The hot button discussion in American Evangelicalism this week is the recently released “Nashville Statement”. This is an attempt by some Reformed Evangelicals to clarify their views on sexuality; the statement has raised a fair amount of agreement and a fair amount of disagreement. Given the theological diversity of my friends, some have loved it and others have found it terrible. You can see the diversity of public opinion within “15 Reactions For And Against the Nashville Statement.” In my opinion, the following posts have been tremendously helpful in thinking about #NashvilleStatement:
- Matthew Lee Anderson’s “Why I Won’t Sign the Nashville Statement.” Regardless of whether you agree or not, this is excellent thinking, especially related to the problematic “evangelical” gatekeeping going on.
- David Bennett’s “A Bridge Between Statements & a Bridge Between Worlds: Why I call myself a gay (or SSA) celibate Christian.” This. You have to read this. It’s… excellent.
What’s so fascinating (and, quite frankly, sad) is that the Nashville Statement is drawing praise and criticism from people who agree on the issue of homosexuality, yet the terms “progressive” and “liberal” are being thrown around left and right, as well as the pejorative “fundamentalist.”
Given that there is a huge cultural shift taking place on the subject of sexuality and that in some spaces it’s become increasingly hostile to question many of our society’s assumptions about human sexuality, not to mention the fact that there are a great number of people redefining what Scripture says on the subject, I can understand why people want a clear statement. I get it. I really do. But I’m not sure this statement is the best we can do and given that it is not infallible, I think it should be revised… a lot.
After all, the document has some significant theological problems, not to mention some practical pastoral issues that need to be nuanced. So I want to get a bit nitpicky here.
And before you jump to the conclusion that I am a “liberal” or “progressive” on the subject, let me be clear in stating that I hold to what has been termed the “traditional” perspective on sexuality, which is to say that I believe that sex is to be reserved for the relational context of a marriage between one woman and one man. I have published numerous items on this subject and have been heavily involved in this conversation for the past five years. But I still think this statement is quite unhelpful.
Here are a few reasons why I find the Nashville Statement in need of serious revision:
First, where is the Holy Spirit? It’s absolutely incredible to think a theological statement could be drafted wherein the Holy Spirit is completely left out. Francis Chan, who provided his signature to this document, needs to remember and get the authors a copy of his book Forgotten God. How could a document that calls people toward the Lordship of Jesus completely overlook the Holy Spirit? This is, quite frankly, a weak Trinitarian theology on display.
Of course, given that many of the authors of the document, until recently, affirmed an unorthodox approach to the Trinity and asserted hierarchy within the Trinity, which every early Creed rejected (cf. the Nicene Creed), this doesn’t surprise me. Thankfully the majority of these influential Complementarian theologians have abandoned their heterodox positions and moved closer toward orthodoxy (cf. Kevin Giles’ The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity for a scholarly and accurate summary of this recent trend amongst Complementarians).
A significant reason as to why the presence of the Holy Spirit is (and should be) clearly articulated is that anyone working through any sort of sexual brokenness and healing needs the work of the Spirit. Discipleship without the person and activity of the Spirit is not Christian discipleship. And while I think Scot Mcknight’s snarky response raises a very valid point concerning just how problematic the unorthodox Trinitarian theology formerly held by the authors of the Nashville Statement is, I think there’s much more to critique. I think McKnight raises a fair question (i.e., given that many of the theologians involved in shaping this document held to heresy, do we really want to jump on board signing a document they put together?). And for the record, McKnight holds to the traditional approach to sexuality, so don’t throw the term “liberal” toward one of the premier New Testament scholars that we have; cf. A Fellowship of Differents. So moving on from the problematic unTrinitarianism, I raise my next set of issues.
I’m not sure using the word “procreative,” as in Article 1, to describe marriage union is actually as biblically grounded as some would have us think. Nor it is pastorally sensitive. I understand why the argument is used when one is influenced by culture wars and trying to make the point that homosexuals can’t “procreate” so they shouldn’t be granted marriage rights, but what about the thousands upon thousands of heterosexual married couples who are unable to have children? Does their marriage count? Are they sinning against God because they are unable to have children? The flippant use of “procreative” with no nuance is disappointing given that John Piper has, in the past, been far more nuanced in his explanation of how marriage generally leads to procreation as a fruit of the relationship while still acknowledging that not everyone who is married experiences the blessings of children. The Nashville Statement should have avoided the simplistic definition of marriage with this word “procreative” because there are thousands upon thousands of people who would find such language as a painful reminder of being unable to have children, not to mention something that is grounded in several texts from the Old Testament (Gen. 1:26-28; 9:1) and not a single New Testament command. While space doesn’t permit the hermeneutical challenges with blindly applying Gen. 1:26-28 and 9:1 to today’s world, one must recognize that it’s possible they were more focused on the original audience and less so with those of us living in 2017. Again, not a single NT command!
Third, the statement’s position on transgenderism is terrible. Yes, I said terrible. It seems that the author’s of the Nashville statement assume that transgendered people are all rushing to the medical industry in order to get sex changes. But if one takes the time to do a little research or spend time talking to the people they are pigeon holing, they will find that people who identify themselves as the “T” in LGBT are actually a lot more diverse than this document wants to acknowledge. In fact many are more in the place of struggling or wrestling with their gender identify and most are not even remotely close to having the financial means to move forward with surgery!
But what really concerns me about this document is how inconsistent it is. In Article 6, the statement does an excellent job in stating the value and equality of being created in the image of God to those who are born intersex (formerly known as hermaphrodites), or, as the statement reminds us, “eunuchs.” Yes! Great job! Well done! You’ve acknowledged that some people are born with very complex challenges… so much so that you acknowledge the grey space and simply inform these people, whom God loves, that they “should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.” Yes, it’s complex and challenging and sometimes it takes a lot of discernment and conversations and wrestling in order to “embrace” what progressively becomes “known.” Yet then, in Article 7, we read that they deny that “adopting a… transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.” What? What happened to understanding how complex things were?
So in other words, the statement values people who are born intersex (and I assume those who struggle with gender identity due to the numerous reasons that people do) but then states they shouldn’t self-conceptionalize themselves that way?
Ummmmm. What? So much for self-awareness and vulnerability!
In my opinion, they make this statement because they fail to understand the complexity involved in sexual identity with those who are either biologically born with physical reasons to struggle to identify as a male or female or with the psychological challenges people experience. Quite frankly, it appears they have never actually met and talked to transgendered people. Ever.
Moreover, the denial of Article 5, seems to score points but is really insufficient. The denial states: “We deny that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.” Well that’s fine and dandy for people who are born with the biological sexual organs that clearly help them say, “I’m a male” and “I’m a female,” but what about the human beings who are born with both parts? For those people it sure seems that “the physical anomalies or psychological conditions” nullify their ability to self-conceptionalize as male or female. And while this may be a very small percentage of humans, they still exist and are loved by God and need a lot more grace and understanding than this document grants.
But when you don’t seem to care much about those folks, I guess this is an easy way to score points. Had the authors nuanced their statement a bit, I think they could have made it clear that most of the time people are born male or female… but life is complex and the world is fallen and sometimes people face challenges that we can’t imagine and the best thing we can do is love them and listen to them and walk alongside them. In fairness, Article 11 attempts to encourage people to speak the truth in love but then goes right toward ignoring the challenges faced by intersex / transgendered people. *Sigh*
Fourth, what happened to “process” in our understanding of discipleship and our ability to have differences in expressing our views? The authors apparently are unwilling to acknowledge that, for many people, this subject is one they are wrestling with. People are processing their experiences and ideas and wrestling with Scripture and how its applied. Discipleship is a process, right?
And even more concerning is this documents dismissal of some of the leading voices on the subject! Apparently, according to the Nashville Statement, all of the Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction and who are also committed to living their lives in conformity to the teachings of Scripture, who identify themselves as “gay,” are condemned. Read that again: People like those at Spiritual Friendship, including Wesley Hill and David Bennet, are condemned in Article 7.
This is crazy talk.
Readers may be unaware, but discussions about homosexuality are complex because the term can mean a number of ideas. Homosexuality can refer to orientation, the type of attraction one has to someone of the same sex. It can refer to homosexual identity, the way people self-identify as being gay. And there is homosexual practice or behavior, where sexual activity occurs between two people of the same sex.
According to the Nashville Statement, those who have identified themselves (oriented) as gay are told they are inconsistent “with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.” Even though they do not engage in homosexual behavior and believe that their sexuality must come under the lordship of Jesus and that homosexual behavior (i.e., sex between the same sexes) is sin, the fact that they self-identify as “gay” means they are sinning.
Which, in my opinion, just goes to show that the author(s) of the Nashville Statement need to sit down with some people who have actually engaged in the biblical texts, theological questions, and practical challenges a bit more than they have (I’m wondering if they have done much work on this issue). The document is essentially an example of what happens in an echo chamber. And I’m afraid it will produce more of the same amongst those who would sign it.
Fifth, there’s not a single biblical reference in a statement that is allegedly providing the biblical position. Ummmm… okay. That’s just… suspect. I know that those endorsing it will say that it’s just “traditional Christianity,” but I’d like to point out that a large number of Evangelical scholars who hold to the “traditional Christian sexual ethic” have found the statement to be problematic, including myself. And I have written my share on the biblical texts!
Furthermore, I would especially like to see the Scriptures used to support their position on damning those struggling with intersex / gender identity. Because when I read the Bible, I see that there appears to be a great deal of grace extended to people who are wrestling with their identity, regardless of what area they are struggling with.
As a pastor, I find this statement quite unhelpful and as a Bible loving theologian, it’s suspect for a number of reasons. I don’t need to buy into the fear mongering or the idea that to reject this statement is to reject the traditional (biblical) approach to sexuality. But I digress…