This weekend's [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant in Decatur, GA, was a breath of fresh air in hostile debates about religion and homosexuality. It was hosted by the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) and the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.
It's no secret that the loudest religious voices in the media are driving gays and lesbians from churches in the name of "family values." But speaker Emily Holladay reminded the audience that the gays aren't the only ones marginalized by rigid definitions of family. Holladay described how she was excluded from Christian fellowship when her parents divorced and her family fell short of the traditional model.
Christians can agree that our culture is broken. We see this brokenness in the growing problems of sex trafficking and pornography, our objectification of women, and rising divorce rates. Individuals within these systems experience hurt and shame, and we long for deeper connections than our material culture can provide.
But to respond to such evils with a diatribe against homosexuality is dangerously irrelevant. This hypocrisy is painfully clear to anyone in the margins, and it's the reason most of my friends don't take religion seriously.
This weekend's conference reframed the question by asking what Christians value: the archetype of the nuclear family, or the values that model represents. At its core, the conversation sought the roots of Christian sexual ethic and dusted off the model of covenantal relationship as a standard worth defending.
Conference critics fear these discussions will lead the moderate denomination to accept sexual immorality, specifically homosexuality. The CBF currently bans hiring gays and lesbian, and many attendees were indeed hopeful this might change.
Conference co-convener David Gushee says he understands the fear of sexual chaos, but he is confident that the conversation will strengthen rather than lower Christian standards.
“Covenant is believing something. It’s making binding commitments that restrain your freedom and restrain your sexuality. The covenant norm historically has been a heterosexual norm, but an interesting question to explore is whether it can be extended to welcome same sex relationships that are willing to play by covenant rules. That is not about chaos. It’s about calling everyone to the same standard.”
The rethinking of sexual ethic isn’t about changing the rules, but rather, reconsidering the ethic they embody. This is a necessary conversation when Christians are more concerned about girls marrying girls than addressing the very real ways consumer culture cheapens sex.
At its best, a sexual ethic rooted in Christian covenant challenges the commodification of sex. It's a radical alternative for those who seek meaningful connections in the modern world.
As a gay Christian, I was heartened by this weekend's conversations, but I was also very aware that the conference was about much more than accommodating my gay. It was a hopeful attempt to build a healthy and honest Christian sexual ethic that models faithful commitment for families of all stripes.