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Same Sex Marriage and the Baptist Union of New Zealand

BaptistHui2015LogoLast week Baptist leaders of New Zealand got together for our annual Baptist Hui. The biggest issue we faced at this gathering was the matter of same sex marriage.

The Baptist Assembly Council sort to have three resolutions passed.

  1. That we define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
  2. That no registered Baptist minister would conduct a same sex marriage nor any ceremony of such be performed on Baptist property.
  3. That any registered Baptist minister performing a same sex marriage would have their registration revoked. 

The issue really came to head when in 2013 a bill for legislation passed by the New Zealand House of Representatives allowed for same sex marriage. This bill redefined the New Zealand government’s definition of marriage.

The Baptist Union of New Zealand reacted to it’s government’s position on marriage by not only explicitly defining it’s view of marriage, but also not permitting any of it’s member churches to fall outside of it’s definition. This caused quite a stir and our 2013 annual gathering (ironically titled “diversity”) reflected both the tension and confusion surrounding the issue. The Union tasked a working party to propose a way forward. After 2 years the working party gave it’s recommendations which formed two of the resolutions above. The third was added by Assembly Council after responses they received by Baptist members.

Part of the confusion lies in the question “what does it mean to be Baptist?”

Unfortunately some of the key leaders in the New Zealand Baptist movement today are not Baptists. They have not been trained by Baptists nor educated to understand what it means to be Baptist. They became ministers in Baptist churches because their churches have acted autonomously which, according to good Baptist ecclesiology, was their right. The problem these leaders face is that they struggle to understand some of the core Baptist ideals. For one thing, the Baptist Union is not an authoritative board (as you may find with other denominations). It’s core function is a supportive role.

Except when it comes to marriage.

Unlike some other Baptist Unions, it is the Baptist Union of New Zealand’s prerogative to set it’s own standards as to who it wishes to register and how marriage ceremonies should be performed because it is the authoritative body. The Baptist Union, within the margins of it's religious convictions, is legislated by the government of New Zealand to perform the legal responsibilities of marriage. In the end the Baptist minister is representing the Baptist Union before the government of New Zealand.

This is different from some Baptist denominations. Many have renounced the centralised marriage licence model. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention in the US is not the denomination’s authoritative body on marriage. Each Baptist minister applies for their own marriage licence through their local state body, as opposed to here where the Union registers you.

Being the authoritative body, the main question the Baptist Union was faced with regarding the government’s changed stance on marriage was what future problems would it’s members face if they refused to do same sex marriages. It’s a valid concern. Resolution 1 addresses this issue directly. It tells the government of New Zealand how the Union defines marriage, making it a religious issue, and relieves the responsibility of the issue off the shoulders of it’s members while still maintaining the autonomous nature of the local church.

Resolutions 2 and 3 are a little more difficult to explain. This is where the tension lies.

Now, just to qualify where I am coming from. I am most probably more Baptist than most here in New Zealand. I have either been registered or ordained in four different Baptist denominations in three different countries. I cannot imagine any of the three previous Baptist denominations I’ve worked for presenting resolutions 2 and 3 to it’s members.

The reason why I believe other Baptist denominations would not forward Resolutions 2 and 3 is because they represent punitive measures. This is truly un-Baptist like. Authority, in the Baptist Movement, lies with the local church. To undermine this authority can prove to be a slippery slope. What other issues does the Baptist Union feel a need to speak into or minimise local church authority? What other issues may the New Zealand government come up with that the Union feels the need to react to? How do you determine which issue is more important than any other?

That being said, the meeting was well managed with a record number of people coming to the vote (and though the Hui was held over a three day period a good portion of those that came for the vote, came only for the vote!). There was a clear majority in favour of all three resolutions. 

The problem we are now faced with is hypocrisy.

We are being punitive on same sex marriage, and only same sex marriage. This is a problem.

A few years ago the annual Baptist gathering voted to affirm women in leadership. There was a clear majority in that regard yet there are Baptist churches in New Zealand who refuse to affirm women in leadership. Why are punitive measures not taken against those churches? Are we saying we are ok with gender bias in our denomination? I can further the example with other issues.

  • We talk of the sanctity of marriage and the dangers of "sexual sin" but my own experience tells me that a quarter of the male leaders present at our Baptist Hui this year are addicted to pornography. Yet not only do we not have punitive measures against this, we actually don't have anything at all to say about this!
  • There were a number of rather overweight men present (including myself), how do we deal with gluttony?
  • What about abuse?
  • Discrimination?
  • Racism?

As a foreigner coming into New Zealand, those last three issues are prevalent in New Zealand Baptist churches and leadership. The Bible speaks more into those issues than the issue of homosexuality. And yet we are only being punitive toward same sex marriage.

A Baptist church can hire a gender biased, fat minister who is an alcoholic and openly addicted to pornography, abuses his wife and children and preaches racism, and so long as the local church is happy with them, the Baptist Union of New Zealand will have no problem registering them. They just need to fulfil the requirements of attending the national gathering, commit to a mentoring relationship with a person of their choice and not marry persons of the same sex.    

Sounds bad hey! That is the problem with resolutions 2 and 3. The moment you introduce punitive measures in one area, the question inevitably arises, "why not in other areas as well?" It doesn't send a good message to the world, nor does it send a good message to the church! It's just poor leadership. 

It leaves us in a precarious position, both ethically and biblically. How are we left in a precarious position biblically? Does the word "Pharisees" help?