Mean, Clean Paulianity: The Nashville Statement

Mean, Clean Paulianity: The Nashville Statement August 30, 2017

Nashville Statement: no color permittedI finally figured it out: Nashville Statement signers do not follow Jesus. They follow Paul, a troubled man who ran the message of grace through his own Pharisaic, black and white, male-centric, mean, clean grid trying to make sense of it all. Paul makes sense to them; Jesus does not. 

Well, in the midst of giant national tragedy on the Gulf Coast, the theologians who are sure they know everything about God and sexuality have issued their statement pronouncing that anyone who is not purely heterosexual and those who might support those who are not fully heterosexual to eternal condemnation.

Oh, they also said that marriages that don’t procreate are not part of the will of God. Perhaps I should have just shacked up with the love of my life because we are beyond child-bearing years.

Woman, fix my dinner and keep your mouth shut

I know, either in person or because I have read their work, many of the signers of this declaration. I also know that they firmly believe that God is male and that all spiritual/church leadership must be male. The female is eternally subordinate to the male. Welcome to heaven, woman. Now, go fix my dinner and keep your mouth shut while you do it.

That is who they are. It makes for a neat, orderly world, with men (generally white) in ultimate charge because they are sure God looks just like them. In other words, they have violated a basic tenet of our faith: do not worship idols. I grieve for them, and I grieve for the many who follow them blindly. My grief grows with my own history: I used to be one of those who did follow blindly, who was sure they had the words of life for me.

Such ones do not follow Jesus who crossed so many lines that his primary accusers used “He ate with sinners” as a condemnatory statement. They follow Paul, a troubled man who ran the message of grace through his own Pharisaic, male-centric, stay pure at all costs, grid trying to sort this out. Paul makes sense to them; Jesus does not.

And so, I give you a question that was written to me after another one of those authoritative (white) men insisted that a literal creation date (and rigid sexual binary) is necessary for anyone to have a real purpose in life.

Can a non-literalist find purpose in life?

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: In last week’s column in the Denton Record Chronicle, where your column often runs, Dr. Mann said that “Without a design (by God), there is no purpose” and “as humans, our acceptance of this truth either leads us to purpose or hopelessness.”  He went on to say. “If we erase “in the beginning, God” from the debate, there is no moral, purposeful foundation. . .”  In essence, if the Genesis stories aren’t literal history, then we have no purpose in being here and that knowledge will lead us to shuffle through life morally rudderless spiraling downward into despair.  I know plenty of Christians who read the Bible figuratively and the first 11 chapters of Genesis in particular as Jewish myths, and they seem neither morally bankrupt nor wallowing in hopelessness.  

Do you agree with Dr. Mann that if we don’t believe God created everything, including our purpose for existing, there isn’t a foundation for moral beliefs, such as those proposed by the ancient Greek philosophers?  

Dr. Mann appears to postulate an absolute duality: agree with him and his interpretation of Genesis (i.e., young earth, no evolutionary processes but an immediate ex-nihilo springing into life as we know it, literal first man and first woman) and have purpose in life. Or disagree with his interpretation, wander into the mysteries of the universe, explore the unknowingness of God in an absolute sense, and descend into the abyss of hopelessness.

I disagree with that duality. Yes, life is more complicated when we emerge from black and white, “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it for me” thinking. Suddenly instead of everything lining up as “This is absolute truth, and that is absolute lie,” many nuances emerge.

The world is not a watch

The world is not a watch, mechanistically ticking away, and repairable by inserting new parts when one wears out. It is a living, complex, not easily understood organism which sometimes produces killer hurricanes and dumps 50 inches of water in one place while leaving other places in drought-induced desolation.

It is “purposeful” in that God set these events in place? Does part of God’s purpose then include torturing living creatures? With a black and white view of a rigid creation scenario, that becomes the primary option. Of course, defenders of “God is in charge” whitewash that option with phrases like “all things work together for good” and “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Right.

At this moment, thousands of purposeful humans labor unceasingly to bring order out of the chaos along the Texas and Lousiana Gulf coasts. In so doing, their work echoes God’s work as seen in the Genesis story. Those rescuers carry the image of God.

Are they all biblical literalists who find their purpose in a specific creation event? I doubt it. They do what they do because this is how decent people act: they work to push back the chaos and respect the sacredness of life. But because we are dealing with a physical reality that is not static but chaotic, always in motion, constantly changing, and too often unpredictable, it is always hard work.

That sense of the purposeful living can be found in texts from many religious traditions and, as you have noted, in philosophical writings. In claiming that only the Bible, and only as interpreted by them, offers the way to God, to purpose, and to hope, proponents must at best disregard and at worst hold in contempt other wisdom literature with much to teach us.

Connecting these various dots demands hard intellectual and spiritual work. Many prefer a simple duality with strong authoritarian figures who can and will pronounce, “I and only I and those who agree with me have access to the words of truth. Anyone else is a liar.”

From black and white to chaotic color

Years ago, I watched “Pleasantville,” an intriguingly profound film. The safe, watchmaking-ordered, black and white world of Pleasantville, with its blank books, bland, unthreatening artwork, and orderly weather suddenly faces color, disorder, questions without clear answers, and complex issues of love, romance, storms, and sexuality.

Their “no disturbing questions permitted” power structure brought all its forces against the world of color, seeking to silence it forever.

But love wins in the end. And that’s the real message of the story of our beginnings. Those words are not about a creation date, two distinct genders, and a fixed order and unwavering purpose in the universe. They are about displaying such immense power of love that it spills over into creative freedom with all the messy complexities that come from freedom.

Unfortunately, that messiness can leave the most ardent believer in a literal creation hopeless and without purpose. Then they may seek to silence alternative voices to push back their despair.

However, the embrace of messiness can also lead philosophers, followers of different religious traditions and people who choose to reject all forms of supernaturalism to find solid moral centers, be healers of the earth, and fight to defend the hurt and oppressed with unwavering purpose and hope.

Such ones live out the Genesis story in their lives and thoughts without needing to hold to a specific moment for creation.


The Thoughtful PastorThe Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column and would especially like questions your children/grandchildren/students ask. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. You may use this link to email questions. This particular question is slated to run in the Friday, Sept 1, 2017, edition of the Denton Record Chronicle.


"I imagine the UMC is trying to avoid the ECUSA mess."

Response To The Great Divorce, i.e., ..."
"Very elitist comment, breathtakingly colonialist: “they’ll catch up.”"

Response To The Great Divorce, i.e., ..."
"I’ve spent several hours (as an outsider, though not disinterested), and really don’t recognize it ..."

Response To The Great Divorce, i.e., ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ann

    Thank you. This is helpful to me and, I’m sure, to many others. I didn’t realize for so long that it was important to question why Paul should have so much to say about, well, just about everything, as if he was more important than Jesus himself. I went to a funeral once where the pastor talked about the advantages in being in heaven that my loved one who’d died was now experiencing. He named several, and, it was clear from his tone and actual words that he was building to a climax with his list, with the most significant benefit to come last. Next to last was meeting and talking to Jesus. Last on his list was meeting and talking to Paul. You should have heard how some people, when he announced talking with Paul as the ultimate item on the list, let out their breath sharply, as if they were almost literally being deflated by the anti-climax. Imagine wanting to talk to Paul more than you wanted to talk to Jesus.

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      Jesus said: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” This is Jesus’ definition of marriage, so he taught the same things Paul and the other apostles did.

      • ChrisDACase95

        Actually Jesus was qouting what Adam said in the allegorical garden of Eden. Likewise Paul didn’t think anyone should be married. It was only a last resort in his opinion.

      • ProchDolor

        I never understand why no one seems to account for the context of this passage. The disciples have asked Jesus whether it’s okay for a man to divorce his wife. This is his response. The disciples say “Wow–isn’t that kind of harsh?” and Jesus responds that those who can’t handle such a permanent commitment should be celibate, and explains that voluntary celibacy in singleness is probably preferable to marriage anyway. The next scene we get is Jesus blessing the little children, saying that “such as these will inherit the kingdom of God” (these innocent small people for whom marriage isn’t even a concept.). Finally, we get the story of the Rich Young Man, showing that, no matter what one thinks about marriage, there are things that are even more prone to keep us from God (like wealth). The only way to read this passage as an answer to the question “What gender combinations qualify people for marriage” is to (a) artificially bring to the passage a question that is not asked by anyone within it, and that is entirely beside the point of the entire conversation and to (b) completely miss the point of the whole chapter–which includes the idea that Jesus himself seems to have thought of singleness and celibacy as preferable to marriage–for everyone! I’m always gobsmacked at how easily some reduce this passage to a statement about genital complementarity in order to support a view of marriage as the ultimate expression of “biblical” relationships while conveniently looking the other way on the matter of divorce and the hoarding of wealth. Smokesceen anyone?

    • The gaps need to be filled- Jesus’s ministry was to the house of Israel- he said so himself- Paul’s ministry was to the gentile former-pagans -same message but vastly different audiences, the gentiles needed more instruction and correction than their orthodox Jewish counterparts and that’s why most of the new testament is devoted to exactly that purpose.

  • Cynthia Astle

    Thanks for this. Picking up for UM Insight.

  • Linda Coleman Allen

    Thank you Christy for this column. It speaks eloquently to this topic. It can be hard to change the point of view that you have held for many years.

  • Confusion about what the bible says and about God wants has been going on for a long time. Because others criticize certain behaviors and invoke the name of God you chafe at their beliefs because it disagrees with your behavior. Some day you will be alone with God to discuss your behavior while alive on this earth and no one else will be there but you to defend your version of God’s Love based on His Word.

    • ProchDolor

      You can always be certain that you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he disagrees with all the same people you do.

      • Not really. Most do not have a correct understanding of the bible. Even the angels were in the dark. But as to sin and lawlessness there is a good general understanding. You are on the wrong side of that reality.

        • ProchDolor

          Confusion about what the Bible says and what you think about what it says has been going on for a long time. Because others criticize your behavior and invoke the name of God you chafe at their beliefs because their standard of truth is something other than your opinion. Some day you will be alone with God to discuss the opinions you presented as God’s truth and no one else will be there but you to defend your version of your authority based not on scripture but rather on your ego.

          • Come come now. What deflection.
            No one is criticizing my behavior except you; and you have neither the standing nor the basis to do so.
            I am not a teacher so my discussions are not held to a higher standard.
            Ego Prochy? Really.

          • ProchDolor

            yes, ego.

  • Sam J Lennon


    I agree with many of the positions you take. However, you said “They follow Paul, a troubled man who ran the message of grace through his own Pharisaic, black and white, male-centric, mean, clean grid trying to make sense of it all.”

    Paul was a Pharisee who almost certainly was deeply knowledgeable in the Old Testament scriptures. When he
    discovered that so much of what he “knew” about the Messiah was fulfilled in a radically different way in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus he may indeed have had trouble “making sense of it all”.

    A lot of what he subsequently wrote isn’t straightforward, but the love of God and the centrality of Christ are constant themes, and he rejected the Pharisaical, rule-based, approach he grew up in. His writings reflect the 1st century society he lived in and need to be read in that context, but are being interpreted today to support rule-based, performance religion. I don’t think that Paul should be blamed for current misunderstandings.

    I’m wondering what your basis is for this apparent condemnation of Paul?

    • All because it doesn’t tie in with the political agenda.

  • George Waite

    Church is boring.

  • jekylldoc

    I appreciate your reactions. They make sense to me. I would like to see us take things a bit further.

    Instead of operating at the level of articulating alternative interpretations of the authority touchstones, I would like to see us work on ways that those invested in authoritarian groups can free themselves. This could include common activities in which autonomy-based groups engage together with authority-based groups in common efforts. It could include careful planning of Christian Education materials leading young Christians toward practices of autonomy (discernment, empathy, values implementation, explanation of autonomous reasoning, etc.) A big part may come from the Emotional Intelligence movement: understanding emotions before judging or responding to emotions, for example, so that repression is not the main tool in the box.

    If Christians gradually learn to trust their own spirit-muscles, acquiring experience with success at peace and love, they will be better able to process doctrinal claims and hermeneutical methods.