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Major evangelical leaders just signed a controversial document on sexuality and the church

This week’s Nashville Statement affirms “biblical” marriage — and condemns pro-LGBTQ Christians.

James Dobson was one of the signatories of the Nashville Statement
James Dobson was one of the signatories of the Nashville Statement
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Last week, 150 prominent evangelical figures joined together to sign a document affirming what signatories saw as traditional, “biblical” marriage and sexual ethics: between one married man and one married woman.

The 14-article document, dubbed the “Nashville Statement,” was released by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) on Wednesday, focusing primarily on issues of gender and same-sex marriage. The first article in the document affirms that "God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife” and not for “homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous” relationships. The document follows a meeting in Nashville at the Southern Baptist Conference’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission's (ERLC) annual conference.

The statement also condemned Christians who expressed support of LGBTQ issues, saying: “it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness ... [we deny that it is a matter of] moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.”

Among its many prominent signatories, all from the evangelical Protestant tradition, are James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; and Ronnie Floyd, the new president of the National Day of Prayer campaign.

There is nothing necessarily surprising in the statement’s content. Despite growing support for same-sex marriage among young evangelicals, evangelical Protestants remain the group most opposed to same-sex marriage. And the statement reflects a widespread and consistent, if not universal, understanding of biblical sexual theology.

But the timing of the document — as churches grapple with much more pressing national conversations on issues like racism — has made it particularly jarring, especially to its critics. After all, the US Supreme Court ruled to establish same-sex marriage across the country two years ago. Meanwhile, in recent weeks and months, America’s Christian religious leaders have faced a number of politicized challenges, from the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, to how to respond to the Trump administration’s more controversial statements and actions.

Some representatives of denominations that are often associated with conservative values have voiced their opposition to groups like the alt-right or even to the Trump administration more widely. This summer, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention almost unanimously passed a condemnation of the alt-right, while figures like Russell Moore have been prominent and consistent critics of the Trump administration’s approach to immigration, racial issues, and Charlottesville.

In other words, the evangelical community as a whole has seen a shift in recent months and years, as the conflation of Republican Party values and Christian values is no longer as straightforward as it once was. To an extent, the Nashville Statement thus seems like something of a reactionary gesture — an attempt to foster unity in the evangelical community (uniting, say, pro-Trump figures like James Dobson with critical firebrands like Russell Moore) by appealing to a doctrinal issue — sexual ethics — that still unites many of them.

The president of CBMW, Denny Burke, stressed in an interview with Vox that the precise timing of the document was, to an extent, coincidental. He and his colleagues had been working to codify evangelical mores on sexual ethics for more than a year, and the document had been finalized as planned last week at the ERLC’s scheduled annual meeting.

“We wanted to say with clarity what the church has always said,” he says, “not to say anything new but to bear witness to something very ancient. It’s not a culture war document, but a church document” — one designed largely for an evangelical audience of “conservative Protestants” Burke concedes has “in the margins” become less committed to what he sees as the correct biblical approach to sexual ethics.

Burke says he hopes the statement might serve as a reminder to those evangelicals on the margins not to be swayed by cultural trends, including support for marriage equality and LGBTQ rights. “Jesus called us to be in the world, not of the world, for the sake of the world,” he told Vox. “He doesn’t want us to be separatists and go out of the world just because the world may hold a different set of values than we do [but rather be] ‘salt and light’ to the world ... right now there’s been a real shift in terms of sexual mores ... we still want to maintain the integrity of family life and of sexual morality. We can’t change our faith just because the world has changed.”

Yet, coming as it does in today’s political climate, the Nashville Statement, therefore, serves to reestablish a neater cleavage between “liberals” and “conservatives.” By implicitly using approaches to sexual morality as, fundamentally, the basis of Christian identity and self-affirmation, its signatories are drawing a red line over what is, and is not, Christian.

Nashville’s supporters want to protect Christianity from secular culture

For its many detractors, the Nashville Statement is a discriminatory document designed to exclude LGBTQ members from a church community.

But for its proponents, of course, the narrative looks quite different.

The Nashville Statement is couched in the language of culture and compromise, coding what they see as a traditional approach to marriage and sex as a necessary part of safeguarding Christian belief from the vicissitudes of modern culture. The preamble to the document reads:

"This secular spirit of our age presents a great challenge to the Christian church. Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from Jesus, and unashamedly proclaim his way as the way of life? Will she maintain her clear, counter-cultural witness to a world that seems bent on ruin?

What that means in practice is that, for Burke and his fellow evangelicals, the good news (as the gospel message is often referred to) is sufficiently important on a metaphysical level that everything, including sexual morality, must be subject to it. If he were to deal with a gay teen in his own parish, for example, he would likewise start with the centrality of the gospel message: offering him what he sees as hope through prayer for “the transforming power through Jesus for everyone who comes to him in faith. We’d want to come alongside folks...[and] try to encourage him to believe the gospel.”

For defenders of the document, such as The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, it’s a brave, clear defense not just of specific Christian beliefs about, say, homosexuality or transgender identity, but rather of an integrated view of morality, sexuality, and the nature of God. “There is nothing new in the Statement,” Dreher writes in The American Conservative, “It is basic orthodox Christian theology on sexuality and gender....Early Christianity’s sexual teaching does not only come from the words of Christ and the Apostle Paul; more broadly, it emerges from the Bible’s anthropology. The human being bears the image of God, however tarnished by sin, and is the pinnacle of an order created and imbued with meaning by God.”

This means, for thinkers like Burke and Dreher, Christian sexual morality — including the idea that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman — isn’t just incidental to the Christian message, it’s at the heart of a theologically-motivated understanding of reality: God has created human beings with a divine and special purpose, that purpose involves embracing one’s status as man or woman and living (and having sex) in accordance with that divinely-ordained complementarity. Within that paradigm, it stands to reason that individual sexual desire, no matter how strong, should necessarily secondary to a divine plan.

Progressive Christian traditions also ground their inclusivity in a wider theological stance

Dreher is right to argue that “traditional” Christian sexual morality can and should only be defended with reference to the “bigger picture” — a wider understanding of God, the world, and the nature of love: anything else is simple bigotry.

But he’s wrong to assume that those Christians who reject the Nashville statement do so purely out of knee-jerk emotion, or out of a desire not to offend LGBTQ people, or to “fit in” with a prevailing secular culture.

Some under the wider Christian umbrella believe full and affirmative inclusion of LGBTQ people and relationships within the church, is necessary — to them, queerness is not simply something to be tolerated but rather an expression of the rich diversity of divine creation.

The “queer theology” movement of the late twentieth century, inspired by similar social justice Christian movements like liberation theology and feminist theology, featured thinkers like John McNeil and Marcella Althaus-Reid. They didn’t just argue that being queer was acceptable in Christianity, but rather that the very nature of Christianity — following a radical divine being who was willing to upend the whole social hierarchy in pursuit of justice — demanded that we reassess how we think about gender, sex, love, and desire outside of wider “cultural norms.” For these thinkers, racism, sexism, and homophobia were all themselves part of human “culture;” something that Christianity should resist. This thinking come to influence later progressive Christian approaches to social justice.

The most prominent rebuttal to the Nashville statement, therefore, may be the Denver Statement of progressive Lutheran (ECLA) pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, House of All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, who wrote the statement with her parishioners.

Taking the Nashville statement point-by-point, Bolz-Weber rebuts the points made not only because she finds them politically or culturally objectionable, but on theological grounds. For Bolz-Weber, the divine order demands a celebration of diversity and love outside the boundaries of what culture has taught us is traditional. She writes:

By and large, the spirit of our age discerns and delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life that is so much richer and more diverse than we have previously understood it to be

In a follow-up interview with Vox, Bolz-Weber criticized would-be “traditional” notions of biblical sexuality as no less grounded in cultural mores as a more progressive stance. “If we’re talking biblical sexuality,” Bolz-Weber noted, pointing to the diversity of depictions of marriage and sex in the Bible, “I can only assume that the organization [of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood] tacitly condones rape, stoning women, prostitution. To take your own personal hang-ups and piety and say ‘that’s Biblical’ reveals your own ignorance of the text.”

That said, Bolz-Weber argued that a truly Christian — and compassionate — theological worldview should be flexible: not to the prevailing winds of culture, per se, but to the lived experience of human beings. “You could draw a direct harm from [the Nashville ideology] to people’s actual lives...I can’t tell you how many of my [queer] parishioners have considered suicide or have gone through self-harming behaviors because of these messages. And to me, the starting point should be human beings, not doctrine we adhere to because we think we’re — quote — doing God’s will.”

She is far more positive than Burke about the cultural shifts taking place in America now and, if anything, sees the Nashville Statement as a sign of defensiveness on behalf of a group that’s already lost the culture wars.

“I think [Nashville] points to a subculture in America that is very very scared and is lashing out, doubling down on their claims...what they see around them is a broader acceptance of a wider variety of people,” Bolz-Weber added. “For some people, the good news [i.e., the gospel message] is that there are insiders and outsiders, and we’re insiders. And for others, the good news is that there are no outsiders.”

The Nashville and Denver statements raise questions about which “culture” Christianity should be countering

The question of how Christianity should fit into the wider culture — or whether it should consistently resist it — and to what extent sexual ethics should be part of that resistance, dates back almost to the origins of Christianity itself (just read St. Augustine’s City of God). And one thing that many progressive and conservative Christians alike share is a conviction that Christ’s teachings, however they may disagree in their interpretation, should override culture, whatever that may be.

But this particular, contemporary manifestation of that question is shaped by the fact that, for conservatives and progressives alike, it’s unclear who is in charge of the culture they’re countering. Many conservatives, including those who signed the Nashville document, see a reactionary position on sexual ethics as a necessary corrective to a liberal, sexually permissive society. Their Christianity is “counter-cultural” precisely because it is not progressive.

But at the same time, many progressives, including the proponents of the queer theology movement, see something no less “counter-cultural” in a willingness to challenge traditional social norms — about gender, about sex, about identity — in favor of a more radical approach to love. Racism, sexism, homophobia — all these are the very hallmarks of culture that their Christianity seeks to combat.

Responding to Bolz-Weber’s Denver Statement, Rod Dreher said of Bolz-Weber’s progressive approach, “It really is a different religion.” Whether or not that’s true is debatable. But in this, at least, these two approaches to Christianity have more in common than they might realize.