DECATUR, Ga. (BP) -- Despite conference organizers' best attempts to keep the Baptist Conference on Sexuality & Covenant focused on broader issues April 19-21, the conversation often centered on the topic of homosexuality.
The April 19-21 event was co-sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which is an association of Baptist churches organized nearly 20 years ago in protest of the Southern Baptist Convention's return to conservative doctrine. The other co-sponsor was the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.
Two speakers, who incidentally are both friends and attended Truett Theological Seminary together, reached different conclusions on the topic of homosexuality.
Melissa Browning, an ethicist and adjunct professor at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer, focused her plenary address on ancient and contemporary sexual attitudes. Focusing on "embodied theology," Browning emphasized that experience plays an important part in sexual ethics.
"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," Browning 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, Browning called on attendees to recognize 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 regarding homosexuality. Fannin expressed concern for the conference, noting a "strong current flowing in this direction among moderate Baptists."
"I am convinced," Fannin 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."
He continued, "I am reluctant to discuss homosexuality in particular because doing so only seems to cause more pain and conflict." 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 fallout of the conference is uncertain. But those in attendance said the conference, in the least, laid the intellectual firmament necessary for pro-LGBT advocates to gain momentum within the CBF. Conference organizers were careful to note that presentations were not to be interpreted as being a CBF endorsement. The audience's enthusiasm on controversial subjects like homosexuality often gained the loudest and most audible approval during the addresses.
GUSHEE EMPHASIZES 'COVENANT'
David Gushee, one of the conference's organizers and a professor of Christian ethics at McAfee, spoke passionately and forcefully on the topic of "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."
He issued a sobering call to 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 difference in preventing the divorce culture. This must change."
Gushee, though, stopped short of addressing who ought to be eligible for entry into such covenants and encouraged attendees to embrace 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, who is openly gay and a doctoral student at Brite Divinity School, chose as his topic the ways in which churches might learn about the practice of covenant from LGBT persons. Sanders would later state 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 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 applause and laughter from the audience.
Gushee later acknowledged that homosexuality did have relevance to the conference. According to Gushee, "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."
SCRIPTURE NOT THE FOCUS?
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 said, "I am hearing more of an embrace of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral" -- a reference to a model that encompasses Scripture, reason, tradition and experience. "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."
Gushee added, "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."
R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., criticized the conference as a catalyst for embracing progressive sexual ethics within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
"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.'"
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."
Daniel Vestal, the CBF's current executive coordinator who holds to more conservative opinions 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. That difference is the genius of the CBF," he emphasized.
Of the seven exhibitors at the conference, three of them were sponsored by explicitly pro-gay ministries: Prophets for Sexual Justice; Pastors for Sexual Health, New Direction of Ministries of Canada, and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.
Jennifer Knapp, a highly successful Christian recording artist who gained notoriety in 2010 when she admitted to being a lesbian, performed a concert.
Asked about whether Knapp's presence was intended to convey a particular message, Gushee said, "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 CBF 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 said "the conference is about resourcing churches and not reaching consensus. Conflict doesn't have to be threatening."
"Each congregation will have to decide what it is going to do about behavioral standards," he said.
Gushee added, "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."
Read BP's earlier story about the conference here
. Andrew Walker writes for the Institute on Religion & Democracy (theird.org), where a version of this story first appeared. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).