08/03/2011 08:19 am ET | Updated Oct 03, 2011

Baptists and Sexuality: A Time of Ferment?

Baptists have been talking a lot about sexuality lately. And for once, I'm slightly more hopeful and impressed than I am frightened and appalled. Though, the messages are still mixed. For example:

Earlier this month Australian Baptist pastor Nathan Nettelton voiced his support for marriage equality for same-sex couples on a national television program of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He went so far as to state his willingness to conduct same-sex weddings, should the opportunity arise. Fearing that Nettelton's views might be construed as representative of the majority of Baptists in Australia and around the world, the Australian Baptist Ministries quickly issued a statement asserting, "Marriage is not for same sex couples."

Also this month, Journey Fellowship -- a Baptist congregation in Owensboro, Kentucky -- learned that its local Baptist association plans to take a vote on the expulsion of the congregation for providing meeting space to the local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families, & Friends, of Lesbians and Gays).

Last month, the behemoth conservative Baptist denomination -- the Southern Baptist Convention -- had delivered to the door of its annual convention a 10,000-signature petition calling on the group to apologize for its mistreatment of LGBT people. Not surprisingly, an apology was not forthcoming. But the president of the denomination's flagship seminary, Albert Mohler, made a rather surprising statement, saying that the SBC is guilty of practicing "a form of homophobia" of which the SBC needs to repent. Though -- in case there was any confusion on his stance -- he was quick to add that homosexuality is still a sin and there remains a need to "minister to a very militant community of homosexuals."

Finally, the Cooperative Baptist fellowship, a large moderate Baptist denomination, and Mercer University, one of the world's largest Baptist universities, are collaborating an on upcoming event titled, "A [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant" to be held in Atlanta in April 2012. This will be the first sexuality-focused event of this magnitude from the CBF -- a denomination with a personnel policy prohibiting the hiring of "a practicing homosexual."

While the messages regarding LGBT persons are certainly mixed, what makes me hopeful about these instances is the fact that in the first three cases cited above, the message about the "sinfulness" of homosexuality or the need to disassociate with those who think otherwise only followed some very public expression of support, affirmation, or hospitality toward LGBT people from another Baptist entity. A Baptist anti-gay marriage statement was issued because of a very public profession of support for same-sex marriage from a Baptist pastor. A Baptist association poises to expel one of its member churches because of its hospitality toward a PFLAG group. And Al Mohler's reiteration of "sinfulness" of homosexuality followed his own rebuke of Southern Baptists who practice homophobia.

In the example of the Cooperative Baptist/Mercer University sexuality conference, I am heartened by the very fact that this conference is not a reactionary move, but a very intentional event aiming to open up much-needed conversation within the CBF and wider Baptist world on issues pertaining to sexuality. In a time when healthy, sustained religious dialogue on sexuality is routinely foreclosed upon by reactionary position statements and movements to expel congregations from denominational bodies, the CBF/Mercer conference offers the gift of space for healthy, respectful, and prayerful dialogue.

While there are Baptist groups and organizations regularly advocating for the inclusion, full affirmation, and greater rights for LGBT persons, the above instances are signs of hope from less likely places: a pastor speaking his conscience about same-sex marriage on national television to the astonishment of his denomination; a small Kentucky congregation practicing hospitality to its local PFLAG group; a seminary president who, despite his stained-glass voice and theological bravado, seems to be considering more appropriate ways to speak about sexuality; a denomination peculiarly silent on issues of sexuality now clearing its throat in preparation for dialogue.

While the name "Baptist" is often associated with harsh dogmatism and ever-narrowing circles of inclusion within certain Baptist denominational bodies, the above instances are hopeful contemporary expressions of the rich heritage of Baptist diversity and dissent. The history of Baptists evinces the centrality of "soul freedom" -- the belief in every person's capability (and responsibility) for reading, interpreting, and understanding the Scriptures for him or herself -- and the autonomous freedom of the local church to embody a contextual iteration of Christ's presence in its community. Whereas a monolithic Baptist anti-LGBT posture may be the image conjured in the minds of many, I, for one, am impressed and heartened by these events that both hearken to the very best attributes of our Baptist heritage and hasten a hopeful future for Baptists willing to (re)engage questions of sexuality.

I certainly don't wish to over-interpret these small, hopeful expressions. I don't imagine they point to the beginning of a Baptist wave of affirmation for LGBT persons or an imminent Baptist repentance for the mistreatment of gays and lesbians (after all, it took the SBC until 1995 to denounce racism and apologize for its role in supporting slavery).

The one interpretation I am willing to make: these events and others like them point to a time of ferment in Baptist life around issues of sexuality. It only takes small, mundane signs of hope to point to a future in which change is before us. Movements toward affirmation, inclusion, and rights for LGBT people will not be smooth and success is not a given. These movements come in fits and starts, progress by successive approximations toward justice, and take place amidst turmoil and agitation. But mundane and unlikely hope is hope nonetheless that change is coming -- even for Baptists.

Rev. Cody J. Sanders is an ordained Baptist minister and a Ph.D. student in pastoral theology and counseling at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas.