An Open Letter to NSW & ACT Baptists
A Special Assembly held in February 2021 passed motions that hold significant consequences for our Association. We are concerned that our Association is locked into implementation of these without sufficient regard for the complexities they present for our pastors and churches and the challenges they pose to the relationship between the Association and its member churches. We write to let you know of our concerns.
The motions passed at the February Special Assembly require the removal from our Association of any church that does not support the Association’s basic beliefs, core values and objects and the withdrawal of the accreditation of any pastor who likewise does not subscribe to the Association’s basic beliefs, core values and objects.
It is our view that this represents a deep and fundamental break with what we understand is central to a Baptist way of being church.
British Baptist theologian Nigel Wright points out that “Baptists are at the radical end of the Protestant spectrum and represent a markedly different way of being the Church of Jesus Christ. They have broken with the idea that the church was ever called to be an imperial institution exercising sacred power over its members and with the power to command. They came to see it as a free community of the redeemed, of those committed to voluntary and wholehearted commitment to the way of Christ pursued in solidarity and mutual affirmation.” (Nigel Wright, “Baptist Christians Repentant and Unrepentant” in Cohen and Parsons, Beyond 400. Exploring Baptist Futures.)
Central to this way of being church is our recognition that every local church has Christ as its head and that it is the responsibility of its members gathered, with Christ in their midst and the Scriptures as their rule of faith, to discern the will of Christ for their faith, life and mission.
This has significant implications for the shape of our Association of churches. Our Association exists for member churches to support and consult with one another, but has no place prescribing what member churches must believe and practise. We are an association of local churches that share allegiance to Christ the Lord and a commitment to the Scriptures as our rule of faith, but often reach diverse conclusions as to what the Scriptures say and mean and on their application to our local contexts. Consequently, on those occasions in which our diversity has provoked strong debate between our churches and on the floor of our assemblies, we have found our way forward not by dividing or excluding but by making space for one another.
This has never prevented the Association from making statements of beliefs, values or purposes. We have however regarded these as confessional, that is, descriptions of the consensus position of our member churches, with churches and individuals free to dissent. We have steadfastly refused to treat our statements as creedal, that is, as prescriptive positions to which churches and individuals must conform.
The motions passed at the February Assembly break with these core principles of Baptist practice. Their specific purpose is to prevent member churches and their pastors holding any position that differs at any point with the Association’s basic beliefs, core values or objects statements. To ensure compliance they introduce the requirement that pastors and churches make regular, formal declarations of their alignment with the Association’s basic beliefs, core values and objects and require the disaffiliation of churches and discreditation of pastors that fail to do so. They turn our confessions into creeds, invert the relationship between church and Association, and intrude on the relationship between Christ and every local church.
We cannot support such a shift and will not participate in processes that require us to do so. We are already seeing destructive fallout from the decisions of the February Assembly in a number of our churches and believe the consequences for Baptist churches and our Association will multiply. We intend to explain the risks to our churches and to urge them to join us in supporting a traditional Baptist understanding of the priesthood of all believers and the autonomy of the local church.
We do not have any confidence that it was the intention of the February Special Assembly to break with a Baptist way of being church, nor that it is prudent to proceed with implementation of motions that bear so heavily on our pastors, churches and Association when almost 4 in 10 votes were cast against them.
In view of the matters we are raising, we call the Association to pause implementation of the motions of the February Special Assembly until the member churches have given sufficient time to reflect on the nature of what it is to be Baptist churches in a Baptist Association.
Posted September 17, 2021
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An Open Letter to NSW & ACT Baptists
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