Can we talk about sexuality?
Recently a pastor in Kansas has been challenging my school and me personally on our position concerning our faithfulness to Scripture concerning human sexuality. It reminds me of the sustained conversation in Southern Baptist life — which I long ago departed — about how to read the Bible. Suffice it to say, there is more hermeneutical work to be done, and people are especially fearful when it comes to thinking about sexual minorities. In the interest of forthright dialogue, I sent the following letter:
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
You have received a mailing from a pastor in our region declaring that Central Seminary has “gone too far.” He voiced several concerns and suggested that the seminary is at odds with our American Baptist values and, thus, you should no longer support the school financially. I want to take this opportunity to respond to his letter. Since 1901, Central has faithfully prepared ministers for churches in our region — and beyond — and we take our historic identity and partnership with ABCCR seriously.
His letter highlighted three concerns:
1. My personal view of the Bible
The Bible tells God’s story of redemption from creation to the consummation of the age, and I treasure its guidance, wisdom, and power to “instruct for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). For nearly 40 years in seminary teaching, I have looked to the Bible as the center of my study and theological understanding.
In my writings and instruction, I clearly acknowledge the socio-cultural context in which God inspired Scripture. These sacred writings reflect the patriarchal ethos of the Ancient Near Eastern world (OT) and the influence of the Greco-Roman world (NT), and the views of men and women, family relationships, slavery, and what it means to be holy are different than our time. The Bible remains a “norming norm” as people of Christian faith, and I seek to interpret it wisely and faithfully in our very different context.
2. The inclusion of human sexuality in one of the “threads” of the seminary’s curriculum
Along with gender equality, racial diversity and disability, Central’s curriculum includes human sexuality. One cannot speak about what it means to be created in the image of God without engaging these dimensions of human identity.
Central is a place of open inquiry, and we explore together the urgent questions that surround what it means to be human. We would be irresponsible as a center for ministry preparation if we did not study the Bible, human experience, the tradition of the church, and the best current scientific studies of the many facets of human beings, sexuality included.
Central does not indoctrinate students; rather, a faculty member or student is able to hold his or her own perspective on these matters. Central practices “theological hospitality” toward both the right and left as they differ in understanding.
Our board-approved policy is to be non-discriminatory in matters of gender identity and sexual orientation. The seminary trusts that this honors difference and provides an open space for learning.
3. The project Central pursued with the Arcus Foundation.
The Arcus Foundation invited Central to apply for a grant to explore the dimensions of human sexuality over the past three years. As a part of that grant, faculty members from Myanmar Institute of Theology have taught re-settled refugees in the United States about this dimension of cultural assimilation. Instead of being solely shaped by the hyper-sexualized media, learners in this program (Judson Foundation Communities) have had opportunity in the Burmese language to explore the contemporary currents of understanding.
This project has also convened conferences with pastors and other congregational leaders both in Myanmar and in the United States. The desire has been to understand the biblical teachings, human rights, and the church’s response to sexual minorities.
Further, churches have been seeking guidance on how to have conversations in their congregations about LGBT persons, and they have looked to Central for assistance. Over the past several weeks, Central has offered webinars for these interested pastors and congregational leaders.
I concluded my letter by setting a larger context for the conversation.
Over the past couple of decades, ABC-USA has rendered a number of statements about sexual orientation. Among those statements is a call for constructive dialogue. Central has been pursuing that instruction with intentionality in the service of our educational mission and our service to the church.
Has Central gone too far? We have not if we believe that mercy is at the heart of the gospel. We have not if we believe God continues to call us to engage our culture. We have not if we trust that God still has more light to break forth from God’s holy word.
I am sure that my response will vex many, as it has my interlocutor from Kansas. Yet, this conversation must continue. Currently, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is also seeking to discern what God is summoning from the church in these days in terms of hospitality to differing sexual orientations. So talk together, we must. The Spirit will guide us into all truth.