Monday, April 23, 2012

"Moderate" Baptists discover the virtues of "covenant"

My alma mater, Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, has been in the news quite a bit lately--and not for anything that would make alumni beam with pride. Notoriety usually escaped this quiet Baptist college during my student days. The school's former president R. Kirby Godsey was a favorite punching bag for hardliners in the Georgia Baptist Convention but most of the controversies remained local. The fundamentalists tried on several occasions to take over the school, but the campus was hardly a bastion for left-wing activism. In a mock presidential election in 1984, Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale by a 3-to-1 margin. There were the standard issue campus radicals still beating the tired drums of 1960's hippiedom (complete with the obligatory Volkswagen Microbus), but they were viewed largely as a sideshow. There was also a full complement of professors with leftist sympathies, but they didn't transmit their disease to most of the students. If my old friend Chris Hall and myself are in any way indicative, the relative conservatism of the student body in those days has held up well over the last quarter century.

Times have changed, however and, with the addition of a graduate level school of theology, this once obscure institution of higher learning has taken center stage in the struggle of "moderates" to remain relevant in the conservative-dominated Southern Baptist Convention. A key player in Mercer's rise to prominence in this arena has been ethics professor David Gushee. At a recent conference on sexual ethics hosted by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Gushee deftly dodged the thorny issue of homosexuality by introducing a not so novel term.
Mercer University ethicist David Gushee, a key conference organizer, spoke passionately and forcefully about “covenant” in his address. Using his own parents as a model of covenantal faithfulness, Gushee noted, “I have thought from the beginning that the very important thing we could talk about would be the issue of covenant. I believe that covenant is a, if not the, single best way that has emerged in the Christian theological ethic-ecclesial tradition to talk about what we are supposed to with our sexuality, and for that matter, our relationality.”

Gushee soberly called for all churches to embrace “covenant” as an ethical norm. “I am firmly convinced that the greatest challenge facing the Christian/Baptist family at this time is nurturing more Christians who have the confidence, and the willingness, and the capacity, to make and keep such covenantal promises.” Later, Gushee said that “the Left-Right differences have not made much of a different in preventing the divorce culture. This must change.”

But Gushee stopped short of addressing who ought to be eligible for entry into such covenants. And he urged embracing the concept of “covenant” before it disappears. “I don’t think our main issue is the fierce and tedious fighting on the boundaries about which categories of people ought to be viewed as eligible to make covenants.”

“Focusing on covenant,” Gushee said, “gives some positive normative vision that has the potential for inviting everyone into the conversation. It speaks deeply to our ecclesial problems, as well as to our marital problems.”
Gushee is starting to sound a little like an Anglican, is he not? Wasn't a "covenant" supposed to be the solution to all the ecclesial disputes brought on by several provinces sliding into apostasy in the area of sexual ethics? Of course, the "Anglican Covenant" never really had a chance. Covenants must be based on mutual trust and commitment and the wayward provinces had no intention of abandoning their brave new world of sexual nihilism.

With regard to our "moderate" Baptist friends, their chief conservative critic sums up their plight accurately.
R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, criticized the conference as a catalyst for embracing progressive sexual ethics within the CBF.

“The CBF is in the death throes of denominational anguish over sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular,” Mohler said. “They are making clear decisions to abandon biblical authority in pursuit of endless ‘conversations,’” he added.

According to Mohler, “The denominations that take a clear position on homosexuality have, in the least, the virtue of honesty. The CBF has decided not to take that approach.”