It’s been a couple of days since the 2015 Baptist Assembly/Hui, held from Thursday to Saturday in Tauranga, New Zealand. While there was a well-thought out and interesting programme around the theme “humility, unity and intimacy”, the key issue on the table was a discussion and vote regarding same-sex marriages on Friday 6 November.
The outcome was that the Baptist Union of New Zealand voted in favour of three resolutions: upholding a biblical definition of marriage as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman; affirming that NZ Baptists will not conduct same-sex marriages or allow our properties to be used for same; and not nominating marriage celebrants who conduct same-sex marriages to the Registrar of Marriage (in the first instance).
Even before mainstream media outlets reported on this, the results (including voting percentages) had already been leaked online in an article titled “Baptists add threats to gay marriage opposition”:
The first resolution says “The Baptist Union of NZ Assembly 2015 continues to uphold the sanctity of the biblical understanding of marriage, understood as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman”. It passed with a 97 per cent of the vote in favour.
The second resolution affirmed that no Baptist Church will conduct same-sex marriages or allow properties to be used for same-sex marriage services. This resolution passed with 83 per cent of the vote in favour.
The final resolution, passing with 78 percent of the vote in favour, and perhaps the most revealing of all three, stated: “If a Baptist celebrant conducts a same-sex marriage ceremony, the marriage celebrant, in the first instance, will no longer be nominated to the Registrar of Marriages by the Baptist Union of NZ.”
There’s lots of things spinning around in my head and my recall isn’t that fantastic, so please don’t see what follows as an official account of what took place (I hope the BU will publish an official statement soon). I’ve chosen not to name names and churches (except my own) – please also note that I’m not speaking on behalf of my church here. This is my own attempt at thinking through a complex, difficult issue that involves real people, real families and real communities. Also, apologies for any typos or grammatical mistakes – I’m rushing through a whole bunch of writing today.
In April 2013, the New Zealand parliament voted to pass into law the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, making New Zealand the 13th country in the world and the first in the Asia-Pacific region to legalise same-sex marriage.
Intending to protect Baptist churches concerned about being forced to perform a marriage between same-sex couples, the Assembly Council (an elected body representing Baptist churches in the Baptist Union of New Zealand) brought to the annual gathering of BU churches two motions for ratification:
- That Baptist pastors do not conduct same sex marriages or use their properties for the same.
- That a Working Party would be established to canvas Baptist churches about the issue of same-sex marriage and autonomy
During the November 2013 business meeting (held in Manukau), the first motion was immediately amended from a prohibition to a “recommendation”, which was subsequently voted through (I wasn’t at this meeting; you can read more about it here).
Over the next 2 years, the Working Party received verbal and oral submissions, produced a report, from which the Assembly Council brought three resolutions to this year’s meeting.
What happened at the meeting
Interest for the meeting was high, with over 600 delegates registered (more than double the usual attendance – certainly more than last year’s Assembly at Waitangi). Registered delegates were permitted into the meeting room. I met quite a few people who had come along just to watch the debate (“I’m here for the bunfight”, said one person in jest). It was probably wise that they weren’t allowed into the meeting room (there was a live feed available instead). Journalists were explicitly asked to leave the meeting, and filming was prohibited. As voting delegates, we were each handed a green A5 sheet with the resolutions on one side, and Yes / No boxes on the reverse to indicate our vote on the resolutions as framed during the discussion.
Three resolutions were tabled, and delegates were allowed to speak to each one (we only learned this on the day). Ian (one of our elders) had the opportunity to speak on Resolution 1, while I spoke on Resolution 2 (you can read it here). Over 30 different speakers took the floor – I think in general, people were a lot more prepared compared to the 2013 discussion.
Voting was by secret ballot at the end of the meeting. HBC’s delegates voted in favour of all three resolutions, in line with our church’s stance on the issue.
During the discussion I tried to note down who spoke and the positions expressed.
For Resolution 1 (what the biblical definition of marriage should be), 8 delegates spoke in favour of the resolution, 3 spoke against the resolution (and in favour of same-sex marriages performed in Baptist churches), with one unclear. The main arguments in support were an appeal to the Scripture’s teaching on sexuality, a need to hold God’s love and holiness together, and a need to uphold the historical, orthodox view of marriage. The main arguments against Resolution 1 were that “it was a secondary matter of faith” that churches in Union could disagree on, that we are all sinners, and that it would be unconstitutional and un-Baptist to legislate against what a local church had decided on. To be honest, I expected the speakers against to bring forward more arguments concerning the Biblical texts, instead of focusing largely on autonomy, constitution and procedural issues.
The discussion on Resolution 2 (therefore, Baptists will not conduct same sex marriages etc) turned out to be where much of the manoeuvring and debating took place. There were 15 speeches in total during this section. Half of those who spoke on Resolution 2 opposed and/or wished to amend Resolution 2. Some disagreed with it in line with their opposition to the first resolution, but for quite a few others, the point of contention was that while they were not in favour of same-sex marriages, they felt it went against the spirit of “Baptist autonomy” to make a binding decision affecting other churches who disagreed. “Why can’t we be both/and?”, said one speaker. The argument that came through in support of Resolution 2 was that “it’s better to be Biblical than Baptist”, i.e. the principle of autonomy should not override the clear teachings of Christ.
During the discussion on resolution 2, a proposed amendment to change the wording from “will not conduct same-sex marriages” to “recommend that we not conduct…” was tabled (it was quite nerve-wracking having to speak straight after this pastor!) It got a bit complicated after this but the Chair was helpful, explaining that speeches needed to address the amendment.
After a nervous wait, the amendment was eventually voted down on a show of hands. Here’s the enduring image from the meeting etched into my mind: a sea of green voting papers, raised into the air to oppose the amendment, flags held high by the silent majority. I think that was the moment when you felt like the three resolutions were going to make it through.
There was another amendment on resolution 2 for minor word changes (affirms rather than agrees together; buildings to properties) that did go through. I felt the person who made the amendment broke standing orders though (he started with a “point of order” and then proposed the amendment – essentially jumping the long queue of people who had been patiently waiting to speak).
I found it harder to follow the discussion on resolution 3 (pastors who conduct same-sex marriages would no longer be nominated to the list of BU celebrants) – perhaps because I was hungry for lunch! I think there were about a half dozen speakers. The first was an amendment that tried to take out the phrase “in the first instance” from the wording; that was voted down. Following that, there were a few more speakers both for and against, with the last one being particularly upset that Baptist delegates were so interested in this issue but not others.
In no particular order, here’s what I found encouraging:
- The process wasn’t rushed. Someone once complained to me that it was ridiculous for the Baptist Union to take 2 years to “work out” an issue that was crystal clear in the Scriptures. And while his point had merit, I do think that by taking the time and inviting as many churches and individuals to participate in the process, we ended up with a result that truly reflected the majority NZ Baptist heart and mind concerning autonomy and same-sex marriage, and therefore a much stronger mandate for the resolutions.
- There wasn’t a hateful attitude towards the LGBT community. Throughout the debate and in the months prior, I didn’t see anything that could be described as “gay-hating” (as one delegate put it). The mover of the three motions noted from the start that we have often not loved our LGBT friends and family as we ought. One speaker, representing the LGBT community as a practising homosexual, was warmly applauded. The majority of speakers were clear, compassionate and gracious in tone. In fact, the most strident and angry-sounding speakers tended to be those opposed to the resolutions (particularly towards the end of the meeting). Many spoke of how this issue affected them personally, with friends, family, and members of their churches. In particular, one speaker for resolution 2 explained that all of us had sin to repent of, and that we would do well to adopt Jesus’s approach of loving someone and calling them to turn from idolising something (e.g. the rich young ruler in Mark 10 – “Jesus looked at him, and loved him” – then called him to give up the wealth he treasured above everything else). It was explained in such a loving and kind way – you could hear a pin drop in the room. It was good to have this kind of civility during such an emotionally tense discussion.
- Belated ethnic voices. The working party report noted the missing voice of non-NZ European churches in the submissions it received. There weren’t many that spoke who could be considered non-Caucasian. But it was good to hear from one pastor who shared that his international congregation (including Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern and African Christians) wanted certainty and clarity from all this discussion and supported all three resolutions. It’s reminded me that in many other denominations, it’s the Global South and countries like China and India that comprise the majority of active Christians. So I really appreciated that.
- The meeting was well-run. Other than the point-of-order queue jump earlier on, I think the meeting was run quite well. Not an easy task for the Chairperson and the timekeepers. Volunteers helped to count votes and usher people to the right seats. All these little touches helped to make the meeting go more smoothly.
Here are some concerns and questions I have coming away from the meeting (again, in no particular order).
- Forgetting the missing category – I wish someone could have floated a fourth resolution along the lines of: “Baptists should sympathise with those who struggle with same-sex attraction, and with their families, even as we continue to encourage all Christians to live godly lives that conform to the clear teachings of Scripture.” (copied verbatim from our church’s members statement). We need to acknowledge that there’s another category between the sin of gay pride (in the vein of Glee) and the sin of homophobia/hate crime (in the vein of Westboro). While some speakers did well with this, I felt the underlying assumption for several speakers remained that same-sex attracted individuals were cases to be cured, rather than image-bearers whose biggest problem was unbelief, needing (like all of us) to repent from self-centredness and to find satisfaction in Christ alone. I personally know individuals who struggle with same-sex attraction but accept the gospel and strive to follow a life under the lordship of Christ. Sometimes I cringe at what we as Christians communicate in our category assumptions. Sam Allberry says it best: “All of us are sexual sinners.” I love the work that goes on with groups like Livingout.org and individuals like Christopher Yuan and Rosaria Butterfield. I think their perspectives are largely MIA in our discussions.
- The autonomy sacred cow – I found it concerning the number of speakers who appealed to the autonomy of individual churches as an irreversible trump card for the whole situation. Others have spoken well on this (e.g. here). The other line of thought frequently referred to during the debate was that the resolutions were illegal and unconstitutional. Is it illegal/unconstitutional for a voluntary association to set rules around its member churches? And maybe we’ve forgotten that Jesus was terribly unconstitutional (in the Pharisees’ eyes at least) for healing on the Sabbath, for forgiving sin, and ultimately for raising dead hearts to life. One speaker rightly suggested that perhaps autonomy is our denomination’s corban issue, where we’ve “let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions”. Autonomy shouldn’t override the clear teachings of Christ on the gospel, marriage, sexuality and faithfulness. That’s not autonomy; it’s anarchy.
- The next generation – It seems like the under-30 age group was under-represented – both at the meeting itself and during the Working Party process. (Other than myself, there were only a handful of speakers that could be considered young adults). In addition, the younger generation that spoke during the meeting were mostly against the 2nd and 3rd resolutions. I feel like in 10-15 years time I’ll be in the minority group amongst my peers (not that it’s necessarily a bad place to be).
- Carey cone of silence – Other than the Chair of the Working Party (an adjunct lecturer), not a single lecturer or staff member from Carey Baptist College spoke up during the meeting, or contributed publicly to the Working Party process. For a discussion that involved much theological wrestling, you would think that the NZ BU’s official theological college would have wanted to enter the discussion publicly, or to resource churches with their submissions and discussions in some way. It’s possible I’m wrong and that Carey did lots of speaking and teaching on this issue behind the scenes, or in individual churches. Maybe they were asked not to participate in the discussion. But I felt it was a noticeable cone of silence during the meeting itself, and in the lead-up. I hope in future the College plays a more active role (even to the general public) on other issues (e.g. euthanasia, poverty, refugees, sex slavery) – that would certainly help.
Standing firm within your denomination
I didn’t choose to be a Baptist – I pretty much fell into this denomination after becoming a Christian. Since then I’ve heard a range of views regarding the pros and cons of participating within a denomination that our church finds itself at odds with on a range of second-level issues (e.g. church leadership, spiritual gifts, nature of missions, etc). I’ve heard people who I respect implore us to “come out and be separate”, and other voices I respect that have encouraged us to “stay and influence”. It’s hard to say which is better at this point in time. But as long as our church can in good conscience remain in the Baptist Union, I think it’s important for us to be engaged as much as we’re able to in areas of shared belief and practice.
The discussion highlighted that many in the Baptist family are still focused on proclaiming Christ crucified for sinners. If that’s the case, then it’s worth being involved. I think the value is not in picking fights with the most strident voices in opposition, but to network and learn alongside the moderate majority, the brothers and sisters in the middle who are doing their best with what God’s given them in their area of God’s vineyard, who could be open to a more robust mutual confession. It’s much harder to do all that from the outside looking in.
The cost of following Jesus
I’m tired now, so I want to close this off. I write this with family I deeply love that affirm a gay lifestyle. I write this with friends who struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction. I write this as a dad struggling to raise my children to love the Lord completely – heart, mind, soul and strength. I write this as a sexual sinner myself. In Christ, there is forgiveness for all sins.
I write all this recognising that to the eyes of the watching world, much of the discussion and decisions regarding the same-sex marriage issue will sound punitive, vindictive and offensive. I’m very sorry if it reads this way. Three statements on paper looks very impersonal and clinical without the context of men and women who dialogued prayerfully, extensively, and graciously on the subject. Once the decision goes public, Baptist leaders and churches will be pilloried and mocked. I’m sure the media will be unforgiving.
But maybe that’s exactly where God wants us to be. After all, Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him (Matthew 16:26). And we’re warned: “Do not be surprised if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). Christians have never been promised an easy ride – “through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Our Saviour was “despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53).
For our Christian friends on the outside looking in, please remember Baptist leaders, pastors and churches in your prayers in the weeks ahead. And fellow Baptists, let’s also pray for those in other denominations wrestling through the same issue in their contexts (e.g. Anglicans with Motion 30).
Finally, I hope in all this, all of us remain fixed on the goal of clinging to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the only remedy for our sins – sexual or otherwise, and that we encourage one another to live godly lives that reflect the glory of Christ.
“…Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. 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.” – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11