Less than a week ago, on August 25th, 2017, several conservative evangelical leaders gathered to hammer out the Nashville Statement during the annual Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) Conference, which took place in Nashville, Tennessee this year. The Statement was a joint endeavor of the ERLC and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Modeled after the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI), the manifesto expresses concern about homosexuality and “transgenderism,” stating: “Our true identity, as male and female persons, is given by God. It is not only foolish, but hopeless, to try to make ourselves what God did not create us to be.” In response, progressive Christians have offered various alternatives, including the Denver Statement and A Liturgists Statement. I want to address the question of whether the Nashville Statement is biblical, as well as comment on progressive responses.
Biblical Interpretation and the Nashville Statement
The Nashville Statement cannot be understood apart from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI). If you want to thoughtfully engage the Nashville Statement, brush up on CSBI (as luck would have it, I wrote an accessible series summarizing it). Like CSBI, the Nashville Statement is formatted into several sets of affirmations and denials (14 in total) and named after the city in which it was drafted. The ecclesial intent is also the same: a litmus test for who is in and who is out. Those who don’t sign will be obvious. This could affect who is hired, fired, or what ministry partnerships are formed. However, the difference between now and the early days of CSBI is that evangelicals are more diverse. While CSBI was quite influential at one time, today the document is primarily upheld by those on the more conservative end of the spectrum. I suspect less evangelicals will rush to sign the Nashville Statement.
But, the more interesting question is whether the Nashville Statement is biblically sound. The writers subscribe to the biblical hermeneutics of the Chicago Statement. I highlight a few pertinent beliefs here:
1. When writing Scripture, the biblical authors were in a perfected state akin to pre-Fall Adam and Jesus. CSBI Article IV states: “We further deny that the corruption of human culture and language through sin has thwarted God’s work of inspiration.” At first, this sounds like an ordinary acknowledgement of the Bible’s inspiration. But, R.C. Sproul’s authorized commentary on CSBI clarifies: “Adam, before the fall, may well have been free from proneness to error, and Christ, though fully human, never erred . . . with the aid of divine inspiration and the superintendence of the Holy Spirit in the giving of sacred Scripture, the writings of the Bible are free from the normal tendencies and propensities of fallen men to distort the truth.”
By comparing the biblical authors to Jesus, the Bible is treated less like a collaborative effort between God and human beings, and more a product of a dictation view of Scripture. The drafters of CSBI would deny a dictation view, but that is the functional outcome, including downplaying cultural influences in the Bible. That means followers of CSBI are more apt to subscribe to cultural concepts of the time period in which the Bible was written alongside Scripture’s unique Christian tenets. Notably, they often subscribe to a 1st century patricentric family structure as described in Paul’s day. John Piper suggests a lack of adherence to heirarchical complementarian views of men and women (women in a submissive role) has caused “destructive consequences” that include the affirmation of same-sex relationships.
2. Modern scientific discoveries are not necessarily evidence of truth. CSBI Article VII states: “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.” In other words, Scripture is not just a theological book, it teaches infallible scientific truths that should be embraced above any modern scientific discovery should there be a contradiction between the two. That is why most adherents to CSBI believe a global flood occurred despite scientific evidence to the contrary, and why many still believe the earth is 6,000 years old or deny evolution.
In his commentary on this Article, R.C. Sproul’s states: “[W]hatever the Bible teaches about creation and the flood cannot be negated by secular theories.” However, he reluctantly allows that sometimes we must go back and re-read Scripture more accurately when science is irrefutable, such as with Galileo (albeit, irrefutable is subjective). What this means in the current debate on same-sex relationships is that biblical statements about God creating male and female will override scientific discoveries related to sexual development. Same-sex attraction or gender identity concerns are attributed to psychological or spiritual problems that a person must remedy with proper counseling and repentance. Or if the issues cannot be resolved, one must spend life fighting and suppressing those realities while viewing them as consequences of the Fall.
3. Scripture speaks with a unified voice; we should not make too much of multivocality in the Bible. Article VIII states: “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis . . .” One aspect of this approach, as described in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Interpretation (a supplement to CSBI), is no valid interpretation can “suggest that one passage corrects or militates against another” (Article XVII). All of Scripture is assumed to speak with a unified voice. So even though the biblical authors describe various types of marriage (e.g. levirate, rapist-victim) these are downplayed to propose that Scripture reveals one view on marriage. The grammatico-historical approach also favors literary interpretation that is skeptical of historical-criticism. The socio-cultural world behind the Bible is not as important as the narrative in the text. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Interpretation states: “We deny that the distinction between the universal and particular mandates of Scripture can be determined by cultural and situational factors. We further deny that universal mandates may ever be treated as culturally or situationally relative” (Article VIII).
Understanding key interpretive assumptions that undergird the Nashville Statement is important for grasping its logic. The issue is more than just the valuing of sex and gender. After all, many progressives agree that male and female are meaningful and procreation is a beautiful gift. Rather conservative evangelicals hold additional presuppositions about the nature and function of Scripture that lead to limited options for addressing the complexity of sexuality. In fact, interpretive methods of CSBI can result in wooden interpretations that don’t adhere to its own tenets of allowing Scripture to interpret itself. Scripture teaches us biblical mandates cannot be applied blindly.
Conservative evangelicals are also weak in the area of practical theology. They give advice based on an idealistic world that does not exist. Everyone is expected to be perfectly male or female and heterosexual. The preamble of the Nashville Statement reads: “It is not only foolish, but hopeless, to try to make ourselves what God did not create us to be.” This suggests that gay, intersex, or transgender people are trying to make themselves such! Of course, this ignores the reality of actual human bodies that come into the world at birth in non-typical ways. It also ignores (even mocks) the incredible amount of painful effort many sexual minorities have exerted in trying to become cisgender heterosexuals.
The Nashville Statement acknowledges “physical anomalies or psychological conditions” and Jesus’s reference to “eunuchs born that way,” but the only suggestion provided is that such individuals should not think of themselves as such (Articles 5, 6, 7). They should instead have a “self-conception” of a perfectly formed male or female heterosexual. Where any ambiguity exists, one “should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.” This assumes, for example, that an intersex person is not really intersex. They just need to investigate a little further to determine whether one is actually male or female. That flies in the face of what intersex bodies are, compositions of male and female traits.
Similarly, the Nashville Statement suggests those who are gay or transgender can be healed. Same-sex attractions are the result of sin (Article 9) and such attractions can be “put to death” (Article 10). The theological language could refer to not acting on those desires rather than reorientation, but certainly many conservatives would read it as healing, especially when used with language like “transforming.” Also implied is that same-sex attraction in of itself is sin. That means a gay person is perpetually in a sinful state by virtue of one’s sexuality. For those who are transgender, Article 13 states “the grace of God in Christ enables sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions” and that continuing to have a transgender self-conception is against God’s will (i.e. sin). Yet, whether it’s possible for a transgender person to conceptualize themselves in the way demanded is highly questionable. It is not simply an issue of mind over matter. If becoming a cisgender heterosexual was that easy, suicide among LGBTQ people would not be a problem.
The framers of the Nashville Statement essentially mandate the denial of one’s body and adoption of a “self-conception” that is contrary to reality. That includes those who are transgender, as the brain is part of the body. The demand prevents honest acknowledgement of even documented congenital conditions. It fails to guide people in how to live the Christian life with the actual biology they have, and instead proposes an imaginary idealistic world that results in unrealistic expectations.
Progressive Responses to the Nashville Statement
Any response that does not take the time to learn the presuppositions underlying the Nashville Statement will merely talk past the issues. While it might feel good to vent, thoughtful engagement with conservative evangelicals requires addressing deeper issues such as the relationship between science and the Bible. And it requires a respectful, charitable spirit. The problem with some of the progressive responses to the Nashville Statement is that they are hastily written reactions that equally fail to provide a robust Christian theology of sexuality. That does not mean they are entirely problematic. I love how they are seeking to encourage and protect marginalized people like a mama bear protecting cubs. So, what I critique here is not progressive responses in their entirety, but just specific aspects that I hope progressives will take into consideration.
A Liturgists Statement says, “We believe all people have full autonomy over their bodies, sexual orientations, and gender identities, and the diversity of identities reflects the creative power of a loving God.” What does it mean to have autonomy over our own bodies? Do the Liturgists understand this as something like pro-choice bodily autonomy? If so, I am not clear on the connection, as the writers of the Nashville Statement did not issue a call for the criminalization of same-sex relationships. They published a doctrinal position. How does the Liturgists Statement’s assertion of “autonomy” interact with Scriptural theology such as, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19).
A Liturgists Statement also says, “God is honored in any consenting and loving relationship between adults, and therefore, all such relationships deserve honor and recognition.” Any such relationship? Does this suggest non-marital sex outside of a covenanted relationship is holy as long as both people care about each other? Ignatius of Loyola taught that all of us should first seek God’s will for our lives before even assuming that marriage is part of our life’s vocation. The idea that God is glorified by whatever sexual relationship I consent to as long as it is loving has no theological depth. I know the Statement is intended to provide brief affirmations and denials, but still.
The Denver Statement is also found wanting. It reads: “We affirm that God created us as sexual beings in endless variety.” Can we assert, scientifically, that sexuality has “endless variety”? Certainly variety exists, but endless? Really? Just as the signers of the Nashville Statement can ignore science, progressives can do the same, making sweeping statements about sexuality that don’t accord with what we can reasonably assert from research. At times progressives downplay that gender and sexual realities can, in some cases, result from developmental hiccups in utero (or the like) and not necessarily by design. The answer to oppression is not the denial of reality, including possible disability. Denial is akin to the “love is colorblind” approach, and falters for similar reasons. Like the conservative response, it denies bodily truth. Rather, we should see and affirm a person for who they are. Similarly, we do not have to completely deconstruct sex and gender or deny any meaningfulness of male and female to acknowledge that variety exists or to declare a space at the table for those who don’t fit the norm.
The Denver Statement also falls short with its ironic judgmental tone: “We deny any self-conception that presumes one is capable of knowing God’s holy purposes for other people” and “We deny that the grace of God in Christ sanctions self-righteous assertions of absolute knowledge of God’s will.” The Denver Statement itself makes the kind of assertions it says it denies. It presumes to know absolute truth about God’s will on sexual expression. The Statement also refers to “backward thinking,” implying that the writers of the Nashville Statement are primitive and intellectually inferior. That doesn’t go very far in positively influencing the conversation.
What progressives need to do is take more than 24 hours to formulate a Statement. And it should avoid the pitfalls of the Chicago and Nashville Statements by bringing together global and ecumenical voices. Moreover, it should show some thoughtful engagement of what it means to think Christianly about sex and sexual relationships. One progressive document that offers an example is “A Theology of Marriage including Same-Sex Couples: A View from the Liberals.” This paper begins with:
“Marriage is a discipline and a means of grace for sinners and for the whole church. It is a discipline because its vows are for better or worse. It is a means of grace because it signifies the love of Christ for the Church. We argue that the church should marry same-sex couples because it requires their testimony to the love of Christ and the church, and because it recognizes that same-sex couples stand in need of sanctification no less than opposite-sex couples do . . .This account of marriage does not minimize procreation and chastity, but follows the Book of Common Prayer in upholding the context of those gifts: ‘the union between Christ and his Church’ by which God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19).”