DECATUR, Ga. (BP) -- A highly anticipated conference sponsored by moderate Baptists on the topic of sexuality kicked off its first day on Thursday (April 19) with conference attendees hearing speakers discuss the issue of sexual identity and how to discern "new understandings" of authority.
Dubbed "A [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality & Covenant," day one of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-sponsored event was attended by roughly 300 people at the First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga.
Organized by Mercer University ethicist David Gushee, the purpose of the conference -- officials say -- is to provide an atmosphere of honest discussion on sexual issues facing the church, not the least of which was homosexuality, a palpable undercurrent and unavoidable subject in each of the presenter's remarks. Organizers went to great lengths in their introduction to state that the presence of any particular speaker was not an endorsement of the speaker's position, but a willingness to give each a hearing, in keeping with the "conversational" intent of the conference.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) is an association of Baptist churches organized nearly 20 years ago in protest of the Southern Baptist Convention's return to conservative doctrine.
Guy Sayles, pastor of First Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C. -- a CBF and Alliance of Baptists congregation -- gave an address on "Faithful Listening in Challenging Times: How Do We Discern God's Voice?" Sayles focused his address on the issue of authority, noting that "people read the Bible in astonishingly diverse ways," and that "Baptist Christians acknowledge how personal experience affects what people see, hear, feel, understand, do and become." Sayles went on to suggest that Christians ought to "remember that the risen, still-acting, and still-speaking Jesus is the norm by which we interpret Scripture and evaluate other sources of authority."
Using the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 as an example for marginalized voices seeking inclusion into the present-day church, Sayles noted that the Old Testament prohibitions would have forbidden the Ethiopian Eunuch from fellowship. "Their Bible said it: A man like him could never call the Temple his home. The Ethiopian experienced what too many people experience from God's people: the ugliness of exclusion," Sayles said.
Sayles lamented the use of "proof texts" and suggested that Christians look to the overarching themes of Scripture -- such as creation, brokenness and new creation; slavery and liberation -- to guide their sexual ethics more than individual texts.
"Too often, Christians read the Bible in ways that overemphasize isolated texts and use them to push aside the just, gracious and merciful God whom the grand overarching themes reveal," Sayles said. "The result," Sayles concluded, is that "followers of Jesus think, feel, and act in ways that aren't Jesus-like but seem to be required by their reading of the Bible."
"Would [the eunuch's] race, or the fact that he was a foreigner or his high place of authority, or his peculiar status as a eunuch bar him from following Jesus?" Sayles asked. "Would he be held back, hindered and cut off once again? Were there hidden barriers in the Gospel, exceptions and exclusions written into the fine print of the Good News?"
Jesus, in contrast, "made the radical inclusiveness of God unavoidably clear."
Sayles warned of churches becoming "ecclesiastical border patrol officers" by focusing on characteristics such as race, gender, class, divorce and sexual orientation that prohibit entrance into the church.
"What prevents people who make us uncomfortable, or who raise issues for which we lack adequate responses from being baptized?" Sayles asked. "What bars their becoming and being full and equal participants in the Christian community? Nothing in God. ... Therefore, it is a denial of God's unconditional love and of salvation by grace if the conditions of someone's life seem to us to justify our excluding him or her from the community."
Jenell Williams Paris, an anthropologist from Messiah College and author of "The End of Sexual Identity," spoke on the topic, "While We Were Avoiding the Subject: What's Going in the World (and the Church)." Paris' address focused upon the sexual climate of present-day America, noting that America is awash in sexual brokenness, with sexual problems affecting the larger population and Christians alike. Paris said that with out-of-wedlock child births soaring, divorce rampant, pornography increasing, and shifting attitudes toward homosexuality occurring, Christians who find themselves in an increasingly pluralistic society must "turn from exemption to implication" -- to see the sexual brokenness of Christians as endemic to larger society's brokenness.
Christians also, Paris added, must see that a one-time consensus on sexuality within the church has shifted into an "internal pluralism" where Christians now openly disagree on sexual ethics. Paris stopped short of endorsing the idea of sexual pluralism within modern Christianity, but to simply recognize its existence.
While the conference has not been designed to sway denominational policies or ethics, the topic of homosexuality has been a conference overtone. The conference has been plagued with critics who insist that it is an invitation to invite immoral sexual arrangements into the life of the church. And with the CBF's current moderator, Colleen Burroughs, calling for the CBF to re-examine its hiring ban on homosexuals, her untimely statements have cast a shadow over the conference, although conference organizers insist that the intent of the conference has nothing to do with formal policy, specifically the hiring ban.
Attendees of the conference have expressed appreciation for CBF's willingness to have a "conversation" about controversial sexual topics. Some attendees considered the conference a good "starting place," but one person said it was "long overdue."
Asked about the conference in conjunction with the CBF's hiring ban on homosexuals, one individual who wished not to be identified said that "it was time to do away with the hiring policy and pursue justice," hinting at the need for the CBF to bring formal inclusion of LGBT persons into the life of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
One young attendee pointed to what he sees as a breaking point over issues of sexuality, saying "the debate over homosexuality is one of money and generational divide. Will the CBF make it another generation? Or will the younger generation leave?"
Indeed, a generational divide seems apparent as attendees' responses on the question of homosexuality ranged from all-out endorsement to unease and reluctance.
Of the seven exhibitors at the conference, three of them are 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.
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy said in a statement that "some of the CBF leadership now seem poised to embrace liberal culture and sexual revisionism."
In contrast, Tooley said, other Baptists have not compromised "with the broader culture on an issue to which Scripture and global Christian tradition speak directly."
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).