With the permission of my ecclesiastical superiors, I’ve signed the Nashville Statement. As for as the document is concerned, it is what it is: a voluntary parachurch statement affirming what the Bible and the Church’s tradition have always said about homosexuality. It has come out at a time when there are divergences from this norm in the academy (even in dubiously named schools of divinity) and wider society—even in the pews of self-proclaimed evangelical congregations. And yet here is published a statement, released in a democratic age that chafes against limits and lines of moral demarcation that ought never be trespassed. I think part of the purpose of the Nashville Statement was to reassert such ethical truths once again, even when they are at the height of unpopularity, particularly in the West.
I have to say I took a good while to think before I signed the Statement. These days, I’m a lot more reluctant to affix my name onto proclamations, protests, and other documents. And I know I may face some criticism myself for taking this action. Before I signed, I considered several notable objections, including several published on this channel at Patheos.
One of the main and broadest objections that I found quite credible was the criticism that the Nashville Statement either needed to say more than it did, or that it wasn’t the kind of document that is needed at this point in time. I think this is at the heart of the reservations of Matthew Lee Anderson and Michael Bird, both of whom I respect as scholars, recognize as friends, and love as brothers in Christ. To this, I reply along the lines of Alistair Roberts: I affirm more than the Nashville Statement, but certainly not less. The Statement is fairly small beer after I assent to the various canons and liturgical services of my own church body and tradition. Just peruse what classical Anglicanism has to say about marriage in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer’s matrimony service.
With that consideration in mind, I particularly appreciate Matthew’s point about our need to address what brought the wider American culture and certainly the American church to condoning homosexual behavior. For example, the Nashville Statement affirms “fidelity” in marriage and “chastity” outside of that institution, at least for Christians. I, however, follow an older path in which chastity is for the married as well. As Bp. Jeremy Taylor once wrote, “Chastity is either abstinence or continence: abstinence is that of virgins or widows; continence of married persons.” I would guess that most evangelicals have little to no idea what continence within marriage means, and that represents a bedrock ethical problem that has led to further confusion, including the LGBT variety. With Matthew, I affirm that evangelicals have to stop neglecting the discipleship of continence. I fear too many evangelical couples are taking their sexual cues from pornography and other noxious sources. And the same folks are often adrift when it comes to questions of procreation and important matters such as contraception and IVF. Additionally, evangelical witness has been compromised by America’s divorce culture, which has resulted in serial adultery (since many divorces are founded on invalid or unbiblical grounds, although certainly not all of them). On the other hand, it must be admitted that evangelicals and fundamentalists opposed such divorce culture, only to be treated as wild-eyed fanatics and lose that particular cultural battle. And so we all now reap the whirlwind. All this to say, yes, there is much more to do in terms of catechesis and church discipline, but that does not make the Nashville Statement’s assertions untrue. It is merely a recognition of insufficiency.
At this point, I must be honest and say that Article VII gave me pause. I took it to be a reference and criticism of the Spiritual Friendship crowd. I don’t like piling on these folks who are striving to live a faithful Christian life (all while receiving overly-harsh criticism and intentional misunderstanding by both sides). On the other hand, Articles VII is precisely where I disagree with Spiritual Friendship. I don’t believe temptations (or even the commission of them) should serve as the focal point for self-identity and organized advocacy groups within the church.
Another objection I’ve seen is actually a flat-out genetic fallacy. Some refuse to sign the Statement, at least in part, due to its origins in the CBMW. For many people, the CBMW logo on the Nashville Statement’s web page may as well be an albatross around the document’s neck. This is a fallacy, albeit a very tempting one with the Trinity debates fresh in our minds. Scot McKnight even went so far as to say, “Those we can’t trust for orthodoxy on the Trinity can’t be trusted when it comes to morality.” I could be wrong, but I reject that approach to ethics. I’d never apply such a standard to the likes of Aristotle or Cicero, to whom much of my moral outlook is indebted. But the bigger point is this: if this statement came out from the CBE, would you sign it? And, more important to me, would or could the CBE be willing to issue a statement affirming everything the Nashville Statement puts forward? I’d like to think so, because this is a fairly limited and biblically irrefutable facet of Christian morality.
This gets to a bigger question, and one that makes me really appreciate the Nashville Statement: refusal to sign it can force one to reason why he wouldn’t do so, and that in and of itself is a most beneficial and revealing exercise. Just as importantly, the Nashville Statement has smoked out many false teachers and unfaithful brethren. Has there ever been a document in recent memory that is more clearly satanic than the Denver Statement? Indeed, one must wonder what such self-professed “Christ-followers” celebrate at the Feast of the Nativity when they write things like, “WE DENY that God is a boy and has actual arms.” And so we are now seeing the folks who will fail to stand for the Christian faith and life or even attack them on this point, when push comes to shove. The angry refusals of the Statement have been sadly revealing; the mincing and squeamish complaints, perhaps more so. I admit that, as I signed it and considered all the blowback I might receive from doing so, I said under my breath, “I’m your huckleberry.” Such is the Gingerich fighting spirit.
In the end, I believe evangelicals should talk about homosexuality the way that the Bible and the church’s tradition talks about it, rather than the way our popular culture currently does. This is why I love Article X so much. We American evangelicals are far too indulgent and even sympathetic toward our society’s popular errors and sentiments, which together have resulted in a sort of sexual Babel. Christian, take some time to read Jesus’s words in Revelation 2, particularly against the Nicolaitans of Pergamum and the “Jezebel” of Thyatira. Our Lord condemns them as false teachers for teaching the servants of Christ to practice sexual immorality. Does that matter to us? It certainly should. Are we acting like it matters to us? I’m not so sure. Similarly, investigate the rhetorical use of Sodom and Gomorrah, not only in Genesis, but also in Judges, the prophetic literature, and even, I’d argue, at the end of Romans 1. It does not match the “tone” that many people—including Christians—have been demanding. This is what we are called to believe, practice, and proclaim, and it is not going to be smiled upon by those personalities and institutions that define and enforce stigma today.
“Make perfect your will.”