In a recent visit to the Wake Forest Divinity School, Baptist minister and PhD candidate Cody Sanders shared reflections on his book, Queer Lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow, and the intersection of the church and human sexuality.
Sanders, a friend of mine, shared that his motivation for writing the book was to help create a new paradigm for conversations on sexuality. As a gay minister, he admitted being frustrated by answering the same, tired questions many in his position face: Can someone be gay and still be Christian? Should churches be accepting of people with sexual identities that fall outside of the prevailing heteronormative standard? Are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender) people allowed the same rights and privileges in leadership as their heterosexual colleagues?
Questions like these have prevailed for some time in the church. His aim, he said, was to move the conversation from one of “suspicious scrutiny” to one of “compassionate curiosity.” Instead of asking if, how or should, Sanders proposed asking, “What can LGBT people and relationships teach us?”
The tides are clearly changing in the public square toward equality for LGBT people. On the federal level, the Defense of Marriage Act has been partly struck down by the Supreme Court. Now, on the state level, several marriage amendments and laws are being overturned, and “right to refuse service” proposals are being struck down before they even have a chance to be implemented.
Some will hold to the belief that this is an onslaught of cultural secularism, the consequence of our country being steeped in an “anything goes” mentality. I, on the other hand, maintain on both religious and political grounds, that this is a move forward to some of our most deeply held beliefs, namely the dignity and worth of each individual person and the freedom to participate in the fullness of life God intends for everyone.
I know that this sentiment is not widely shared by many churches in the “moderate” middle. Many in these churches have been content to rest in this ambiguous middle ground on sexuality, claiming that “it’s not an issue for this church,” consequently embodying a Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell mentality in their church and waiting for the churning debate outside to subside.
However, none of these are helpful strategies ultimately. These are people in our churches – all of our churches. And rather than being proactive and following the radical love of Jesus to the ever-broadening boundaries, we in these churches now find ourselves in a very uncomfortable position. The tides have turned and we are the ones who must answer for our inability to change.
In light of the circumstances, I believe it might be prudent, now as ever, for our churches to engage in the kind of compassionate curiosity that Sanders suggests. As the progress of justice marches on, it might be important for us to do some deep self-reflection on this issue, lest we be left on the sidelines. How might our curiosity lead us to deeper and more robust connection with ourselves, with our LGBT kindred, and with our world as we live out the ministry of Christ to love all and serve all?
My compassionate curiosity has led me to these important questions regarding churches, with CBF churches in mind, and the intersection of human sexuality and justice:
First, are there elements in our Baptist heritage that can lead us to a renewed understanding of sexuality and help us develop a better posture of welcome to those with different sexualities? When CBF and Mercer University hosted “A [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality” two years ago in Decatur, I admit being a little disappointed. While most of the speakers and organizers were Baptists themselves, there was no clear case made for what our Baptist faith could say to the concerns of human sexuality. And that is unfortunate because I believe there are great strides to be made for that case.
Every Baptist church I know touts freedom as a core value – freedom of conscience, soul freedom, freedom of the individual in community. Shouldn’t this freedom and autonomy extend to the realm of sexuality as well? Isn’t sexuality another dimension of the unique personhood we claim as Baptists?
Second, is it time to re-visit an anti-gay hiring policy passed by CBF in 2000 for funding and organizational purposes? Whether you agree with the policy’s intentions or not, it is riddled with contradictions and an outdated understanding of sexuality.
It states that CBF does not wish to issue statements on social issues and then proceeds to do so.
It allows for only “faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness,” and forbids funding for organizations or causes “that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice.” The conversation on sexuality did a great many things, the most significant of which was to wake us from the delusional stupor of such ‘traditional ways of thinking.’ Terms like “homosexual practice” are outdated and unhelpful – making it sound more like a science experiment than the living and breathing people who are in our congregations and organizations. With 14 years of new information, new theological insights, and conversation partners like Cody Sanders, we should hope for and work for better.
Finally, will the law lead the way again for this new wave of equal rights? While the church was a significant player in the Civil Rights Movement, it was ultimately the passing of the Civil Rights Act that turned the corner. We are experiencing such a turn now. The majority of Americans now live in areas where same-sex marriage is legal. So will our churches be proactive – engaging in this kind of curiosity that can lead to deeper discussions and more loving action – or will we be left repenting of our mistakes once more?
I’m curious to see which side of history the church will land on this time.