Breaking Up the Family in the Pursuit of Uniformity

I belong to a small Baptist denomination in Australia. We are a broadly evangelical association of churches, united by a set of core doctrinal statements but with plenty of room for interpretation on non-core beliefs. We highly value the autonomy of the local congregation of believers to interpret Scripture and determine their values and practices. We have been a pretty moderate bunch in the evangelical tradition of people like John Stott, if that makes sense.

I have belonged to this family of churches for nearly 40 years and in that time I have had to endure my sisters and brothers engaging in a major controversy every decade or so.

Way back, there was the inerrancy debate where people who took a more biblicist approach were demanding we all agree with them. We didn’t. We voted to allow freedom of belief on that one.

Then there was the ecumenism controversy where a group of anti-ecumenical churches insisted we not join associations that included Catholics. We didn’t agree on that one either. People were allowed the freedom to associate with whomever they wished.

Later we had the charismatic schism where some conservatives wanted us to repudiate the then-new teaching of a “second blessing” and the practice of signs and wonders of the charismatic movement. But we didn’t agree to do that, allowing charismatics to be part of our association.

Then there was the debate about the ordination of women. That was resolved by allowing individual churches to either ordain women or not depending on their view of Scripture.

In other words, our association of churches includes biblicists, anti-ecumenists, charismatics, and ordained women, and those who disagree with them. Like any extended Christian family, I guess.

Whenever I attend the annual assembly of our association, I know I am in a room with a bunch of people who don’t agree with me on some fundamental matters. There are the Calvinists who understand the sovereignty of God operating differently to the way I see it. There are even some Calvinists who hold to double predestination, a doctrine I find abhorrent. But we’re still in the same family of churches.

There are some conservatives in our group who believe that social justice is a diversion from the core task of mission which they say is purely evangelism. I disagree and I try to explain how I think our mission is to alert everyone to the universal reign of God by both announcing it (evangelism) and demonstrating it (justice). A lot of them remain unconvinced, but we’re still in the same family of churches.

There are those aforementioned charismatics in our association who tell me that God has revealed himself to them in visions and words of knowledge and by sprinkling their fingertips with gold dust. Frankly, I find some of the stuff they tell me a bit whacky. I try to be gracious, but I think they can tell I’m not buying it. But we’re still in the same family of churches.

Then there are the complementarians. I’ve been a big supporter of the ordination of women and an outspoken critic of complementarianism. In fact, I belong to a church in which the two pastors are both women. You can imagine the complementarians in our association might give me a wide berth, but they don’t. We get on pretty well, despite our difference. After all, we’re still in the same family of churches.

We are a fellowship of moderate baptistic congregations, committed to the autonomy of the local church, who disagree on some pretty fundamental issues like the sovereignty of God, the mission of God’s people, the work of the Holy Spirit, and ordination. But now, forty years after I joined them, we are facing yet another controversy, this time about whether to allow churches that affirm same-sex marriage to remain affiliated with our association. Yep, we’re meeting yet again to decide whether to throw some churches out of our association.

Some among us are demanding that even though we’re allowed to disagree on matters of theology, missiology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology, we must be uniform in our view on marriage.

Yes, you heard right. Uniformity on marriage is required while uniformity on certain outworkings of theology, missiology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology are not. Maybe those insisting on such uniformity are just the same as those advocates of previous controversies. You can get caught up in a particular cultural moment and demand everyone join you in your view. You can forget the strength and importance of cooperation among churches even when they disagree on non-core issues, especially among smaller denominations.

I’ve referred to our group of churches as an association or a denomination, but in a lot of our correspondence we call ourselves a “family of churches.” I like that. Families are comprised of people who can disagree (sometimes wildly) on a whole host of issues, but who are bound together in love and by shared history. We don’t cast out a son or daughter or even crazy Uncle Charlie if they happen to disagree with the rest of us. When our differences on a single issue cloud our ability to see that love and shared history, we lose something very important. In fact, forgetting that sense of family is downright dangerous to the mission of the church.

Ten years ago, this same small Baptist denomination set an audacious goal to become a movement of 1000 healthy churches by 2050. There are around 350 churches in our association so that would involve a tripling of our current size. Back then, we knew this was an ambitious goal so we set about shaping a vision, and a set of values and goals to achieve this task through Christ. I was part of the team that developed this strategy. Meanwhile, our overseas aid agency cast a vision for a world where poverty has ended and all people enjoy the fullness of life God intends. And our international mission society has an ambitious new vision for raising up more intercultural workers, including those from diverse backgrounds. We’re a small collection of congregations, but we dream big when it comes to serving others.

But instead of rallying to fulfill these bold visions for Christian mission, we’re debating the ins and outs of how to expel a tiny number of churches that don’t agree with the majority on yet another non-core issue.

You’d think we would have learned by now.

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22 thoughts on “Breaking Up the Family in the Pursuit of Uniformity

  1. In the 70s, divorce was an issue starting to raise its ugly head in the Baptist churches I attended in Qld. Now it’s a non issue. A remarried, divorced man is the pastor of a local church. Nobody appears to be bothered by that. I hope it doesn’t take another 30-40 years before the Baptist churches – or any denomination for that matter – fully embrace our gay sisters and brothers.

  2. “Announcing it AND demonstrating it” —- As always, your words succinctly and vividly affirm my own beliefs. Love this! My daughter is bisexual and has been shunned by various churches in spite of the fact that she truly loves Jesus and fights for justice for all His people. My son has left the church because of these same injustices. His heart for others compares to no other person I know. When will we learn? How many in this generation will we continue to hurt and remove from our Family?

  3. Creating a supportive argument based on personal thoughts or experiences that in no way align with scripture, is nothing more than humanism and it self is the “breakup of the family”.

  4. Such a healthy perspective- you’ve summed it up beautifully.

  5. In certia unitas
    In dubia libertas
    In omnia caritas

    We often seem to blur the distinctions.

  6. Jesus spoke of an inclusive God who loves and accepts all especially the ones the religious elites said where out. The religious leader had him murdered. The more the church is exclusive the less it reflects the teachings of Jesus. We are seeing the death of the Church.

  7. Thank you for your wise words, Mike. I believe some in the church have made marriage into an idol. Jesus and Paul were both single. Paul gave marriage as a concession to those who lacked self control. Jesus taught that there will be no marriage in heaven. So why are we so preoccupied with it? I’m happily married and about to celebrate 29 years with Christie, but our marriage is unaffected by two people of the same gender being legally allowed to marry too. I hope they will be as happy as we are.

  8. I’d rather you focus on snatching your SSM affirming brethern from the fire (Jude 23).

  9. I don’t disagree with you but it’s getting harder and harder for me to explain my family. To do so I feel increasingly the need to airbrush bits of us out of the picture and I’d rather be proud of my ‘family’. I don’t think this is another issue that we have to roll with to keep the family together. This might be an endpoint for some.

  10. Dear Mike. Thanks for your brief historical survey of our denomination. Families can be hard work. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t debate this stuff. And I think it is unfair of you to present this debate as favouring marriage over evangelism or mission. This debate is about whether we as Jesus’ family should dilute the heterosexual view of marriage which he clearly held while at the same time purporting to call people to follow him! Following Jesus is hard. It is counter-cultural. We need to work hard to show compassion to same sex attracted people that reflects Jesus’ character and teaching. We also need to work hard to present Jesus in such a way that he is still worth following even if he calls me to adopt his sexual ethic and identity!

    1. I Just don’t see how verses more likely talking about temple prostitution and rape are talking about adult lgbt+ people in loving relationships. Whom by the nature they were born happen to love each other and want to commit their relationship before God in marriage.

      1. That’s the thing. Those verses are talking about rape or prostitution, but simply the sexual activity. It’s a myth that people were not practicing ongoing committed LGB relationships in the NT world, a myth spread by people who want to make the Bible agree with their very modern preferences.

  11. How to solve thr issue of homosexuality, particularly marriage, is difficult, but can be done.
    I’ve wrestled with it for years ever since a friend of mine came out as gay when I was in high school.
    1st, you must deeply examine yourself & your values. What is *your* definition of marriage? Not one given to you by others, but in your own words. Also, what does love mean for you? How does the idea that God is love as expressed in 1 John affect your ideas? If God is love, what does that mean? I suggest In the Beginning & Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle.
    2nd, examine the culture of the time when Jesus lived & Paul wrote. Try to find research that is clearly not trying to use it to bolster their own views (biased). Look at multiple sources, esp. Ones sourcing primary sources (such as books & accounts written by people living in that time period or close to it.) Make sure they’re good sources too. Not Wikipedia. Academic papers are useful. Your local library can help.
    Finally review & see if your ideas have changed.
    The Roman culture is in many ways alien to most modren cultures – they treated women like property & children, kept slaves, etc. They’re also frightening similar to us.
    I do think their practice of homosexuality was different than what’s advocated today & that influenced Paul’s writings.

    1. Well articulated. It’s important to understand the context of letters written in the 1st century before deciding what they say to us in the 21st century.

  12. A very emotive post with some good points but none the less based mostly on emotion.
    Just as differing views on theology must be based on what Scripture is believed to actually say, surely a different (gay) view of marriage must appeal to Scripture likewise.
    But here is the problem. There is no differing scriptural view of marriage from which to appeal. The Scriptural view of marriage is taught throughout Scripture & reinforced by Jesus himself. The question must be asked, is a gay view of marriage an upholding & affirmation of Jesus’s teachings on marriage & if not, doesn’t this represent a departure from his teachings.
    In the practical, of course we are all aware that in practice there can be no literal marriage but between a man & a woman.
    Just because the world & governments can choose to change definitions, this does not make it ok for the Church to follow likewise as our authority is based on Scripture, not man’s changing opinions.
    The love & care & inclusion of the LGBT community is a different question & a very important one but unfortunately it does not include Scriptural marriage.
    I too have been born & bred a Baptist & am a strong believer in family & what it takes to maintain unity. I am not part of the NSW Churches, but I pray God’s wisdom in the outcome.

    1. But Mr Chatty, I’m talking about a family, so of course it’s emotional. You seem to have mistaken this post being about same-sex marriage, but it’s not. It’s about what Baptist polity looks like and under what circumstances we choose to disaffiliate those who disagree with us on theological issues not covered in our core statement of faith.

      1. There is the problem Mike because the core statement of faith does cover biblical marriage & it would seem that many in NSW churches think likewise.
        “d) THE DIVINE INSPIRATION OF THE SCRIPTURES The Scriptures, consisting of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, are the infallible Word of God. They were written by holy people of God inspired by the Holy Spirit and have supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.”
        Scripture & Jesus’s teachings on marriage is very clear & has supreme authority & it would appear the majority of churches agree.

        1. So Mike. Do you have response to pchagty? They raised some good points. Over to you.

  13. I appreciate you writing this Mike! Painful to read though and highlights the hypocrisy and the nasty stubborn refusal to even tolerate other’s affirmation 🙁 It’s why I take a wide berth from any church. I have a gay son and he is just the best and deserves everything my other kids do!
    Sickening to read comments here harping on about why to continue to reject. Made me cry and sick to my core! Thank God there are actually no gatekeepers!!

  14. So, whatever doctrine comes along is fine because unity uber alles?

    The nature of human identity (including sexuality) is up for grabs in our postmodern culture. These issues are not simply shades of fundamentalism or liberalism. Biblical sexuality is an existential issue.

    If there are no issues over which we are willing to break fellowship, then there is no called out community. We are simply extensions of the larger culture, bending to its will. There is no saltiness in a church which goes along with the cultural sins of the day to be welcoming.

  15. Romans 1:18-32. Romans times seems much like present times to me.

  16. Your reflection is wrong. To compare differences in the doctrines you mentioned among Baptists NSW is a false comparison and opens the doors for sexual chaos, as in transgender men or women becoming pastors, gay pastors coming on retreats with their “husband” etc.
    A realistic comparison would be to say that “some of us Baptists believe that God is the Triune God, others have a Oneness doctrine, some believe Jesus is the only way of salvation, and some believe that there are many ways. Some believe Jesus is a created being, others that he is a fully God and Fully man.” If that were so of course there would no longer be a “family of churches” with unity in essentials. NT Wright exposes the falsehood of your thinking.

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