In October 1978, about 200 scholars and pastors gathered in Chicago to articulate what would become known as the Chicago Statements on Biblical Inerrancy and Hermeneutics. The CSBI was made in response to growing liberalism in regards to the nature and interpretation of scripture within what we might loosely call evangelicalism. The statement had and has no binding authority. It is neither inerrant nor inspired. Evangelicalism itself (contrary to what is often believed) has no organizational structure or hierarchy. But nevertheless, the CSBI has become a valuable guide for clearly articulating what inerrancy is and, more importantly I believe, what it is not.
This background is helpful as it relates to the recently released Nashville Statement where around 200 evangelical pastors and scholars (under the banner of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) signed a document affirming a traditional stance on human sexuality. I would encourage you to read the entire statement here.
Predictably, this statement was received with thanksgiving and understanding and no one was offended even a little bit.
Actually, just like most other issues, if you weren’t on Twitter you probably didn’t even know about it. If you were on Twitter, there was the collective gasp followed by a chorus of “tsk, tsk, tsk.” Here’s just a small sampling…
You supported a serial adulterer and grifter.
Your opinions couldn’t matter less.#NashvilleStatement
— Nick Jack Pappas (@Pappiness) August 29, 2017
The Nashville Statement is a shameful document that is antithetical to true Christianity and the teachings of Jesus.
— roxane gay (@rgay) August 30, 2017
The fruit of the “Nashville Statement” is suffering, rejection, shame, and despair. The timing is callous beyond words.
— JenHatmaker (@JenHatmaker) August 29, 2017
And of course the mayor of Nashville itself wasn’t about to let the name of her fine city be slandered by evangelicals. (Let that sink in as you are pondering life in Post-Christian America – the mayor of Nashville, TN wants nothing to do with traditional Christian beliefs.)
The @CBMWorg‘s so-called “Nashville Statement” is poorly named and does not represent the inclusive values of the city & people of Nashville
— Megan Barry (@MayorMeganBarry) August 29, 2017
Then there was this bizarre and fallacious condemnation from Shane Claiborne…
— Shane Claiborne (@ShaneClaiborne) August 31, 2017
The Rev. James Martin, setting himself up as the John Kasich of this particular debate, responded with a series of vaguely virtuous tweets gathered by the Washington Post here the tenor of which is that “God loves LGBT people and Jesus told us to not judge.”
By Wednesday, others had joined the fun in making statements. There was the Los Angeles Statement renamed the Liturgists Statement. It also, among other things, trashes the Nashville Statement for being released during the Houston flood. Should it have been released at another time? Maybe. Would that really have changed the reaction from people like these? You know the answer. There will always be a #Harvey or #Charlottesville. Seriously, when you use a natural disaster to bludgeon and villainize your opponents’ point of view, you really need to reevaluate who exactly is acting calloused.
I’ll not go into detail on this statement. Instead, just a couple of observations.
- It is flatly insulting and an intellectual felony when progressive Christians make the argument equivocating traditional beliefs about marriage to beliefs held by a some Christians in the past in regards to slavery. Therefore, “We can dismiss what the Bible says about sexuality because some Christians formerly used the Bible to justify slavery.” Find better arguments.
- I was most troubled by this affirmation though: “We believe that God is love, and that ‘anyone who loves is born of God and knows God’. (I John 4:7) God is honored in any consenting and loving relationship between adults, and therefore, all such relationships deserve honor and recognition.” The first line is a simple truism from scripture. The second line completely twists the biblical definition for love as outlined in 1 John 4 and turns it into romantic eros. Is God really honored in any consenting and loving relationship between adults? Is this literally true? And is this even what John is talking about?
Not to be outdone, a cool preacher whom I’ve never heard of (No, seriously. She cusses and everything. She’s like 2005 Driscoll cool.) from a cool church I’ve never heard of released a Denver Statement. This statement goes even further in condemning Nashville by actually affirming paganism.
They begin: “Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in an exciting, beautiful, liberating, and holy period of historic transition. Western culture has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being by expanding the limits and definitions previously imposed by fundamentalist Christians.” Translated this means, “We are now fully taking our cues from western culture which has redefined sexuality. As western Americans, we know what is right. Traditional Christian values must be replaced with western American values.” It’s hard to imagine a more nationalistic interpretation of scripture.
The worst line however is: “WE DENY that the only type of sexual expression that can be considered holy is between a cis-gendered, heterosexual, married couple who waited to have sex until they were married. But if you fit in that group, good for you, we have no problem with your lifestyle choices.” Translated this means, “Anything goes. It’s all good.” This is the cult of Aphrodite. What matters is your sexual fulfillment. When Jesus talks about denying yourself, he surely didn’t mean to impose himself on your sex life. I mean, Jesus was cool. He probably even cussed a lot. He definitely doesn’t care who you sleep with. Honestly, it sounds more like a Corinthian Statement than a Denver Statement.
Now, the Nashville Statement, like the CSBI, is far from perfect, and there have been no shortage of people eager to point this out. Pretty much everyone with a blog has written something about it by now. I’ll mention some of the critiques that I’ve read over the last week – some of which are quite valid:
- The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is a parachurch organization which doesn’t speak with special authority for all evangelicals. The last election taught us, among other things, that evangelicalism has a bit of an authority issue. Who exactly speaks on behalf of evangelicals? Who is the authority? Falwell? Jeffress? Piper? The Gospel Coalition? Christianity Today? Random, celebrity bloggers? What even is “evangelicalism” today – because, honestly, I’m not sure I could answer anymore.
- There is not enough affirmation of those individuals – gay or straight – who live full lives of chaste singleness. Unlike apparently those who wrote the Denver Statement, Christians have traditionally believed that life is more than about sexual fulfillment.
- There seems to be a lack of diversity in the signatories. Shane Claiborne doesn’t like that the statement was signed by a bunch of white dudes. (I must assume he still cares that we listen to the opinion of at least one white dude.) I don’t know the race of all the signatories, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume Claiborne is right. Diversity is obviously terrific, but it does not, by itself, guarantee biblical faithfulness on any issue, and implying that a lack of diversity brings into question biblical statements like these is to make an ad hominem argument. Similarly, there has been the charge of a lack of thought diversity in the signatories. Where are the progressive Christians? But this is a statement grounded in an evangelical understanding of faith – rooted in tradition and in the Bible. It would be a bit bizarre to find progressives who don’t share these basic commitments participating in the discussion. Would progressives invite John MacArthur to a meeting discussing sexuality in the church? I will admit however that I do wonder how many Christians with same-sex attraction were consulted in the writing of this statement. There are at least two (that I know of) celibate same-sex attracted individuals who signed the document. Outside of that I don’t know.
- Some have pointed out that they seem to demonstrate a lack sympathy or understanding for those who legitimately struggle with the pain of gender dysphoria with the broad brush stroke of “transgenderism.”
- There isn’t nearly enough (or barely any) mention other sexual sins like divorce, marital infidelity, or pornography – all of which are terribly destructive. The statement instead seems to pick on just a certain class of sexual immorality. General sexual immorality is addressed as is the sanctity of marriage, but this isn’t the major focus of the statement.
- On a similar note, some have argued that if evangelicals insist on making statements at this moment, there are other contemporary issues like racism or immigration that demand a firm response. This is true, but it also misses the point. It isn’t reasonable to say, “You should not talk about this issue until you’ve talked about every other issue first.” A statement against racism should be made, but that doesn’t necessarily negate the need for a statement on sexuality.
- Mark Yarhouse, a psychologist who has written extensively on the topic and affirms a traditional understanding of sexuality, wrote a very thoughtful critique here. I recommend you read it, but his most significant observation is that the Nashville statement lacks a nuanced or sensitive understanding of important words/concepts like “transgenderism,” “homosexual orientation,” or even “gay.” This deficiency hinders our ability to offer pastoral care and builds a wall of separation.
- Michael Bird, an Australian theologian who I also respect a great deal wrote a very balanced response here. I recommend that you read it, but one of the big takeaways is that there seem to be a growing number of conservative theologians who are not 100 percent on board with the statement.
- Alastair Roberts demonstrates here that it is even possible to sign the statement while holding some serious reservations about it.
- I thought about putting this one in a separate category, but the most outrageous accusation made against the statement (I must assume from those who haven’t read it) is that it denies God’s grace and love to those in the LGBT community. Is Nashville a blunt statement? Yes. Is it approving of the LGBT lifestyle? Of course not. But unfortunately we live in this moment where we have forgotten how to disagree without interpreting that disagreement as hatred. From my reading, Article XII and XIV make absolutely clear that God’s grace is operative in all areas including sexuality.
But in my opinion the most important critique that I’ve seen this week relates to the overall purpose of the statement.
The truth is that there is nothing in the content of the statement that should come as a total surprise. If you are surprised or outraged by the content of the statement, you either haven’t been paying attention or you are putting on outrage for public display. Even Matthew Vines who is a gay affirming Christian was initially surprised by the level of surprise. Flaws can be pointed out in the statement, but for hundreds of years the vast majority of Christians – with notable outliers – have basically held to a traditional sexual ethic. A gay affirming hermeneutic is exceptionally young and white and western. If this issue is becoming divisive, it isn’t because one group has decided suddenly to condemn homosexuality. It is because many have chosen to move away from traditional teaching to accommodate the movements of culture.
But the question that many are asking…the question I’ve asked myself is, “But is it helpful?” Is the statement helpful? Is it good? Is it appropriate?
A week later, and I’m still of two minds about this. On the one hand I would say that it is absolutely helpful, good, and appropriate. In the preamble, they acknowledge the historical context of the statement. Statements like this and the CSBI and even the ancient creeds born out of Church councils were responses to a historical moment. We live in times of unprecedented change in regards to human sexuality. I wonder if the majority of those who are outraged by the statement would have had the same outrage even 10 years ago. I mean, just look at how former President Obama “evolved” in just four years. In a post Obergefell world, there are increasingly fewer and fewer social taboos in regards to sexual expression. When a first grader is sent to the principal’s office for mis-gendering a fellow student, when drag queens teach our youngest children about sexual identity, when Facebook offers 51 choices for gender, and when Bill Nye teaches this, and (TRIGGER WARNING) this, you could say that offering some clarity on understandings of gender and sexuality is very needed. Yes, these are extreme examples. But the extreme is quickly becoming the mainstream. To even question these new understandings of sexuality is to bring swift social rebuke and perhaps even legal action. And the number of Christians who have come out of the woodwork to summarily condemn this statement as being completely anti-Christian makes its content even more timely. There are many who won’t like it. Some will even hate it – and hate us for it. Maybe that’s just an unfortunate reality that we have to deal with. Jesus told us to love our enemies, but he never excused us from having any.
BUT ON THE OTHER HAND, the difference between Nashville and Chicago is this: there was no person on the other end of the statement on biblical inerrancy. This issue is different because there are people – living, breathing, sometimes hurting, sometimes lonely people – on the other end of this issue. I worry about the effect of this statement pastorally. Sure, it might make us feel justified. “See, while culture veers towards Sodom, we remained faithful.” Or, to put it more biblically, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other people–robbers, evildoers, adulterers, homosexuals, the transgendered…” Standing on truth matters – now more than ever. No one believes that more than me. But a statement like this builds a wall. It is defensive – and maybe for good reason. But it doesn’t seem very “evangelical.” Statements don’t converse. Statements don’t listen. Statements by themselves can’t be pastoral. Statements are too easy to wield as weapons.
I have no solution for this tension. Instead, I have some questions.
First, I have questions for progressive Christians:
- At what point do you say to this culture that “enough is enough” in terms of sexuality? At what point do you say, “This is not God-honoring?” How do you make that determination?
- What positively and specifically distinguishes a Christian sexual ethic from the world’s sexual ethic?
- Is it proper for a Christian who believes in a traditional sexual ethic to be labelled a bigot or a hater? What does such a posture constructively accomplish? What about those Christians who live in the majority world who typically hold a traditional sexual ethic? Is the exporting of a western sexual ethic another form of cultural imperialism?
- How do you balance the authority of scripture with the authority of culture – especially in light of overwhelming interpretive tradition? Can you be sure that you are not catering to the “itching ears” of culture?
- Must a person have sexual release in order to flourish? What does this say to the millions of Christians who because of circumstance or choice have submitted to abstinence because of a traditional sexual ethic?
I also have some questions for (my fellow) conservatives.
- Have we addressed the log in our own eye? Are we guilty of using those who are different than us as a convenient scapegoat for our own unaddressed sexual sins? Have we repented?
- Do we reject in both word and deed the posture that says God does not love LGBT people? Have we treated those from the LGBT community as if they have committed the unpardonable sin? Are our houses of worship open to all manner of broken people? Do we really love people from the LGBT community? How would they know?
- Have we struggled through this issue alongside of those who are really struggling with same-sex attraction or those who are fully a part of the LGBT community?
- Have our churches become so marriage and family-centric that we have no spaces for those who are living their lives in singleness?
- Are we holding grace and truth in a life-giving tension? Are we more interested in fighting a culture war or in winning lost souls?
**Also, in case it isn’t clear, the thoughts reflected here are my own and are not meant to represent those of Ozark Christian College.