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Saturday 12 November 2016

The Irrelevance of Baptist Belligerence

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 24th March 2016

If the latest round of fundamentalist anti-gay literature is indeed predominantly from the Baptist denomination, then what relevance does this have to New Zealand? As it turns out, very little.

As I noted in an article on the West City Bible Baptist sect a few years ago, the New Zealand Baptist denomination has been in steep decline for some time. Back in 1991, it numbered 70, 155 people. According to the most recent census data (2013) , it's now down to 54,345. To complicate matters, however, some respondents to this question may not necessarily mean that they are adherents of the Baptist Union of New Zealand, the main denominational concentration, but profess belief in the denomination's theology and hermeneutics (ways of reading the bible and related sacred texts).

The Baptist denomination was founded on the principle of the centrality of the sacrament (religious event) of adult baptism (immersion in water) as a sign of membership of the community of Christian faith, as opposed to infant baptism within the Catholic and Anglican communions during christenings. The first Baptist church was founded in 1609 in the Netherlands and spread to the United Kingdom, North America, Australasia and elsewhere. Sadly, while it had earlier been forthright in its denunciation of the institution of slavery during the eighteenth century, it relented from that commendable staunch opposition during the Second Great Awakening of the nineteenth century and the growth of evangelical churches throughout the British Empire. The New Zealand Baptist denomination coalesced in 1851, when New Zealand's first official Baptist minister emigrated to New Zealand from Yorkshire. In 1854, he succeeded in obtaining permission to officially perform Baptist weddings, previously a Catholic and Anglican duopoly until that point. The Baptist Union of New Zealand was formed in 1882.

Today, despite their steeply declining membership, many New Zealand Baptists are conservative, fundamentalist Pentecostals or charismatic in faith. This means that they resort to glossolalia ("speaking in tongues" that resemble no extant human language), "prophecy" (predictions of forthcoming national events and the timing of the end of the world), faith 'healing' and the 'discernment of "spirits" (as well as exorcism of 'evil' spirits). This supernaturalism may have led to the exit of professional and managerial elements from the denomination, while more progressive souls have left for the Methodist or Anglican denominations, especially if they believe in LGBT involvement in church membership. Given its steep decline, the church has had to retrench many of its institutions.

When I took a look through Gaynz.Com's past references to the denomination, the outcome was less that edifying. Although gay Massey University religious historian Peter Lineham still considers himself to be a member of the denomination, the Baptist Union opposed civil marriage equality in 2013 and doesn't undertake religious same-sex weddings. One Paihia Baptist minister supported the languishing, nearly extinct New Zealand 'exgay movement', although it should be noted that "West City Bible Baptist Church" and its bluntly homophobic minister Logan Robertson are not affiliated to the Baptist Union. Former Conservative Party leader Colin Craig "used" to be a Baptist, although it is uncertain whether this means that he attended a Baptist Union affiliated church. And then there are fiery homophobes like the late Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas and the Atlah Worldwide Missionary Baptist Church in Harlem, whose minister David Manning is currently facing the forecloseure sale of his church for unpaid utility bills, as well as Eddie Long, Brian Tamaki's former mentor from Atlanta's Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, caught cheating on the "down low" with attractive male parishioners, leading to the end of his church. Vehement US Republican antigay presidential nominee Ted Cruz is a US fundamentalist Southern Baptist. Disgraced not so "exgay" subcultural luminary Dr George Rekers is another Southern Baptist.

The global Baptist denomination has had many antigay activists, then. It is not surprising that it is the breeding ground of the latest round of antigay literature and that it is desperately trying to convince other evangelicals and liberal Christians that liberal LGBT inclusion within churches and society are "unchristian", which is irrelevant to everyone else. They may convince a few fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, but liberal Christians won't listen because their denominational and hermeneutic traditions are different and they believe in the utility of orthodox medical and scientific research and evidence in determining what their denomination's stance toward LGBT individuals should be. As for those outside Christian religious observance, it is quite simply irrelevant. We don't consider ourself bound by denominational subcultural polemic and greater New Zealand Baptist belligerence will only cause the accelerated decline of an already retrenched denomination.

As if to emphasise this, there was a brief moment of belligerence when two black t-shirted fundamentalists showed up outside the liberal St Matthews in the City Anglican Church and proceeded to rant at the church congregation with the assistance of microphones. Now, I am not saying that this was the work of Westcity Bible Baptist Church or Logan Robertson, given that there is no direct evidence that the sect was involved in this malarkey. However, I also recently discovered a somewhat fringe-dwelling antigay, anti-Catholic and credulous website belonging to an outfit called the "New Zealand Protestant League", whose 'case' against gay rights was built on antigay biblical proof texts and especially seemed to have it in for St Matthews in the City. It had links to "Bible Baptist" fundamentalist churches in New Zealand and overseas. Was this the source of the aural acerbity against St Matthews? Is this what the antigay lobby has been reduced to? Haranguing other Christians?

Perhaps this is because the Christian Right fears it is being 'silenced?' However, it should be noted that contemplative silence plays an important role in Catholic spirituality. Some might argue that is the problem with contemporary militant fundamentalist Protestantism. It appears afraid of critical self-reflection and adaptation to change, unless it occurs well after the event. To effectively adapt would imply civil and rational discourse, which is absent amongst any Christian Right other than a small coterie of fundamentalist and conservative Catholic intellectuals. In any case, judging from the events described above, then, the target isn't the general public or western civil societies anymore, it is liberal Christian churches. However, that will be a forelorn task. Liberal Christians embrace science and evidence-based rigour when they evaluate public policy as well as their own religious and moral lives. By contrast, as any observer of the Family First website can see, militant fundamentalists are anti-science populists and display mortal fear of secular professional expertise. In increasingly secular modern New Zealand, that may explain the current weakness of conservative Christian activism and its attendant denominations and sects. Full of (meaningless) sound and (impotent) fury, yet signifying nothing.


Baptist Union website:

Paul Tonson et al (ed)A Handful of Grain: The Centenary History of the Baptist Union of New Zealand(Vols 1-4): Wellington: New Zealand Baptist History Society: 1982.

John Tucker:A Braided River: New Zealand Baptists and Public Issues: 1882-2000:New York: Peter Lang: 2015.

R.Albert Mohler:We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong: Hampton:Thomas Nelson: 2015.

NZ Protestant League:

Craig Young - 24th March 2016

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