Only with great difficulty, at least with regard to touchy subjects such as homosexuality. On June 25, during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s (CBF) General Assembly in Charlotte, I was one of more than 300 people who packed into a conference room that promised “A Family Conversation about Same-Sex Orientation.”
The conversation has been a long time coming: about ten years ago, facing charges from critics that the Fellowship was too friendly to gays, the Coordinating Council adopted an organizational policy declaring that CBF would not knowingly hire homosexual persons. Program planners also clamped a virtual lid on discussion of the topic in workshops or elsewhere.
Sitting on the issue has not been comfortable, however. More progressive folk, especially among younger CBFers, yearn for greater inclusion and want to talk about it. Thus program planners agreed to the aforesaid “Family Conversation,” but only with great care and considerable control over how the discussion should go.
The session was conducted with much seriousness and almost palpable fear that outsiders might criticize or that more conservative insiders would bolt. In near-funereal tones, facilitator David Odum, executive vice president of leadership at Duke University, noted that none of the participants had volunteered for the assignment (though there are many others who would have), and he read a disclaimer noting that any opinions expressed were those of the presenters, and not of CBF as a whole. The workshop was presented in the form of a solemn worship service, with verses of a hymn sung between each segment of the discussion.
Odum called to mind the divine vision that impelled the Apostle Peter to be a witness to the Gentiles. Peter was criticized “for being a witness to people he shouldn’t be a witness to,” Odum said, leading to several rounds of debate among leaders of the early church. The question of “How is God calling us to be the family of God to people of same-sex orientation?” should be conducted in the same spirit of debate and compromise, Odum suggested. “I agreed to facilitate this discussion because I believe congregations are healthier if they talk about thing that are important.”
“Here’s the bottom line,” Odum said: “to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in these days means having a way of answering the question of how to be a witness to a lot of people. This is most difficult for us because it’s scary: some think they have all the answers and some think they have none and people in the pews are caught in the middle.”
Two prominent CBF pastors had been recruited to speak about their personal perspectives on the issue. Both noted that they and their congregations did not always agree.
Joy Yee, pastor of Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco and a past moderator of CBF, said her personal view is that homosexuality “is not what I would call God’s Plan A.” But, “not much of the human journey in history or even in the the Bible has followed Plan A, she noted, while “there has been a lot of redemption through Plan B or C or D.”
Where we deal with passages condemning homosexuality, Yee said, “we also have to deal with passages condemning condemnation.”
Yee said members of her church run the gamut of perspectives and that they have no specific policy on same-sex orientation because “We need to hear each other’s stories and hold them in respect,” while “Policies can stop conversations before they begin.”
“Loving someone whose sexual orientation is different from mine is no different from loving people who are different in other ways,” Yee said.
George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, said “I can tell you that my mind has changed and I am seeing differently on this over time.” That has disappointed some people, he said. “As a pastor, I have known the pain of people who have left the church I serve because I was too conservative about the matter – and people who have left because I was too liberal about the matter.”
“A family conversation about same-sex orientation is not necessarily about behavior,” Mason said. “Some people think different orientations don’t exist, that there is only acting gay and sinning as a result. Others say people are simply born one way or the other.”
“I’m not certain about either position,” Mason said. “It seems that people are more on a continuum about their orientation. That’s uncomfortable.”
Mason noted that the few biblical texts that mention homosexual behavior are more likely to be about specific acts like rape or pederasty, and that “the Bible seems to be silent about orientation.”
Mason recalled a time when divorced people were often shunned or denied leadership positions by their churches, but most people since then have found a way to read the scripture to include people who were divorced. “My suspicion is we are trying harder than ever now to read the scripture in a way to create space for people who are gay among us to have a life among us.”
“For some that extends to ordination and being fully welcoming and affirming,” Mason said. “Others are more reticent, and I hope we will be patient with them, because they are trying to be faithful to the gospel, too.”
Both Yee and Mason offered helpful perspectives, and the session provided a hopeful beginning of future conversation. People who are willing to talk about the matter – and to include people of same-sex orientation in the conversation – are increasingly coming to see the issue as a question of justice, and not just morality.
As people who are called to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God,” the least we can do is to talk about it.