From Nashville to Denver (Part 1): My Critique of “The Nashville Statement”

It was almost two weeks ago that I started seeing Twitter and Facebook posts about something called The Nashville Statement—a 14-point declaration on biblical sexuality by a wide coalition of conservative Evangelical leaders. It was met with choruses of condemnation by various progressive Christian leaders and LGBTQ groups alike, and was labeled as bigoted hate speech. In addition to numerous posts and articles condemning The Nashville Statement, the very next day, progressive Christian pastor Nadia Bolz Weber came out with The Denver Statement, which essentially countered The Nashville Statement point by point. It should come as no surprise, but these two statements clearly illustrate that issues like gay marriage and transgenderism are quite contentious these days, to say the least.

As I read both statements, though, as well as a number of other online articles and posts, I couldn’t help but feel quite uneasy with both of them. Seriously, what do “statements” like these really accomplish? They simply are just “preaching to the choir” of their respective groups, and end up sparking even more hatred and division. Because they end up being overly-simplistic “statements,” with no real attempt to flesh out the thinking and reasoning that goes behind them, the only thing that will come of them is further entrenched stereotypes of each side of the debate.

As I have read so many statements and articles over the past two weeks, I’ve come to this realization: I fear too many times people just talk past each other, without taking the time to really consider what the other person is saying. In fact, we are so intent on proving we are right, we fail to speak in a way that is good, and we end up deepening the wounds that are in people’s souls, rather than trying to bring healing. If any truth, understanding, and compassion can come about in this current controversy, we will have to first put the finalized “official statements” aside—or rather deconstruct them a bit—and instead reflect on the process and thinking that had led to those statements.

Simply put, we all already know what the two entrenched statements and ideologies are on issues like gay marriage and transgenderism. Yet have we really taken the time to understand how people came to those conclusions? What are their reasons? Are there any flaws in their arguments? Is there anything the “other side” says that is true, misunderstood, or misguided? Can we gain a certain level of understanding before we run to our signs and slogans and Twitterfeeds?

And so, in these next two posts, I’m going to try to articulate what bothered me about each statement. After that, in a third post, I will try to offer my own humble opinion regarding how the Church should respond to issues like gay marriage and transgenderism. I want to make clear up front, though, that I certainly do not know everything. I’m a straight man who has only been with one woman (my former wife), and my marriage fell apart anyway. I know what it feels like to be lonely, unloved, broken and frustrated, so I hope what I write doesn’t come across as “holier-than-thou” or self-righteous. I certainly do not intend it to be.

Here’s my first step: my reaction to The Nashville Statement

Summing Up the Main Point of The Nashville Statement
When it gets right down to it, The Nashville Statement can be broken down into the following points:

  1. Christian marriage has always been a monogamous, life-long faithful union between a man and a woman (that’s Article 1, and yes, that is historically true)
  2. Sex outside of marriage is wrong (that’s Article 2)
  3. Gay marriage should be rejected
  4. Same-sex attraction isn’t necessarily sinful, but it is unnatural
  5. Homosexual sex is immoral, just as any other kind of sex outside of marriage is immoral
  6. One’s gender corresponds to one’s biology, and to self-identify as anything other than that is sinful

And to be honest, most of that is actually true, in that those positions have been the Christian position for the past 2,000 years. In fact, when it comes to marriage itself, I am unaware of any culture anywhere in history (up until late 20th century Western culture) where there had ever been such a thing as “gay marriage.” But for our present purposes, that is kind of beside the point.

Given the fact that issues like gay marriage and gender-identity are issues in our culture now, I found The Nashville Statement to be extremely tone-deaf, ill-conceived, and to be honest, it comes across as extremely Pharisaical. It just makes statements, pronounces judgments, and doesn’t show any real desire to really explain much, or to try to even understand the pain and confusion and hurt that countless people who have wrestled with homosexuality and transgenderism have experienced. It basically just says, “Nu-uh! The Bible!” and then makes a number of assertions, some of which aren’t actually spelled out in the Bible, and makes other statements that left me asking, “But what does that mean?

Articles 3-7
Take for instance in Article 3, when it talks about how the “divinely ordained differences between male and female don’t render them unequal in dignity and worth,” and in Article 4, when it denies that such “differences” are a result of the Fall, or “a tragedy to be overcome.” What does that mean? What “differences” is Nashville referring to? Simply biological differences? Or is this a statement about “different roles” in the home and in the church? Is Nashville saying male and female biological differences aren’t a result of the Fall? If so, who has even suggested that to begin with?

Then in Articles 5-7, Nashville makes the following points.

  • First, a person’s “reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female,” and that there is a “God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male and female.”
  • Second, people who are born with a “physical disorder of sex development” still bear God’s image, are basically the equivalent of “eunuchs who were born that way,” and can still live as faithful followers of Christ, “as long as they embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.”
  • And third, since “self-conception as male and female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption,” that “adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception” isn’t consistent with God’s holy purposes.

First of all, were they trying to be as convoluted as possible in their writing? Just speak plainly: “We believe there is no difference between one’s biology and one’s gender.” Secondly, where in the Bible does it talk about “God’s design for self-conception,” or a “God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception”? The last time I checked, the Bible doesn’t really talk about “self-conception” or “gender.” It doesn’t even acknowledge such things exist. It doesn’t make the kind of distinctions that we in the modern world have made.

Therefore, to talk about how “self-conception” and “gender” are God-designed, God-appointed, or must be defined by “God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption,” is to claim the Bible is addressing concepts our modern world has come up with, but would have been foreign to the original audience. To be clear, I’m not “siding” with the “liberal” claim regarding biology and gender—I’m just pointing out that can’t say, “The Bible says one’s biology and gender always agree,” when the Bible doesn’t even talk about “gender” in the first place. What it does say is, “There are men and there are women, and together they are made in God’s image.” That’s it. It doesn’t go beyond that.

And finally, isn’t it somewhat confusing and contradictory to admit that “ambiguities to a person’s biological sex” and “physical disorders of sexual development” exist, but to then turn around say, “Oh, but you can be a faithful follower of Christ if you just embrace your biological sex insofar as it may be known?” Isn’t that the problem? For some people, there are ambiguities that make it really confusing for them. It’s like saying, “We realize some of you are colorblind, but don’t worry, you can be a faithful follower of Christ, as long as you can differentiate between red and blue.”

Articles 8-10
Additional problems arise with Articles 8-10. Despite a few general statements that essentially say, “Oh well everyone struggles with sexual temptation” (which is true), the bulk of the comments are specifically directed toward homosexuality and transgenderism alone. Given that, I imagine a gay person might interpret Article 8 this way, “If you have same-sex attraction, you can still live a life pleasing to God, as long as you ‘walk in purity of life’ (i.e. don’t engage in sex outside of a heterosexual marriage). This applies to everyone, but you need to know your same-sex attraction isn’t natural or good—it’s not part of God’s original creation, but don’t worry you’re not devoid of all hope. You can be more like us if you just try harder!” Whether or not the writers intended it to come across that way is beside the point. The fact is, that is clearly how it has been interpreted. And so, when people say The Nashville Statement comes off as extremely Pharisaical—and I have to admit, I can see why.

Article 9 is pretty straightforward and basically true: sin does distort sexual desires, it does apply to everyone, both homosexual and heterosexual, and no matter how strong your sexual desires and feelings may be, traditional Christian teaching is that that doesn’t justify sexual immorality.

Article 10 I also found problematic, for it said it is sinful to approve of “homosexual immorality and transgenderism.” Now, does this mean “homosexual sex-acts” or “homosexual attraction”? One can certainly choose whether or not to do sexual acts outside of marriage (and yes, such acts have always been deemed sinful in Christianity), but can you really say someone is sinning if they just find themselves attracted to someone of the same sex?

“Transgenderism” is sort of a slippery word as well. Bruce-now-Caitlyn Jenner is a biological man, but has said he has always felt like there was this woman inside him, and now dresses as a woman. Now, I don’t understand that, but I don’t doubt that is really how he has felt most of his life. And yes, I think it is weird to see him on the cover of Vanity Fair dressed like a woman, but is feeling that way, or is putting on a dress sinful? Should we be calling the way someone feels (not what acts might that person do) as sinful?

Articles 11-14
If one wasn’t reading Articles 11-12 as part of a statement specifically addressing homosexuality and transgenderism, I doubt one would really find anything outrageous about them: (11) We  should speak the truth in love when we speak about male and female; (12) God’s grace in Christ gives merciful pardon and transformative power that enables us to put to death our sinful desires and walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, and God’s grace can forgive all sexual sins and empower believes who feel drawn to sexual sin.

But the fact is, since these Articles are in a statement that focuses on homosexuality and transgenderism, it is pretty obvious how people in the LGBTQ community will interpret them: “We are speaking the truth in love—you are unnatural and sinful, so just put to death those sinful desires and be like us. God can even forgive your sins!”

And do you know why I think that’s how it has been interpreted? Because that’s is pretty much spelled out in Article 13: “God’s grace can enable sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions…and to accept the God-ordained link” between biology and self-conception. Translation? Bruce-now-Caitlyn Jenner is a sinner because he admitted he has always struggled with this feeling he was a woman inside.

I’m sorry, but I totally get how hurtful such statements would be to people in the LGBTQ community. It is basically saying, “Your very being is sinful, unnatural, and outside of God’s design, because you feel that way.”

Article 14, like Articles 11-12, by itself, is standard Christian belief that spells out the Gospel: Christ came to save sinners, and through his death and resurrection, eternal life is available to all who repent. No sinner is beyond God’s reach to save. Great! But coming after the previous 13 Articles, you can almost hear the writers mumbling under their breath as they write the last sentence, “We deny that the Lord’s arm is too short to save [EVEN THOSE HOMOSEXUALS], or that any sinner is beyond his reach [EVEN THOSE TRANSGENDERED PEOPLE].”

Conclusion to the Nashville Statement
Tone-deaf and Pharisaical—those are the two descriptions that continually popped into my head as I read The Nashville Statement. Honestly, I think the charges of it being “hateful” and “bigoted” are a bit over the top. I highly doubt that every single signer of The Nashville Statement are horrible people who “hate homosexuals and transgendered people.” Like I said earlier, many of the basic points have been standard, historical Christian teaching. The problem is that (like the Pharisees), many of the statements go beyond what the Bible actually does say. For example, yes, Christianity has always taught marriage was to be between one man and one woman; but no, nowhere in the Bible or in Church history (as far as I can tell) does it say that a man is “a sinner” simply because he feels more like a woman.

And the fact is, many in the LGBTQ community are people who have grown up in religious homes, who have legitimately struggled and agonized over how they feel, who certainly did not choose to feel that way (and who probably wished they could just be like everyone else), and who, when they tried to reach out to their family and church communities, have found themselves cast out, condemned, and despised. Given that reality, it shouldn’t be surprising that when they read something like The Nashville Statement, they think, “That’s the sort of thing my parents said, right before they kicked me out on the street and told me I was an abomination and no longer their child.”

Such is the fundamental problem I have with The Nashville Statement. The signers might say their duty is to speak the truth in love at all times, but part of what it means to speak the truth in love is to take the time to consider how your words will be received and interpreted. And I think it is obvious that The Nashville Statement fails miserably in that regard. Any true points they have in the statement will be drowned out by the callous and uncaring way their message came across. Regardless of its intent, that is how it certainly has come across.

In my next post, I will share my reaction to the progressive reaction found in The Denver Statement.

3 Comments

  1. Joel, what struct me is the DENIAL portion of Article 10 – they have raised this to primary, essential doctrine. No faithful Christian can disagree. End of discussion.

    1. Yes, I agree. They’ve raised it certainly to an “identity marker,” much like how the Jews elevated things like circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath. In fact, the entire thrust of the statement certainly is in that vein: making it the determining factor in regard to who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

      1. It very much reminds me of YEC. They have taken a commonly-held, but non-essential, belief; inflated it far beyond its proper importance; elevated it to essential status; and then claimed that it is actually the shape of the historical faith, and they are the gatekeepers.

        (BTW, I am also “spamagnet.” I guess I got logged in some other way the first time I posted.)

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