I have always considered myself an ‘accidental’ Baptist. It just happened that the friends to whom I was attracted at my grammar school went to a Baptist church and I joined them.
I now realise that there was nowhere else I could have stayed for so long. Partly because I’m not really a ‘joiner’ of anything. But mainly because the idea that a single individual can dictate policy ex cathedra smacks of fear and control. And I could never have lived with the idea that religion is about jettisoning the human drive for growth and change by adopting a small-c conservative mentality – keeping things the way they have always been – ignoring the fact that Jesus taught the complete opposite. Neither could I have lived long with the idea that having the oldest, and therefore purest, form of liturgy is what is most pleasing to God. It took me longer to shake the belief that the bible is literally true, but ‘literal’ only in a way that can be understood by the 20th-21st century mind. The assumption that theology is all about ‘us’ and ‘now’ makes zero sense to the historian I have since become.
It is a Baptist conviction that faith cannot be defined by a fixed set of doctrines, because our faith is in a person who clearly demonstrated in his own practice that the wise and loving response to any person or dilemma will always be dependent on circumstance. This means any conviction we have about the ‘rightness’ of what we currently believe must be permanently open to review. Our forefathers expressed this in their faith that ‘there is always the possibility that fresh truth may spring from the pages of our scriptures as we are inspired anew by the Holy Spirit’. So any claim to knowing ‘truth’ must always be mindful that truth is both cumulative and contextual.
As I write this, the Baptist Union is drawing towards the end of a period of reflection and consultation on the nature of marriage. All attention is focused upon a phrase in brackets within our ministerial recognition rules. The phrase defines marriage as being between one man and one woman and it is felt by some that it is not right that a Baptist minister has the freedom to marry a same-sex couple, but is not permitted to enter into a similar arrangement themselves.
As I have already written in my ‘wrestling’ series, this is not a question that affects me personally. I have done the theological, sociological and psychological research, and I can see both sides of the argument. I definitely know which box I would tick if a gun were placed to my head and told I had to tick one box in answer to a binary choice stated as a theological question: What does Paul teach about the nature of marriage?
For those on one side of the argument the matter really seems that simple. There is only one possible answer, so if the result of the consultation does not go the way they feel it must, they have already signalled that they intend to call a General meeting to force their view upon those who disagree. Conformity to their opinion by any means necessary. The fact that this adds pressure and tension into what is supposed to be a period of listening, reflecting and consulting seems not to concern them.
Time and again in theological disputes groups label themselves – ‘biblical’, ‘orthodox’, born again’ – and then decide for themselves what they mean by that label. I can think of so many past disputes when Christians thought a certain issue was so essential that they separated themselves from others in order to fight on God’s side, yet so many of those red lines have faded with the passage of time – it is always a mistake to overestimate the importance of the present moment. And the Gospels record many occasions when a disciple or group of disciples think they finally have the content of the faith Jesus is teaching them firm in their minds, only to find Jesus correcting them because the situation had changed.
And this is my problem. A self-defined group with whom I would agree if I were forced to see this as a solely theological question are behaving in a way that is manipulative, bullying and reductionist. We now seem to have a battle where the strongest is bound to win one way or the other, yet I cannot see Jesus using power in this way. The way we use power betrays what we believe about God. Gods that need defending are likely to be idols. And this should make us tread very carefully.
No one can do good theology in a vacuum. Theology frequently begins with a question, but wisdom recognises that even before the question existed the questioner is already influenced very deeply by culture, upbringing, biases, affinity groups, tribal loyalties, hidden struggles and feelings about those who take an opposing view.
It is an ancient Jewish practice for two sides in a dispute to agree that they are working to a ‘reconciling third opinion’ – a new position currently unfamiliar to both of them. A place neither will be completely comfortable with. This is a far more wholesome process than being forced to make a binary choice in which, in order for one side to win, the other side has to lose. Every question has a set of possible of answers to it, and each answer sheds new light on the question. In binary arguments no true listening happens and nothing can be learned because the winners are those with the quickest minds, longest swords or sharpest debating skills.
Do we really care more about winning than listening, learning and walking in another person’s shoes? Would the world really come to an end if we reached a reconciling third opinion that allowed a brother or sister the possibility of being wrong, along with the knowledge that we cared more about them as a fellow human being than we did about beating them in a theological dispute? What if the way we do our theology is as important as the conclusions we reach? Our calling and our bias must always be toward loving our neighbour, our enemy and everyone in between. And love is lived out in honest relationships which are what we all need in order to grow, but are so often the casualties of theological battles we feel the need to win.
The really sad thing is that I believe our Baptist distinctions could make it possible to have this painful conversation in a very different way. If we really believed there is always the possibility of fresh revelation being offered to us as we face differing circumstances and new opportunities for ministry and mission, it is surely not a large step for us to agree that we are always holding knowing and unknowing in a creative tension. With that mindset it need not be so difficult to give each other permission to deviate from the current norm whilst watching over and desiring the best for each other. Those of us who are parents have offered that same gift to our children many times, often through gritted teeth or simply in the knowledge that if we refuse to give permission we risk harming the relationship.
As Simon wrote in his blog post just a few months ago: “There is a pleasure in being right and surrounding ourselves with people who agree with us, but – speaking frankly – it is a childish and ego-driven pleasure. Those of us who claim the name of Christ need to take a long hard look at ourselves if we think that this is where life finds its meaning.”