KEUKA PARK, N.Y. (ABP) — During its July 12-17 summer conference, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America used a Christian couple who famously disagree over homosexuality and the church to model a respectful and peaceful dialogue about the issue.
Baptist sociologist and author Tony Campolo and his wife, Peggy, spoke in a panel discussion titled “Christians, the Church and Sexual Orientation: Advancing the Conversation.” The two-hour discussion also featured Harry Knox, director of the Religion and Faith Program at the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign.
Lucas Johnson, a Peace Fellowship board member, moderated the two-hour discussion, held at Keuka College in upstate New York.
Johnson said the gathering’s planning committee was hoping to bring Christian dialogue about sexual orientation to a more respectful level.
“The committee understood that there are congregations and individuals that still need to have this conversation,” Johnson said, referring to the ongoing debate among Christians about the proper role of gays in the church. The fellowship took a controversial stand on the issue 15 years ago, in a statement calling for the full inclusion of Christians who are part of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community.
“People were tired of the vitriol and lack of respect in discussions around this topic,” Johnson said. The committee came up with the idea of inviting the Campolos to come to the summer conference and “model a nonviolent way to communicate about topics like this.” The couple has led discussions about the biblical issues surrounding sexual orientation for a number of years, mostly with evangelical groups.
Peggy Campolo, whose stance on the issue is to the left of her husband’s, has been passionate about speaking out on behalf of her GLBT friends for many years. The two say they continue to hold these public discussions to bring evangelicals to a more just way of thinking and dealing with their Christian brothers and sisters.
“Sometimes I feel really good about the progress we have made,” she said, “but then one phone call makes me understand how much more work we need to do.”
The Campolos address in their discussions a number of Scripture passages that traditionalist Christians frequently use to justify their attitudes toward homosexuality — such as the description of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. Tony Campolo points out that the prophet Ezekiel identifies the sin of Sodom as neglecting the poor.
The Campolos agree that most of these “clobber” texts can be dealt with in a similar way. But they come to a point of disagreement with the first chapter of Romans.
“What frustrates me,” Knox said, “is that people have not done the depth of exegesis in [Romans] Chapter 2 that they have in Chapter 1. They are missing the real message of Romans, which is that we can live together in peace as the beloved community.”
Tony Campolo, who said has been chided by evangelicals for “not making my wife shut up,” noted he has often wanted to stop talking about this issue. “I feel very conflicted about this,” he said. “I know that some of the things I say hurt people. The reason I keep saying these things is that I know that most of the places we go are evangelical churches that will never listen to a word my wife says, however lovely and gracious she is, unless I’m there.”
Peggy Campolo said that, many times, the discussions are difficult for her. “My hope,” she said, “is that some of these people will go home and wake up at two o’clock in the morning, thinking, ‘That woman might be right.’”
Tony Campolo urged the audience to stay engaged in the ongoing discussion with more conservative Christians. “Don’t cut yourself off from people like me, because I love you,” he said.
Katie Cook is editor of the Baptist Peacemaker, the quarterly journal of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.