“The people can be trusted to interpret scripture aright in the context of a believing community by the guidance of the Spirit.” Bill Leonard, a professor of Baptist Studies and Church History at Wake Forest School of Divinity, made this statement at the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship meeting last week, and it’s been running through my mind all afternoon as we’ve kicked off the [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant. Today’s sessions were titled “While We Were Avoiding the Subject: What’s Going on in the World (and the Church)?” and “Faithful Listening in Challenging Times: How Do We Discern God’s Voice?” After each session, we met in small groups called Covenant Communities to debrief the messages we’d heard. The theme I have sensed throughout this whole day is the need to lay a groundwork for this conversation. In the first plenary, Jenell Paris gave an overview of the issues that we will be exploring in more detail over the next two days, and in the second Guy Sayles and Sharyn Dowd both did excellent work in setting up a hermeneutical basis for the work we’re trying to do.
Which brings me back to what Bill Leonard said. My small group had some fantastic discussion this evening about how we interpret scripture and develop a theology around scripture, and how we do that on our own and in our communities. That’s a tenuous line for Baptists. Soul freedom and bible freedom seem quite individual, but the truth of the matter is it’s a tough thing to take on alone. Which is why Baptists have also placed such a great emphasis on community, and why the community that is gathered here in Decatur this weekend is so important. There are a lot of tough questions to be addressed. And no one is saying we need answers to those questions right now, immediately. But what many of us have been clamoring for until we sounded like a broken record was a real conversation, and that is what this conference has the potential to be. Today was about setting up the tools for us to do quality interpretive work as a community over the next two days, and my prayer is that we take that discernment process to heart, listening, as Sharyn Dowd phrased it, to sort out the “voice of God from all the voices competing for our attention.”