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. 

New South Wales Baptist motions should be welcomed warmly and not with frost

New South Wales and ACT Baptists are meeting tomorrow to discuss and decide an issue that denominations across the world are facing. There are a set of motions requiring churches and accredited pastors to affirm “Marriage is a covenant relationship ordained by God as a lifelong faithful union of one man and one woman. Sexual intimacy outside such a marriage relationship is incompatible with God’s intention for us as his people”.

The topic is broader than sexuality. In 2021 the NSW & ACT Assembly affirmed that both churches and accredited pastors be required to affirm the “basic doctrines, objects and values of the Association”

A detailed read of the motions can be found on John Sandeman’s blog.

Depending on the outcome of the Assembly meeting, Baptist Churches that don’t affirm these positions may be required to leave the association and pastors lose their accreditation. This is of course a significant subject and one where we pray Christians will speak and listen graciously and especially listen to and believe what God has spoken in the Bible. Affirming marriage should not be a controversial issue among churches, and it is a sad indictment on churches that there is any dispute or disagreement here. To believe that God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman and that all other sexual relationships are sinful is doing nothing more than believing what Jesus taught and what the Apostles affirmed. 

Sydney Baptist and Morling College lecturer, Mike Frost, has expressed disagreement with the move. He has written an article to presumably dissuade delegates from supporting the motions. While he is not saying that he supports same-sex marriage (I suspect he doesn’t), he argues that baptists can and should remain together even when we disagree over this issue. Frost’s position is problematic for several reasons. 

First, he makes an important category error. He puts same-sex marriage under the umbrella of ‘non-core issues’.  He uses the phrase repeatedly throughout his piece and he concludes with this sentence,

“But instead of rallying to fulfill these bold visions for Christian mission, we’re debating the ins and outs of how to expel a tiny number of churches that don’t agree with the majority on yet another non-core issue.”

Contrary to what Frost asserts, our understanding of sexual relations is a gospel issue. Our understanding of sexuality and marriage is connected to our view of Jesus, the Bible, the nature of sin and salvation, and more. Jesus was clear when he described sexual relations outside marriage between a man and a woman is porneia.

The Apostle Paul is also clear, 

“Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Jesus and Paul define homosexual relations as sinful and keeping people outside the Kingdom of God. I don’t see how Frost can declare that this is ‘yet another non-core issue’ when the Bible is pretty clear that it is.

In 1 Timothy Paul spells out as unambiguously as anywhere in the Bible how any sexual relations outside marriage contradict sound doctrine and the gospel,

“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, 10 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 11 that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”

Mike Frost telling his readers that this is a non-core issue, doesn’t stack up according to the Scriptures. These are not matters on which Christians can agree to disagree. This is a gospel matter. Where people cannot agree on the gospel, how can there be partnership and association?

Second, Mike Frost makes another category error. His heading proposes that requiring common assent to Baptist doctrine is, ‘Breaking up the family in pursuit of uniformity’. 

The suggestion of uniformity is misleading. This isn’t about uniformity, it is about standing together on clear and gospel issues.

No Baptist is asking for agreement on every dot and flick and iota. No Baptist is demanding a uniform position on eschatology or the gifts of the Spirit. No one is asking for uniformity in the style of church service. Frost’s own article provides several examples of where Baptists have agreed to disagree. In suggesting that same-sex marriage is on par with these other issues is a serious mistake. Again, if Jesus calls an activity sin and if Paul says an activity keeps a person outside the Kingdom of God, how can we partner with churches who teach this harmful idea?

Genuine Christian unity is both theological and spiritual,  and the two belong together. Paul writes to the Ephesians, 

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all…14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ”

Unity requires speaking truth in love and standing against teaching that is false and dangerous. It is because Christian unity is so precious, that remaining in that which unites is of such importance

I have argued elsewhere that baptists historically have written and affirmed doctrinal statements and positions when the need arose. There is a popular view today among Baptists that we are anti-creedal and that we don’t want or need statements of faith in order to join together. The saying, ‘no creed but Christ’ may sound appealing, but it’s neither historically true nor wise.

Throughout 400 years of Baptist history, various baptist fellowships have written confessions and statements of doctrine and required assent to them. One of the little-known facts about baptists is that we have more doctrinal statements than probably every other protestant denomination! The desire among NSW baptist churches to stand on the Christian view of marriage (and more) isn’t less than baptist, it is in keeping with many baptists historically (including those in Australia).

Third, Frost speaks of a bold vision for mission, but how can there be a shared mission when churches (or pastors) don’t share the same message? 

Mission is about telling people the good news of Jesus Christ, but if two churches believe two different gospels, how we can partner together?

For instance, Baptist pastors and churches who support same-sex marriage do not accept that repentance is required, rather these relationships should be celebrated by churches. How can two churches go on mission together when one says repentance is necessary and the other says it is not?

Our neighbours and communities don’t need churches that play the lyrebird and mimic back to them their own moral and spiritual proclivities. The gospel of Jesus Christ is far more compelling, subverting and beautiful.

I recall an observation made last year by British historian Tom Holland, 

“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.

Affirming basic Christian beliefs will serve both our churches well, and our local communities. Anything else is a pathway to a brittle skeletal institutionalism and an irrelevance to the Kingdom God is building.

While it’s great to hear Mike Frost advocating mission, he’s sticking a cork in the breech here. How can shared mission take place when there isn’t agreement on the gospel and what it means to repent and what it means to be saved? Indeed how can there be partnership in any meaningful way when the very thing that unites Christians is disputed and even denied by some?

While Frost wants everyone to keep singing together, the reality is those baptists who advocate same-sex marriage are singing a different song, with different lyrics and melody. Their position not only contradicts the formal position on marriage, some are actively seeking to change this established position. The point is, these Baptists are unlikely to be satisfied until such time the denomination has changed to Australia’s latest views on sexuality and gender. After all, if they are serious about this being a justice and gospel issue, as I have often heard, how can they rest until the baptist view accepts same-sex weddings and marriages?

The notion that we can and will all live together in a joyful forward movement mission is somewhat disingenuous, given the ambition of some baptists is to change core baptist convictions. 

I’m praying for tomorrow’s meeting. Of course, it is difficult. If our churches are not able to have these important conversations and if we are not prepared to affirm the very things for which Christ died, then what are we about? God honours the faithfulness of his people. It may not win us popularity votes or praise in ecclesial halls, but there is something remarkably simple and attractive and good about faithfulness and sticking with what God says.

The people who often suffer most through these conversations are same-sex attracted Christians who believe in Jesus and are living faithful and celibate lives for the sake of the Kingdom. To have churches teaching that they need not repent and should instead live out their desires is a great and terrible disservice to these brothers and sisters. Should we not support and encourage them in godliness by affirming the same Gospel together?

I trust other State Unions may look on at what is transpiring in NSW and take courage to also stand and make these clear affirmations and positions for the sake of the Gospel around Australia.