comments powered by Disqus
Andrew Walker April 23, 2012
Decatur, GA—Despite conference organizers’ best attempts to keep the “Sexuality & Covenant” conference focused on broader issues of sexuality and covenant, "conversation" routinely centered, disproportionately, on homosexuality.
The conference at First Baptist Church in Decatur was hosted by the "moderate" Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), which claims 1,800 congregations who reject the conservatism of the Southern Baptist Convention. Mercer University’s Center for Theology and Public Life was also a sponsor. About 300 attended.
Broader sexual issues relevant to the Christian church were discussed— divorce, singleness, abuse, fidelity, and pornography. Yet a good number of plenary addresses seemed to at least momentarily fixate—pointedly—on homosexuality.
At times, the event seemed to reveal the CBF’s slow embrace of progressive sexual ethics.
Two speakers, who incidentally are both friends to this author, attended Baylor University's Truett Seminary together, and who spoke one after the other, reached different conclusions about homosexuality.
Melissa Browning, an ethicist and adjunct professor, addressed sexual attitudes both ancient and contemporary. Focusing on “embodied theology,” she emphasized the importance of experience in sexual ethics. Browning teaches at Lexington Theological Seminary, Mercer University and Kennesaw State University.
“When we do theology from the body we not only remember our physical bodies, but the bodies of those around us, others in our community, the body of Christ," Brown said. "We might ask the same question asked in a recent workshop at a CBF General Assembly, ‘How is God calling us to be the presence of Christ among people with same-sex orientation?’ Yet when we ask the question, we remember that ‘we’ who are Christians are gay and straight, young and old, rich and poor, marginalized and mainlined. We might instead ask the question of how God is calling those with same-sex orientation to be the presence of Christ to us. How might our gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer sisters and brothers be teaching us to finally accept sex as grace and gift?”
Lamenting the patriarchal context of the New Testament, Brown urged recognizing that “in the world of the Bible, there was simply no concept of loving, committed, same-sex couples.”
Coleman Fannin, a lecturer at Baylor University, was the lone openly dissenting voice on the conference’s discussions about homosexuality. Fannin expressed concern about a “strong current flowing in this direction among moderate Baptists.”
Fannin focused on catholicity and tradition within the Baptist church, relating both to local church autonomy. “I am convinced," he said, "that the church’s ‘traditional teachings’ are basically correct and that although sexual desire is determined by a combination of genetics and environment, sexual behavior is rightly directed toward two equally valid ideals: celibacy and heterosexual marriage.”
“I am reluctant to discuss homosexuality in particular because doing so only seems to cause more pain and conflict," Fannin said. Later, he added, “Given the fragmented state of moderate Baptist life, it is difficult to imagine that they can avoid the impasse reached by every other denomination that has addressed the subject.”
Fannin warned moderate Baptists from taking their emphasis on democratic autonomy as an absolute, indicating that such an absolute is a crisis that is “fundamentally ecclesiological.”
“[I]f this remains Baptists’ normative conviction, then their ethics, including their sexual ethics, are in peril,” he said.
The fall-out of the conference, it seems, is uncertain. But those in attendance agreed that the conference, in the least, laid the intellectual foundation necessary for pro-LGBT advocates to gain momentum within the denomination, despite repeated proclamations that the conference had no intention to direct the affairs of the denomination. Conference organizers were careful to note that presentations were not to be interpreted as being a CBF endorsement.
For this conference not to fuel momentum towards progressive sexual ethics seems unlikely. The audience showed its loudest enthusiasm during appeals for more progressive stances on homosexuality.
Organizers intentionally did not speak to CBF denominational policy. But the audience seemed to think differently, many urging an accelerated embrace of homosexuality within CBF. One person on the CBF’s Council of Endorsements remarked that, “to my knowledge, not a single person who sits on the council would, on their own doing, prevent a homosexual from receiving an endorsement into such fields as chaplaincy and pastoral counseling.” The individual and another close by agreed that the CBF needs to modify its current policies and that this conference points towards needed changes.
Mercer University ethicist David Gushee, a key conference organizer, spoke passionately and forcefully about “covenant” in his address. Using his own parents as a model of covenantal faithfulness, Gushee noted, “I have thought from the beginning that the very important thing we could talk about would be the issue of covenant. I believe that covenant is a, if not the, single best way that has emerged in the Christian theological ethic-ecclesial tradition to talk about what we are supposed to with our sexuality, and for that matter, our relationality.”
Gushee soberly called for all churches to embrace “covenant” as an ethical norm. “I am firmly convinced that the greatest challenge facing the Christian/Baptist family at this time is nurturing more Christians who have the confidence, and the willingness, and the capacity, to make and keep such covenantal promises.” Later, Gushee said that “the Left-Right differences have not made much of a different in preventing the divorce culture. This must change.”
But Gushee stopped short of addressing who ought to be eligible for entry into such covenants. And he urged embracing the concept of “covenant” before it disappears. “I don’t think our main issue is the fierce and tedious fighting on the boundaries about which categories of people ought to be viewed as eligible to make covenants.”
“Focusing on covenant,” Gushee said, “gives some positive normative vision that has the potential for inviting everyone into the conversation. It speaks deeply to our ecclesial problems, as well as to our marital problems.”
Cody Sanders, an openly gay doctoral student at Brite Divinity School, spoke about how churches might learn about the practice of covenant from LGBT persons. He later that the most significant “contributions that LGBT persons make to our understanding of covenant is the way in which same-sex relationships call into question standard gender norms.”
“When no predefined gender roles exist to unthinkingly guide how intimate relationships are to be fostered, the potential – at very least – is present for covenants forged according to centuries of gender role residue (much of which has served to subjugate women), but through commitments to mutuality and equality.”
When Sanders mentioned that his first “official” date with his current partner was to the Bob Jones University religious art museum, his statement was met with thunderous applause and laughter from the audience.
Gushee later acknowledged that homosexuality was relevant to the conference: “I share the observation that homosexuality is the most pressing sexual question of our time. You see it on the left and right. It’s an odd confluence of events that have led to that.”
“When you have people arguing fiercely over an issue, that issue seems to set the horizon for debate,” Gushee said.
Plenary addresses focused less on the Scriptural witness of sexual ethics and more on connecting personal narratives to the larger themes of Scripture.
When asked whether the conference lacked an emphasis on the Bible, Gushee admitted: “I am hearing more of an embrace of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. I think that’s an important observation. Some of our most thoughtful leaders are functioning more with a repertoire of resources beginning with Scripture but extending to tradition, reason, and experience. I think that there is an awareness in our part of the Baptist world at this time that tradition, reason, and experience are always operative when people are reading Scripture. You might call it a loss of naiveté.”
According to Gushee, “When someone is quoting the Bible to you, saying, ‘This is the Word of God’ and then drawing implications, they bring to that task all kinds of stuff. They bring experience, reasoning, often which are filtered through tradition. By naming that, we’re less likely to be naïve about these other sources.”
Asked about the skepticism that conservative Christians might have towards the conference, Gushee replied, “I believe that it cannot be wrong to invite everybody in our part in the Christian family to gather in a room and wrestle with Scripture, lived experience, lived realities, in a discernment process asking: “What does it mean to live our sexuality in a way that honors God?”
“The presupposition is that cultural changes are so profound that fewer and fewer people are successfully living out what has been considered the traditional sexual ethic,” Gushee added.
R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, criticized the conference as a catalyst for embracing progressive sexual ethics within the CBF.
“The CBF is in the death throes of denominational anguish over sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular,” Mohler said. “They are making clear decisions to abandon biblical authority in pursuit of endless ‘conversations,’” he added.
According to Mohler, “The denominations that take a clear position on homosexuality have, in the least, the virtue of honesty. The CBF has decided not to take that approach.”
All at the conference seemed to agree that the conference itself did uniquely mark out “safe space” for serious conversation. Two attendees said they attended because they wanted “to see where the area of disagreement was; but also to learn about people’s differences.”
This sentiment was echoed by Mike Glover, a seminarian, who, though self-professedly more conservative on sexual issues, said he, “really appreciated that the dialogue groups were not geared to correct anyone’s pre-existing opinions, but to simply learn where and why each stood.”
“I have felt heard and I have felt honored in my belief,” Glover added.
“This is about agenda-free conversation," Glover said. "I just want to understand. And people seemed interested in learning where I’m at on the issues.” He went on, “I don’t know where that conversation could have taken place, expect at this conference.”
The groups, Glover said, were “not about fixing each other, just hearing each other.”
Daniel Vestal, the CBF's current Executive Coordinator who is more conservative on sexuality, called the conference a “sincere effort to have serious and honest conversation about Christian discipleship, which includes human sexuality.”
Vestal rejected the claim that the conference had any specific interest in homosexuality. “While the issue is on everybody’s mind, this conference is about a broad discussion within Baptist life.”
“The CBF is not about instructing local churches on what to believe," Vestal emphasized. "That difference is the genius of the CBF.”
After attending the conference, two miscalculations have become apparent to me.
First, critics of the conference mistakenly predicted it would make declarations on CBF polity. No formal policy positions were advocated. But it would be naïve to assume that the results of this conference will be static. And, unmistakably, giving a platform to sexual categories historically condemned by Scripture and Christian tradition is a statement in itself, regardless of what the intent was.
Secondly, sponsors of the conference underestimated homosexuality's role in the conference. Openly lesbian musician Jennifer Knapp’s presence was not a coincidence. And a tiny exhibit hall with only seven vendors, but three dedicated to explicitly pro-gay ministries is a message in itself.
Knapp, a highly successful Christian recording artist, announced her lesbianism in 2010.
Asked whether Knapp’s presence was intended to convey a particular message, Gushee responded: “We thought her story was interesting. Here is a person who grows up in the Christian community, has a successful career, disappears, and comes back. And now, claims a lesbian identity and is predictably pummeled for having done so. We wanted to encounter her as a human being, as a Christian wrestling with sexuality, and hear her story.”
The prevailing defense for the conference, and salve for how the denomination will move forward, was the CBF’s firm commitment to local autonomy.
When asked whether the growing generational support for LBGT inclusion could potentially conflict with the CBF’s commitment to local autonomy, Gushee noted: “The conference is about resourcing churches and not reaching consensus. Conflict doesn’t have to be threatening.” He added: “Each congregation will have to decide what it is going to do about behavioral standards.”
Gushee concluded: “Autonomy provides some space for doing things differently. You don’t have to make policy that applies to congregations. Each congregation will make its own policy. If we can help congregations do well in that process, then this conference will have been a success.”
The Institute on Religion & Democracy
1023 15th Street NW, Suite 601, Washington, DC 20005-2601
P: (202) 682-4131 F: (202) 682-4136