Some Thoughts on the Nashville Statement

Much has been written and said about the Nashville Statement, both in defense and in opposition, over the past weeks. As someone who supports some of the statement’s positions and intentions, but who, nevertheless, cannot in good conscience sign or support the statement, I feel there’s still more to be said. I won’t rehash all of the opposition to the statement, since many points have been addressed by better minds than mine. These are humble questions and genuine concerns, addressing both the statement itself, and on the debate surrounding it, with the hope of sparking discussion.

(If you’re just catching up on the Nashville Statement debate, I’d recommend reading it in full here and reading Christianity Today’s story for the background. Additionally, I’ve referenced and linked numerous helpful response on both sides.)

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One telling point of distinction between Nashville Statement supporters and faithful dissenters is what they tend to see the statement accomplishing. Supporters have cast it as a bold stand against powerful foes. The statement describes itself, in the preamble, as a response to the “secular spirit of our age” and as a “clear, counter-cultural witness to a world that seems bent on ruin.” Alastair Roberts described the document as “giving Christians a clearer apprehension of the truth, of the lines that need to be defended, and of the willingness of their leaders to nail their own colours to the mast.” Going even further, Owen Strachan compared the Nashville Statement with John the Baptist’s rebuke of Herod in Matthew 14.

On the other hand, dissenters (particularly those who work with the LGBT+ community) have expressed concern about how the statement opposes and affects individuals. Scot McKnight strongly critiqued the statement as “pastorally inadequate”. Josh Daffern lamented statement’s tone, fearing it would make ministering to the LGBT+ community more difficult. David Bennett, Mark Yarhouse, Matthew Lee Anderson, and others have addressed Article XII’s exclusion of “Side B” gay Christians.

These references are only a sampling, reflecting tendencies rather than clearly drawn distinctions. Nevertheless, the difference in focus (and priorities) is striking, if not surprising. I fear that the rhetoric in support of the statement is overly heroic. These are complex questions that affect many, both in and outside the church, and it’s irresponsible to treat such questions as a single, monolithic opponent.

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The conversation around homosexuality in the church is dramatically more mature and nuanced than it was twenty, even ten years ago, thanks in large part to the work and witness of people like Wesley Hill, Christopher Yuan, and Rosaria Butterfield (and many, many more!) Debates still rage, and there’s much work to be done, but clarity is growing, as is the number of believers being equipped to approaching the topic in a biblically-consistent, welcoming, pastoral way. However, the discussion around transgender questions hasn’t reached that point yet, which is why I’m disappointed the statement chose to address it.

First, we don’t even have clarity about what counts as “transgender” yet. Mark Yarhouse, a Christian psychologist who focuses on LGBT studies and author of Understanding Gender Dysphoria, writes:

It should be noted that “transgender” is an umbrella term for the many ways people experience, express, or live out a gender identity that is different than that of a person whose gender identity aligns with his or her biological sex. This is a complicated topic. There isn’t even consensus on who fits under the transgender umbrella, which is part of the problem when the word is used in such declarations. It can include people who report great distress, such as those who meet criteria for gender dysphoria, but to some the word transgender also captures those who cross-dress, drag queens and kings, transsexuals, those with intersex conditions, various non-binary gender identities, and so on. The diversity here is remarkable.

Unfortunately, the Nashville Statement fails to addresses any of that diversity. Indeed, the blanket reference to “transgenderism” in Article X feels irresponsibility reductive. Yarhouse continues:

I’m afraid the Nashville Statement, perhaps out of a desire to establish the parameters for orthodoxy on gender identity concerns, gets ahead of evangelicals because it doesn’t reflect the careful, nuanced reflection needed to guide Christians toward critical engagement of gender theory, while also aiding in the development of more flexible postures needed in pastoral care.

I recommend his entire response. I share his concerns. A premature attempt to crystallize “the” Christian position on an issue as complex as this one may end necessary conversations before they begin.

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In a Twitter exchange last week, Katelyn Beaty pressed CBMW president Denny Burke on whether the Statement calls for Christians to use only pronouns consistent with an individual’s biological sex when referring to transgender individuals.1 (Put a different way, should you say “she” or “he” when referring to someone who identifies as male but is biologically female?) Burke’s response was to cite Article XI and say “Christians should speak with truth and love, and they should do so in a way that does not dishonor God’s design of male and female.”

Affirming the tension between two conflicting but equally valid positions can be a wise choice. It leaves flexibility for faithful action in a variety of contexts, and can often lead to creative resolutions of the seemingly incompatible positions.

However, that’s not what Article XI says, or at least, I don’t think it is. At this point, I’m not even sure what Article XI is supposed to mean. Here’s the full text:

WE AFFIRM our duty to speak the truth in love at all times, including when we speak to or about one another as male or female.
WE DENY any obligation to speak in such ways that dishonor God’s design of his image-bearers as male and female.

While the first half of the first statement is both clear and admirable, the second half suggests certain truths be read back into the first half, and that’s where things get murky. At first blush, the “including…” seems to address “all times”, suggesting a general call to truth in love with a special focus on love when addressing these challenging topics. With a second look, though, “including…” could also address “truth”, in reference to the pronouns used for someone who doesn’t identify with their biological gender, as Denny Burke suggested above. The phrase “or about” seems to indicate this. Given CBMW’s complementary stance on gender roles, a third reading presents itself; that the statement calls for Christians to speak the truth about men and women and their different roles. (You could also read “including…” as referring to the rest of the entire statement, though I think that’s a stretch from the wording.) The second statement can be read, again, as a general statement, as addressing transgender pronouns or complementarian gender roles, or all of the above, and possibly more.

The problem of, course, is that what the Article XI means by “truth” is unclear from context. It could be unintentional, the result of a compromise in the drafting process, or just an unwillingness to commit to a position. I apologize for getting so deep into the weeds on this, but authorial intent matters, especially when in a public document that invites signatures, and again, especially when the statement’s expressed purpose is to provide clarity. Triplicate meaning is a single phrase isn’t clear.

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In light of the criticism that the Nashville Statements fails to be adequately pastoral, I wonder if it’s time for a more radical definition of “speaking the truth in love.” Article XI uses the phrase (borrowed from Ephesians 4:14) as an exhortation for believers and, I think, as an implicit apologetic for the Statement as a whole, something Rev. Al Mohler, Jr. makes explicit in his Washington Post defense. As such, “speaking the truth in love” also serves as a self-invited standard by which to measure the statement against.

In the context of the statement, “speak the truth in love” seems to mean two things: one, that Christians should be motivated by love to speak the truth, and two, that our truth-speak should be in love and without hate. Thus, Al Mohler can write that “[we the drafters] in fact are acting out of love and concern for people who are increasingly confused about what God has clarified in Holy Scripture.”

My question is this: to what degree does speaking the truth in love require a relationship with the person being spoken to? A friend can speak hard truth to a friend within their existing bonds of trust and affection. A pastor can speak hard truth to their congregation because they have been given mutually-agreed upon authority to do so. But how does that play out on the internet?

A public manifesto, released online and shared widely on social media and reported by major news outlets, has no specific relational context. Even though the statement is, as Denny Burke described it, “a church document,” “drafted by churchmen… to catechize God’s people,” it’s also a public document that has been widely read outside the church.2

I don’t want to suggest that all intramural Christian conversation is inappropriate online, and I’m hesitant to say that the Nashville Statement shouldn’t be publically available online. What I am suggesting is that the context for “speaking the truth in love” matters deeply. Good intentions and the truth aren’t enough. We need to be aware of who is listening when we speak and rigorous in choosing our words carefully to ensure that we do, in fact, speak the truth in love to anyone who might hear us.

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I know it’s unlikely at this point, but I wish the CBMW would consider issuing a revised version of the Statement that takes faithful, critical feedback to heart and addresses the concerns brought against the document. Such a move would require an enormous amount of humility and grace, and a great deal of work — careful revisions based on a sincere engagement with criticism, not to mention asking every previous signer to re-evaluate and sign again. But if their intention is to create a church document that truly reflects a biblically-consistent sexual ethic for the good of the church, it seems like a necessary step. Sometimes, speaking the truth in love has to be self-sacrificial, and I suspect this is one of those times.

Apart from a revision, I suspect that the Nashville Statement will fail in its aims. The conservative pushback has been so decisive and serious in nature that I can’t imagine the document gaining a foothold, much less becoming the crystallization of catholicity its drafters intended. I am, however, no prophet, and it’s still too soon to write a post-mortem.

Finally, I’d like to again invite conversation. These are difficult issues to navigate faithfully, and I want to be welcoming of feedback in the spirit of the service of truth. Quick shoutout to Alastair Roberts’s post in support of the statement and Preston Sprinkle’s post in opposition. I didn’t have an occasion to cite either, but I highly recommend both.

Finally, I’d like to wholeheartedly affirm Article XIV:

ARTICLE 14

WE AFFIRM that Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners and that through Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness of sins and eternal life are available to every person who repents of sin and trusts in Christ alone as Savior, Lord, and supreme treasure.

WE DENY that the Lord’s arm is too short to save or that any sinner is beyond his reach.

Amen, and amen, and amen.


Footnotes

1 As an aside, assuming that the statement does take a position on transgender pronouns, I wish they would also take a position on how to properly refer to someone who is divorced. If they wish to be radically committed to reflecting a biblical anthropology in their speech, wouldn’t that also require referring a divorcee as married, in the eyes of God if not the state, and decidedly not single, and using their married name and not their maiden name? Just thinking out loud here.

Forgive me this example: Imagine that you’re watching Powerless and decide that beloved actor Danny Pudi (Community, The Avengers: Age of Ultron) has gained weight. You gather a group of health and fitness experts and write a open letter to Danny, published online, calling him out and encouraging him to make healthier choices. Your motivations may be good but would Danny Pudi perceive the letter as loving? I suspect he would not.

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