By Bob Allen
The Alliance of Baptists, Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America teamed up to revise and update a congregational resource on human sexuality first released in 2000.
The March 2013 edition of Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Resource for Congregations on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity made its debut at the April 4-7 Alliance of Baptists convocation in Greenville, S.C. That’s the same city where Alliance leaders previewed a groundbreaking “Report of the Task Force on Human Sexuality” in 1994.
Paula Dempsey, minister for partnership relations with the Alliance of Baptists, termed human sexuality one of a number of “headlight” issues the Alliance has taken on in its 25-year history – like women’s leadership in the church, racial reconciliation and ecumenical and interfaith dialogue that other groups thought too progressive or too risky at the time.
During her annual report Dempsey extended “full welcome of all regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity” and singled out gay members of the audience to say: “We stand in solidarity with you seeking the same rights for your families other families enjoy.”
Edited by Cody Sanders, an emerging gay religious leader who spoke last April at a [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant co-sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Mercer University’s Center for Theology and Public Life, the 360-page resource updates both popular and academic language about sexuality.
When the resource was first published, for example, many of the authors used the term “homosexual” when referring to gay men and lesbians. Once commonly used that way, today the term is not typically used to label persons except by those who hold a non-affirming stance.
“Queer,” on the other hand, once used as a pejorative term to taunt, denigrate and humiliate, today has been reclaimed as a unifying word inclusive of persons who identify as bisexual, transgender, lesbian or gay.
The first edition omitted any discussion of gender identity. While “sexual orientation” refers to an individual’s primary attractions and desires for intimacy, “gender identity” is defined as a personal conception of oneself as male or female – or rarely, both or neither – regardless if the individual is biologically female or male.
Sanders said no attempt was made to edit articles that were original to the 2000 publication out of respect for the integrity of the original articles and the contexts of time and place in which they were written. The revised resource includes more stories of churches that have “come out” as welcoming and affirming of people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Sanders said in an introductory article, the revised Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth is needed now more than ever.
“Over the past decade the debate and conversation about human sexuality and gender identity and diversity in North America has reached into every corner of our civil and religious lives,” he wrote.
“New laws have been enacted regarding sexual violence. Laws about marriage and civil unions have both prevented and in other cases allowed same-sex couples to wed, urging churches to enter the turbulent waters of the debate.
“Congregations are facing with urgency issues of biblical interpretation, the relationship of church and state and polity questions about church membership and leadership. Too often the conversation is framed by political platforms, and the voice of progressive Baptists can be lost in the fray. Some churches have struggled to find space for discernment or interpretation based in the lived experiences of believers.”
Sanders said a series of meetings began in late 2009 of representatives from the Alliance, the Peace Fellowship and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists to consider revising the resource and how the three organizations might work together.
Mary Andreolli, the Alliance’s minister for outreach and communications, said the new Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth will be available from Amazon.com and AllianceConnect, an online clearing house for sharing resources among progressive Christians also unveiled at this year’s convocation.