‘What’s the point, they’ll do what they want anyway’
‘Our church cannot see why we are even in the Baptist Union’
‘There is a general drift towards liberalism’.
These represent the three most common comments I have received over the course of this recent period. It’s impossible for me to not acknowledge the underlying general recognition: a deep mistrust in our Baptist system; a lack of clarity around why we are together; a growing doubt we are even on the same page anymore.
It would be naïve for any of us to fill in the consultation without recognising the crisis we are in. It’s not simply our own Baptist family, the depth of the crisis across the UK church is increasing. Crises (plural) can be seen if we are willing to open our eyes wherever we look. A simple examination of the fact the BUGB churches combined membership has declined by over 25% in the last 20 years, will lead us to see the shallowness of discipleship and the lack of evangelistic fruitfulness to name the two areas closest to my heart.
Despite this I remain as committed to the renewal of our Baptist Union as I have ever been. Not the Baptist Union we fear is emerging , but one which values our unity in Christ above any structural connection, nurtures a culture of discipleship towards the likeness of Christ for everyone and intentionally aims towards us all being fully engaged in the missional movement of Christ to the world. Compromising our convictions will simply accelerate our decline.
If you are reading this directly you are one of around 700 Ministers already having signed a petition affirming our conviction about Christian marriage. With around 1400 ‘active accredited BUGB Ministers’ you are far from being alone. Please be clear about one thing: it is the request for change, to our MR rules on marriage and the resulting process, which is divisive and not the faithful response you have taken to stand on the cornerstone of our faith. It is not possible to change the MR rules and pretend we are not adopting the government’s definition of marriage, which is contrary to the definition of marriage given by God in Scripture on which our Christian conviction stands.
You will have received the same challenges as I have. The appeal to be ‘loving’, ‘compassionate’ and ‘respectful’ with the implicit suggestion anything other than accepting someone else’s lifestyle choices means we have not done this. As I have talked and listened to those who advocate BUGB accommodating people in same-sex sexual relationships, I have come to realise the definition being used for ‘love’ is not aligned with Jesus’ understanding. Among you are many big-hearted, servant-leaders and pastors, but please do not be fooled, or misled by others language and labelling. This is a moment in which we all need to recognise we must, along with Jude, ‘contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people’ (Jude 1:3).
My conversations, friendships, debates and engagements with fellow Christians around the subject of human sexuality have led me to recognise there is an overwhelming consensus around what the Bible says. The disagreements are around what the Bible means. Our big issue, right now, has arisen because the conclusion of some people is that what the Bible means is contrary to what it says! It is obviously imperative we respond to every engagement around this sensitive issue with both grace and truth, but I have to respond recognising it is not my prerogative to change any definition of what I can clearly understand when reading scripture: love, holiness, sin, sexual purity, sexual immorality, etc. I have drawn a couple of conclusions:
- We cannot discern faithfully as part of Christ’s body apart from confessing where we fall short of God’s glory and opening ourselves to renewal by the Holy Spirit.
- We cannot remain faithful as Christ’s body by replacing God’s wisdom with our own.
The hermeneutics of those proposing Baptists accept same-sex sexual relationships without any direct support in Scripture lead me to conclude there is either an avoidance, or a denial of significant portions of our Bible as authoritative for Christian life and faith. As Christian people we have a belief that in Scripture we encounter God—as we read or hear Scripture, we hear God speak to us, and not just to our minds but to our heart and will, to the whole of our being.
As I think about my response to the consultation and I urge you to do the same, I am keenly aware who I am called to be in Christ and the responsibility I carry as a Christian Minister. Whilst our responsibilities vary we share the fact we are disciples of Jesus Christ and ministers of the gospel.
As a disciple of Jesus Christ. I encountered Jesus Christ in a moment one August night 48 years ago, and this soon led me to the conviction Jesus Christ is Lord. Since then, words such as ‘conversion, ‘repentance’ and ‘faith’ have not been a theoretical framework for understanding what happened one particular night, but an expression in my lived experience of the reality, faithfulness and fruitfulness of salvation in my life. I became and remain a disciple. From my first steps in following Jesus until now I have found I am able to trust the Bible as the written word of God. God speaks with one voice, of that I am convinced. One God in Trinity, three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Perfect harmony. Two words, one voice: the incarnate Word (Jesus) and the written word (Bible).
As a Christian Minister. We all share some responsibility for the health and well-being of the church. I am a regional Minister, most of you will be local Ministers, or operating in some other sphere, but none of us can separate our convictions about God, or our relationship with God, from our leadership practices and the organisation, or church we lead. I find the suggestion any one of us should be ‘neutral’, as if we are discussing something of a trivial nature, seriously alarming. I urge you to take care with any questioning, which focuses upon what one person thinks, or feels. Answer as before God. Within any Christian community I hope we welcome people amongst us who have many varied views about God, Jesus, the Church, Holy Spirit, etc but this does not suggest we adopt their personal belief as an acceptable element of the doctrines we believe. Regarding our current this issue: the reason our current Ministerial Recognition Rules for Accredited Ministers are clear that any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is deemed gross misconduct, is because we regard such practice as sinful according to the Bible, as well as in the character of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
So please engage with the consultation process. Let those in leadership in the Union know that as a disciples, as Christian ministers we must remain submitted to what the Bible clearly says about marriage. For those who will be at the Assembly in June, members of the consultation research team (CRT) will be there to listen to delegates so use this opportunity to be heard.
I would love to spend time lifting your eyes to glimpse the vision of the Church of Jesus Christ, where he is the Cornerstone, but all I can do at this point is re-iterate my commitment to Him. My prayer for you all is:
‘The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.’ 1 Peter 5:10.
Written by Rev Nigel Coles