The Nashville Statement: A Pastoral Approach

The Nashville Statement: A Pastoral Approach September 4, 2017

When I saw that the Nashville Statement was being announced I wondered Why? and Why now? and To what end? I wondered if there would be an admission that the church has dehumanized gays and lesbians (mostly today LGBT+) in its history, has “othered” such persons, and in effect has de-personed such persons.  I wondered if there would be not only an affirmation of the Bible’s and church’s teaching, but a commitment to loving relations and witnesses to how such signatories are working this out with people, and I wondered …

I hope we can all agree that same sex relations and same sex orientation today, not to ignore other locations of sexualities in our culture, emerge in the church almost weekly for pastors and churches. So, I would like in this post to offer some pastoral context for the statement, and suggest that the “To what end?” is the most important dimension.

Specific statements in the Nashville Statement, rehearsing as they do the church’s traditional view of sexuality, are sound theologically and exegetically and many of us can affirm what is said even if we may have dropped some lines and added a few others. But my suggestion is that the Nashville Statement is pastorally inadequate. To speak today of same sex orientation and same sex relations or wider dimensions of sexuality, in the complexity of modern and postmodern culture, requires pastoral sensitivities. I’ll personalize this: I’m not sure the Nashville Statement would help me in ministering to the gay and lesbian students I have taught. There’s nothing here I haven’t known nor, in my experience, these students hadn’t already heard.

This is the kind of pastoral text that needs to be in front of us before we enter into these kind of statements; this is how the master shepherd pastored Galileans; these words would impact this statement significantly.

Matt. 12:18    “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21 In his name the nations will put their hope.”

When it comes to The Nashville statement itself, Article 3 is pastorally, theologically, and exegetically confusing: “the divinely ordained differences between male and female.” What are these differences? I have my suspicions, but suspicions aren’t facts. Some of the signatories have expressed what they believe about these differences but as it stands I’m not sure.

Article 5 doesn’t seem to respect the complexity of human realities, realities confessed by seriously devoted Christians who experience reality contrary to these words. And what they are saying is that biological sex determines gender, pure and simple. But humans go through enormous pain sorting this out, and so that pastoral context deserves more attention.

WE AFFIRM that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.

WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.

Article 6’s expression in italics here is similarly ambiguous: “With all others they are welcome as faithful followers of Jesus Christ and should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.” What about “insofar as it may not be known”? Who is the “they”? Those who have now been officially “othered”? This kind of language is shifted when we consider how Jesus approached people pastorally.

Jesus pastored by knowing names, opening arms, welcoming to the table, explaining God’s grace, offering the grace of God’s power, and called to discipleship. Bad shepherds desert; good shepherds remain present with the sheep and offer their lives for others.

John 10:11    “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

John 10:14    “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Article 7 seems aimed at those who say they are “gay” or “lesbian” Christians. They flatly deny that a person can self-identify as gay or lesbian or transgender.

WE AFFIRM that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.

WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.

The word “desire” is a hard one to define and what is more I can’t discern if Article 9 is actually a blanket condemnation of same-sex orientation: “WE DENY that an enduring pattern of desire for sexual immorality justifies sexually immoral behavior.” Are desires completely controllable? When is it a feeling, when a desire, when a passion, when appropriate and when not?

Article 10 really bothered me when I read it and I have read it 25x and it still bothers me. The authors of the Nashville Statement have made one’s view of homosexuality an “essential” of the Christian faith. If so, this is nothing less than the Judaizing heresy of Galatians: Christ Plus Whatever. No creed in the Christian faith — from 1 Corinthians 15 on to the Reformation Confessions — has ever made homosexuality an “essential” of the faith. It is one thing to call it such approval a departure, and I would agree; to call it an “essential” departure fails to conform to the essentials of the faith. Too many too often want to make everything they believe an essential. Expanding the essentials is not the way of wisdom.

WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

Article 11 challenges the Nashville Statement itself: “WE AFFIRM our duty to speak the truth in love at all times, including when we speak to or about one another as male or female.” Without the Nashville Statement having a strong pastoral context the Nashville Statement ends up not speaking the truth in love. To make these public pronouncements without conversation with plenty of other evangelicals who would nuance and adjust and make suggestions in many ways is not loving to other Christian theologians and to the wider breadth of the church. To utter these public pronouncements without an enveloping pastoral context fails to provide pastors with a loving context to these views. To utter these words without recognizing the experienced reality of so many is pastorally inadequate.

I want Article 12 (Article 13 seems the same) to come out and just say the authors of the Statement believe in reparative therapy and that if the person is open to God’s power they will be transformed.

WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and that this pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.

WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ is insufficient to forgive all sexual sins and to give power for holiness to every believer who feels drawn into sexual sin.

As I read this statement I wonder how Jesus acted, how Jesus showed his love to others, and I come to this: Jesus, the master shepherd, gave us a symbol of how to love one another: the basin and the towel. He shows that he is able to heal and transform. He does so as the servant of the people; he does so by washing feet.

John 13:2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;  4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Jesus offers healing through his grace. It is how he does his master shepherding that deserves to be the surrounding context for any statements about what is wrong and what is right.

In the lectionary reading for Sunday from Romans 12 there is beautiful shift when Paul moves from speaking to the Christians at Rome on how to live with one another to speaking about how the Christians were to live with the non-Christians of Rome. Here is how the Christians were to relate to outsiders, and this, too, would have led to substantive shifts in the Statement:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.  20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. 21    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.


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