Baptists haven’t sold their soul, they are following God’s heart.

No, Baptists have not sold their soul over same-sex marriage. What they have chosen is faithfulness to God and upholding gospel unity.

New South Wales Baptists have reaffirmed the Bible’s teaching on marriage and are following Jesus’ teaching on human sexuality. They have also reaffirmed the importance of the Baptist doctrine basis by requiring accredited pastors and churches to affirm these statements.

While the majority of Baptist delegates have supported the motions, not everyone is happy and for several different reasons. Some dissenters don’t subscribe to Baptist theological beliefs nor do they accept the classical definition of marriage. Indeed, among those who reject the classical understanding of marriage, they often find issues with many other basic Christian beliefs. There are others Baptists, who have expressed concern at the NSW and ACT decisions because they value the idea of autonomy over and above other baptist principles. 

Erin Martine Sessions is a delegate at the NSW and ACT Baptist Assembly. She is one of a minority of baptists who disagrees with the direction taken in NSW and she’s written a piece on the ABC Religion and Ethics site, Have Baptists just sold their soul over same-sex marriage?’

At times, it is hard to manoeuvre around Martine Sessions’ use of language and hyperbole. Describing the meeting as The Red Assembly is kind of silly.  Invoking the Spanish Inquisition and using analogies such as stake burning and the  Spanish Second Republic-inspired thought-policing, does little to forward this important discussion. And the inclusion of Moore College and Sydney Anglican as a wink-wink swear word is a cheap and unnecessary shot.

Let’s look beyond the colourful and misleading rhetoric and point out two basic problems with Martine Sessions’ argument, namely that the Assembly decisions go against Baptist principles.

First of all, the author neglects much of Baptist history. It is true that Baptists view autonomy highly, but it is also true that Baptists in association gather around shared theological foundations. Both things are true. She asks,

“Why did we suddenly depart from history and make a new category of statements we must support? To put it bluntly, because Baptists don’t have a doctrine of marriage”

Throughout the history of the Church, many confessions, statements, and creeds have come about as the result of doctrinal crises, social change, and political necessity. It’s not as though these beliefs only came into existence when a Council met or Assembly approved, but rather,  what was already orthodox became formally recognised in writing. Issues surrounding sexuality, marriage, and gender are but the latest theological and moral ground that requires Churches to affirm Biblical teaching. Historically, Baptists are not exempt from or non-participants in this process. As I have demonstrated elsewhere, Baptists historically associate together around common theological convictions. Indeed Baptists have written and affirmed more statements of faith and association than possibly any other Protestant denomination. 

in the case of marriage, in 2011 Australian Baptists Ministries affirmed that marriage is, “the union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. Baptist marriage celebrants can only conduct weddings according to this definition. Although, there are examples of pastors and churches deliberately circumventing these rules in a variety of ways, and thus acting against Baptist belief and practice.

This position on marriage was not invented in 2011, rather due to social and political changes, baptist leaders wisely decided that it’s necessary to make explicit in writing what has always been the case, indeed, to affirm what is the historic Christian understanding of marriage. 

For Martine Sessions to claim the NSW motions are unBaptist, is to grab hold of one strand of baptist thought and to ignore the others. Baptists have always made and required statements of faith and practice for association. As someone pointed out to me, it’s somewhat amusing to read that in order to reject Baptist confessionalism, she relies on a confession of sorts, one that she teaches her students!

The article also underplays how the issues at hand relate to vital Christian beliefs upon which fellowship is had or not. The majority of churches understand that this is the case. Martine Sessions misrepresents the nature of the topic at hand when asserting, they don’t want to associate ‘with people and churches who think differently to them’. This isn’t just about ‘thinking differently’, this is about believing basic, obvious, and essential Christian teaching. To categorise the issues as a matter of ‘thinking differently’ is quite an understatement.

For an association to not only exist but grow and be healthy, there need to be shared values, identity and purpose. No one is suggesting uniformity across the board, but agreement upon the basics. Advocates who place autonomy near the top of the list often have a habit of limiting or downplaying what is required for association. I happen to think that the autonomy of the local church is an important principle, but I also note that an association of churches, by definition, requires sufficiently shared common ground. The issues at hand are, contrary to Martine Sessions, crucial and necessary for genuine Christian unity and partnership. How can fellowship exist when there isn’t shared belief in the same Gospel? How can churches partner in mission together when one says repentance isn’t required and the other says it is? How can churches serve together when one accepts the words of Jesus about marriage and another does not?

We can’t disconnect our view on marriage from other parts of Christian theology. Those small number of pastors and churches who no longer accept the Baptist view on marriage are also redefining many more Christian teachings, including the gospel itself and sexual morality and repentance and our doctrine of scripture. 

Imagine a player at a cricket club who decides that they no follow the rules for LBW. In their mind, it’s an unfair rule and disadvantages players who like to use their pads in front of the stumps. Or what of a coach who declares that instead of playing cricket, the team should be playing a hybrid version of cricket/ golf, as though golf will broaden the appeal of the game and attract more players. In both cases, the answer is no. One may reject the shape of the game and one can call it whatever you like, but it’s not cricket. As someone who has been part of cricket clubs for over 10 years, I suspect that any player or coach who tried to introduce such changes would be told either to shape up or move on. I realise the examples are somewhat goofy, but the point is clear.

When Jesus defines sexual relations outside marriage as immoral and when the Apostles describe sexual relations outside marriage as keeping people outside God’s Kingdom and contrary to the Gospel, how can baptist churches argue that we can remain in partnership together? 

Surely, it comes down to the question, do baptists believe we can associate & partner with churches/pastors who hold, teach (and at times, practice) SSM? (and the theological corollaries that give rise to and flow from this position).  The majority of delegates in NSW have said the answer is no, while a significant minority indicate the answer is yes (they may not agree with SSM but believe it is possible and even desirable to partner with SSM affirming churches. The issue isn’t just autonomy, but it’s also about what theological and spiritual unity is required to work together 

I appreciate how a lot of Christians are concerned about using categories of sin in relation to marriage and sex. Doesn’t it make evangelism more difficult? Doesn’t it come across as harsh and unloving. What are we saying to our neighbours by insisting on our churches sticking with classical marriage? Aren’t we saying, that Jesus knows best? Aren’t we saying, that people matter so much that we won’t let our churches blow here and there along with the current cultural whim? Aren’t we saying that God’s vision for humanity surpasses the dominant view in any society? Aren’t we saying, that in Christ, both truth and love are found and that both holiness and mercy are uncovered?

These Baptist motions follow a similar trajectory to Jesus who, when confronted by progressive ideas about marriage and sex, reaffirmed the Biblical pattern. Of course, orthodoxy without love is like a saucepan lid crashing onto a tile floor. However, love without orthodoxy is nothing more than sentimentalism that misleads. We don’t need to choose between truth and love, for they are necessary and beautiful partners. In Christ, we see truth and love in perfect union. It is unloving for Christians to affirm same sex marriage or to teach that God is okay with forms of sexual expression that contradict his word. For Baptists to affirm Jesus’ teaching is not less than unifying, it is essential for maintaining genuine Christian unity. 

Erin Martine Sessions is one of a number of baptists who are concerned by the events at last weekend’s NSW Gathering. I have already responded to the arguments put forward by Mike Frost (whose ideas I believe shaped Martine Sessions own article). Others are thankful that Baptists are declaring their faith in God and trusting his word and ways, and acknowledging that partnering together into the future is more faithful and fruitful when we can soundly affirm the foundations of the faith.