I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how, in an increasingly polarised world, do followers of Jesus foster unity in diversity. I appreciate, it’s not an easy path to navigate, but as one who has chosen to actively engage in the Baptist movement, unity in diversity is something I cherish.
I have the privilege of traversing the country to connect with Baptist churches and I am regularly reminded of what a big, broad, diverse movement we are. We’re far from perfect. But I value our differences and also what unites us as followers of Jesus at our core.
As I see it, unity in diversity strengthens our credible witness as Baptist people in the communities we serve. Disunity does nothing to attract people to the message of Jesus.
I was recently chatting with a NSW pastor about this topic. We don’t know each other well. I sense we see the world differently on several matters from our favourite code of football to our politics. But over coffee, we were celebrating the privilege of partnering in mission together and talking about how we stay focused on what my colleague described as “the main game”.
Issues that can divide us came into our conversation and there are many if we let them. And then this experienced, mature, humble pastor said: “For example, I hold to a traditional view of marriage, and I don’t see that ever changing. But as a Baptist leader, I also highly value the autonomy of the local church and that won’t change either.”
He continued: “I don’t think we should be seeking to impose things on Baptist pastors and churches who have different views to what I or my church hold …. we’re always better when we’re focused on the main game.” His description of embracing God’s gracious invitation to mission together.
Here we were, two Baptist leaders with likely, very different views on a range of issues, but both committed to fostering unity in diversity.
I think this pastor’s words need to echo across our big, broad, diverse movement. “We’re always better when we’re focused on the main game.”
The Baptist movement is a vital, passionate global movement doing so much good around the world and Australia in Jesus’ name. From Baptist World Alliance leadership advocating at the United Nations, to local uni students serving a free before-school breakfast to kids doing it tough in the Melbourne burbs, to a church in Hobart loving a beautiful and growing local Nepalese community. Yes, we mess things up at times, but we are at our best as a movement when focused together on mission, justice and compassion.
Key distinctives of our movement include the autonomy of the local church and the liberty of conscience. We’re a movement that have historically respected people will come to different Spirit-led convictions on a wide range of issues.
These distinctives foster respect for a divergence of opinions on matters of theology, faith, interpretation of Scripture, ministry practice, leadership models and other things.
I know and respect there are Baptist leaders and churches who hold different views to mine on a range of issues. Some leaders challenge me on social media and in personal correspondence. And I too engage in these robust discussions. But at the end of the day, we are colleagues, each seeking to do our best as leaders in our movement, serving Jesus together.
If we take the issue of women in leadership in Baptist churches, I am fully committed to fostering the leadership of women in all ministry roles and functions across our movement. But some colleagues and local churches see the need to place limitations on the roles women can fulfil in their churches. I see a need to advocate strongly on this matter and so I will disagree with those who share a different view. But I respect their right to hold their view and with grace and respect, and with the valuing of autonomy and association, we can find many other ways to still share in mission together.
And using the issue of women’s ordination and leadership, although I see we still have much to do to address gender imbalance in our movement, most State Associations, and many conventions around the world, found a way forward on this matter that respected difference in Biblical views and ministry practice.
We have found ways forward on many issues over the years when we have chosen to value our unity in diversity over difference and disunity. I see this is something we should celebrate and do all we can to maintain and cherish.
For me, and many other Baptist people I speak with, unity in diversity is a vital strength of respectful, vibrant association. It enriches our movement. We’re better together, with all our differences.
So, I am saddened when difference is used as a wedge to divide, rather than something to acknowledge and embrace, even if it’s a hard choice to make.
I’m saddened when any Baptist voices seek to tell others what’s right or wrong, based on their view of Scripture. I hold firmly and passionately to range of views that many others will differ on. I see value in healthy discourse on these matters. And I know I need differing voices at the table with me, where we can all be heard. Not just the loudest and making sure that those who are too often excluded are heard. This table of diverse voices models the beauty of Kingdom community.
A posture that doesn’t allow for another church, pastor or person in a faith community to hold and maintain their personal convictions without the loss of voice and association seems to me to lack humility. It seems to be at odds with a respectful divergence of opinion, based on intelligent, thoughtful, Spirit-led convictions. It seems to smack in the face of some core Baptist distinctives.
It seems that usually this unhelpful posture, as I see it, lasers down on one key issue of difference, rather than focus on all the things that unite us. From a distance, this seems to be the case in the current discussions around marriage and sexuality in NSW/ACT and some other conventions overseas.
I have no skin in the game when it comes to formal decision-making processes in any of these domains. I know this is a complex issue. And I continue to pray for those with leadership responsibilities seeking to navigate these discussions and decisions in NSW/ACT and other places. I respect the challenging place they are placed in such debates.
As an individual who sees so much value in association, who sees so much value in cherishing unity in diversity, who sees the fruit of what we do at our best together – focused on others, focused on mission, justice and compassion, I’m left asking some questions.
First, could a meaningful, respectful, broad and compassionate conversation around how Baptist churches welcome and include people who identify as LGBTQIA be more helpful than pushing autonomous Baptist churches and individual leaders to embrace and sign off on an exclusive commitment to the traditional view of marriage, when they with conviction and integrity hold to a more inclusive view?
As it is, Baptist pastors, like me, who are religious marriage celebrants in Australia are already bound to only perform weddings between a woman and a man. And from my understanding, the minority of churches that may hold to less orthodox beliefs and opinions on same-sex issues are not championing for the majority to change their strong held views.
In holding to the key distinctives described above, I value and respect the differing views of all churches and leaders on this issue. Clearly the majority hold to the traditional, orthodox view of marriage. A minority don’t. And if we’re being honest about the matter, many people tell me they sit in a growing “not sure” zone. I appreciate the authenticity of those grappling with LGBTQIA matters in church life. Many yearn for safe spaces to explore their questions. And we do have some good models of how local congregations have had such conversations, while cherishing unity in diversity.
Leaders who advocate the exclusive traditional view of marriage clearly express the majority held position among Australian Baptist churches, pastors and their members. And some see this as a matter they need to robustly foster across our movement. And this should be respected. Just like others want to be vocal about what they see as gendered leadership bias in many parts of our movement. And we will all need to share in healthy dialogue in faith communities around the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart and upcoming referendum.
Here’s the crunch for me.
While on agenda papers, the topic for debate may relate to issues regarding views on marriage and sexuality, surely the deeper heart issue for Baptist people relates to convictions on respecting difference, autonomy of local churches and the liberty of conscience.
We can change the agenda topic to another issue of difference and the same deeper matters of conviction as Baptist people remain.
Some trusted colleagues across our movement, who have strong, conservative biblical views on marriage, tell me they agree. They see the issue is really about whether we should force people who don’t agree with their views to change their mind or be shown the door.
As my NSW pastoral colleague said above. As some highly respected NSW/ACT leaders have written. As many others have written in Baptist conventions across the globe. Ultimately this matter becomes one of where you stand on valuing and respecting the right of other people and churches to hold different views to your own.
I’m left asking myself: “Should my beliefs and convictions on non-essential doctrinal issues encourage me to seek to exclude others who share different views from vibrant Baptist association?
For me the answer to this key question is a resounding no! And if I was to push such a position, I am left asking myself, for what gain?
I see valuing the Spirit-led convictions of others, liberty of conscience and the autonomy of the local church as being much more important principles than my personal beliefs and opinions, as strongly as I may hold to them.
Surely, if we focus on the things that matter, the things that are front and centre to who we are as Baptist people and followers of Jesus, then we could make ample room in our movement for churches and people to respectfully hold to different views on a wide range of issues and still maintain vibrant association.
I know the pastor of one affirming church in NSW. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a good man. He’s a loving, authentic pastor. He just wants to quietly get on with ministry with people who have intentionally chosen to belong in this congregation. I know a pastor from a church with opposing views. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a good man. He’s a loving, authentic pastor. And he tells me he too wants to get on with ministry in his local setting. He sees nothing to be gained by media attention that will focus on division in our movement. “That just further hinders our public witness of Jesus,” he tells me.
Both of these leaders and their churches make our movement a better one. They choose association. They choose unity in diversity. They choose contextual mission in their local setting.
I dearly hope this can remain the case for the big, broad Baptist movement that I love serving in. There’s no right or wrong side here. There are no winners or losers if we walk paths of disunity. We are at our best on mission together. People and faith communities focused on others, mission, justice and compassion; people seeking to journey together, loving and living more like Jesus.
I have pondered and prayed as to whether to publish this post. I have sought advice from people I trust, who share different views on the issues discussed. I decided to go ahead because I love this big, broad, imperfect movement I am a part of. And my prayer is that we keep finding ways to stay together.
It’s a choice. But with so much to gain!