In the 1995 Spring Semester at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, my wife and I both took Christian Ethics, a required course for every MDiv student. The professor was a well-respected young scholar who was known for his thoughtfulness in tackling some of the most difficult ethical situations of the day. I do not remember every topic that was listed on our syllabus, but I’m quite certain that we were encouraged –expected — to use the Bible as our primary source for answering issues dealing with abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, war and peace, sexual ethics, and a whole host of hot-button cultural issues facing Christians and the church in the mid-90’s.
While my memory fails at certain points (my wife tells me I have the memory of a dead elephant), I do remember earning an “A” in the class while my wife earned an “A+.” I think it was her paper on To Kill a Mockingbird — one which the professor said was the best in the class — which put her over the top. We did not have many classes together during our seminary days, but the ones we did sit through together (including what we called “boot-camp” Hebrew taught by Dr. Paul House) have somehow stayed in our memory banks.
Time has changed many things. Since finishing the Christian Ethics class 16 years ago, my wife and I have served churches in Florida, Virginia, and now New Mexico. That young professor is now older and, after a stint at Union University, finds his current teaching assignment at Mercer University in Macon, GA. While both Union and Mercer could be considered historically Baptist universities, I think it is safe to say that these two schools find themselves on somewhat opposite ends of the theological spectrum.
Likewise, it appears more and more that I find myself on what seems like the opposite end of the theological spectrum from my seminary Christian Ethics professor, Dr. David Gushee. For good or bad, it does not appear that I have deviated from the Biblical Christian ethics that Dr. Gushee taught my wife and I at Southern. It would appear that Dr. Gushee has moved away from — in some cases far away from — what he taught his students at SBTS in the mid-90’s.
Dr. Gushee’s movement from Southern to Union to Mercer probably reflects his movement toward the less traveled road of moderate Baptists. At least in the area of sexual ethics, his travel is taking him farther and farther away from his conservative teaching during his tenure at Southern Seminary (and most likely, Union University). And, that is making all the difference in the world. It will most likely make a difference in the world of moderate Baptist life, particularly within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) in 2012 and beyond.
Dr. Gushee, who currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, will undoubtedly provide leadership for a just-announced conference on sexuality scheduled for April 19-21, 2012. The conference, A [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant, will be held at historic FBC Decatur. According to an online prospectus published by the conference’s sponsors:
The Conference on Sexuality and Covenant aims to provide Baptist Christians, and other interested Christians, the opportunity to have the realistic, honest, and compassionate conversations we need to undertake.
While many topics relating to sexual ethics will be discussed, including “homosexuality, as well as divorce, the growing number of couples who cohabitate without getting married and differing attitudes on such subjects held by older and younger Christians,” there is one topic that will take center stage, regardless of how this conference is billed. A recent ABP article clearly reveals the motive behind the conference:
“the conference will aim to broaden a conversation begun during a breakout session on church responses to homosexuality at last year’s General Assembly in Charlotte, N.C.”
This conference, announced with such fanfare, may well prove to be the undoing of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I have no doubt that other sexual ethics topics will be addressed, but homosexuality will be THE topic which garners the most dialogue and discussion. But, according to Dr. Gushee — who clearly taught a Biblical sexual ethic while at Southern Seminary — this conference is all about talking, whether in plenary sessions or in small groups:
“The questions young adults are raising about what has been the traditional Christian sexual ethic are, in a sense, unavoidable, and it’s our responsibility to create a space for conversation about these issues,” said Gushee.
How much space will be created? Will there be space enough for the church’s acceptance of live-in partners, both heterosexual and homosexual? Will enough space be created to get around the “traditional Christian sexual ethic” which is, after all, so outdated to a younger generation? And, how will God’s Word and a Biblical sexual ethic inform the dialogue and discussion? If one were to read the conference’s prospectus and ABP’s article, one would be hard-pressed to find much reference to Scripture when dealing with these moral issues.
In fact, it appears that the conference will be all talk and no action.
Gushee said the conversation will be focused on “how we should live as followers of Christ” and not to declare a position on any issue. “We are not proposing to create a document or getting involved in public policy or the political arguments,” Gushee said. “We are not looking for grandstanding diatribes. We believe that people are most likely to have legitimate, honest conversations in small groups. So after plenary testimonies and presentations, we will divide attendees into groups to discuss what they’ve heard. We want to foster a deliberate, thoughtful conversation.”
How one can talk for three days about sexuality and sexual ethics and fail to “declare a position on any issue?” How can a group of Baptist churches (albeit moderate ones) and a historic Baptist University not declare a position on some of the most controversial moral issues of all time? Because they want to ignore the greatest resource that could be used to clearly and unequivocally answer all of the questions regarding to sexual ethics. What is that resource? The infallible, inerrant Word of God!
In a culture that is becoming less and less civil, it is admirable to want to “foster deliberate, thoughtful conversation” about some of the most contentious issues affecting our society and churches. However, when you leave out the Word of God in your discussion, whatever thoughtful conversations one has will be muddled and ultimately meaningless. It might make for a feel-good conference in April 2012, but it will take moderate Baptists one giant step further down the road less traveled.