« a response to Steve Chalke's - 'a matter of integrity' | Main | ignorance is not an option »

31 January 2013


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Thank you David. As ever thoughtful, gracious and thoroughly Baptist-at-its-best. "Like"

Steve H

Thanks for this. I hesitate to criticise, because I agree completely with what I take to be your main points about the provisionality of our inherited theologies ('the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy word,' as someone once put it...) and our need to work intentionally to find and create safe spaces to re-examine these provisional ideas in the light of lived faith and the Scriptures.

That said, I've seen the appeal to Baptist liberty of conscience quite often recently, and I don't think it quite works the way many people - including you in the post above - are assuming. Our historical stand was against government coercion of faith, not against denominations or churches drawing lines that marked the limits of their fellowship. (Helwys's classic statement comes in the middle of a book that is mostly about why he feels the need to break fellowship on doctrinal or practical grounds with every other Christian on earth, with perhaps the exception of his wife...).

Thus stated, I want to argue strongly that it is a core Baptist conviction that there are no limits to freedom of conscience. None. Never. No government ever has a right - or, indeed, an ability (Isaac Backus's great point) - to tell anyone what to believe.

On this basis, however, BUGB, BUS, or any church/association within either, is not acting in an 'unBaptist' way if they choose to limit fellowship to people who think this way or that on Christology, human sexuality, or indeed economic theory (I would add something like 'so long as in so limiting they genuinely believe they are discerning the mind of Christ from the Scriptures'). The length and specificity of Baptist Faith and Message, to take the obvious example, is not unBaptist; it is a different vision of what it is to be Baptist than our mainstream British vision, certainly, but it is not an offence against liberty of conscience.

[Note 1: the point about 'government' for Helwys, Williams, Backus, and others was that it was effectively the only coercive power in their world; the basic point is that belief - and practices of worship - must not be coerced; this plays, but in complex ways, into contemporary debates about religious 'rights' and employment, and has something to say to us about, e.g., school assemblies. The general point is that any body that is practically able to coerce must not do so in the area of belief and worship. BUGB could, theoretically, be guilty of offending against freedom of belief if it could find, and ever chose to employ, some actually coercive method of enforcing conformity ('shut up about sexuality, or we'll send the Regent's Park first eight around to beat you up'?!)]

[Note 2: I agree entirely with your point about contours; I have complained to various leaders, past and present, from time to time that current practice amongst British Baptists - not just BUGB - elevates questions of sexuality to a prominence they do not deserve; in that sense Baptist Faith and Message is probably more coherent, however much I disagree with various bits of it.]

[Note 3: my, admittedly amateur, judgement is that the present legislation before Westminster and Holyrood ought therefore to be opposed, because it assumes and asserts the government's right to legislate about religious belief and worship. The Westminster bill, in particular, proposes a law restricting what a disestablished church - the Church in Wales - is allowed to believe. I suspect there is ample precedent, given the confusion over establishment, but this should still be a matter of deep concern to Baptists - it is far more important than any position on human sexuality.]

David Kerrigan

Steve, I agree that Helwys had state coercion as his primary context when framing his cry for freedom of conscience but there is nonetheless relevance here. My focus is not only on the future judgement of the Baptist community as to whether Steve Chalke is right or wrong, but on the process by which we get there.

So, I will agree up to a point that the Baptist community have the right to say that to be an accredited minister you must adhere to x and y and z. Indeed, I have given an example above of what I consider to be an appropriate limitation - if you deny the deity of Christ then its hard to say you're an accredited minister of the Union which would so fundamentally be in disagreement over an area of primary theological significance.

Where I part company would be when we reached the point where, as in your example of the Baptist Faith and Message (a Southern Baptist confession, in case some are wondering) the statement of what must be adhered to, and signed, becomes restricting. In fact I would argue it does offend against liberty of conscience, not because it was passed but by the way it was imposed. A good number of Southern Baptists missionaries had to return to the USA and give up their mission work because in all conscience they could not sign the statement which outlawed speaking in tongues. I am open to correction here but to this day, if in the process of candidating to serve with the Southern Baptists Mission Board you declare that you have used, or do use ‘a private prayer language’ (glossolalia) you cannot proceed further with the process.

That the SBC had the right to establish such a statement is not the question. My question is to ask whether it truly reflects the essence of what it means to be a Baptist to have a detailed creed on matters of primary, secondary or tertiary matters, which restricts the freedom of others, even in a later generation, to have an open conversation. If an overly restrictive statement of faith is in existence this will discourage or outlaw what I referenced above as Haymes’ view of Baptists doing theology, where theology and ‘practical living’ critique each other.

This is why the response of the EA from Steve (Clifford) was understandable, but would never have come from a Baptist stable. Organised evangelicalism tends to draw firm boundaries, agree on the things we agree on, but then rule out of order, or out of the family, anyone who questions those boundaries.

As a Baptist evangelical, I want to say my Baptist roots will demand that my evangelical commitments are held in a Baptist way. It is of primary importance that Baptists who engage in this debate focus not just on the issue of homosexuality but on the process of discernment that is underway.

Neil Brighton

Somehow, we need a means to distinguish between the right of a Baptist association / union / convention to determine the limits of fellowship. Whether over the question of women in church, same sex relationship or speaking in tongues on the one hand, and, on the other, an appropriate way of expressing our interdependence as a group of churches each of whom has liberty to determine the mind of Christ. There must surely come a point when a union defines its beliefs so tightly that it is failing to express a belief in the competence of the local church. This is not simply an issue of liberty of conscience, nor one of deciding what counts as a primary theological issue but of valuing and recognising diversity as something essentially Baptist.

Steve H

Neil, the standard answer (invoked repeatedly over the decades in the States, less often here) has been freedom to leave the union - without the union seeking any redress (google recent news about the Tron, Edinburgh for an unedifying tale of how different this can be in other denominations...). Is this adequate? I am not sure: the history concerning Southern Baptist missionaries that David raises was, to me, scandalous, and I wonder if there should not have been more protection/reticence there.

David, thank you for taking the time to reply. I don't want to drag this out, since I want to occupy the same position as you - I'm just not quite ready to dismiss the other position as 'unBaptist'. I reflect that all seventeenth-, and most eighteenth-, century Baptists looked more like the SBC than BUGB/BUS in terms of the extensiveness of their terms of communion . (This judgement based on reading PB association records, and minutes of the GB Assembly.) I struggle to say they were not adequately Baptist - or that I know more about practicing liberty of conscience than a generation who lived under the Clarendon Code and saw their churches disbanded and their leaders imprisoned (and, under Judge Jeffries, worse).

Neil Brighton

Steve, freedom to leave the union is a safeguard for liberty. But it seems to me that, on its own, it is inadequate; or at least a recognition of failure. It seems to me that one aspect of being baptistic is a desire to walk together and to allow freedom of conscience without breaking fellowship. It is this aspiration for inclusiveness (even if more aspiration than reality) which has prevented the same levels of fissiparous disintegration seen in other evangelical movements.

David Kerrigan

Hi Steve, thanks for your willingness to talk this through in public. I find it helpful and hopefully others might also. From the outset I have valued your insights into Steve Chalke’s hermeneutics and a number of subsequent comments, including these here.

As it happens I’ve been re-reading English Baptists of the 19th Century (John Briggs) earlier this week (having had to buy another copy – been far too generous in my book-lending over the years, but I’m not bitter…) and you’re right in pointing to differing periods of Baptist life when something approaching credal statements were more pronounced. So, Briggs offers a view of 1880s Baptist life when he says that “… the Baptist Union at the eve of the Down Grade controversy, unlike seventeenth, eighteenth and even early nineteenth-century Baptists with their confessions and covenants, was the weaker for not having any well defined canon of reference.” (p171)

What I find interesting is that this began to change in the early to mid 19th century, and the question is why. My own assumption is that this was in response to a stronger national union (as opposed to local associations) with a fear of doctrinal imposition and a consequent loss of freedom that would create echoes of earlier persecution. So might it be the case that Baptists never lost their founding principles in the 17th through to early 19th century, but were happy to have credal statements (for they do have value) when they were agreed at Association level and were therefore locally owned by the churches?

Spurgeon in the 1880s, as you know, wanted the Union to adopt a basis similar to that of the Evangelical Alliance in order to weed out those who did not conform to his view of what it meant to be evangelical. That was too far for many who did not want to see ecclesiastical power residing in the credal affirmation administered by a central Union. As John Clifford wrote “It is not creeds; it is coercion through and by creeds I object to.”

So, I will agree that to have a credal statement is not UnBaptist insofar as British Baptists have had, and others do have, such statements. Where I will put up a bit of stiff resistance would be to argue that such creeds can be UnBaptist if they are coercive, especially in areas of secondary theological importance.

Neil - I really like your phrase "a desire to walk together and to allow freedom of conscience without breaking fellowship." I sense that is the immediate goal we're all striving for.


I am blessed to be allowed to eavesdrop on such conversations: nothing more to say than that really, thank you guys

David F

I feel a bit of a 'country mouse in the big city' for daring to weigh-in on this discussion, but here we go...

David: It seems (in your closing paragraphs) that you are saying that ‘a failure to rely on the witness of scripture with regard to God’s view on homosexuality is not comparable with denying the divinity of Christ.’

But communication of the fact of the divinity of Christ comes clearly from scripture.
And scripture informs us clearly about what sin is.

It seems to me that, in these statements, there is a subtle undermining of the authority of scripture as source of truth.

Why die on the hill of divinity, but surrender the grounds for authority on matters of faith and practice?

I think you are in the unenviable position here, of walking the tightrope of inclusion , in the name of freedom.
It seems to list toward hindering sanctification.
I believe 1 Corinthians 5 speaks to this.
(I edited a cheeky remark about whether Paul would have made a good baptist)

And I agree with Steve H that current practice amongst Baptists elevates questions of sexuality to a prominence they do not deserve.

I really did enjoy the article and support the main premise of Baptisty freedom, and the requisite engagement with ideas that appear to be in opposition, as part of the communal discernment process.

David Kerrigan

Hi David, you've raised an important point, so this is a helpful contribution to the debate. Obviously, there is a thesis waiting to be written in response to your questions but allow me to make a few remarks in response.

- firstly, though I appreciate you're not quoting me, I think you paraphrase my position inaccurately when you suggest that I'm saying that ‘a failure to rely on the witness of scripture with regard to God’s view on homosexuality is not comparable with denying the divinity of Christ.’ You see I don't believe Scripture is necessarily as clear as we may think it is in relation to homosexuality. For example, there is a lot of research suggesting that some of the key verses about homosexual practice are referring to forms of cultic worship rituals involving sex with temple prostitutes. Its true of course that the texts say nothing directly about loving faithful homosexual relationships, but then in the times when scripture was written, there was no understanding of such homosexual relationships. As I mentioned elsewhere, until the 1960s, homosexuality was a crime in the UK, and still is in some parts of the world, so we can hardly be surprised that the prevailing view of scripture several several millennia ago was not more enlightened.

- Ah, but 'Scripture is God-breathed, inspired and our sole authority in matters of faith etc" Yes it is, but this is where we fail to do justice, often, to the humanity of scripture, or to the sense of developing revelation in Scripture. We know that Scripture did not come about via an act of divine dictation - no-one in Scripture claims that. Therefore there is a human dimension to Scripture. This is why we don't have to be fazed by the apparent presence of factual errors or contradictions in Scripture. If we claim that Scripture is infallible or inerrant, as sone do, then they presumably mean it was thus in its original language, and has survived as an inerrant document over thousands of years through countless translations, via the manual copying undertaken by monks in dark cells, into many different versions, languages and dialects. What I do believe in is that Scripture is inerrant in 'all that it affirms', and 'all that it affirms' revolves around creation, fall, and God's salvation plan through Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, ascended and returning.

- I do believe we can and must speak of a developing revelation in Scripture, with Jesus as the ultimate revelation (Hebrews 1:1 In the past God spoke... through the prophets... but now he has spoken to us by a Son.) In many verses we see Jesus developing or even redefining previous parts of Scripture. See Mt 5:21-22, 27-28, 38-39 or 43-44. So, is Exodus 21:24 ('eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth') God's authoritative word, or is Matthew 5:39 ("... but I say to you, turn the other cheek?") God's authoritative word?

I dont think these issues amount to a subtle undermining of the authority of Scripture. In fact i'll argue the contrary. By respecting Scripture for what it is (a collection of literature writing by various authors over many hundreds of years and comprising historical record, parable, poetry, love song, songs of praise and lament, poetry, apocalyptic and so on) we give to Scripture the respect it deserves. And above all we honour Jesus as the one whose words and example become for us the defining lens through which we understand God's revelation - a Jesus hermeneutic, if you like.

And as Jesus is 'the exact representation of God's being' that is why I believe we must speak of primary doctrines (concerning the person and work of Christ) and secondary doctrines concerning other matters.


The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

My Photos