Christians lack consensus on sexual ethics, conference speaker says

Christians no longer share a consensus that sex outside of marriage is always wrong and must find new ways to deal with that reality besides splitting into smaller and smaller groups over issues like homosexuality and contraception, a keynote speaker said April 19 in the opening session of a [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant co-sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Mercer University’s Center for Theology and Public Life.

By Bob Allen

Messiah College anthropologist Jenell Paris gives opening lecture at the April 19-21 [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant.

Jenell Williams Paris, professor of anthropology at Messiah College and author of The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Determine Who We Are, said Protestant organizations “have pursued organizational purity” by dividing into factions and fighting about sexual ethics. She said it is time for Christians to recognize their “internal pluralism” and stop trying to force each other into a consensus that no longer exists.

Paris said “trying to force consensus” is not the proper path. “That approach tends to rely on rigid authority, lack of charity toward others and shaming discipline of dissenters,” she said. Instead, she said, Christians have tools like grace, love and gentleness to equip them for dialogue, tolerance and to “live the gospel … in a new context.”

Paris said it should be recognized that Christians are not exempt but rather complicit in the erosion of traditional sexual values. Just one in five unmarried evangelicals age 18-29 say they are virgins, and 42 percent are in a current sexual relationship. Younger Christians tend to be saying that things like homosexuality and pornography aren’t as “icky” as they used to be, she said, representing “a strong shift toward tolerance.”

Paris acknowledged that turning away from the “tug-of-war where people line up on their side of the issue and start struggling against their opponents” can, at its worst, “turn to moral license.” At its best, she said, “it’s an opportunity for deep repentance, to see how much our theology was shaped not by God’s love, but by abhorrence and even ethnocentrism -– being disgusted by the unfamiliar, and blessing that disgust with theology.”

Nearly 400 had registered by the start of the long-anticipated conference, which began with an overflow crowd of 325 people filing into a workshop at the 2010 CBF General Assembly in Charlotte, N.C., titled “How is God calling us to be the presence of Christ among persons of same-sex orientation?” Rick Bennett, director of missional formation for the Atlanta-based CBF, said that indicated a need for “a safe space to talk about human sexuality” in the CBF family.

Bennett, co-convener of the three-day conference that ends with worship on Saturday, said planners decided early on that a conference about same-sex attraction alone would be too volatile as a starting point for ongoing discussion, so the focus was broadened to include other topics such as cohabitation, birth outside of wedlock and pornography.

“We are here to resource one another, believing that Jesus Christ is the truth and that none of us holds all of it,” Bennett said. “We’re not here to decide. We’re not here to proclaim. Simply put, this is not a summit; this is a conference.”

Co-conveners David Gushee (left) and Rick Bennet join in congregational singing at conference at First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga.

David Gushee, head of Mercer’s Center for Theology and Public Life, said the university was happy to co-sponsor the event because of its long identity as a Baptist institution and interest “in promoting dialogue about an important and sensitive issue that some people would be afraid to host a dialogue about.”

Gushee said his center normally deals with public policy issues, but in this case cordoned off that part of the discussion to make it easier to have conversation. He said the conference still could have implications for public policy if it demonstrates that people really can discuss a sensitive issue like sexuality constructively and with respect. “I think in some sense churches have been taking their cues from politicians,” Gushee said. “Maybe we need to stop doing that. Maybe we need to start being the church.”