March 5, 2012

Liberal Baptists Poised for Paradigm Shift on Sexual Issues?

An upcoming conference and hiring policy point to a potential paradigm shift for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The conference is already making waves as the event draws near.

Figures within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are hosting what is being called “A [Baptist] Conference Sexuality and Covenant” April 19-21 at the historic First Baptist Church Decatur, Georgia.

David Gushee, a noted ethicist at Mercer University is one of the conference’s chief organizers. Gushee is a prominent spokesman on the Evangelical Left. As head of Evangelicals for Human Rights, he drafted the National Association of Evangelicals’ stance against U.S. enhanced interrogation tactics. He chairs the New Evangelical Partnership for Common Good, headed by former NAE official Richard Cizik, who lost his NAE job after backing same-sex civil unions.

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, “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: (1) “about responding to a pressing need in Baptist churches for resourcing churches and their leaders; (2) providing information, narratives, resources and a model for dialogue in churches;” (3) the conference is about how the biblical moral norm of covenant fidelity applies in our confused and confusing contemporary context; (4) the conference is about the most significant issues in contemporary sexual ethics, including but not limited to homosexuality; (5) the conference is about 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 at the Associated Baptist Press, the need for the upcoming 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 a concert during the conference.  

Gushee all the while insists that the conference is not about politics or policymaking.

The lead-up to the conference is not without its critics. Luke Smith, a pastor within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, critiqued the conference as “misguided” in a recent editorial.

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.” Smith ends his concern with a belief that the voices—those whom he labels “progressive”—present at the conference are those disconnected from local churches.

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 homosexuals, which the CBF adopted in 2000.

Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville recently commented that the CBF’s willingness to “have a conversation” about its ban on hiring homosexuals is a strong predictor of the denomination’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. “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,” said Mohler. The hiring policy being questioned will certainly add to that fervor.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a dissident breakaway group from the Southern Baptist Convention, disbanded from the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1990s as the convention began advocating more conservative positions on theology and politics.

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