A few days ago news broke that leaders in the Southern Baptist church will hold a Sex Summit in Nashville, Tennessee where they will talk about pornography, teen sex, homosexuality and how pastors can talk to their congregations about human sexuality in an over-sexed world. This was intriguing to me for reasons not limited to my academic interest in studying Christian sexual ethics but because of my own experience in the Southern Baptist church.
A little known fact about me is that I spent a fair amount of my teenage years in a Southern Baptist Church. My mom and I were members of a large Southern Baptist church where we were one of a handful of black families in attendance Sunday after Sunday. We both went to Sunday school and I was quasi active in the youth ministry. This was the first church I became a member of and I was baptized in this church. One more significant thing happened in that large Southern Baptist church, it was the church where I pledged to not have sex until marriage. Through the “True Love Waits” campaign I made a pledge in front of my mother and a room filled largely with white people, to abstain from sex until marriage and keep myself pure. My pledge was sealed with a chintzy gold-coated metal ring. Armed with “The marriage bed is undefiled,” I was held responsible for keeping my sexual desires in check without an adequate discussion about what those desires would feel like and how I can embrace them without burning in hell. I knew how to say “No” before I knew what I was saying no to. There was a large gap in my understanding of sexuality that the very institution that initiated the pledge wasn’t trying to fill and little did I know how problematic that would be. Before long I broke that ring along with my pledge.
There are many like me who, in their high school years took a pledge to abstain from sex before marriage and, for one reason or another, they broke it. In fact, a study done in 2003 showed that 6 out of 10 people who took the TLW pledge in college ended up breaking it and of the 40% who said they were abstaining from intercourse 55% of them admitted to having oral sex. But few people have gotten to the root of why young people are breaking this pledge. I believe that part of the reason that many young people broke their pledge to abstinence is because of the incomplete education they received regarding sexuality in the church. In my experience the church specializes in shallow teachings on sexuality that do nothing more than tell people to beat their flesh into subjection without really allowing them to think through and discover what this flesh is all about. People are taught that the flesh is a hard thing to control instead of being taught that it is something we have control of and we ought not be scared of it. We can master it in a way that isn’t guided by fear-mongering that implies it will devour us every time we have a warm, tingly feeling. So many topics are tip-toed around and treated as taboo when the reality is, many pastors would be surprised about what their young people know about sex. Hell, many young people would be shocked to know what some of these pastors are doing behind closed doors and it has nothing to do with the marriage bed, but that’s for another day and post. I believe it is time for the church to stop demonizing the flesh in regards to sexuality, to stop throwing around the same tired scriptural references that are never interpreted correctly, so that we may arrive at a healthy, holistic understanding of who we are in Christ, faithful and sexual creatures. I say all of this as someone who still has a commitment to the church. I’ve not abandoned it and have no intentions of abandoning it ever, hopefully. And so my goal is to take up the work of helping the church have these hard conversation about sexuality and desire in the sanctuary. And this, finally, has everything to do with why I want to attend the Sex Summit.
More than 15 years ago the Southern Baptist church gave me a sexual ethic before I knew what a sexual ethic was and it nearly ruined me. Because it was planted in me during a stage in my moral development when I was amenable to conformity out of fear of consequences, it took root in me and those roots are strong. I have spent years pulling up those roots and trying to discover what is the appropriate sexual ethic for Christians or how and when should an ethic be established. I’m generally curious about how many denominations go about teaching sexual ethics to their youth and young adult, but with the Southern Baptist Sex Summit I feel like I can get in on the ground floor and see what exactly it is that pastors are teaching each other in regards to sex. The Southern Baptist Church’s position on sexuality states “We affirm God’s plan for marriage and sexual intimacy–one man, one woman, for life. Homosexuality is not a “valid alternative lifestyle.” The Bible condemns it as sin. The same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals. They too may become new creations in Christ.” Oh to pick apart this statement, like, “If homosexuality isn’t a valid alternative lifestyle, what is a valid alternative lifestyle?” “And why are they still using the term “homosexual” or “”homosexuality” as if they are still in 1952–the moment in time when the American Psychological Association categorized it as a sociopathic personality disturbance in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM). By 1974 it was categorized as a sexual orientation disturbance.” To use these terms is to treat the LGBT community with clinical gloves, as pure disorders without the possibility that there is some order. I say this as someone who, as of three years ago, JUST removed the term from my own vocabulary after writing it in a paper and having a professor correct me. He told me that “homosexual” is a clinical term that has negative connotations and I should use “LGBT” in future reference. This was in a school of theology, granted not a Southern Baptist school, but a school concerned with educating future faith leaders and scholars of the world. A school interested in how we care for God’s people and that is a universal concern not limited to denominational doctrine. Southern Baptists are not excluded in learning how to speak of God’s children, all of them. So I want to know how they will unpack their statement on sexuality and if any of it will be reworked for language and for logic.
I’m curious, having looked at the Sex Summit speakers, how a group comprised largely of white men and one black man–and one black woman who will only participate it brief reflection session–are going to talk about sexuality from sexual behavior to sexual preference. How will such a racial and gender imbalanced group handle the vast field of sexuality and dare to teach other leaders how they should be teaching it. I will be honest in saying that I feel some kind of way about the multitude of men who will be in that space, the ones teaching and the ones being taught because the Southern Baptist church “recognizes the biblical restriction concerning the office of pastor, saying: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” So if I am understanding correctly, a bunch of men–mostly white–are going to teach a bunch of other men–probably also mostly white–about what they should be teaching in their churches about sexuality. And these churches will probably be comprised of more women than man, people of color, impressionable teenagers, etc. This should be really interesting…
I’ve said a lot but I’d love to hear from my readers who have experience in the Southern Baptist church, especially those who took a True Love Waits pledge. How did that work out for you? Did you keep the pledge/are you still keeping it? How long? If you broke it, how long until you broke it and why? If you were attending a conference such as this or could send in questions, what would you ask? Let’s talk about it.