Reflections on the “Baptist Conference on Sexuality and Covenant”

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By David P. Gushee
This past April Dr. David Gushee, in cooperation with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's Resource Center, facilitated a national conference on “Sexuality and Covenant.” Before the conference Dr. Gushee wrote an article for the Associated Baptist Press discussing seven presuppositions for the conference and then reflected on how the conference handled them in another article for ABP the week after the conference. Below is a glimpse into Dr. Gushee's reflections concerning the conference on sexuality and covenant:

#1 The conference presupposed that there is such a thing as the Church, which is not the same as the State or the Culture, and that the Church is (something like) that community of human beings who loves Jesus Christ and seeks to serve him faithfully as Lord in every aspect of its life…The conference presupposed that it is possible for the Church to talk together about sexuality exclusively as an aspect of Christian discipleship, rather than as a matter of denominational policy or public law, and that is critical to remember how to have a discipleship-focused conversation before this skill disappears entirely from Christian life.

Comment: The Baptist Conference on Sexuality and Covenant (BCSC) largely succeeded in maintaining its focus on the life of the Christian Church, and both plenaries and small groups were filled with reflections on what it means to truly love Jesus Christ and serve him faithfully as Lord in every aspect of life. There was occasional slippage with a few references to whether or not gay marriage should be legalized, which was unfortunate but perhaps inevitable given that the organizers did not censor the speakers. Critics might say that the conversation itself represented capitulation to the culture. While I experienced moments in which I thought I might be hearing more culture than scripture or ecclesial tradition, sorting through which is which is exactly what one does in an open conversation about a contested issue in Christian community.

#2 The conference presupposed that it is possible for the Church to have an internal conversation precisely as a community of Christ-followers about what it means for our sexuality and covenant-making to be lived out in a way pleasing to our Savior and Lord.

Comment: I believe that this is precisely what occurred. We did have an internal conversation as CBF-type Baptists about how to live out a sexual ethic that is pleasing to Christ. Most of the time, not all the time, both the manner of that conversation and the content of that conversation struck me as appropriate to a serious community of Christ-followers.

#3 The conference presupposed that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is one branch of the Christian Church, and that as such it is capable of having a discerning conversation about these matters in terms reflective of the faith and piety extant within this particular part of the family of faith.

Comment: I believe that some of the distinctives of CBF-type churches were on display during this conference, including the combination of passion for Christ, central attention to the Great Commandment, commitment to a Christocentric reading of Scripture, thoughtful attention to contemporary culture, pastoral concern for suffering and excluded human beings, openness to the Holy Spirit, and capacity to engage in a demanding and difficult conversation without shutting down or shutting out dissenting voices. To the extent that people who were mainly not there and are mainly not a part of the CBF community make judgments about the conference based on news reports, perhaps their concern about the event reveals that they are rightly situated in different faith communities.

#4 The conference presupposed that the local congregation under the Lordship of Christ is the apex of authority in Baptist life, and that a voluntary gathering of Baptists to discuss sex and covenant carries no authority but can be helpful if it aims to serve congregations in their life and ministry… The conference presupposed that every Christian deserves and must have a place, like a family dinner table conversation—rather than some members of the Christian family talking about other members of the family who are not allowed to pull up a chair and speak for themselves.

Comment: It became very clear during the conference that CBF has indeed retained a vitally important commitment to the local congregation and congregational autonomy, that this is really different from what has emerged in the SBC, and that the conference did indeed provide resources that many pastors and laypeople found helpful as they continue to think about how to minister within their own congregations. The idea was a conference in which Christians could gather and simply have a conversation, without requiring consensus and without coming to a vote about a policy, simply in order to help congregations figure out how to do ministry most faithfully. Further, a conversation helpful for the wide range of individuals and congregations represented meant a “pulpit” space that was not censored and represented the diversity of congregations and voices present in the family. This means that news reports about specific speakers and their comments are easily mined for provocations if that is what one is looking for. But that is not what one should be looking for, not in Christian community.

# 5 The conference presupposed that the best way to have a Church conversation about sexuality is to bring scripture, tradition, and contemporary realities into sacred conversation with each other, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Way of Jesus Christ…The conference presupposed that a meaningful family conversation about sexuality must be open and honest and not restricted to bland platitudes and clichés.

Comment: Most speakers operated from explicitly cited or implicitly assumed biblical texts and themes, except for those who were charged primarily with exposing conferees to specific, sometimes deeply painful, cultural and personal realities. The conference was richly biblical, but that may not always have been appreciated by those for whom being “biblical” means taking one or two Bible passages and then proclaiming them as if the reader's/preacher's interpretation is beyond dispute and occurs without any interpretive framework provided by the rest of scripture, Christian tradition, life experience, or contemporary realities. The question is not whether to be biblical, but how to be biblical, and how honestly to integrate attention to other sources of authority in shaping Christian moral vision and norms.

#6 The conference presupposed that what the Church has for generations understood to be biblical Christian sexual morality is challenged comprehensively today both in theory and in practice, and that an adequate family conversation about sex must be just as comprehensive as the challenges we now face.

Comment: It might not always be apparent from news reports, but the conference was indeed as comprehensive in its scope as it could be for a two-day event. We discussed marriage, divorce, children of divorce, sex trafficking, domestic violence, dating, singleness, pornography, and various aspects of LGBT issues. The primary theological frame was covenant but other norms such as sexual holiness and just love were presented. I do acknowledge that gay and lesbian issues surfaced more often than was scheduled. This must mean that these issues matter to a lot of people, on all “sides.” But those who were present at the conference can easily testify to the comprehensiveness of the treatment of sexuality and covenant issues.

#7 The conference presuppose the value of personal encounter within the life of the Church, because we believe that God is active and God's Spirit can be met in the lives of Christ-followers earnestly seeking to do God's will.
This may be the most important confirmed presupposition of this event. I don't think there was anyone I met at the conference who was casual about their Christian faith. They had spent hundreds of dollars and three days with us precisely because they want to follow Christ and want to do God's will, and they thought this conference could help.

And the group was so diverse. People came from all over North America, though most were from the South. Perspectives varied quite a bit, though perhaps the CBF center and left were somewhat more represented than the right—of course, everyone was invited, and a variety of viewpoints were represented.

I was most struck by encountering large numbers of young Christians; and perhaps especially gay and lesbian young Christians, whom I had never encountered in such numbers. They came out of the woodwork, came from the margins of Baptist life in the South, because they thought maybe this was an event in which they might be welcomed—and maybe a conversation to which they could contribute—and maybe an experience from which they could benefit. We didn't go out looking for them. They came to us.

I know that when I encountered these “living human documents,” these so often wounded and rejected and bullied and abused young people—kids the age of my own kids—my heart broke. It broke with sorrow at how much they had suffered at the hands of Christians. It broke with gratitude that somehow despite all that hurt these young people still want to be a part of the Christian community. I will never forget those encounters, and I will always seek to be true to these individuals, and what Christ taught me through my moments with them.
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Taken and edited by permission from Associated Baptist Press on April 30, 2012