With the marriage equality debate continuing to rage, and me being a Baptist pastor who has spoken in favour of a “yes” vote, a number of people have asked me what the official position of my denomination is.
Official positions are a somewhat different thing for Baptists, because unlike some other Christian traditions, we have traditionally valued freedom of conscience and the right to principled dissent over the quest for conformity and uniformity. Thus, when our denominational bodies adopt an official position, it remains a majority-supported recommendation rather than a law that all must conform to. Churches and individuals can and do dissent from those majority views in both their opinions and their official practice. So this congregation has, for more than 20 years, had an official policy of allowing LGBTIQ people full participation in every aspect of the church’s life, including its sacramental life, and thus if we were legally able to offer them marriage rites, we would.
That said, the Australian Baptist Union and all of the state unions have expressed a majority view in support of the Howard-era definition of marriage as necessarily being between a man and a woman. While that is the majority position, it is far from universal, especially in Victoria. The 100 revs campaign a few years ago that sought to find 100 ordained clergy people in Australia who would put their names to an apology to LGBTIQ people ended up with more from Baptist churches than any other denomination (from memory I think it was 35 of the 100).
Nevertheless, if you confine the question to just marriage equality, the official position is that Australian Baptists are opposed to changing the state law to allow same-sex couples to marry.
However, that is not the only “official position” that my denomination has taken that is of relevance to this debate. Back in 1997, the Baptist Union of Victoria voted (in one of its best ever attended voting assemblies) to adopt a report that included a number of guidelines for churches “on appropriate ways to respond to homosexual people among those to whom they minister .” I was a member of the taskforce that prepared that report, having been coopted to represent one end of the spectrum of opinion (it wasn’t politically possible back then to include someone who was actually homosexual!). These guidelines were the most hotly debated part of the report, but after the debate, the vote was taken and they were officially adopted unchanged. With the passing of another 20 years, they probably look a bit timid now, but they were groundbreaking for Baptist churches at the time, and they would still cause controversy in many of our churches. And they are still the official denominational guidelines to all Baptist Churches here in Victoria. They recommend:
That churches be encouraged to develop a climate in which homosexual people can be honest and open about their sexual identity and find support in a journey into Christian maturity. At present in some situations, homosexual Christians may find themselves marginalized and treated with suspicion if they allow their sexual orientation to be known, even if they have committed themselves to permanent celibacy. An environment that discourages honesty and openness will inevitably fail to encourage growth in Christian maturity.
That churches be encouraged to follow the example of Jesus Christ in offering gracious hospitality to “prostitutes, tax collectors, and other outcasts” (including homosexuals). Churches which fail to offer such hospitality need to repent and change.
That churches should encourage a culture that honours and supports all people who choose a lifestyle of permanent celibacy, as it is only within such a Christian culture that homosexual people may be fairly expected to consider this as a viable option.
That last one was included because the taskforce received reports that too many of our churches made even heterosexual unmarried people feel like second class citizens (despite the fact that the New Testament clearly elevates celibacy above marriage for Christian disciples), and concluded that such churches are therefore being seriously unfair if they start demanding lifelong celibacy of anyone else.
So there you go. As a denomination we may not be officially supportive of marriage equality any time soon, but it is official Baptist teaching that churches which fail to offer gracious hospitality to homosexual people need to repent and change. I’m proud to be in a congregation that has taken that seriously.