I am Colin Jackson, a middle-aged married father of two and until recently a long-term adherent of Wellington Central Baptist. Early in 2013, I wrote to the New Zealand Baptist national leader Craig Vernall criticising his public opposition to the Marriage Amendment Bill (now Act). When he did not reply I wrote publicly about my disappointment.
Subsequently, I wrote this submission, which argues that New Zealand Baptist churches should treat those of all genders and sexualities as people, and in particular that churches and ministers should not discriminate against same sex couples by refusing to marry them in circumstances that they would have married a heterosexual couple. The submission makes three main points: that loving all people, especially minorities, was a hallmark of Christ’s ministry on Earth; that biblical injunctions against male on male sex are specious; and that by being judgmental against classes of society the church is tarnishing Christ’s name and reducing its own relevance to people’s lives. A concluding section discusses how the modern church should address same sex marriage.
1. Christ’s Attitude to Minorities
The bible does not record any meeting between Jesus and a gay person or any statement of his about gay people. Presumably the mores of the time were such that Jewish gay people would have concealed their sexuality for fear of ostracism or worse. While male and female homosexual love were common in the Greek culture of the day, Jesus did not leave Palestine and would not have been directly exposed to it.
We can, however, reasonably presume that he would have treated a gay person just as any other marginalised person he came across, like the tax collector or the prostitute who washed his feet with her hair. The parable of the Good Samaritan, and many of his other stories and actions, contrast the negative and judgmental behaviour of the religious leaders of the day with the loving kindness displayed by the people they would anathemise. Jesus’s anger with religious hypocrites is shown in several places in the gospels; indeed these are the only people he is recorded as having got angry with. Given that Christ was kind to all manner of people whose ethnicity or behaviour made them completely beyond the pale for the synagogue of the day, we can be confident that were he alive today he would treat gay people and people of alternative genders in the same way, and might well criticise religious leaders who judge them.
2. Biblical Injunctions
The bible has many lists of injunctions. There is the Ten Commandments (both versions); the prohibitions of Leviticus; and under the new covenant, the precepts of St Paul. The main thing these lists of instructions have in common is that none of them are wholly observed and never have been. The commandment against killing was exuberantly broken as soon as the Israelites reached Canaan. Most of the Levitical injunctions seem quaint or incomprehensible and it is hard to form any other conclusion than that they were products of their time intended to reinforce Hebrew exceptionalism. To take them all at face value in modern times would place a church in an extreme and probably illegal position.
To take New Testament examples, we never read in the newspaper about a man plucking out his own eye after finding himself looking with lust at a woman – this behaviour is not expected by even the most dour of churches. In the Baptist church, as with most other modern churches, we do not require women to wear hats lest their hair compete with God’s glory, neither we do not expect them to remain silent in church or to ask their husbands later if they did not understand the sermon.
Clinging to scripture as the sole source of wisdom – sola scriptura – is not something that is achieved by any church today, regardless of any assertion to the contrary. All churches and individual Christians are selective about the injunctions they consider relevant to living in the current age. Given this, it is unreasonable that they should choose to discriminate against an already marginalised group on the claimed basis of a few “proof texts” when equally strong arguments could be mounted against other perfectly normal behaviour. Compared with Christ’s own behaviour on Earth, it looks positively un-Christian.
The biblical injunctions that are used to justify discriminating against people who do not fit the mould of one man marrying one woman are those that explicitly prohibit men from having sex with other men, and say nothing for instance about lesbian relationships or those involving transgendered people. Furthermore, any view that preventing marriage would prevent sex is fanciful. Rather, attempting to prevent marriage between loving partners will further separate them from the church and act to alienate them from faith in Christ.
3. Relevance of the Church
I am writing this submission out of a strong sense of injustice being committed against a minority, but there is another serious matter at stake: the relevance of Christ’s church to the society it lives in. What looks to church leaders like moral purity or appeasing older church members looks to society like hypocrisy, bigotry and even hatred.
Over the years, churches have used injunctions in the bible to justify discrimination against powerless groups in society. This is nothing to be proud of. I give two overseas examples and one New Zealand example below.
The Baptist church in the Southern states of the US supported slavery until the end of the American Civil War. At the start of that war, four million human beings lived as slaves in the US, greatly outnumbering their European owners. Many were abused by their owners; in particular women slaves were treated as possessions and were raped entirely legally. The church provided justifications for their support of slavery from the Old and New Testaments. The Southern Baptist Convention finally renounced racism in 1995, almost 150 years after the end of the war.
During the middle of last century, the Dutch Reform Church – which is active in present-day New Zealand – justified apartheid in South Africa. Under this grossly unjust system people of colour were oppressed by a white minority, and many were killed during the regime’s struggle to retain its power. The Calvinist Dutch Reform Church commissioned several theological studies to prove that apartheid was scriptural. The church declared apartheid to be sinful in 1992.
It would be wrong to assume that the majority of white people in the antebellum South or pre‑democracy South Africa were naturally bad; they must have had moral qualms. But their churches absolved their consciences and legitimated the monstrous evil they perpetrated. Instead of standing for good, these churches were a way of collectively reinforcing evil behaviour.
In New Zealand in 1986 the Salvation Army was at the forefront of the opposition to the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. People who campaigned for this reform remember with bitterness the level of vitriol aimed at them by people who claimed this was the Christian thing to do. Campaigners for the reform still speak of being spat upon by those who wished to “protect godly marriage”. Recently, the Salvation Army made peace with representatives of the gay community in New Zealand, and it did not oppose legalising same-sex marriage; but its Australian sister organisation is still vocal in its opposition. As a result, the name of the Salvation Army remains toxic to many New Zealand people despite the undeniably good works it undertakes, and this hinders its effectiveness and fundraising ability.
As things turned out, some of the church leaders involved in trying to save the moral purity of our nation by suppressing gay people in 1986 turned out to have feet of clay, as has also happened repeatedly in the case of pastors and priests with a prurient interest in the sexual behaviour of others. This happens so depressingly often that people outside the church are no longer fooled, they see unwanted sexual advice from clergy as hypocritical. As it might be put: if you are concerned about what I do with my partner in my home, perhaps it is you that has the problem, not me.
These scandals, along with the very public failings of the Roman Catholic church have brought the moral authority of the church to a low point. The survivors of clerical sexual abuse must find it particularly sickening that the church still believes that it can discriminate against people who do not fit its moral standards. So much for Christ’s exhortation to do unto others as we would have them do to us!
None of the churches described in the examples above holds these discriminatory positions now. They have moved with the societies in which they are embedded, but more slowly than most people. These churches were a force for conservatism, resistant to change, and they sought to exploit religion to justify their conservatism.
This is still the case. Any journalist seeking a reactionary quote in response to some social innovation always seems to be able to find a churchman – and it’s always a man – who will supply one, often arguing that his religious liberty to discriminate is more important than allowing others their own liberty. There are more extreme examples overseas – homosexual people are routinely killed in Uganda after the passage of a law permitting this, which was instigated by two evangelical pastors in the US.
The term Christian has become synonymous with bigot to many people. This is what has become of Christ’s church.
We need to ask ourselves whether we are like the religious leaders whom Christ railed against. Are we placing loads on others that we don’t have to bear ourselves? Would it better for us to be thrown into the sea with millstones around our necks?
I have argued that the church’s antipathy to minorities is un-Christ like, un-Biblical and at least partly responsible for evil behaviour in many times and places. It is also part of the picture of vanishing flocks and closing churches. Why, after all, would young people choose to be part of an institution that perpetuates the prejudices of older generations? Church membership becomes a self-selecting and aging group that reinforces its own prejudice. Those who do not agree leave for other churches or lose their faith entirely.
Preventing this decay is a task for church leadership. Leadership needs to take Christ-like positions on issues such as the marginalisation of minorities and exhort their members to follow them. Leadership may need to be sacrificial. Timidity is definitely not needed. Again, we need to consider the difference between the behaviour Christ modelled and that which he encountered in the religious leaders of his time.
The national Baptist website says on its front page, “You are welcome at any one of our 240+ churches”. It doesn’t add “unless you have a same sex partner”, but the national leader’s public opposition to the Marriage Amendment Act and the 2013 Assembly’s resolution amount to this. People are not fooled by the insincerity, seeing it as yet another way that the church says one thing and does another. If we change nothing else, let’s stop being hypocritical on our own website.
In New Zealand, people of different genders and sexualities are discriminated against by churches including the Baptist church. They are also routinely beaten in targeted street crime and are subject to many times higher rates of suicide and mental health problems than the general population. Discrimination by churches legitimates the violence and reduces people’s sense of self-worth. As long we refuse to treat such people equally, we bear some responsibility for their fate.
The New Zealand Baptist Church needs to recognise same-sex relationships and marriages exactly as it does heterosexual ones. And it needs to treat people who do not fit into its binary view of men attracted to women or vice versa as people of value, whose aspirations, spiritual needs and hunger for affirmation are just as valid as anyone else’s. Christ would do nothing less.
We have a chance to be more loving and less judgmental. Let’s take it.