A couple of weeks ago I commented on a thread on Facebook touching on the proposed changes in the Baptist Union’s Ministerial Recognition Rules (“MRR”). I was commenting from the perspective of someone who opposes the change. After the discussion had developed over a couple of days, one of the other participants challenged me (in a friendly way) to engage with the substantive issue. I thought that was a fair comment but that it was not possible to do so in a discursive thread.
This is a journal length essay so I have included a summary at the front. It should be said, however, that each of the points I have raised could justify a full essay in themselves. I am just giving a summary of my own reasons for opposing the change.
In this essay I outline 7 reasons why the Baptist Union (“BU”) should not revise its MRR. These reasons are not exhaustive (there is always more to say) but they are representative of some of my major concerns. In particular:
- the Revisionist interpretation of Scripture is implausible both on its face and in its historical and global context;
- the Revisionist approach to sexual ethics is problematic from a systematic theological perspective and is unstable;
- the Revisionist approach to theology (if applied outside the field of sexual ethics) is inherently corrosive for other Christian doctrine;
- revising the MRR will inevitably lead to pastoral problems within churches both among those who experience same-sex attraction and more broadly;
- revising the MRR will harm the Baptist movement’s ability to do mission and, all the evidence suggests, lead to a numerical decline;
- evidence from around the world suggests that the BU as both a movement and denomination will not survive this type of change in the MRR; and
- given that (in London at least) the overwhelming proportion of BME churches oppose changing the MRR, doing so in the face of their objections risks undermining (or appearing to undermine) the movement’s commitment to racial equality and equity
In the following paragraphs I explain what I mean by each of these objections and why I think they should be accepted.
I want to be as clear and charitable as I can in this article so I am going to clarify a couple of things at the start.
First, the present debate is solely about the rules governing the sexual behaviour of Ministers. I want to be clear and categoric at the outset that churches should be welcoming to people who experience attraction to members of the same sex in the just as they welcome and love all people. This essay solely relates to sexual behaviour (ie who it is acceptable for Accredited Ministers to sleep with).
Second, I am writing because I want both to help those who oppose the proposed changes to articulate some of their concerns (if they share my perspective) in a way that is understandable and to help those who support the proposed changes to understand some of the reasons they are opposed. For that reason I’ve aimed to be as clear as I can while also trying to avoid a polemical tone. (No doubt I will fail in places but I really am trying!)
Third, I want to emphasise that I am not writing on behalf of any group. I am pastor of a growing church in Surrey and a PhD student working on Baptist ecclesiology. My thoughts are my own. Fourth, I am conscious that the terminology used in these discussions is frequently unexplained or polemic. I want to avoid that if possible. Nevertheless, some shorthand is necessary to write about this issue. I’ve tried to be as transparent and neutral as I can. Throughout I have used the following:
- “Revisionist” for the position that the MRR should be revised (and, implicitly, that Christian sexual ethics and interpretations of Scripture relevant to them should also be revised). I have consciously avoided “progressive”, “liberal”, “heterodox” or any other term that implies a positive or negative judgement about this position or the people who hold it.
- “Historical/global” for the position that the MRR should not be revised (and that the historical and global consensus about Christian sexual ethics should be defended). Again, I have tried to avoid “conservative”, “evangelical”, “orthodox”, “traditionalist” as implying a value judgement about either that position or the people who hold it.
Finally, the proposal we are discussing is that the MRR be amended so that BU Ministers can be accredited by the Union (and therefore by the churches that make up the Union). According to the BU’s leaflet, “An Introduction to Accredited Baptist Ministry”¹:
accreditation identifies those whose calling to spiritual oversight is broader than to just their local congregation. An accredited minister shares in the oversight of the whole network of churches, associations and colleges that make up Baptists Together, even if their own focus is a particular church, project or institution. It follows that their ministry is recognised nationally and that they may be commended to all our churches across England and Wales. Accreditation reassures churches and communities that a minister has gone through a measure of testing and ministerial formation (see more below). It confirms they are accountable to others and engaged in ongoing development. It means they can think biblically and theologically, as attested by their academic qualification. And it implies they share a commitment to their fellow Baptist ministers, agreeing to ‘walk together and watch over one another’, as the Baptist saying goes. [p.10]
It therefore implies that: “Accredited ministers enter a covenant “to live in conformity with the way of life their high calling demands.” They seek “to serve Christ through ministry in church and world in ways that faithfully embody the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
I am using “Accreditation” or “Accredited” as a shorthand for this process. The rest of this essay will address each of my concerns in turn.
1. The Revisionist interpretation of Scripture is implausible both on its face and in its historical and global context
The first place Baptists should turn when considering any question is prayer and Scripture. That means that before we consider any other issue we have to ask is whether the Revisionist interpretation is persuasive or even plausible. In particular, can it persuasively or plausibly be argued that Biblical writers and teachers (particularly Jesus and St Paul) believed that it was permissible for Christians to have sex with people of the same sex as themselves? Both the work of Revisionist scholars and the history of exegesis strongly suggest that they did not.
I don’t have space to go through all the texts here (and in any event my specialism is in systematic theology, not the New Testament). Fortunately there are lots of Biblical scholars who have examined this question and overwhelmingly they conclude that the NT prohibits all same-sex sexual relations. This includes the vast majority of those who support the Revisionist position (and think that the NT is wrong). For example, Ian Paul has helpfully extracted some of the leading Revisionist Pauline scholars on his blog²:
Paul’s intention here is not fully clear, but he wants to name the most extreme affront of the Gentiles before the creator God, and Paul takes disordered sexual relations as the ultimate affront. This indictment is not as clear as those in the tradition of Leviticus, but it does serve as an echo of those texts. It is impossible to explain away these texts. (Walter Brueggemann)
It is very possible that Paul knew of views which claimed some people had what we would call a homosexual orientation…If he did, it is more likely that, like other Jews, he would have rejected them out of hand….He would have stood more strongly under the influence of Jewish creation tradition which declares human beings male and female…and so seen same-sex sexual acts by people as flouting divine order. (William Loader, The New Testament and Sexuality, p 323-4).
Paul’s vice lists are generally ignored in church polity and administration. Christian churches contain people who drink too much, who are greedy, who are deceitful, who quarrel, who gossip, who boast, who once rebelled against their parents, and who are foolish. Yet Paul’s vice lists condemn them all, just as much as they condemn people who engage in homosexual acts (E P Sanders Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought, 2016, p 372).
Homosexual activity was a subject on which there was a severe clash between Greco-Roman and Jewish views. Christianity, which accepted many aspects of Greco-Roman culture, in the case accepted the Jewish view so completely that the ways in which most of the people in the Roman Empire regarded homosexuality were obliterated, though now have been recovered by ancient historians. (Sanders, op cit, p 344)
Others have examined Jesus’s own teaching in this area³.
Moreover, the history of exegesis tells firmly against the Revisionist position. In listening to the debates about this issue over the last few years I have not heard a single voice from before the last 50 years cited in support of the Revisionist argument. In other words, literally no-one (as far as I am aware) from the first 1,900 years of Christian exegesis, and all the thousands of years of Jewish exegesis before that, thought that Scripture permitted same-sex sexual relationships. Nor is the Revisionist position supported by the exegesis of the overwhelming majority of the Christian world (outside the wealthy white West).
I suppose it is possible that the Revisionist interpretation of Scripture is correct despite being contradicted by the testimony of the majority of Revisionist NT scholars, the universal testimony of the church prior to 1960 and the vast majority of Christians in the world today. But I don’t find it either plausible or persuasive.
2. The Revisionist approach to sexual ethics is problematic from a systematic theological perspective and is unstable
The historic/global Christian perspective has always been rooted in the fundamental connection between sex and reproduction. This isn’t limited to one part of the church – it is shared by them all. For example, the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer begins by describing marriage as “ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.”⁴ Similarly the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the spouse’s union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated…” (CCC 2363)⁵. Or, to cite a Baptist example (with whom I have many differences), John Piper puts it this way: ”First, the meaning of marriage normally includes, by God’s design, giving birth to children and raising them in Christ.”⁶
I give these examples not because I agree with everything each source says (plainly I am not an Anglican or Roman Catholic and I have publicly disagreed with Piper about a number of issues). But it is striking that they all agree with each other on this point despite their other differences. That’s because this isn’t, historically, controversial.
By rooting sexual ethics fundamentally in the value of procreation (as well as joy, commitment and consent), Christian sexual ethics develop both an internal coherence and balance the interests of the individual with the fact that God gives us guidance as a community. It also recognises that this is a basic fact of biology. Almost everything about the way the human body is designed to interact sexually is aimed at producing children. From the beginning sex has been directed towards the conceiving of new life. Christian ethics have recognised this as not incidental but part of the intrinsic purpose God has placed in sexuality, with consequences for our ethics.
The Revisionist position undermines this in three ways. First, it fundamentally severs the link between proper sexual behaviour and biology. Sexual ethics have become something that floats free from our embodiedness, unrelated to the givenness of creation or the function that God has placed in it. Such an approach has radical implications for the rest of ethics if it is applied consistently.
Second, it implies that sex is intrinsically purely a matter for individual attraction, not directed at reproduction or for the benefit of the community. That is a fundamental reorientation of Christian ethics towards an individualistic and privative understanding. Now the rest of the community has no stake in marriage or its reproduction. It is an understanding of ethics that is fundamentally centred on the self and its expression irrespective of all other concerns.
Third, if the link between sexual ethics and reproduction can be disregarded then it isn’t immediately clear why any of the other restrictions that Christians have traditionally placed upon sexual behaviour should still pertain. After all, in this area we would have concluded that sex is purely a private matter in which everyone is free to do what is right in their own eyes. Why not apply that principle consistently? I’ll return to this point in a moment.
I am not saying that any individual advocate for the Revisionist position actively wants these things. But they are some of the theological and philosophical consequences of the understanding of human sexuality that the Revisionist position implies. And ultimately they are bad for the church, for society and for every other area of Christian ethics.
3. The Revisionist approach to theology (if applied outside the field of sexual ethics) is inherently corrosive for other Christian doctrine
Revisionism is different from reform. Reform arises from an organic engagement with the Christian tradition and Scripture. It precedes wider ethical trends in culture or happens irrespective of them. It is characterised (at least in its account of itself) by the act of reaching back into the Christian tradition and recovering the doctrines and values that have been taught previously and lost. Noticeably the writing of its proponents cites previous authorities and is concerned to demonstrate a continuity with the past while critiquing ⁷ developments in the present.
A good example of this is the Reformation itself. Luther and Calvin⁸ (and those that followed them like Wesley⁹) were concerned to emphasise their connection with the Church Fathers and that the changes they proposed were not revisions to Christianity but a recovery of something lost in the late mediaeval West. They wanted to reform Western Christianity but not to revise it.
When we examine the changes in sexual ethics urged by the Revisionists in the present, a different pattern emerges.
The chronology of the present movement strongly suggests that it is a response to changes in the wider moral culture of the West rather than prompted (initially at least) by engagement with Scripture or the historical/global theological tradition. If it had been prompted by Scripture or theological reflection (rather than changes in the wider culture) then we would expect there to have been some indication of this movement in the 1900 years of Christian reflection prior to the mid-twentieth century. Or that at least that some of this movement would have preceded the sexual revolution of the last 20 years. Or that it would have emerged in any culture other than one already dogmatically committed to rejecting the historical/global view of Christian ethics. Or that its proponents would be concerned to cite some precedent for their views from Christian history and explain where we went wrong.
In reality, however, the theological perspective urged by the Revisionists arose after major changes in culture, came about only in the late-modern West, have no precedent in the writings of earlier periods and its proponents show little concern to demonstrate a connection with the Christian past.
This isn’t intended to be a polemical point. I think any fair minded observer would accept this analysis. Nor is it suggesting that Revisionists have not engaged with Scripture or the Christian tradition; they plainly have. But, without wishing to be uncharitable, in my experience that engagement is usually characterised by coming to Scripture with a particular conclusion in mind (ie that the present Western sexual ethics are correct) and then looking to see if that preferred outcome can plausibly be argued to be consistent with the text in question. It is, to be blunt, an approach I recognise from my time trying to win cases as a commercial barrister.
Most charitably, this approach to Scripture and theology is regarded by its advocates as “letting the world set the agenda” in a push for missional success. 10 I will touch on its missional implications below. Whatever its implications are for mission, however, Revisionism is devastating for Christian theology more generally.
A moment’s reflection on the idea of Revisionism reveals that, once its principles are accepted, there is no point of Christian dogma, theology or exegesis that cannot simply be abandoned in the light of the culture prevailing at any given time. If doctrine (in this case of sex and marriage) can (and should) simply be changed without any precedent because the surrounding culture has changed then why restrict this to sex? If the culture becomes intolerant of the idea of Jesus as fully God and fully man (as it is in Muslim majority countries) then presumably that doctrine can be revised. Or imagine that the culture becomes intolerant of Christian commitment to racial equality (as it has in the past). Why not revise that?
I am not suggesting that any Revisionist advocate at present wants these things or that there is any moral equivalence between them and same-sex sexual relationships. But once the principle is accepted that we are not seeking to reform the faith (in continuity with the past) but to revise it (in keeping with the culture around us), revisions such as these are inevitable. Revisionism is, in this sense, the universal acid – it has the potential to eat everything.
4. Revising the MRR will inevitably lead to pastoral problems within churches both among those who experience same-sex attraction and more broadly
There are, I think, three fundamental elements to providing good pastoral care.
- understanding the person in front of you;
- understanding what following Christ entails for them; and
- helping them to do it.
Revising the MRR (and Christian sexual ethics in the way argued for by Revisionists) is going to be unhelpful for both 2 and 3.
This goes beyond the obvious point that Revisionist pastors and theologians have a fundamentally different understanding from the rest of the church (historically and globally) about what Christ requires in the area of sexual ethics. As someone who believes that Christian ethics as they have always been understood and practised are correct, I think it is pastorally unhelpful to encourage someone to pursue an active sexual relationship with someone of the same sex. My Revisionist friends would disagree.
Here, however, I am talking about pastoral implications of Revisionism more broadly.
Put simply, the act of revising Christian ethics in light of the prevailing views of any particular culture is hugely destabilising for pastoral work. This pertains most clearly to the question of sexual relationships. How is a same-sex attracted person, seeking to live faithfully as a Baptist Christian going to have any confidence in the counsel they are given when the denomination changes its position like this?
But it goes further than this. People in churches will have no idea whether the moral and ethical positions they are urged to follow as disciples of Christ more generally might be abandoned tomorrow if the culture changes its perspective. How can pastors counsel people with confidence? How can congregants have confidence that they are being advised correctly? It is obviously destabilising and problematic.
5. Revising the MRR will harm the Baptist movement’s ability to do mission and, all the evidence suggests, lead to a numerical decline
One of the main arguments I have heard advanced for revising the MRR is that it will help with the mission of the movement. The assumptions that underpin this argument are seldom made explicit but I think they run something like this:
- we want people to come to know Jesus;
- people (particularly young people) will not listen to us talk about Jesus if we challenge the prevailing sexual ethic in the culture; therefore
- we should not challenge the prevailing sexual ethic, particularly as it pertains to same-sex relationships.
This argument is motivated by a good desire. The church should be missional and growing. The problem, however, is that the Revisionist position has exactly the opposite effect.
Study after study, across Canada,¹¹ Britain¹² and the US¹³ has shown that churches which change their position on sexuality only accelerate their decline. Correlation is not causation, of course. Yet the trend is striking, repeated and clear. As David Goodhew observes in his study of recent trends in the UK, many churches are growing as are portions of the Church of England:
The primary common denominator is theology. Those trimming faith to fit in with culture have tended to shrink, and those offering a “full-fat” faith, vividly supernatural, have tended to grow. This is as true of the ultra-liturgical Orthodox as it is of the ultra-informal Pentecostals.¹⁴
We can discuss why this is. I have a number of thoughts about it. But one thing is clear: there is no evidence that revising a denomination’s sexual ethic causes it to grow. In fact it is universally associated with accelerating decline.
6. Evidence from around the world suggests that the BU as both a movement and denomination will not survive this type of change in the MRR.
Moreover, evidence from around the world suggests that the BU as a movement simply will not survive the proposed Revisions. That is not intended to be an exaggeration or to sound apocalyptic; it just reflects what has happened in other denominations where this type of change has taken place.
In the US when the Episcopal Church changed its position on sexuality it resulted in a split, the ACNA being founded, the Episcopal Church declining year on year, and prolonged property disputes.¹⁵ More recently, when the UMC changed its position on sexuality it initially offered to be a home to all perspectives, only for those holding the historic/global position to be forced out over time.¹⁶ Property disputes are about to begin. Again, in the UK the same process is beginning in Methodism. Cliff College recently summarily dismissed its popular head of post-graduate training for publicly expressing the historic/global perspective.¹⁷
Over and over again the same pattern is repeated in different denominations. First, revisions are made to ordination or ministerial recognition. Then the denomination discovers that it is living with two fundamentally different theologies about the human person and sexuality. That situation is untenable and finally those holding to the historic/global position are required to leave or choose to do so.
This isn’t necessarily because of bad-faith by anyone. I think it keeps happening because the nature and implications of the theology underpinning the Revisionist position is not always well understood even by those advocating for it.
From the Revisionist perspective this struggle is a question of justice, analogous to the fight against racism. I don’t agree with this point of view. However I can see that for a Revisionist this is akin to a “gospel” issue (although I’m not sure they would use that language) and one that has to be pursued with the zeal one would associate with that level of concern. Eventually denominations who accept this point in principle soon discover that there isn’t space within that perspective for those who hold to the historic/global Christian sexual ethic any more than there is space for racism. If the Revisionist perspective succeeds, therefore, the eventual division of the denomination is almost inevitable because it cannot simultaneously be true to its own beliefs and tolerate alternative voices.
I am aware that there are those who feel that the emphasis on congregational autonomy within Baptist ecclesiology will prevent such a split occurring here. Such a perspective is, I believe, mistaken. Baptist ecclesiology can (just about) cope with different churches having different perspectives on this point. But it will break when it comes to the national denomination effectively accepting the Revisionist argument that same-sex intercourse is perfectly legitimate for Ministers (and, presumably, therefore for everyone). At that point, as we have seen from the Accreditation rules themselves, the matter is no longer one that is left to the churches. Now we have all taken a position on it and the logic of that position will be worked out in workshops, courses, and, of course, Accreditation. Eventually our denomination will go the same route as all of the others that have tried this.
7. Given that (in London at least) the overwhelming proportion of BME churches oppose changing the MRR, doing so in the face of their objections risks undermining (or appearing to undermine) the movement’s commitment to racial equality and equity
This is a somewhat difficult issue to address but I feel that there is an obligation on us to consider it. To begin, I am categorically not saying that any Revisionist advocate or pastor is consciously racist. Nevertheless, there are some facts about this debate that need to be faced and I have been told, in terms by colleagues of colour that they feel unable to raise because they feel dismissed when they do.
The Revisionist movement generally, and in the BU specifically, is largely white. Conversely Revisionist theology is disproportionately rejected by Black and Minority Ethnic majority churches (at least around London and, I strongly suspect, nationally). This mirrors the position outside the BU. For example, in the Anglican Communion it is the Western, white, late modern churches in Britain and North America that are in favour of revising the historic /global sexual ethic while the Majority World churches of Africa and Asia overwhelmingly oppose it.
If the Revisionist movement in the BU is successful, therefore, it will represent the victory of a predominantly white pressure group over the voices of our BME colleagues. That might be an uncomfortable conclusion but it is nevertheless true and has to be faced, especially given our commitment to enabling BME voices to be heard within the denomination and beyond.
This dynamic is made particularly acute by the nature of Accreditation. As the BU’s documents make clear, Accreditation involves the Union, on behalf of the churches that make it up, recognising and endorsing individuals as suitable for ministry in Baptist churches both in their theology and their lifestyles. Moreover, an Accredited Minister are, to quote the Accreditation guidance directly, “shares in the oversight of the whole network of churches, associations and colleges that make up Baptists Together, even if their own focus is a particular church, project or institution” Moreover, they are “commended to all our churches across England and Wales”.
To be clear, if the MRR are revised in the ways proposed, BME churches will, through the BU, be forced to “commend” and to accept “the oversight” of people they believe in good conscience to be living in a way that disqualifies them from ministry. The BU will speak with their voice but without their consent, and approve in their name things that they strongly disagree with. Given our commitment to racial equality and equity this simply cannot be right.
It may be that these issues would be resolved by the process. But short of the majority of BME churches in the BU approving the proposed Revision, I cannot see how we escape the impression of theological neo-colonialism in imposing such a situation on our brothers and sisters.
Throughout this paper I have tried to be measured in my tone even where I am setting out a fairly robust case for rejecting the proposed changes in the MRR. I fully understand that there are sincere and kind people on both sides of this debate. Nevertheless I am strongly believe that this is an existential question for our movement and one which has to be addressed in a robust, rigorous and detached way. I hope that at least this analysis will contribute to that discussion by making the case for resisting the proposed changed (and Revisionism more generally) as clear and accessible as possible.
- https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/book-common-pra yer/form-solemnization-matrimony
- https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2016/2-december/news/uk/conservative-protestantism-and-chu rch-growth-go-together-says-canadian-researcher
- https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/july/south-carolina-texas-anglican-church-property-episc opal-dio.html
Phil Fellows is an ordained Baptist pastor and a PhD student at Aberdeen University. His research interests are in systematic theology and, in particular, Free Church ecclesiology. He presently pastors a church in Surrey, England where he lives with his family.