Conflict and Connection

Few, if any, people in Britain will ever read Conflict and Connection: Baptist Identity in New Zealand (Archer Press, Auckland 2011) by Martin Sutherland. It is a history of Baptists living on the other side of the world, and deals with events which for the most part have no interest or relevance to us.

The truth is that I wouldn’t have read the book if I had not been visiting New Zealand Baptists and if the author had not kindly given me a copy! Yet it proved to be a fascinating read, because just every now and again, there are flashes of insight worth pondering on by Christians wherever they may live. In this blog I will highlight and briefly reflect upon five such ‘gems’.

  1. “Conflict… is a feature of Baptist polity. In 1904 South Australian John Paynter noted that Baptists are distinguished by ‘creed and temper, perhaps more temper than creed’” (p12). Certainly, the history of NZ Baptists is a history of conflict. However, I would maintain that conflict is a feature of church life in general. The fact is that wherever two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, there is bound to be major disagreement from time to time. The challenge leaders face is how we resolve those differences.

  2. “The nature of Baptist ecclesiology lends itself to the emergence of charismatic of just plain pushy individuals who find a place, at least for a time, in ministry” (p13). A little further on Sutherland heads one of his chapters: ““The problem of problem pastors” (p48). Listening to ministers, you might assume that church members are the primary cause of trouble in a church. This history of NZ Baptists illustrates that time and again the ministers are the trouble-makers, pushing their own views, not listening to their members. That too is food for thought!

  3. “A telling measure of the strength of any organisation is its ability to cope with dissension. One might imagine that Baptists would have some skills in this area, as we assume they have had plenty of practice” (p63). Would that this assumption was always true! All too often churches split – or pastors are fired. Nor are Baptists on a national level necessarily any better – leaders get fired and the truth is often suppressed. Again, the challenge is to resolve our differences without demonizing one another and without compromising one another’s integrity – and ensuring that factors such as pride and envy are kept at bay!

  4. “21st century Baptists in NZ … appear hesitant, unsure of themselves, unclear that they have anything to offer the wider church or society at large. It remains to be seen whether a new identity will emerge (p250). This could be written of British Baptists too. Just three paragraphs earlier the author quotes the result of a 1997 church survey which revealed that only 13% of Baptists rated ‘a framework of faith’ as a ‘primary framework’; while 62% of Baptists rated ‘contemporary songs’ as their ‘most helpful style of music’, following which Sutherland comment: “the principal distinctive of NZ Baptists now lay in what they sang”. Alas, this is not a feature just of NZ Baptists. In today’s post-modern world people tend to join churches which make them ‘’feel’ good, as distinct from any principles associated with the churches in question.

  5. “A congregational polity precludes the illusion that one can be connected to the church in general, without being part of one community in particular. This means that the treasure of connection has to be strived for in the messiness of real life. Conflict, if not exactly desirably, is certainly inevitable. Because there is no external human agency to which churches might appeal for resolution, divisive issues must be addressed at the local level… The temptation is to deny the division, or starve it of oxygen, or construct structures which arrogate decisions to themselves in the name of ‘leadership’” (p252). Again, this is not something peculiar to the NZ scene. In larger churches in particular there is a tendency for leaders to manipulate their members. Yes, the dynamic of church meetings in large churches over against smaller churches are very different, but this is no reason to do away with allowing people to share their concerns and fears, and together finding a way forward which will help the church become more effective in its mission.

So in summary: although I would not recommend the book for a non-NZ readership, I do think that some of the issues which Martin Sutherland has raised need to be addressed by Christians well beyond NZ’s shores.

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