The “Nashville Statement” on sexuality, marriage, and gender identity, released last week by evangelical organizations connected with the Southern Baptist Convention and endorsed by major evangelical leaders, does not contain anything surprising. In most cases, it would be a tautologous event in the news cycle: “Evangelicals sign document teaching evangelical doctrine.” Left-of-center commentators have been repulsed by the traditionalism of the document’s fourteen articles—and that, too, is to be expected. Most interesting has been the response from within the traditional evangelical community, as several people whom I greatly respect have expressed concerns.
Matthew Lee Anderson writes that the document does violence to evangelical theology by focusing narrowly on homosexual acts and transgender psychology, and overlooking unchastity within marriage. He also criticizes the authors of the statement for seeming to dismiss those who identify as both gay and orthodox, who have chosen celibacy rather than living out their orientation.
Katelyn Beaty, a former editor of Christianity Today, writes in The Washington Post that endorsers of the Nashville Statement who voted for Donald Trump are morally compromised. “Why is sexuality and not a whole host of other issues today’s litmus test within evangelicalism?” she asks. “And why doesn’t that focus on sexuality include Trump’s own behavior?” Others have remarked that the timing of the release was insensitive, given the floodwaters in Houston and racial violence in Charlottesville.
These critiques have merit, and are especially significant since they come from within the evangelical movement. But in our era of theological mushiness and cultural transformation, even the most imperfect attempt at clarity and doctrinal solidarity is better than soft-spoken obfuscation. Christians committed to historic, biblical doctrine on sexuality should be disposed to approve of efforts to make orthodoxy clear, unequivocal, and pastoral.
Perhaps, as many have said, the timing of the Nashville Statement was insensitive. Waiting a couple weeks after the initial images from Houston had appeared might have muted this criticism. But can we foresee a season when such a clear statement of traditional doctrine would not offend, alienate, or divide?
I suspect that what has turned off many people to the Nashville Statement is its clarity. The document’s fourteen affirmations and denials are short, unequivocal, and to the point. Could it be that Americans, even some who profess traditional beliefs about these issues, prefer their theology a bit vague? This has been the legacy of the “seeker-friendly” movement within evangelicalism, with its toned-down doctrine encased in the blubber of psychological buzzwords like “brokenness,” “authentic,” and “spirituality.” There is a tendency within American evangelicalism to avoid saying what the Bible really means—or even what you really mean, as Eugene Peterson’s recent embarrassing flap demonstrated. Though I am a believer in “mere Christianity,” not everything Christianity entails is mere. Sometimes it really does boil down to affirming and denying. The drafters of the Nashville Statement understand that.
Katelyn Beaty accuses the statement, and those of its endorsers who voted for Trump, of moral hypocrisy. She is not entirely wrong. The potential for moral hypocrisy in such situations is exactly why some signers, such as Russell Moore and Albert Mohler, cautioned evangelicals about supporting a candidate with a documented history of sexual immorality. But inconsistency in applying an ethical system reveals more about the person than about the system. One can argue that racism is inherently evil because of its assault on the imago Dei, and yet express (as many liberal Christians do) moral ambiguity about abortion. This is a moral inconsistency, but it doesn’t prove that the one is wrong about racism. Arguing from moral inconsistency to moral wrongness is just a species of “whataboutism.” In this case, it smacks of efforts since the 2016 election to declare traditional evangelical doctrine guilty by association with Trumpism. This is not just a genetic fallacy, it is a kind of identity politics.
Matt Anderson’s objections, concerning the document’s “narrow ethical focus” on homosexuality and transgenderism, are fair, reasonable, and to a great extent accurate. The document does not present a thorough exposition of Christian sexual ethics; it opts, as Anderson says, for a “minimalist focus” on contemporary controversies. And it uses some imprecise language about “self-conception,” apparently in order to disallow celibate, same-sex-attracted Christians from self-identifying as “gay.”
My belief is that gay, celibate Christians should have been consulted in the drafting of this language. But it’s only fair to observe that asking the drafters to revise this language might be asking them to write differently than they believe. There are careful debates within confessional Christianity about the relationship of self-conception with sanctification, of sexual orientation with obedience to Christ. The Nashville Statement is a summary of a particular perspective in that debate. Inevitably, some will disagree with it. My hope is that such disagreement will lead to constructive dialogue, revisions, and even additional statements from other evangelicals. For that is what our cultural moment requires: More honesty and more doctrinal transparency, not less.
The Nashville Statement is an attempt—an imperfect one!—at theological clarity. It summarizes in direct language what these evangelicals believe about sex, marriage, and identity. If it fails to speak accurately for every participant in this theological conversation, then we must acknowledge our own limitations and yearn for the day when we all shall know as we are known. For now, I’m thankful to be associated with institutions and leaders who believe that answers are better than non-answers, and that conviction is worth the risks.
Samuel D. James is associate acquisitions editor for Crossway Books and blogs at Mere Orthodoxy.
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