Evangelicals are living in a period of “historic transition”. The Church is in danger of losing “her biblical conviction, clarity and courage”. We must instead maintain a “clear, counter-cultural witness”.
So begins the statement which has caused a huge amount of consternation and controversy in recent weeks.
The Nashville Statement reaffirms the traditional Christian perspective on same-sex marriage and argues it is sinful to approve of “homosexual immorality or transgenderism”.
Patterned on landmark evangelical declarations such as the 1974 ‘Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy’, the document consists of 14 affirmations and denials.
The statement was released at a meeting in Nashville by the Coalition for Biblical Sexuality and was predominantly signed by conservative evangelical leaders in the US including John Piper, Wayne Grudem, DA Carson, James Dobson and Francis Chan. UK signatories included the rector of St Ebbe’s Church Oxford, Vaughan Roberts and president of Union School of Theology, Michael Reeves.
Although Sam Allberry – a same-sex attracted Christian who chooses to live a celibate lifestyle – signed the document, most of the signatories are not directly affected by the issues dealt with by the declaration. The statement was also criticised for its timing – it was released shortly after white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia and as Hurricane Harvey was devastating Houston, Texas. Some felt that the issue of racism and concern for flood victims was more important to address than concerns over sexual immorality.
TIME TO CHOOSE
In the UK, the tone of the debate (see the Church of England’s “shared conversations”) has often suggested that sexuality is an issue on which Christians can agree to disagree. The Nashville Statement strongly rejects this way of thinking.
As the Coalition for Biblical Sexuality’s President Denny Burk clarified in a blog, “A person may follow Jesus, or he may pursue sexual immorality. But he cannot do both. He must choose. One path leads to eternal life, and the other does not.”
Burk said the statement aimed to “expose this contradiction” that “same-sex immorality and following Jesus can indeed go together”.
Progressive Christians wasted no time in denouncing the document. A number of alternative statements were drafted and published within hours of the original appearing online. The Christians United Statement “in support of LGBT+ inclusion in the Church”, whose signatories included Steve Chalke and Jayne Ozanne, denied that “homosexuality, bisexuality, queer sexuality, trans identity, asexuality, or any other queer identity is sinful, distorted, or outside of God's created intent”.
Meanwhile the Denver Statement, released by Nadia Bolz-Weber’s House for All Sinners and Saints said Christians are living in “a beautiful, liberating, and holy period of historic transition” where “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”.
But criticism of the Nashville Statement has also come from conservative quarters. Preston Sprinkle, who takes a traditional perspective in his book People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not just an issue (Zondervan) wrote that the statement “fails to own up to the many – MANY – mistakes that theologically orthodox believers have made” such as singling out LGBT people as “particularly grievous sinners” and creating a church culture which “ostracizes Christians wrestling with their sexuality”.
Is it unfair to attack a statement for what it didn’t say? Perhaps, but on the other hand, it would be hard to imagine a group of US Christians releasing a statement on racism which didn’t also apologise for the Church’s terrible history in that area. This criticism was compounded by those who felt the Nashville Statement’s language of ‘transgenderism’ and ‘homosexuals’ was outdated. Mark Yarhouse said the statement’s “rigid posture” is “unnecessarily antagonistic toward other conservatives, particularly those who identity as celibate gay Christians”.
Commenting on the document’s use of the word ‘homosexual’, Yarhouse said the statement used language which “fails to appreciate how younger people talk about their sexual orientation”.
“The word ‘gay’ to the average 14-year-old is not synonymous with promiscuity the way it may have been for some of the authors of the Nashville Statement.”
ONE PATH LEADS TO ETERNAL LIFE, AND THE OTHER DOES NOT
DOES THIS CHANGE ANYTHING?
The list of signatories who are backing the Nashville Statement is unsurprising. No one was unclear on what John Piper or Wayne Grudem thought about gay marriage. So why is such a document needed? Scholar and author Alastair Roberts who signed the statement argued on the Premier Christianity blog, “A statement that simply yet firmly presents an orthodox position can be both clarifying and emboldening at such a time. Also, like a flare shot up over a darkened field of debate, it reveals where different people are positioned and where troubling movement has occurred.”
As culture has shifted and more nations move towards legalising gay marriage (Australians are currently being polled on the issue), evangelicals have continued to argue over whether or not the traditional perspective needs to be revisited. The Nashville Statement is yet another line which some evangelicals have felt must be drawn. While Christians have expended large amounts of time arguing over it (especially online), it’s not obvious that these conversations have helped form any kind of consensus. On the contrary, both sides appear to be moving further away from one other. Progressives have accused traditionalists of promoting ‘abusive’ theology, while conservatives have questioned progressives’ salvation. Sometimes statements, declarations and lines in the sand are needed. Sadly, it’s hard to see anything other than further schisms and divisions on the road ahead.