March 30, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, March 30, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Unity at the expense of integrity: British Baptists send mixed signals on SSM
The moral revolution that brought us same-sex marriage and so much more also brings challenges at every level of human society, challenges to every school, to every institution and organization, challenges at every level of government, and challenges that will address every single congregation, every church, and denomination. That is made clear in a recent story from Britain where the Baptist Union of Great Britain is struggling with the issue of same-sex marriage. As Bob Allen reports for Baptist News Global,
“Hoping to avoid division over an issue that is dividing religious bodies across the globe, British Baptist leaders are asking churches not to allow their buildings to be used for same-sex weddings.”Show Full Transcript
That’s a really interesting lede and the most interesting thing about it is the use of the word “buildings” here. That goes back to the unique circumstances of the 2013 legislation that legalized same-sex marriage in Great Britain. That legislation includes a so-called opt in provision whereby churches could officially opt to register their buildings as certified locations for recognized same-sex marriages. Various denominations and churches have responded in different ways after 2013, but what is really noteworthy is that in this story the British Baptist Union, now known as the Baptist Union of Great Britain, has officially asked its churches not to allow their buildings so to be used.
The background of this shows what is happening in so many churches and denominations across the globe. The Baptist Union of Great Britain is here stating that its overwhelming conviction is that marriage should be defined exclusively as the union of a man and a woman. However, the denomination also declares itself to be so democratic in terms of its polity that it cannot prevent a local church from either defying the will of the Union in certifying its building to be used for same-sex marriages or in preventing its clergy from actually officiating at those very ceremonies.
A closer look at the story takes us to news articles that are posted at the website Christian Today in the UK and also to the website of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. When looking at these particular documents what becomes clear is that the British Baptist Union is trying exactly as the lede in the first article indicated to avoid division, and their effort has led them to try to take a position that is somewhere between where they have been and most assuredly where they are going. The denomination’s current policy says, on the one hand, that buildings should not be used for same-sex ceremonies. It then, on the other hand, says that it cannot by its polity, by its organizational principles, by its Congregationalism, deny the right of a congregation to allow its clergy, its ministers, to officiate at same-sex marriages. But at the same time, the denomination also has an official list of what is described as unbecoming conduct for its registered ministers, and that includes “sexual misconduct, which brings the church and ministry into disrepute.”
Nota bene: According to the document, this specifically includes sexual intercourse and other sexual activity outside of marriage as defined exclusively as between a man and a woman. So now you have three different positions undertaken by the Baptist Union of Great Britain. On the one hand, a declaration that, so far as the vast majority of its churches are concerned, marriage is exclusively the union of a man and a woman. In the second place, saying that that aside, it cannot prevent the ministers of the denomination in terms of local congregation authorization to go ahead and officiate at same-sex marriages. The Union then says that it wants its churches not to allow their buildings to be used for same-sex ceremonies, and then goes on to say that its ministers cannot themselves be involved in any kind of same-sex sexual activity. Now what do you say about a denomination that tries to take those different positions and to say all those different things all at once? This is a perfect mass of confusion.
Just about a year after same-sex marriage was legalized in Great Britain, the Baptist Union declared that it affirmed “the traditionally accepted biblical understanding of Christian marriage as a union between a man and a woman.”
But even then as Mark Woods of Christian Today says, the Baptist Union went on to say,
“‘We also recognize the freedom of a minister to respond to the wishes of their church, where their conscience permits, without breach of disciplinary guidelines’ – implicitly allowing ministers to conduct same-sex marriages if they wish.”
So here you have a denomination saying on the one hand this, but on the other hand that, and the further discussion that is taking place in recent weeks only makes the situation more complicated and more confusing. The big question is why would any denomination try to straddle the fence like this on an issue as contentious—and we would say as biblically clear—as the reality of same-sex marriage? One answer to that question comes in the article by Mark Woods when he cites the Rev. Lynn Green, identified as General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, who listed the Union’s priorities for the year 2020:
“Among them it was said that it would navigate well the issues of human sexuality and find a settled place.”
What that clearly states is that the British Baptist Union at this point does not have a settled position. It is on its way to some settled position. What does that tell us? It tells us what we have seen so many times in the past. If a church unmoors itself from a very clear commitment to all that is revealed in Scripture—and in particular to the church’s historic understanding of sexual morality as revealed in Scripture and the marriage as defined in Scripture—then it will eventually end up in some other place, and eventually that will be in the full endorsement of same-sex marriage. But we also need to note something else. There is this myth that somehow churches or denominations can have a multiplicity of positions on this question within their own membership. But that means this: at the very least, those who are in this kind of denomination are by their membership in a denomination that, if it does not authorize same-sex marriage, does allow ministers to perform same-sex marriage. That may be a crucial distinction between authorizing and allowing, but not where it actually happens at the level of the local church. To allow is in its own way to authorize.
Christian Today also cites the British Union’s “Baptist declaration of principles in which one of the statements says that ‘each church has liberty under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to interpret and administer Christ laws.’”
Now that’s a statement that affirms Congregationalism. But what this does in practice is to open the door for virtually any belief or any practice within this denomination of churches. If there are to be any limits on beliefs or practices, then those limits will require local congregations to submit themselves to the wisdom of the larger body and to its authority to determine the limits of its own membership. This is exactly what Baptists in the United States faced in the years of controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention asserted its confessional identity—that is that every church is truly independent—but so also is the Southern Baptist Convention itself. Even as every church is free and independent to establish its own beliefs and practices and the guidelines for membership within that congregation, the Southern Baptist Convention is equally free to do the very same thing, and the Southern Baptist Convention in the year 2000 adopted a revised confession of faith known as the Baptist Faith and Message that clearly establishes marriage as exclusively the union of a man and a woman and the denomination has made very clear its willingness to eject from its membership any church that violates that conviction.
Responding to the recent discussion in the Baptist Union of Great Britain, one of its associations, the West of England Association of churches declared that the national body had sacrificed biblical integrity given its primary objective of unity. One of the biblical principles we need to recognize here is that true unity is never at the expense of biblical integrity. As a matter of fact, any unity that is at the expense of doctrinal integrity or of biblical integrity will not last. It is a false unity that is destined to fall apart. In the high priestly prayer that is recorded in John chapter 17, Jesus prayed to the Father that his disciples, his followers, would be united in truth, but the Lord described that unity when he prayed to the Father:
“Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth.”
True unity, true Christian unity as defined in the Scripture, is never at the expense of biblical integrity. It is rather predicated upon biblical integrity and a common confession of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
Final in this issue, those who know church history will be reminded of the Downgrade Controversy that took place among British Baptists at the end of the 19th century when stalwart evangelical Charles Spurgeon accused the British Baptist Union then of allowing compromise and a lack of biblical integrity amongst its ministers and churches. Charles Spurgeon lost that debate in one sense; the British Baptist Union did not heed his advice, but instead ejected him from its membership. On the other hand, Charles Spurgeon surely won the argument. Everything that he warned would happen in the British Baptist Union has happened and now you see among British Baptist the very same pattern happening all over again. As one of my history professors in college said, history sometimes surprises us, but seen over against the larger patterns of history, these surprises are usually mild surprises. In that light, there’s only very mild surprise in terms of this recent controversy among Baptists in Great Britain.
Easter-less Easter eggs spark controversy in UK, but Christ-less secularism the bigger issue
Next, staying in Great Britain, that nation is quickly becoming what is classically defined as a post-Christian nation. Increasing percentages of those who live in Britain now are not only no longer involved in the active life of any congregation, but increasing millions of Great Britons no longer even know or understand the Christian legacy that built their nation and by which it was defined. In that sense, a very interesting story appeared last week with the holiday of Easter on the horizon. John Bingham, Religious Affairs Editor for The Telegraph in London, wrote, and I quote,
“It is a vanishing act worthy of the Easter bunny himself and just as mysterious. Easter – the most important Christian festival of the year, celebrated by well over two billion people around the world – appears to be quietly disappearing: at least when it comes to eggs.”
He went on to report,
“Growing numbers of chocolate eggs are on sale in the UK without any mention of the word “Easter” on the front of the packaging.”
He went on to say,
“Many of Britain’s best known brands have quietly dropped the name of the Christian festival from their main branding, now selling Easter products labelled simply as “chocolate egg” or even “egg”, it has been claimed.”
So now you have a situation in which the post-Christian nature of a society is indicated in the marketing of what had been called Easter eggs that are now simply “chocolate eggs” or, just to get down to the essence of things, “eggs.” David Marshall, quoted within the article as one who has noted this with concern, gave examples including the “Cadbury Easter Egg Trail Pack” that is now simply “Egg Hunt Pack,” the 2016 version of the Quality Street Easter egg made by Nestlé simply reads “Large Milk Chocolate Egg with Quality Street inside.”
“Similarly, the Milkybar Easter Egg, also a Nestlé product, is now labelled simply as ‘Milkybar White Chocolate Egg.’”
Marshall went on to explain,
“It looks like there is a trend. A lot of businesses are not comfortable with the religious aspect of the festival. If they want to make their product as attractive to as many people as possible it could well be that they want to remove references to the Christian festival because that will be seen as attaching to one faith tradition.”
John Bingham, in a follow-up article to that original report, came back with a response from Cadbury after the criticism that it had rebranded Easter eggs as merely eggs. According to Cadbury, it hasn’t banned the word, it has just relegated it to the back of the packaging. Responding on Twitter to criticism that it had removed the word Easter from Easter eggs, Cadbury responded by writing to one person,
“Hi there, the word ‘Easter’ is still mentioned on the back of our eggs. As a seasonal treat they’ll always be linked with Easter.”
Just not, we should note, on the front of the packaging. In language that is quintessentially British, but also deeply revealing, Cadbury responded with an official statement:
“Easter is still stated on our Easter Eggs on the back of pack. Most of our Easter Eggs don’t say ‘Easter’ or ‘Egg’ on the front because it is very obvious through the packaging that it is an Easter Egg, re-emphasised by their seasonal availability.”
By the end of last week with Easter coming on Sunday, this reached even the floor of the House of Commons in the British Parliament, where one member of the parliament said,
“One thing I’m concerned about is that on Easter eggs now we never see the word ‘Easter.’ They’re just chocolate eggs.”
And then the parliamentarian said,
“It’s time we restored the Easter to Easter eggs.”
Now the point worthy of our reflection in terms of this controversy has nothing to do with chocolate eggs—to state the very least, this has nothing to do with the festival of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. The point is rather this: here you have a society that is growing so post-Christian that branding experts believe that putting even the word “Easter” in terms of the phrase “Easter egg” on the front of the packaging might limit its appeal to consumers in Great Britain. The point is not so much about chocolate and certainly not about eggs, it’s about the post-Christian nature of a society and about the fact that here you have Great Britain, increasingly secular, virtually year-by-year, if not hour-by-hour, and what they’re down to is a phrase that says, “Let’s put Easter back in Easter eggs.” But the point to be made is this: if you’re down to arguing that we must put Easter back in Easter eggs, you are far afield from arguing about the central Christian truth claim about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. But in a society that no longer believes in Christ crucified and raised from the dead, eventually even the word Easter attached to Easter eggs is going to become something of an embarrassment to a secular society. By the time Easter falls off of boxes of so-called Easter eggs, it’s a bit late to be concerned about the secularization of a society.
Even as Britain is post-Christian, its secular society still benefits from Christian ideals
That very point was made next by Tim Stanley, writing recently in the pages of The Spectator, a major London magazine, when he wrote that British Christians “must start to think and act like a minority.”
Stanley went on to write,
“Christians have to accept that we can’t take Britain’s Christian identity for granted anymore. Church attendance is way down, multiculturalism is a reality, atheism is popular, and the establishment is almost antipathetic towards people of faith. While mainstream culture is prepared to accept faith as a vague and private matter, expressions of orthodox dogma are seen as warning signs of insanity.”
And he went on to say,
“So we now live in a post-Christian society, surrounded by the archaeology of an almost forgotten faith. One of the jobs of Christians in the next few decades will simply be to preserve – keep the churches open, keep the assemblies going, keep the Church of England’s role as the national church.”
He then quotes the character Hector from the play The History Boys,
“Pass it on, boys, pass it on.”
But here we also need to note: if the main purpose of Christians is reduced to trying to keep buildings functioning, then the faith has already departed.
In a very interesting paragraph, Stanley writes,
“Christians ought to illustrate the ways in which their faith has informed so much that is lazily associated with secular liberalism. Humanism, they should remind the public, began in the Catholic renaissance. Tolerance evolved from the notion that conversion should be entirely a matter of free will. Even Britain’s constant guilt over its past treatment of religious minorities is, ironically, a Christian thing.”
He then goes on to make the really important statement,
“There’s no such culture of self-abasement in Turkey, even if it did previously rule millions with an iron fist during the Ottoman period.”
All of that is another way of saying that worldview matters, and it also points to the fact that modern, secular, Western liberals are enjoying freedoms and liberties that are entirely traceable to a Christian worldview that they now reject. They are rejecting the very foundational assumptions and principles and convictions that made the modern democratic experiment possible. They are undercutting the foundations of the very human rights and dignities they claim to represent. It’s really interesting that Tim Stanley here points to the fact that there is no accompanying Ottoman guilt in terms of the treatment of minorities, even as there is guilt in Western societies. Why is that so? It is because Western societies still have, to a decreasing degree, consciences formed by the Christian biblical worldview, and that provides an understanding of right and wrong, of justice and injustice that is part and parcel of Western civilization itself. Urgent in all this is the understanding that you cannot have a Christian civilization once you deny Christianity. The evaporation of that Christian civilization is only a matter of time, and as even now candy packaging in the United Kingdom makes very clear, that disappearance can come in a big hurry.
North Carolina Attorney General states he will refuse to defend recently passed bathroom law
Next, a couple of vital updates on issues we’ve just discussed on The Briefing. Yesterday we talked about the law passed in North Carolina signed into law defining the proper use of bathrooms as assigned to the biological sex that one was assigned at birth. But now we have the news coming from North Carolina that that state’s Attorney General is going to refuse to defend in court the very law that was passed by the General Assembly there and signed into law by the North Carolina Governor. That’s another statement of where we are in this country in terms of the great worldview division over a question even as basic as man and woman, boy and girl, the reality of gender.
In possible tip of the hand, SCOTUS requests additional briefs filed in contraceptive case
Also very important news coming from Washington D.C., we’ve given a lot of conversation to the Little Sisters of the Poor case challenging the ObamaCare legislation on religious liberty grounds related to the contraception mandate. Word came out of Washington yesterday that the Supreme Court has called for additional briefing materials,
“…on alternative ways that employees of religious organizations could receive contraception coverage mandated by the Affordable Care Act without involving the organizations themselves.”
As Robert Barnes suggests in the Washington Post, the new order could mean that the Court is deadlocked on the case. It is notoriously difficult and almost impossible to anticipate what the Supreme Court will do until the Supreme Court does it. But we are facing the reality that with a 4-4 split on the current court, this kind of decision could actually leave us in a very confusing situation. It is encouraging on the one hand that the Supreme Court has asked for more information. The specific question the court asked for is one that does encourage us. It is the question of what other steps, what alternative steps the government might take to meet its aims in terms of contraception coverage without violating the religious liberty of Christian organizations. At the very least, it is a helpful sign that the Supreme Court appears to be asking that question and asking for alternatives to the current policy of the Obama Administration. This much is clear, the fact that the Court has asked this question cannot be bad news, because at the very least it means that the Court is at least considering this vital question.