A group of ministers and scholars issued a statement Dec. 5 asking Baptist churches in the United Kingdom to find “the courage to be Baptist” in continuing to associate with fellow Baptists despite differing views on the thorny issue of homosexuality and the church.
The Courage to be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality says the introduction of laws permitting same-sex marriages in England, Wales and Scotland in recent years has posed a particular challenge for churches in the Baptist Union of Great Britain. Unwillingness by churches to “countenance any movement on this aspect of sexual ethics,” the seven ministers said, adds to the burden.
The clergy said they disagree about whether or not same-sex relationships are ever morally permissible and “do not expect to convince each other any time soon,” but they believe maintaining friendship and learning from each other despite differences models “the Baptist way.”
“We have, for example, affirmed the call of women to the ordained ministry or allowed the remarriage of divorcees, but not sought to disassociate churches that disagree on these points,” the clergy said.
The statement said some churches believe that male-female marriage is the only Christian way and cannot imagine how anyone faithful to Scripture can read it differently. Others, meanwhile embrace same-sex marriage “as a profoundly Christian option.”
But they said the unity of the church is based on more than shared agreement on disputed issues. “Disagreement is a sadness and perhaps a scandal, but it is not a breach of unity,” they said.
Baptist church governance of autonomous local congregations in voluntary cooperation, the clergy said, offers a pathway “to maintain our union and association, and so our visible unity, even in the face of such practical disagreements.”
“Each local congregation is called to be in a particular mission context,” the statement said. “It is called to so proclaim the gospel that it may be heard in the language of that place, and to so know its context so that it may work and pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God in that place.”
For that reason, they said, proper respect should be given “to the particular decisions of every local congregation” and “not be disparaged or challenged without good reason.”
Churches can and do misread their context and “mishear the call of God,” the scholars said. For that reason, associations and unions should offer support, challenge and counsel to local churches, and congregations should take that wisdom and counsel seriously in their own deliberation.
“We could seek to reach unity by imposing uniformity, tying the body of Christ to a procrustean bed to distort and dismember it until it fits our current (and of course deficient) understanding of what it should look like,” the clergy said. “The authors of this statement believe that any such attempt would be faithless and born of fear, a denial of our shared Baptist confession of how God calls us to live together.”
“We could give up on our associational structures and become independents, in the belief that what divides us is greater than what unites us,” they said. “But what unites us is shared faith in and commitment to the active lordship of Jesus Christ.”
“Are our disputes about sexual ethics, however weighty they may be, really greater than that?” they asked. “To become independents, to despair of our associational structures, would again be faithless and fearful, and a denial of our shared Baptist confession of how God calls us to live together.”
The statement acknowledged there are churches on both sides of the debate with such strong convictions that they will likely no longer desire to co-exist.
“We call both sets of churches to have patience with those churches that are not yet so certain, to walk with them and help them to know better Christ’s ways, despite the cost that comes with such patience,” the clergy said.
The signers include Beth Allison-Glenny, minister at John Bunyan Baptist Church in Oxford; Andy Goodliff, minister of Belle Vue Baptist Church in Southend-on-Sea; Ruth Gouldbourne, co-minister at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in London; Steve Holmes, senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews; David Kerrigan, general director of BMS World Mission; Glen Marshall, co-principal at Northern Baptist College in Manchester, and Simon Woodman, co-minister at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church and Free Church chaplain at King’s College London.
The group said their missive “is not intended as criticism” but rather “a summons — we believe possibly a prophetic summons — to face our disagreements and divisions not with fear or with unBaptist attempts to assert control or by deferring to expertise or authority, but in love, in fellowship, in association, in union, seeking together to know the mind of Christ, to walk together and watch over each other even where we disagree, until such time as the Lord shall give us more light and truth.”