Baptists, Bible, and Marriage

In the midst of all the public conversations surrounding same sex marriage, are some issues of greater importance than how the State defines marriage; among them is the Gospel fidelity of Churches and of their ministers.

Simon Carey Holt is the Senior Minister at Collins St Baptist Church in Melbourne. He has written a piece in support of same-sex marriage. This is not anything new as Simon has made his opinions known for some time, but his latest advocacy has reached the attention of The Age newspaper.

Simon has made a series of strong assertions about why Christians should support same sex marriage, and allegations about how Christians relate to LBGTI people. Throughout the afternoon pastors, journalists, and friends have been asking me about it.  While not  intending to respond to everything he’s written, some sort of response is warranted.

1. The Bible or human experience as supreme authority

Simon admits that a key factor for shaping his view of marriage is experience; the personal stories of people whom he has encountered. In contrast to the historic understanding of marriage he says, “my experience says otherwise.”

To be fair, Simon does believe that the Bible is important for Christians, but as he admits, his experiences are what most influence his position on marriage.

Of course experience is powerful, personal, and emotive. Experience informs us of peoples fears and concerns, their values and dreams. But experience is not synonymous with what is true or best. Just because I may feel something deeply and personally does not automatically prove it to be right or good.

It is also true that everyone comes to the Bible with a mixture of personal history, experiences, ideologies, presuppositions and traditions. And those things colour our reading of the Bible, but this does not mean that experience should be read over the Bible, as Simon Carey Holt implies.

This approach to Scripture is fraught with danger. If experience is allowed to speak over Scripture then whose experiences do we listen to? Which ones are authoritative? Our different experiences need to be interpreted by Scripture, not the other way around. Not only that, the Bible’s self-testimony is that life needs to be interpreted in light of Scripture. Here are some examples:

‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path’ (Ps 119:105). It is God’s word that directs our lives, not the other way around.

‘Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction’ (2 Tim 4:2). The word of God preached has a threefold effect on the hearers: correction, rebuke and encouragement. God’s word stands over the Church and influences believers’ lives.

While we appreciate the logic of non Christians refusing the authority of the Bible, the consistent approach of Christians is that the word of God has authority over us. Genuine repentance and faith involves submitting to this Word and letting it interpret us and change us. To put experience over the word, or tradition over the word or human intellect over the word, is to put ourselves God and that is to make ourselves god.

At one point in his article, Simon appeals to the Bible,

“In his letter to the church in Rome, Saint Paul speaks of sexual failings as far more impacting than all others. “Don’t be immoral in matters of sex,” he writes, “that is a sin against your own body in a way that no other sin is.”

First of all, these words are not from Romans, but from the Apostle Paul’s First letter to the Corinthians (6:18).

Second, the Greek word for ‘sexual immorality’ (porneia), is used in the Bible to refer to any sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman.

Third, the very same chapter of the Bible earlier describes a range of porneia which all keep people outside the Kingdom of God, and homosexual practices are among them (v.9).

Fourth, if Simon does in fact wish to appeal to Romans, what he will find is another volume of Apostolic teaching that doesn’t support his ideas.

Simon is spot on about one salient point though, and that is, his views are at odds with his own denomination: “The Baptist Union of Victoria defines marriage as being the union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

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2. The Gospel of love

Simon also wants his readers to be suspicious of Christians who love LGBTI people. He suggests that such Christians are in fact disingenuous, unless they also support same sex marriage.

He states,

“In much church commentary of recent days, church leaders are at pains to underline their love and respect for LGBTI people, claiming that their aversion to same-sex marriage does not equate with their denial of the integrity of same-sex persons or the worth of their families. The availability of civil unions, they will say, is an expression of this; never have the rights of the LGBTI community been more protected, they argue, and rightly so, but marriage is surely a step too far…despite the current tenor of conversation, the underlying belief has not changed: homosexuality is a dysfunction of personhood. Indeed, the entire argument against same-sex marriage rests on it. To claim otherwise is not only misleading; it is dishonest.”

Sadly it is true that there are religious people who say and do dreadful things to LGBTI people; homophobic behaviour is unChristian. But Simon’s logic is simply untrue. He leans awkwardly toward that polarising rhetoric which so many politicians have adopted – if you don’t support same-sex marriage you are unloving, if not a bigot. Simon is too polite to use some of these words, but that is his meaning.

The reality is of course very different. It is possible to love a person even though you disagree with them. It is quite possible to not affirm a friend’s relationship and yet genuinely desire their good. Can disagreement never be a loving act? Is it never possible to so love a person that you sat to them, “no, I don’t think this is best”?

Love that only ever agrees is a shallow love indeed. A virtue of love through disagreement not only belongs close to the heart of Australian democracy, but comes to close to the centre of the Christian message:

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8).

The Gospel isn’t God saying, ‘I agree with you’, but  it is God declaring that he disagrees with us and yet loves. The Bible speaks of a God who acted beyond helping his friends. His Son gave his life for people who are disinterested in him and who don’t approve of him. God didn’t wait to win a popularity vote before acting to redeem and reconcile, but he took the initiative and in doing so God refused the path of blind relativism. God loves too much to agree with every desire and ambition we ignite.

Equally concerning is the way Simon frames his argument around his ‘Gospel formation’. I don’t know Simon well enough to speak to this in any general sense, but on the issue of sex and marriage, the Bible’s position is clear:

The Apostle Paul again,

“We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (1 Timothy 9-11)

Over the years I have read all the spectacular hermeneutical gymnastics that tell us how this text means anything and everything other than what it actually says, as though a simple reading of the Bible is the only wrong answer. Perhaps, just perhaps, Paul intends what he says, that the activities listed in verses 9-10 are contrary to the sound doctrine which conforms to the gospel.

While Simon’s argument for marriage contradicts the Gospel, the Gospel of Jesus is for those who have supported views of sexuality and life that are at odds with God. This point is crucial to grasp, for Christians and non Christians alike, because it ought to change our posture toward our neighbours, whoever they may be.

There is scene in The West Wing where the President’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Joshua Lyman, had been receiving counselling for PTSD, following a shooting in which he was one of the victims. Joshua’s colleagues had grown increasingly concerned for his well being as they observed his even more than usual brittle nature and explosions of anger. Following this counselling, Joshua steps into the hallway of the Whitehouse and notices his boss, Presidential Chief-of-Staff,  Leo McGarry, sitting nearby.

Leo asks, ‘How’d it go?’

Josh Lyman: Did you wait around for me?

Leo proceeds to tell Josh a parable,

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

Christians must not be and cannot be those who see someone down a hole and walk on by, or who throw a stone or hurl insults. If we have been justified in the sight of God it is solely on account of God’s grace and love. Having known this wonderful justifying grace, how can we look down on people around us? We can’t walk away, instead we climb down and sit with whoever it is down there, and we point them not to ourselves, but to Jesus.

3. A greater and more fulfilling identity.

A third issue with Simon’s presentation is that he has bought into a popular view of sexuality, one that alleges, “There is nothing that goes to the heart of human identity as much as our sexuality.”

This is of course not the case. I am not diminishing the role of sexuality in a person’s life, but the Gospel pushes back on the idolising of human sexuality, which leaves many single people feeling as though they are lacking, and it leaves many same sex attracted men and women sensing that celibacy is a barrier to true self realisation.

Sam Allberry is a minister in the Church of England. Speaking as a Christian who is same sex attracted, he writes,

“We in the West find ourselves amid a culture that increasingly encourages us to seek ultimate human meaning in sexual fulfilment. Our core human identity is found in our sexuality, which in turn is defined by our desires and attractions. Yet this is an appallingly inadequate way to account for a human being.”

Responding to an author who was advocating ‘Christian’ same sex relationships, Allberry contends,

“this is not a biblical understanding of what it means to be human. My sexuality is not to be found in my feelings but in God having created me male; it is not primarily psychological but bodily. So I am not to read my core identity off my sexual desires, but to receive the sexual identity God has already granted me as a male as a good gift to be lived out and enjoyed. My sexual desires are part of what I feel, but they are not who I am.

This is incredibly significant. If my sexual feelings are who I am at my core, then they must be fulfilled in order for me to even begin to feel complete and whole as a human. My sense of fulfilment is cast upon my sexual fortunes, and everything seems to depend on it. But being a Christian gives me a different perspective. My sexual desires are not insignificant; they are deeply personal. But they are not defining or central, and so fulfilling them is not the key to fullness of life. I suspect our culture’s near-hysterical insistence that your sexuality is your identity has far more to do with the prevalence of torment, self-loathing, and destruction than we have begun to realize.”

 

I have no doubt that Simon will receive much public adulation today, after all a Christian minister has laid aside the Bible and accepted the cultural milieu. Everyone loves a Pastor who repeats the popular mantras of the day. Sometimes though love requires something more, a harder path. As unpopular as it is right now, perhaps following Jesus and trusting his word is the best way to love people.

Do we want a Maverick Baptist College?

Simon Carey Holt has written a blog piece where he speaks favourably of the current climate of Whitley College. Simon is currently the Senior Pastor at Collins Street Baptist, and for many years he taught at Whitley.

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It is good to hear Simon’s perspective. There is much that can be said in response, but here are four thoughts for now.

First, it is important to understand the role Simon attributes to the college.

For example, he states, “Theological educators must be prepared to stand on the sidelines of the church and call it to account. Like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo.

While putting it in a rather gentle way, Simon is essentially saying, the College’s role is to speak down on the churches, telling us what we are doing wrong.

Yes, we need a theological college with academic rigour, where students are encouraged to think deeply and engage with a broad spectrum of theological persuasions. We also need a college that is anchored to the ‘faith once for all delivered’.

The question is, is it the role of the college to “call churches to account”, or does the college exist to serve the churches? When a former lecturer portrays the college as a maverick with a stick, he only reinforces concerns and exemplifies how out of touch they are with the Baptist community (and with Baptist polity!).

Second, Simon believes the college listens to the churches, but is that the case? I have no doubt that a few churches are listened too, but if the College was truly listening to the broader churches, we would not be hearing concerned voices from a growing number of churches and pastors.

Which leads to a third point,

Simon suggests, “As a priestly community, the theological college is one that nurtures and enables the local church”.

This is a noble desire, one which is worth pursuing, but as I mentioned last week,  many of our churches do not have confidence in the College to train and teach the next generation of Gospel ministers. This is demonstrated by the fact that churches continue to send their people to alternative theological colleges in Melbourne and interstate.

Fourth, Simon said,

In my experience, criticisms like these often hold a kernel of truth mixed with a good dose of ignorance and clichéd hyperbole. Too often such criticisms are leveled by those who have never sat in a class, never pursued a sustained conversation with a teacher, and never read anything of substance written by those they deride. Sadly though, when mud is thrown it sticks, deserved or not.”

This may be a fitting description for some scenario somewhere, but here it is nothing more than a straw man. The reality is, some of the concerned baptists have sat in classes, they have conversed with teachers, and they have read publications. And many who made the decision to study at other theological institutions have engaged with Whitley College in other ways over the years.

I notice that Simon does not deny the theological discord between the College and Churches; indeed he admits Whitley promotes ideas and teachings that are incongruent with those of the churches. His rationale is, the College is  a prophetic voice speaking to the BUV, “like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo”.

I guess Hananiah was a prophet of sorts! Should not prophets contend for the faith, rather than contravene the faith? In fact, professionalising prophecy was the error of the kings of Israel and Judah. While God may use a voice from the college in a ‘prophetic’ way, assuming the mantle of prophet is dangerous, and is certainly not the role ascribed to it by the BUV.

In conclusion, we want to see a faithful and growing Baptist College in Victoria, which is able to serve our Churches well. I agree with Simon in that a change of leadership is opportunity to ask hard questions. Hard questions have been asked this year; what remains to be seen is how they will be answered.