By David Barr
This post takes no position for or against the substantive content of the recent Nashville Statement, a declaration on issues of gender and sexuality, signed by many prominent evangelical theologians and pastors. The aim, instead, is to show that there are significant problems with how it presents itself that have nothing to do with sex and gender.
What follows is prompted by a long conversation I had recently with a pastor friend, a man I respect deeply. He shares almost all of the views on sexuality expressed in the statement and he moves in the same circles as many of the initial signers. I sought him out because I value his perspective on what I found to be a deeply troubling document. I hoped he could help me see it from another angle. I was not entirely surprised, but was very glad, to hear that he was troubled by it, too. As we talked, it became clear that, while we didn’t see eye to eye on everything in the statement, we were in complete agreement that the rhetoric and tone of the statement is deeply unhelpful.
What is so bad about it?
Perhaps the better question is: what is good about it?
A statement like this could do several good and edifying things. It could teach people about Christianity and sexuality. It could interpret scripture. It could bring clarity where there is confusion. It could embrace the task laid out in James 5:19-20: "if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” The framers could aim to appeal to those they believe have wandered from the truth and try to convince them to come back from their wandering.
Unfortunately, they make no arguments for their positions and offer no evidence from the Bible, so it doesn’t really teach anything. It does not clarify or interpret scriptures, since it does not reference any Bible passages at all. Nor is it clear that it intends to reach out to anyone it would see as a “wandering soul".
Because it does not draw on Scripture, it seems the only authority the document can claim comes from its signers. But, even if you agree with the substance of the statement, do you really want folks who don’t yet agree with you to come to agree on the basis of the authority of the signers alone? This seems inconsistent with the laudable evangelical commitment to the direct authority of the Bible for the individual, not mediated by authority. The Nashville Statement offers no teaching or clarity to the church in ways evangelicals normally value.
Perhaps, as I suggested, it is not meant to teach or instruct, but to bring back wandering brothers and sisters through pure persuasive power. Is this the case? Does it aim to persuade? Well, let’s look. Here is an excerpt from the preamble:
“[The] 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?”
Do you notice the framing? The challenge facing the church, according to the statement, is not how to interpret the Bible faithfully, but whether to do so. By saying that what is needed is courage and commitment to Jesus, the statement attacks, not the accuracy of wayward Christians’ reading of the Bible, but their motivation and faithlessness. It divides good and bad people instead of good and bad doctrine.
To one side are biblical conviction, clarity, courage, the word of life, Jesus, unashamed proclamation, and counter-cultural witness. To the other side are secularity, capitulation, turbidity, cowardice, abandonment of Jesus and Scripture, assimilation to the culture, and the intention to bring ruin. The way the preamble leads into the articles, it is clear that the framers believe that those Christians who don’t agree with the articles are on the wrong side of this divide. The other side is not depicted as merely wrong about this issue; they are weak, cowardly people who have abandoned Jesus and the Bible. If the goal is persuasion, it seems odd to start by describing their interlocutors in this way.
If they wanted to persuade, rather than insult, they should have said that there is a great interpretive challenge facing the church. They should have said that, given our culture, it is vital that we get our understanding of Scripture right. Then they could have argued for the correct interpretation, citing evidence. They could have turned to the Bible, modeling the scriptural emphasis that they claim, but don’t practice here. That would have been a helpful, pastoral thing to do. They would not need to apologize for anything or be compromising and weak. They could still have been incisive, prophetic and uncompromising, instead of being divisive, sensational, and derogatory.
The clear assumption is that Nashville’s positions are the obvious lessons of the Bible, ones that anyone who cares about Scripture would share. The implication is that anyone who holds another position does not care about Scripture. The statement covers some issues the Bible talks about a lot. It covers others that the Bible does not directly mention at all, certainly not unmistakably and obviously. There seems to me to be no need to assume that if someone disputes one of Nashville's affirmations, that they do so because they lack the courage to oppose the culture.
I want to be really clear about what I am saying here and what I am not. I am not saying that the folks who wrote this statement committed a taboo by thinking their position is the correct one. They could have said that everyone who disagrees with them is wrong and not have drawn criticism from me. I’m no enemy of confidence in one’s beliefs. I’m not recommending some shallow tolerance that doesn’t stand for anything.
I am saying that the way Nashville is written undermines any possible persuasive goal with the way it categorizes everyone who disagrees with it as cowardly and capitulating, as cultural assimilators who have abandoned Scripture and Jesus. I get that the signers are not going to admit that someone who disagrees with them might be right. I am deeply disappointed that they assume he or she must be bad. This is a critical difference and it is the key point on which the statement fails as an act of Christian communication.
In fact, the language is so inflammatory that it seems less aimed at persuading Christians who disagree with it than it is at persuading people who already agree with it that their opponents are bad people, bent on ruin. It labels these others as allies of an enemy culture, not wayward brothers and sisters. Instead of building up the church, it draws a line between who is in and who is out, who trusts the Bible and who does not, who loves Jesus and who has abandoned him.
I worry the authors and signers of this document fail to heed Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:29-32).
The statement does not defend or argue for its claims in any way, so it is not good for building up. I can’t imagine what occasion it fits. It does not give grace by offering a generous reading of why someone would hold another position. The way it depicts those who disagree with it comes closer to clamor, slander, and malice than it does to kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.
I know that we as a church are not going to agree about these issues any time soon. I do hope we can agree to talk and to listen to each other in the way Paul commends to us, and not follow the example of the Nashville Statement.
 They put a verse from Psalms at the heading, but it has little to do with the rest.
 The form of the document is strange. It is somewhat similar to an encyclical (a statement of the official teaching of the Catholic Church by the Pope). That sort of authoritarian declaration is usually anathema to Protestants, especially evangelicals, who are supposed to value the accountability of the individual to the Bible over the magisterial teachings of the church. It is strange for evangelicals to embrace it here. The big difference, of course, is that every encyclical I’ve ever read is completely shot through with scriptural references, unlike Nashville. The Catholics are closer to the professed evangelical commitment to scripture than those who wrote this statement.
 The way it frames the transition happening in Western culture at the beginning of the preamble and the complete lack of Scripture and theological nuance presents the issue as a dispute between cultural conservatism and liberalism, not the “counter-cultural witness” of the church.