felt that about a third who spoke were against the proposal, and in favour of, or open to blessing same-sex marriage. Another third were not in favour of blessing a same-sex marriage, but did not feel it was the Union’s place to make a binding decision, or an issue to divide over. Finally, roughly a third seemed to feel this was an issue to divide over, and that it was a biblical or gospel issue.

As far as the decision to affirm a conservative stance as a recommendation, but not a binding statement, my read was that there was a general feeling that this represented a decent compromise. I supported it of course (as it was the only proposal then under consideration), but people on both sides – apart from a handful of dissenters – seemed relatively happy with the outcome. I personally described myself as “7 out of 10” happy with the outcome to the people that asked!

Having said that, while I think there is much good in this outcome, I also still have questions and concerns. I haven’t landed the plane on some of them, but I’ll try to express them below…

The Good

  • ŸThis is pretty close to a general statement from the majority of Baptist churches in New Zealand that we do not believe God blesses same-sex marriages as part of his design. Of course, because we’re not a monolithic movement, that only goes so far. There are still Baptist churches which ignore the Union’s affirmation of women in ministry, for example. But it does go some way to setting a culture, which is good.
  • ŸI felt a real sense of the Baptist family wrestling and coming to a decision together. I wished the proposal had gone further, but I also recognise the need to submit that to the gathered family seeking the Spirit’s leading together.
  • The working party that’s to be formed could be extremely helpful, and I look forward to hearing them report back. The discussion is not over, and there’s lots of wrestling ahead… though I do think I’ll need a few weeks to decompress before feeling overly excited about that!

Some Concerns

  • ŸThere was a lot of confusion. My impression leading up the Assembly was that we were talking about potentially de-registering Baptist pastors who marry same-sex couples, as well as potentially challenging their church’s involvement in the Union. But at the meeting itself, we were suddenly talking about a non-binding recommendation (even before the suggested change in wording). It is completely possible that the fault is mine, but the change confused me. When did it happen? It set my – and I think, others – expectations out of whack. It also raised the temperature of the discussion in a way that never need to have been done, if we were always going to simply be talking about a recommendation.
  • It was communicated to us that one pastor/church in the Union has already performed a same-sex marriage. Much of what I’ve heard from people on the other side of this issue has been framed from the perspective of the victim (with the Union playing the bully), and has expressed a desire to hit pause and spend time in dialogue. Fine, and if the Union had originally said, “We’re putting together a working party to report back in 2 years, and we’ll make a call then,” I would have thought that that was a very sensible path forward. But, when a church goes ahead anyway, it’s hard not to feel cynical about all of that. It makes me feel like there isn’t a true commitment to working this through as a family, but rather that this is just dissembling. I’d also love to be convinced otherwise, but I do wonder if minds aren’t already made up. Even those who say, “I don’t know,” well, I’ve yet to see someone move from, “I believe God’s intention for marriage is limited to a man and a woman,” to “I don’t know,” and back again. Usually it’s a pit-stop in the other direction.
  • ŸIs this a justice issue for those who support the blessing of same-sex marriage? I assume it is. If it is, surely sooner or later these people will have to call out those who hold to a conservative sexual ethic as oppressing others. Could Wilberforce live and let live when it came to slavery? This makes me wonder if what we’ve achieved is really unity, or simply the postponing of a conflict.

Some Questions

  • ŸI wonder if the Kiwi psyche which so values independence, can sometimes mix with the autonomous nature of Baptist ecclesiology to create a somewhat toxic stew. If I could sum up the core of the opposition to the Union intervening on this issue, it would be, “That’s not very Baptist.” The truth is – sadly, for me – I spoke to very few who were comfortable with a more confessional kind of unity. Even when they strongly opposed those who would bless same-sex unions, this overrode those convictions like a safety switch. But I wonder, is confessional unity entirely alien to Baptist life? We do, of course, have things like the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith in our history. I would love if New Zealand Baptists explored this part of Baptist tradition more.
  • ŸWhat does unity mean? I love spending time with old friends at the Gathering. It feels a bit like family. Many of these people are brilliant and I would happily have them as my pastor. But beyond a core group, it can too often take discipline to care about being Baptist. The unity is shallow. When I explained to a congregant this morning how we had decided on a “recommendation” she replied, “So, what’s the point?” And she didn’t even really have a dog in the fight. When it comes to sexual ethics, I’m fairly certain I stand with men and women who’ve been faithful to God’s word over 2000 years. I’m just not sure I stand with some other Baptists. That doesn’t inspire me… in fact, it leeches inspiration when it comes to unity.

I want to end all of this unpacking with a few positives.

There are many outstanding people in the Baptist Union. I could start naming you names of Carey Baptist College staff, experienced pastors, and even pastors around my own age, all of whom I walk away from thinking, “God, help me be more like this person.” There are a lot of them. I am proud to associate with them.

I am optimistic and I think we have a chance ahead to wrestle well together with what it means to be Baptist. We may need to carve up some sacred cows. It’s an exciting time to be part of Baptist history in New Zealand.


28 thoughts on “Unpacking Baptist Assembly

  1. Hi Rhett,

    (Oh, this is Thalia.)

    This was helpful to read, thank you. I was sorry not to be at the Gathering myself (and yes, I’m one of the generation that always thinks of the dance party first 🙂 ) and am keen to hear from a bunch of different people about how it all went.

    Some thoughts to respond to yours, and some extra info that might make some things clearer:

    Craig’s letter to pastors a couple of months ago talked about deregistering pastors and excluding churches who allowed their pastors or buildings to be involved in same-sex marriages. Given that such a sanction has, I think, never been imposed before, and given the Baptist Union Constitution’s provision that the local church has freedom to decide things for itself, a great many people, pro- and anti- same-sex marriage, protested in strong terms to Assembly Council that it was not appropriate for the Union to make any position on same-sex marriage binding on all churches.

    As a result of many submissions from people across the spectrum, Assembly Council decided a month ago not to press the point about the sanction (which had not been in the wording of the original policy, just raised by Craig in his letter to churches). So that change was brought about recently, though it seems it was only communicated patchily.

    I can’t speak for the church or pastor involved in a same-sex wedding, but I do know them, and do know a few public details that I think it’s fair to mention here, given your concerns above.

    The church in question affirmed at a members’ meeting (the way a Baptist church makes official decisions) earlier this year that the pastor and the church could be involved in any legal marriage. This decision was taken at a time when Craig was quoted in the Herald as saying that Baptist churches would be making their own minds up on the issue, and before the more recent and more heated debate – before there was any question of there being a national position that would require all churches to agree.

    So not only did this all happen before there was any national process to cut across, in fact the church in question had conducted its own democratic process that Assembly Council was proposing to cut across. The church leadership had, I think, made a submission in support of the Marriage Amendment Bill, and has long been open about its conscientious (by which I mean, ‘after much deliberation, believing this to be the will of Christ’ not just convenient or nice) support of same-sex marriage.

    To be clear on the timeline, all our (I say ‘our’ as I’m publicly against Assembly Council’s proposal to make a binding rule on this issue, and have been in correspondence with it and others over it) calls to, as you say, ‘hit the pause button and talk’ have come AFTER Assembly Council’s quite recent proposal to make a binding rule. The church named at Assembly made an official, democratic decision to allow involvement in all legal marriages long BEFORE that. Until Assembly (not Council, but the whole gathered group) amends the constitution, the power to make such decisions rests with the local church, and they exercised it.

    You say you suspect minds are already made up. Well, yes. I don’t think most of us are saying otherwise – on either side of the question. The people I know who were against the proposal believed a wide range of things about same-sex relationships, but were concerned about process (it was a pretty rushed, ill-communicated decision) and about Baptist ecclesiology, which has always said that the local church is the best place to seek the mind of Christ for a particular community.

    I wasn’t asking for a working group. I was asking for the constitution to be respected as it exists. I’d really rather we all just left all questions of marriage to the local church. For instance, do the pastors at all Baptist churches have to agree whether to participate in the marriage of a divorced person? Or of a non-Christian to a Christian?

    Actually the idea of a working group only came up at the most recent Assembly Council meeting after all the protests at the original proposal, so it’s probably no one’s first choice!

    When it comes to having a working group on the issue of same-sex marriage, I’m not at all sure that something this big can be worked through in 12 months. The Anglican Communion is taking 10 years to do the same job, and the UK Baptists did an extensive 2-year project. Yes, my mind is made up on the issue, since I’ve been actively thinking it through for more than a decade. I’m not claiming anything different.

    I’ll accept your pit-stop observation to be true to your experience, but I am among many of my acquaintance who have visited the ‘I don’t know’ area of the same-sex relationship debate while travelling in both directions. I don’t believe it to be disingenuous.

    Is this a justice issue, and does that mean this just postpones the conflict? For many it is, but I don’t think the second part follows. Baptist ecclesiology gives a theologically rational framework for ‘let’s-agree-to-disagree.’ I think the lack of freedom for women and girls to exercise gifts of teaching and leadership in many of our Baptist churches is scandalous. I’m glad that the Assembly finally decided, in 1976, to ordain women as pastors. I think it’s a matter of terrible injustice that some congregations continue to ignore that agreement. But I’m not asking for any of them to be kicked out of the Union.

    I think both women’s roles in the church and the place of same-sex couples in church and society are HUGELY important. I also think they are of secondary importance in a theological, gospel sense. I am content to be in communion with those who hold contrary positions, and I’d even be friends with them (not just on Facebook 🙂 ).

  2. Thanks for providing your angle on the process and timeline, Thalia, that helps me to get a better understanding on what’s been going on. I’m sure that I simply missed where that change was communicated, so it’s probably my fault there.

    I don’t want to retread ground we’ve already tread, but I still see this as a biblical authority issue. And yes, I am well aware that everyone who has a strong conviction will make that claim, but again I strongly feel this way. If someone could show me a church father, or evidence from the early church, or strong textual evidence, or a significant stream within orthodox Christian tradition supporting this interpretation, I would take it seriously. But, enough.

    …On the issue of “Baptist-ness”, again, it maybe be my INFJ-ness coming to the core (always assessing and valuing internal systems and worldviews), but I have such a struggle with this “let’s-agree-to-dissagree” perspective. To overstate and make a point: to me it reads like baptising a very consumeristic sense of independence and choice (and yes, I know that we’re still talking about congregations, but then it’s easy to think collectively like this with people you agree with). I certainly don’t find it to be an inspiring principle to hold on to, and nor am I convinced that it represents the “beyond dispute” frame-work for Baptist thought. As I said in the post, Baptist communities have often chosen to bind themselves together around a more articulated confession. I like that kind of unity… it’s not squishy and it means something. I would be in favour of a step in that direction. These 6 doctrinal statements didn’t fall from the sky on tablets of gold… my understanding is they were written on the back of an envelope in the 1920’s! Let’s revisit them!

    Having said that, I know I’m quite possibly in the minority in holding that view (though, I’d love to see a breakdown of the numbers in the vote, because I do suspect there is a fairly large silent group, much as I suspect that those who out-and-out embrace same-sex marriage have a voice out of proportion to their numbers in this debate). I also admit it would be wrong to coerce (if it was even possible) Baptist churches to this perspective. But as far as MY voice goes, that’s what I think. 🙂

  3. The back of the envelope (1880s I think, then incorporated in the Act in the 1920s) stuff is a fair characterisation, and I think it makes the opposite point, too. Actually, I suspect they really felt strongly about the not-6 part: all matters shall be decided by the local church. Then as an afterthought, on the back of the envelope: oh, hold on, we really do need to agree on a few things…

    On the let’s-agree-to-disagree point: do you think you would be happiest if you wrote down everything you felt strongly about (by which I mean, everything you think!) – let’s say it might be a list of a hundred things – and put them in order of importance, and chose a cut-off point for agreeing to disagree? Would you want agreement on all 100? Or a proportion? Or the top 25? Are there things you can identify that you are happy to agree-to-disagree on, but that others might struggle to let go?

    This is a continuum. All of us, except the newly-formed independent church down the road that has no ties whatsoever, *all of us* choose to agree-to-disagree, it’s just a matter of figuring out what the non-negotiables are. Which of course, is near to impossible, in which case, maybe we should just stick with the back of the envelope and keep talking.

    • That’s a complicated and somewhat leading question… first, I’d argue this is an issue of biblical authority, as I said. Second, while I have my own convictions, I don’t want it to be up to me (hence my statement about submitting to the decision of the gathered family in the original post).

      You could also equally look at it the other way… why have 6 shared distinctives? Why have any (if all matters being decided by the local church is the end-all?)

      It’s not that I would prefer to write out a personal statement of faith and have all Baptist churches adopt it. 🙂 But I do see the appeal of more collective wrestling with and commitment to shared doctrine.

      For example, what does “The atonement by our Lord on the cross for the sin of the world” and “Salvation by faith in Christ alone” mean? Can we better articulate that, and then better resource the shared sense of mission that comes out of that? Why is there no mention of the resurrection? …I’m just saying I would like to see more openness to exploring a more confessional unity. Just a step in that direction – I’m not suggesting we all adopt the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.

      • Ok, last one for tonight (all parents of small children should be asleep!).

        You use the phrase ‘biblical authority’ but I would say that actually we (you and I) are disagreeing about biblical interpretation. I am not arguing the Bible is not authoritative, but that it doesn’t directly speak to the issue in the way that we may have once thought it did. For me it’s like saying that I believe the Bible is authoritative but doesn’t tell me exactly what to think about genetically modified food. My position on GM is going to be based on extrapolation from biblical principles – but it might be different from where you get to through different extrapolation.

        Some people in favour of same-sex marriage would indeed disagree with you (and me) on the matter of biblical authority. But that’s not true of all of us.

  4. On the numbers: no one is claiming that supporters of same-sex marriage are anything but a tiny minority in the Baptist church.

    There seems to be, however, a fairly large group who think that it’s not a matter the Assembly should bind the churches on. If the original motion had been voted on, without Laurie’s amendment to make it a recommendation, I wouldn’t have been sure which way it would have gone.

  5. PS I’m really happy to have the hermeneutic conversation with you one day when you’ve recovered from Assembly. I am evangelical, and would agree with you on most points of interpretation, I suspect. I wouldn’t expect to change your mind, but I would hope after serious conversation you’d concede that there is a conscientious case that can be made by smart people in good faith who take the Bible and tradition seriously.

    • Hi Rhett and Thalia. I woke up this morning thinking an Annotated Bibliography would be a handy thing to help advance this conversation in my local church – with an accompanying online anthology… And then I read this blog post and comments: maybe a few of us could collaborate together on this?
      My initial thought was to use William Loader’s three “options” as a framework to find good/helpful material around each option…
      What do you think?

  6. Thalia – not sure why it won’t let me reply to your latest comment directly (come on, it’s my blog!) :-).

    But just picking up on what you say here: “Some people in favour of same-sex marriage would indeed disagree with you (and me) on the matter of biblical authority. But that’s not true of all of us.”

    Here’s a question this prompted for me: what would you take as a course of action if you were National Leader and a church in the union clearly and obviously took a position contrary to one of The Six? (This makes me want to go re-watch Battlestar Galatica).

    Say, if a church and pastor voted to change their statement of faith to reflect that they explicitly no longer saw the bible as authoritative, but simply as an ancient book alongside other ancient books which one could glean wisdom from.

    What then?

  7. Go to your dashboard/comments/nesting and pick a higher number (that’s my guess about the reply-to-reply-to-reply) 🙂

    Your other question is also a really straightforward one. It’s answered in the constitution, V, 10:

    ‘In the event of any constituent church being proved to the satisfaction of the Assembly to have publicly disavowed the doctrinal basis of the Union or to have acted in a manner contrary to the general objects of or calculated to injure the Union, the Assembly on the recommendation of the Assembly Council shall have power to suspend such church from membership in the Union and fix the period (including conditions for reinstatement) of such suspension, or wholly exclude such church from further membership with the Union.’

    • Awesome – got the comments thing sorted.

      Thanks for your reply. I think the crux of our difference is that I want our churches to be a tad more confessional. We already unite over 6 things (though I wonder if even those would pass at an Assembly today!). I’d like to see us revisit and expand those because I think it makes for a more robust unity, more focussed mission and more helpful resourcing.

      On you other comment, I’d love to discuss more, in person or whatever. I’m also keen to do more reading on the subject, which is hard with 40+ books on my “To Read” Evernote document.

  8. Hi Thalia and Rhett,

    Thanks for this discussion. Two people I respect talking with integrity. I haven’t been to assembly and am very much out of the loop on this, (my thesis is in its final throes so all else is being cast aside!) I also haven’t read much or intentionally on the issue from a hermeneutical point of view. I would love to hear a well-articulated, hermeneutical argument for same sex marriage from someone who clearly accepts the Bible’s authority as a starting position. I haven’t come across that yet (not that I’ve looked, admittedly) – can either of you (and I guess it would be more likely to be Thalia) point me to something like that? For what it’s worth, a genuine, respectful dialogue looking at these hermeneutical issues would be very valuable for me (and perhaps for others) at the moment, if that’s something your excellent blog could organise Rhett. 🙂



    • Cheers Greg. I’d be keen on that. I also like how you describe my blog as an independent entity ;-). Maybe I should form a blog committee to organise something like that.

  9. Hey Rhett,

    Thanks for the report. Other than an official report from the Union this is probably the most detailed written summary out there! so appreciate that.

    You’d mentioned:

    While it’s not scientific, I generally felt that about a third who spoke were against the proposal, and in favour of, or open to blessing same-sex marriage. Another third were not in favour of blessing a same-sex marriage, but did not feel it was the Union’s place to make a binding decision, or an issue to divide over. Finally, roughly a third seemed to feel this was an issue to divide over, and that it was a biblical or gospel issue.

    Do you personally believe this is a biblical or gospel issue? If so, why?

    • Thanks William. Glad it helped.

      Just to provide a bit more clarification, those thirds were all based on who spoke to the motions. But I don’t think that necessarily represents the numbers across the entire Baptist Union. Many of those who spoke against the motion were the same people who had written letters or articles for the Baptist magazine. The more conservative voices were also pretty loud. I think people on both ends of the spectrum sort of lined up to speak, and while they maybe took a third of the time each, my (total guesstimate) is that they both represent more like 5-10% of the Union. The VAST majority of people I spoke to were against pastors marrying same-sex couples, in favour of a collective “recommendation” but not in favour of more substantial decrees since they didn’t consider that “Baptist”.

      Now, on to you question… I guess I could see how it could be defined as a “gospel” issue in theory, if you see the gospel as God’s plan to redeem and restore the cosmos, through the work of Christ, for his creation’s salvation and flourishing and his own glory. You could probably fit this issue in there somewhere under God’s plan for our flourishing. But to be honest, I wouldn’t argue that way because it’s more than a few “implications” away from a really compelling point.

      Do I believe it’s a biblical issue? Sure. That’s really what I’ve been arguing.

  10. Rhett and TKR – thanks for this thoughtful discussion. Like you Rhett, I feel confident that I will never marry a same sex couple but I find myself agreeing with just about everything that Thalia said. The sleeper issue here that has been identified is what does it mean to be baptist, and what does unity require. I like the idea of a group to look at those questions because I suspect that the middle ground who were speakers like me, Laurie and the admirable Ken Keyte have got some work to do. Rhett, I think that the people who are conservatives and would break fellowship with a Ponsonby or similar church are much more than 5-10%, witness the cheer that Scott Lelieve received.

    On the process, the original motion was actually incoherent. It misunderstood what the legal effect of the admin manual is and the legal context that it sits in. If assembly wants to bind us all then it needs to pass a constitutional amendment to add to the list of six dealbreaker issues that are currently there.

    I spoke against that suggestion because it would be a missional disaster, the equivalent of the error made a few generations ago of tying teetotalling with the gospel. It would remove us far from the mainstream towards the most conservative 20% of the population, on an issue that is far from the significance of the trinity, deity of Christ, his resurrection, etc. It is not part of the deposit of faith passed to us by our forbears, it is rather an ethical issue that we have to grapple with in our period. I am not saying that we should change our stance to blend, but I am saying that we should not give it huge significance.

    I do not agree that having a broad unity is consumerist, rather I think that it reflects our gospel imperative of the diverse people of God holding together in unity and love. Its tested when you disagree sure, but the answer to that is not to ditch those that you disagree with. that is the protestant sin which elevates ‘truth’ afar above unity. If Rhett and TKR cannot stay in fellowship given all that they agree on, then I would truly despair.

    • “I think that the people who are conservatives and would break fellowship with a Ponsonby or similar church are much more than 5-10%, witness the cheer that Scott Lelieve received.”

      Yeah, fair point Rod, though I don’t know Scott at all. My view is probably skewed by interacting with a high proportion of Carey grads.

  11. Ÿ”Is this a justice issue for those who support the blessing of same-sex marriage? I assume it is. If it is, surely sooner or later these people will have to call out those who hold to a conservative sexual ethic as oppressing others. Could Wilberforce live and let live when it came to slavery? This makes me wonder if what we’ve achieved is really unity, or simply the postponing of a conflict.”

    Yes. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  12. Well just to say that when a related issue played out in the Methodist Church on the question of ordination of non-celibate homosexuals, it WAS a justice issue for those who were proposing it. In fact, when the church had made the decision in favour of ordaining homosexual ministers who were in sexual relationships, the same lobby then opposed the creation of safe space for the orthodox believing minority (about 36%) who wished to dissent from the position and the ramifications playing out in local church ministry appointments etc. Perhaps the Baptists will be more open to diversity on the issue but I fear that for some having reached the position that same sex marriage is justifiable biblically as a matter of human dignity then to allow anyone to withhold that dignity is morally inconsistent. It becomes an arbitrary distinction – we will call out people who are racists, anti-semites or violent at home but we will be softer on injustices committed by misogynists and homophobes in the name of unity. Does unity trump justice? Or does justice always threaten unity (or at least what passes for unity)?

    • Thanks Brett. I agree. This is a concern for me. Cheers for articulating it better than I did. Might have to steal the wording. 😉

      • Yes, the Methodist situation was on my mind as I read some of these concerns, too.

        There is one extremely important difference between the church structures that is significant here – as we have been discussing at length.

        The Baptist churches have a built-in room to agree-to-disagree in our structure, as other mainline denominations like the Methodist church don’t.

        To take a very close analogy, there are churches and members in Baptist churches who believe the Bible forbids women to be pastors (or elders, or preachers, depending on the person). The denomination has taken an official stance that women are in fact gifted for all roles of leadership.

        I think churches that discourage women from developing as leaders or preachers are engaging in a huge injustice. I’m happy to say so. I’m also content to remain in fellowship with them, knowing that each Baptist church gets to make its own decision.

        Until I see a church get excluded from the union for ignoring our denominational recommendation on gender, I’m not going to get worried that anyone will be agitating for anti-same-sex marriage churches to be excluded.

  13. Pingback: Unpacking Baptist Hui 2015 | ChongsWorship.com

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