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Is The Nashville Statement A Surrender?

Or is it a victory in the war for moral and theological clarity in the fog of culture war?
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I was e-mailing this morning with a conservative Christian friend who is orthodox on sexual issues, including same-sex marriage, but who can’t fully get behind the Nashville Statement. His reasons are familiar: it didn’t say what it ought to have said about divorce and other heterosexual sins and failings, and it was dismissive of the Spiritual Friendship approach, which, according to my friend, was unhelpfully and unnecessarily divisive.

I more or less sympathize with those criticisms, though as I’ve said, I don’t think it’s quite fair to blast the Nashville Statement for what it didn’t say, as if the signers had to address a number of things before they could affirm what was until a generation or so ago uncontroversial teachings in all Christian churches. Would I have liked to have seen something about divorce, pornography, and similar sins indulged in by straights? Yes. Do I think it’s a big deal that those things were left out? No. The perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good enough.

I also sympathize with my friend’s view on Spiritual Friendship, though I am genuinely not sure what I think about the SF approach. I had no problem at all with it until a conversation this past summer with Rosaria Butterfield, who strongly opposes it, made me rethink the issue. I can’t get to a settled point on the matter, at least not yet. I also understand the view of the Nashville Statement, I think, which holds that SF is a Trojan horse, however unintentional. As a practical matter, I wish that the Nashville Statement had not articulated a stance on this issue, because I don’t want to alienate same-sex-attracted Christians who live chastely and affirm the Christian teaching on homosexuality, but who go about it from a somewhat different set of premises.

But then, the fact that the Nashville Statement forces me to confront and reason my way through this issue is a sign of its necessity in these confusing times. It is compelling Christians to assess where they stand. This makes a lot of people in the messy middle uncomfortable. A different Christian friend said this morning that a lot of our fellow conservative Christians are shocked by the backlash to the Nashville Statement, even within the churches, because they had not realized how much the church has compromised on sexual ethics. It is good, I think, to have that clarity.

One thing my earlier friend wrote sticks out in my mind as something well worth pondering. He said that the Nashville Statement seems to give up trying to convince people who might yet be convinced of its premises.

I guess I can see that, but it seems to me that the Nashville Statement wasn’t trying to do that. It did not attempt to make an argument. If anything, it was a manifesto on which to build arguments. The more serious question, I think, is this one: how many people are truly convince-able at this point?

I don’t know the answer, and I doubt anyone does. I think it’s pretty clear that very few Christians are going to be convinced to switch from being pro-LGBT (= affirming homosexuality and/or transgenderism) to the orthodox Christian position. We’re really talking about holding on to Christians who are tempted to move away from orthodoxy towards the liberal stance, but who don’t really know what to think right now. How many of those people are there?

More than a few, I would imagine. What’s keeping them from declaring openly for Christian orthodoxy, or declaring openly for the pro-LGBT position? I would genuinely like to know, so if you are one of those Christians, I hope you’ll explain your point of view in the comments thread. My guess is that conservative Christians who are considering adopting the pro-LGBT position are motivated by one or more of these factors:

1. Discomfort with being called or thought of as a bigot, and with social stigma attached to it
2. A desire to offer homosexuals the blessings of marriage.
3. Belief that marriage is not intrinsically complementary, in terms of male and female, but is rather nothing more than a solemnization of the love and commitment two people feel for each other.
4. An inability to explain why gay marriage and homosexuality in general is wrong, except for “because the Bible tells us so.”
5. Love for a gay or transgendered person in one’s life, and not wanting to see that person suffer — especially if that person is one’s child
6. Belief that the struggle over sexuality within the church is not that important, and is keeping the church from focusing on more important things (e.g., “When can we stop talking about gay marriage and get back to preaching the Gospel?”)
7. Resignation over the fact that the church has compromised so much with the Sexual Revolution to this point that it makes no practical sense to draw the line here. Better to accept that reality and to work within it as best one can to preach, teach, and live the Gospel

So what might be holding them back from affirming LGBTs? One or more of these factors, I think:

1. The clear teaching of Scripture against homosexuality
2. An inchoate sense that affirming homosexuality would cross a very important line
3. The fact that the Christian church has had a clear and firm teaching against homosexual acts from the beginning, and only began moving away from that within living memory (e.g., “What makes us think that we know better than every previous generation of believers?”)
4. Fear of ostracization by fellow conservative Christians in one’s church
5. Belief that to affirm LGBT would be to ratify sliding down a very slippery slope towards polyamory and the radical break-up of the family

Remember, I’m not talking about Christians who are firmly convinced of the traditional Christian teaching. I’m talking about people who outwardly affirm it, but who are wavering inside.

My sense is that the Nashville Statement is a “fish or cut bait” document. That is, it compels Christians who don’t really want to think about these things, because it makes them uncomfortable, or they fear it would lead them to conclusions, one way or the other, that they don’t want to reach — it compels them to quit kicking that particular can down the road. The liberal Evangelical ethicist David Gushee is wrong, in my view, about homosexuality and Christianity, but he is right that this issue will find all of us at some point, and force us all to take a stand. The Nashville Statement is helpful in forcing us Christians to face what we really believe about marriage, sex, and sexuality — which, like it or not, has become the most important issue dividing the church today. Isn’t it possible that the Nashville Statement will do good in that it compels believers who have wanted to avoid these discussions to take them seriously, and have them?

Me, if my supposedly conservative congregation really favored normalizing homosexuality, I would want to know that, so I could make decisions based on that knowledge. And if it held to orthodoxy on the issue, I’d want to know that too, for the same reason. I think a lot of Christians, including pastors, prefer not to think about it, and will just go with the flow. That means affirming LGBT, over time. To not decide is effectively to decide. Don’t kid yourself.

The question remains, though: How many persuadable fence-sitters remain, after all these years of talking about homosexuality in the public square? To repeat: if you are one of the persuadable, what would move you to one side or the other?

[Note to trolls: I want a genuine discussion on this thread. To that end, I will only post serious, thoughtful comments about this issue. If you want to play the “whatabout” game, you’re wasting your time by commenting, because I’m not going to post it.]

UPDATE: I just returned from a lunch meeting with a group of conservative Evangelicals, including a few pastors. We talked about the Benedict Option for most of the lunch, but at the end, I asked them what they thought of the Nashville Statement. I was not prepared for the vehement pushback. The ones who spoke up emphatically called it a pastoral disaster. Among the criticisms:

  • The fact that it focused so narrowly on homosexuality and transgenderism, and including nothing about divorce and other faults of heterosexual Christians, makes it look like the signers are plucking the speck out of LGBT eyes while ignoring the log in the church’s own eye
  • Objection to what they view as rejecting the Spiritual Friendship way of being a chaste Christian living with same-sex attraction (Article 7)
  • Objection to what they view as Article 10’s telling Christians who affirm LGBT that they have left Christian orthodoxy
  • The conviction that fair or not, the Nashville Statement looks like more culture-war red meat, especially to younger Christians
  • The Trump factor: so many white Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump that they surrendered the ability to speak with moral credibility on anything having to do with sexuality

That last one — the Trump factor — deserves some commentary. A couple of people in college ministry were at the table. They said that it is impossible to overstate how alienating the enthusiastic support their parents gave to Donald Trump was to their students. A number of college students have left the church entirely over it.

“How is that possible?” I asked one of the campus ministers. “How do you decide to leave Christianity altogether over who your parents voted for? That makes no sense to me.”

He said that in Evangelical circles, it’s common for college students to be skeptical at best of their parents’ theological views. For a lot of them, their parents’ backing of Donald Trump made everything they had been taught as kids about Christianity a lie. Their parents were the primary face of Evangelical Christianity to them, and to see this happen was shattering. They concluded that Christianity must be all about the economy, or tribalism, and so forth. One pastor said that a young man he ministers to in college posted a criticism of Trump on Facebook, and was cut off financially by his parents because of it.

Listening to these pastors and laypeople talking about the Trump effect on younger Christians was quite sobering to me. An older pastor said that it is impossible to separate the Nashville Statement from the massive support white Evangelicals gave to Trump. Impossible to separate, I mean, in the mind of the young.

“But Russell Moore signed it, and other Trump critics among Evangelicals,” I said.

“I know, and I’ve tried to tell people that,” said this pastor, a conservative Evangelical. “It doesn’t matter to them. All they see is a bunch of leaders of a movement who voted for a sexually corrupt man like Donald Trump are now trying to take a public stand on sexual morality for gays. It’s totally hypocritical to them. I don’t know how the Nashville Statement drafters and signers didn’t see this coming.”