The furore surrounding the Nashville Statement may have come and gone, but I have been in a lot of discussions about the missional implications of the LGBT “problem” recently and I feel I ought to make a belated stab at an appraisal.
The Statement is not well written and is ambiguous at critical points. It fails to explain its terminology. It makes no attempt to present the biblical, theological, or scientific reasoning behind the terse affirmations and denials. It gains theological focus at the expense of pastoral sensitivity, to put it mildly. It reduces the complex, shifting boundary conditions of human sexuality to a crude moral binary. Taken at face value, it is divisive. The tone is authoritarian, self-important and archaic. The whole idea of signing a statement of this sort seems to me vain and rather pointless.
Apart from that, I’m not sure I see what all the fuss has been about. The Statement is pretty much what you’d expect from a reactionary conservative organisation, and the reaction against it is what you’d expect from that part of the church which is desperately trying to mend bridges with the LGBT community. But it raises some broader issues that are perhaps worth commenting on.
Heterosexuality and patriarchy
The Statement is published by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and is implicitly, therefore, an affirmation not only of heterosexual marriage but also of patriarchal marriage. The presupposition is apparent in a couple of places.
First, it is said in Article 1 that marriage “is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church”. This is not as obvious as you might think. In the biblical context patriarchal marriage worked very well as a metaphor for the covenant relationship between God and his people and between Christ and the church. But the modern egalitarian model, which of course is not supported by many of the signatories to the Nashville Statement, has already made this metaphorical usage virtually unworkable. Even the rather contrived efforts of complementarians to reproduce the patriarchal arrangement mostly fall a long way short of the inequality presupposed in the New Testament.
The relationship between Christ and the church is not like the relationship between a husband and his wife unless we are prepared to grant the husband a status and authority in regard to his wife comparable to that of Christ in regard to the church.
Jesus told the disciples, “whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mk. 10:44), but this does not mean that we are bound to maintain the institution of slavery for the sake of the metaphor. Biblical patriarchal marriage is a metaphor for the relation between Christ and the church, but we are not bound to maintain any particular form of marriage for the sake of the metaphor about Christ and the church.
Secondly, there is reference in Articles 3 to the “divinely ordained differences between male and female”. Presumably what is in view here is the subordination of the woman to the man. Article 4 denies that such differences “are a result of the Fall or are a tragedy to be overcome”. I think that there is a very strong case for attributing patriarchy to the judgment pronounced on the woman in Genesis 3:16: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you”.
What’s going on here is something similar to the argument that the complementarian view of the relation of the man to the woman is grounded in the subordination of the Son in the godhead. Just as the subordination of the woman is supposedly entailed in the logic of the Trinity, so heterosexual marriage is logically entailed by the relation between Christ and the church.
The world has moved on
The Statement is written from a particular American religious perspective. This is apparent in a number of ways: the authors and signatories, for example, appear mostly to be American male—probably Baptist—pastors, heads of organisations, and academics; and you wouldn’t bother complaining that “Many deny that God created human beings for his glory” in Europe these days.
Fundamentally, the Nashville group assumes the continuing priority and privilege of the Christian moral voice within modern western culture. It assumes that the church still has the right to speak on behalf of humanity as a whole. It assumes that the church is still in a position to call the world back to a traditional Christian anthropology and social ethic. It is backward-looking rather than forward-looking.
Against that background, Article 2 affirms that “God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage”.
Now we can say with some confidence that God’s “revealed will” for his people is “chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage”. But I’m inclined to think that Genesis 1:23-25 is not an argument for confining sex to marriage but a statement about the centrality of the enduring relationship between a man and a woman for the formation of human society. This applies descriptively to all human societies, including modern secular western society. But it is not framed prescriptively, as an expression of the will of God for all people.
Is it so clear that the Bible expected the nations to conform to biblical norms? Did the prophets have much to say about the sexual mores of the Egyptians and the Babylonians?
The question I raise here is not so much whether lifelong heterosexual monogamy is a creational ideal but whether, outside of the Christendom paradigm, it is appropriate or meaningful for the church to presume to set the standards for societies that are not bound by covenant to the God revealed in the biblical narrative.
The Nashville Statement recognises that evangelicals “find themselves living in a period of historic transition” and that western culture is becoming “increasingly post-Christian”. But transition is always going to be difficult. An old order needs to be dismantled and a new order constructed, and it’s not going to happen overnight. So to reinforce the call to faithful witness with a smug protest against a “world that seems bent on ruin” seems to me shortsighted and condescending.
The church has to come to terms with the fact that the world has moved on and that we can no longer credibly dismiss the developments as morally wrong. In fact, it is beginning to feel as though the boot is on the other foot. Glynn Harrison writes in A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing:
As if from nowhere, Christians whose views once occupied the mainstream of public morality suddenly feel weird. It’s worse than that: they feel guilty. Guilty for holding views held to be degrading to the human spirit. Guilty that they belong to a faith accused of heartlessly pushing the most vulnerable and marginalized out into the cold. Guilty for having apparently heaped abuse on those whose only crime was being different.1
In fact, the only thing that is likely to bring the world to ruin in the foreseeable future is climate change caused by unrestrained material consumption—and the church is just as guilty on that count as the rest of post-Christian western culture. Paul would have had a field day with this one.
A lot of people complained about the fact that the Statement was released while hurricane Harvey was wreaking havoc in Texas. I think that the irony of the mistiming is profound.
So, on to eschatology….
The Nashville Statement and the narratives of mission
The Nashville Statement has as its telos “full and lasting joy through God’s good design”. This is set in contrast to the secular “path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God”. So “faithfulness in our generation means declaring once again the true story of the world and of our place in it—particularly as male and female”. The task of the church is to proclaim, embody, model an authentic created identity as male and female.
This assumes a cosmic missional metanarrative, and I grant that it has a certain overarching validity. But the missional narratives in scripture are not told at the cosmic level. They are told at the level of peoples, societies, cultures, and civilisations. The mission of the early church was to engage the Greek-Roman world, not the cosmos; and it had political outcomes in view—the overthrow of long-standing régimes, both in heaven and on earth.
The same is true for the history of the church. It is not a history of simple uniform witness to creational and redemptive realities. It is a history of social and cultural change—of Christian empire and nationhood, of schism and reformation, of furious intellectual debate, of colonialisation, of cultural collapse and marginalisation. The dogmatic evangelicalism defended by the authors of the Nashville Statement is itself an adaptation to historical change. It is a contingent modern phenomenon, not an ideal form of Christian existence.
So the challenge, I suggest, is not simply to reaffirm ageless biblical truths but to tell a credible forward-looking story about the place and purpose of an increasingly isolated church in the evolving secular environment. We need a new, historically relevant eschatology.
Towards a new, historically relevant eschatology
1. The argument of the New Testament is thoroughly eschatological. Nothing that Jesus said or did makes sense apart from the belief that Israel was heading towards a disastrous war against Rome. Nothing that the apostles said or did makes sense apart from the belief that Jesus would be “revealed” in a foreseeable future and confessed as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world. Only on the periphery of the New Testament vision do we come across belief in a final judgment and renewal of heaven and earth.
2. Paul regarded same-sex sexual activity as unnatural. But his condemnation of it was directly framed by his eschatology. It was the leading ethical characteristic of a pagan culture that was subject to the “wrath of God” (Rom. 1:26-27). People who engaged in same-sex sexual activity would not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9).
3. The coming of the wrath of God against classical pagan culture and the inheritance of the kingdom of God are theological references to the historical transition from pagan to Christian empire. Historically speaking, Christendom, in this broad sense, was the culmination of the long story about Israel and the nations. It was the concrete social-political embodiment of the victory of Israel’s God over the gods of the Greek-Roman world. Once the eschatological transition had taken place, the connection with idolatry was lost. Same-sex sexual activity was viewed simply as perverse and unnatural—a distortion of the dominant Christian worldview.
4. Christendom survived, in one form or another, until some point in the modern era when the scales tipped decisively in favour of secular humanism. In this respect the collapse of Christendom constituted the end of the biblical storyline. We are now beyond the victory of YHWH over the nations. That is all history.
5. The transition from Christendom to secular humanism has brought a massive reevaluation of the ethical status of same-sex sexual activity, at least in the West. Certain aspects of LGBT culture may still invite comparison with pagan idolatry, but the whole thing is rapidly becoming normal and, frankly, bourgeois. More importantly, the western church generally shares an intellectual outlook that can no longer treat same-sex attraction as contrary to nature or moral perversion.
6. Modernity has opened up a whole new chapter in the story of the people of God. The church can in principle take a stand on the creational normativity of heterosexual marriage, but it is unlikely that it will drag the western world back to a Christian worldview. The divergence between the two accounts of reality is now irreversible.
7. The church is, therefore, having to rethink its missional function. To my mind, the right model is not the incorporation of as many people as possible into an alternative reality on the basis of personal conversion. The mission of the church is to mediate in rather complex ways, as a priestly people, between the living God and the institutions and individuals that make up the multifarious secular culture in which we are embedded.
8. People self-identifying as LGBT and Christian are not going to go away. Even if the church in principle takes a stand on the creational standard of heterosexual marriage, it will have to accept the presence in its midst of LGBT people who insist on being acknowledged as faithfully Christian.
9. My sense, then, at the moment, is that the overriding task of the church will be creatively to manage the tension between its own peculiar commitment to the creational norm and the unavoidable integration of LGBT people. I don’t know yet how we will do that, but I’m pretty sure it will be articulated by means of a Story rather than a Statement, the work of grassroots communities rather than of any ecclesiastical elite.
- 1G. Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing (SPCK, 2016), Kindle loc. 132-35.