Most people dislike controversies, but even in church life they are inevitable from time to time. When you care deeply about theological or ethical matters, then you’ll argue your corner and others will argue theirs. Such is life.
Steve Chalke’s recent contribution to the debate about the stance of the evangelical church towards the gay community is a current hot topic. And because Steve is a Baptist Minister, this has an immediacy for Baptists and so I would like to commend important Baptist principles that ought to help us handle this matter.
In doing so I am aware that today it is consider passé to say that ‘most of the people in our churches are not Baptists’. By that we mean that for one reason or another, many people who have not grown up in a Baptist church, or studied Baptist principles, have nonetheless found a local Baptist church their spiritual home and they have settled there. Given that most, I believe, would be relatively unaware of our heritage, (here I'd challenge pastors to ask themselves whether, over a period of time, their sermons contain enough theology) it is important at a time like this to remind people why Baptists are who they are and what that has to do with handling theological debate.
In the year 2000, a short book entitled Doing Theology in a Baptist Way (Whitley Publications, Oxford) was published with contributions from four of our then college principals, Paul Fiddes, Brian Haymes, Richard Kidd and Michel Quicke.
Brian Haymes writes* of his understanding of the core of Baptist Identity as being
“the gathered church, the priesthood of all believers, the absolute authority of God in Christ, believers’ baptism, the call to faithful corporate discipleship, and religious freedom.” (P2)
This last point, the plea for religious freedom, takes us to the beginning of our 400-year-old Baptist story and the cry of Thomas Helwys, addressed personally to King James, for freedom from the coercion of the State and the coercion of the ecclesiastical powers of the day. This freedom cry was contained in his publication A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity. His call was, in large measure, for the freedom to read the scriptures for themselves, and together to discern the mind of Christ.
It is for this reason that Baptists recognise no magisterium or hierarchy to tell us what we must believe, and why Baptists have no formal creeds or statements of faith. For Helwys, so deep-seated was this call for freedom that for him it extended beyond Baptists, even beyond the Christians faith:
‘For our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes. And if the king’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king, our lord the king can require no more. For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure’. (Helwys, Mystery of Iniquity)
So freedom of religion is a key principle that should govern our response to theological debate. And in due time the community will make its discernment.
So, for example there are those within the denomination who believe that Scripture does not permit women to teach but they are not asked to leave, even though the long-established position of the denomination is that men and women are considered equally qualified to teach and hold the role of pastor. Similarly, we have different views on what the authority of scripture actually means, different approaches to communion and baptismal practice, and so on. We live with this diversity and at best we are richer because of it, at worst we tolerate it. I will return to address the lmits of such freedom in a moment.
This freedom motif that I have stressed here is only one of those above* that Haymes notes as contributing to Baptist Identity. But it is of special note in the present context. Haymes goes further in suggesting four ways in which our Baptist identity affects the way Baptists do theology: the underlinings here are mine to bring out the key points I want to stress:
firstly, because Baptists eschew authoritative creeds, and because each church has liberty in the Spirit to interpret and administer Christ’s laws, “then each new generation must work at its theology as reflection upon practice”
secondly, because the church is gathered into being by God, theological discernment must be done in the community of the gathered church. “We bring our theological reflections to the test of others, and not just other theologians, but the whole people of God.”
thirdly, Haymes argues that to keep theology alive, it is not enough for theology simply to shape our life (though it must) but life must then be reflected back in order to renew our theology. Reflection is therefore two-way - from theology to practical living; from practical living back to theology. Drawing on the work of the late American Baptist theologian James McClendon, Haymes affirms McClendon’s rejection of “a dull ‘biblicism’, an imprisonment in the understanding and practices of the past as ‘word’ becomes fixed…”
fourthly, “since all authority in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus Christ, then all our theologies must have a provisionality about them… Hence, in Baptist theology, there will be a recognition of plurality and we shall be properly wary of those who wish to squeeze us into their own mould”. (pp3-5)
Now, these principles do not of themselves support or undermine either side in the current debate, but they do establish a principle, and I believe it to be a Baptist principle, that at times of controversy and debate we will be at our best when we step back, and create the safe and healthy space where the debate can be respectfully undertaken. The outcome may simply be a reaffirmation of the status quo but we should never fear that new truths may yet emerge from “the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! (Rom 11:33)
It is both unhelpful and inaccurate to declare that the raising of a controversial matter is a sure sign that we are drifting towards the rocks.
Of course I must be fair. There are limits to such freedom. If a pastor openly denied the divinity of Christ, and preached such, this would be in direct contradiction to the Declaration of Principle that is the basis of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. That would be an example of my 'limits to freedom' (I would defend the right of someone to hold such views but Voltaire got there first on that score!) By denying a primary theological issue, the community would rightly say that to hold such views is to deny the discernment under Christ on a matter of primary importance.
But we are not talking of such primary issues – this is why I wrote recently about the need for theological contours. Certainly the response of the church to those who are gay is a vitally important issue, and I dont want my words here to be taken to mean that our engagement with the gay community is an unimportant matter. Nothing could be further fromn the truth. But it is not in that narrow category of theological primacy.
So, like many a time before, be it Acts 10, Acts 15, or the church’s changed positions in relation to slavery, women in ministry or remarriage of divorcees, careful reflection on theology and practice has yielded fresh insight on how to best live in a broken and hurting world.
Nearly three years ago I wrote about rediscovering our radical Baptist roots, and it's interesting that Steve Chalke was mentioned there too. If you had time to read it again – it can be found here. Even I smiled at the relevance of what I wrote then to the present situation.