The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is co-sponsoring what is being called "A Conference on Sexuality and Covenant" April 19-21 at the historic First Baptist Church Decatur, Ga. CBF is an association of Baptist churches organized nearly 20 years ago in protest of the Southern Baptist Convention's return to orthodox theology.
David Gushee, a noted ethicist at Mercer University, is one of the conference's chief organizers. Gushee stated that the changing face of sexual identity and practice across the American landscape is requiring the church to address its long-held positions on sexual relationships.
Said Gushee, in an Associated Baptist Press story, "We are trying to say that we believe many Baptists, Christians and churches have been avoiding a serious conversation about sexuality and what norms ought to govern the Christian expression of sexuality in our contemporary context. ... We are trying to say that Baptist Christians need a context for 'faithful listening' in a quest to hear what God would say to us today about how disciples of Jesus Christ live in responsible sexuality."
Co-sponsored by the Mercer Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, the conference is being billed, according to Gushee, with five purposes:
-- "responding to a pressing need in Baptist churches for resourcing churches and their leaders."
-- "providing information, narratives, resources and a model for dialogue in churches."
-- addressing "how the biblical moral norm of covenant fidelity applies in our confused and confusing contemporary context."
-- exploring "the most significant issues in contemporary sexual ethics, including but not limited to homosexuality."
-- "discovering whether the Baptist family (or any contemporary Christian group) is capable of respectful and meaningful engagement of diverse people and perspectives in a discussion of sexuality."
Conference lectures and discussions include: "While We Were Avoiding the Subject: What's Going on in the World (and the Church)?"; "Faithful Listening in Challenging Times: How Do We Discern God's Voice?"; "Ancient & Contemporary Voices: What Do Christians Think God Thinks About Sex?"; "Covenant 101: What Are the Ties that Bind?"; "Covenant 201: What Are the Boundaries of Covenant?"; "From Fear to Joy: How Might Congregations Lead the Way?"; and "Celebrating God's Gifts: Seeking and Acknowledging Christ in One Another."
According to an article in Associated Baptist Press, the need for the conference grew out of a 2010 CBF General Assembly breakout session on same-sex orientation. The high-volume attention of the workshop indicated to leaders that a broader discussion was needed.
Jennifer Knapp, a popular Christian music artist who made headlines in 2010 when she admitted to being a lesbian, is scheduled to perform the conference.
Gushee insists that the conference is not about politics or policymaking.
The conference is not without its critics. Luke Smith, a pastor whose church partners with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, critiqued the conference as "misguided" in a recent ABP column.
Smith sees the conference as a veiled attempt to invite sexual immorality into official church policy by "merely expanding licit sexual intercourse beyond marriage. My concern is that this is a perversion of the scriptural witness to sexual intimacy."
Smith continued, "Rather than modeling dialogue on important issues of the day, I fear we as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are modeling how to allow a few loud and persistent voices to derail cooperative alliances. ... So long as individuals are allowed to set the parameters of such discussions framed principally from their own assumptions not born out of the local covenanted communities of which they are members, then inevitably the dialogue will be disconnected from the local church."
The conference comes in the midst of a debate on whether the CBF should reconsider its ban on hiring homosexuals. CBF Moderator Colleen Burroughs has questioned the CBF's policy on refusing to hire gays and lesbians, which the CBF adopted in 2000.
Outgoing CBF executive director Daniel Vestal is on record defending the CBF's 12 year-old hiring policy. Vestal told the Associated Baptist Press, "Except for a small handful of Baptist churches, the vast majority of churches that partner within CBF will not call/hire/ordain a practicing gay/lesbian Christian as pastor or ministering staff member."
"My own conviction is that the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness," Vestal was quoted as saying. "However, there are those in CBF who have a different conviction, and I respect and love them as I hope they do me. I also believe it is possible for Baptists who have convictional differences to cooperate together in missions and ministry, as we honor the freedom of one another's conscience."
David Hardage, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT), also has come out in support of maintaining the current policy on the hiring of homosexuals. He told the Baptist Standard that "Texas Baptists are opposed to homosexual behavior, and they love all people." Hardage reaffirmed his support of a 1996 BGCT report which states that the Bible teaches "the ideal for sexual behavior is the marital union between husband and wife and that all other sexual relations -- whether premarital, extramarital or homosexual -- are contrary to God's purpose and thus sinful."
Tony Cartledge, a writer for BaptistsToday.org and the former editor of the Biblical Recorder newspaper in North Carolina, insists that the issue of removing the CBF hiring policy is long overdue. "The ban on hiring gays needs to be eliminated. Period. Of course, it's not as if CBF has that many employees, and more have been laid off than hired lately, but it's the principle of the thing," Cartledge wrote.
The debate displays the generational divide amongst moderate Baptists, Cartledge wrote.
According to Cartledge, "Younger CBFer's, who are typically much more accepting of persons with a same-gender orientation, have long cried for an open conversation on the subject. That led to a single, very tentatively approached breakout session in 2010, and to the upcoming conference, but it is not an issue that will go away. We have to talk, but we need to do more than talk."
With positions emerging from both sides, some predict a theological fault line to emerge that will further divide.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., recently commented that the CBF's willingness to "have a conversation" about its ban on hiring homosexuals is a strong predictor of the fellowship's direction.
"The issue of homosexuality is not going to trouble, at least in a divisive way, those who have a clear and very principled stand on the subject," Mohler said in his The Briefing podcast. "But if you try to stand in some kind of middle, some kind of artificial neutrality in which you have a policy that isn't so clearly established upon biblical authority, well you're going to find that it is a target of continual renegotiation and calls for change."
The conference in April "is likely just to be a start, the public start, of a very divisive conversation," Mohler said.
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).
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