Christian Doctrine, Sex & Nashville Statement

on September 2, 2017

Any public declaration, if effective, will provoke wide controversy and indignation. So the recent Nashville Statement from scores of Evangelical leaders affirming traditional church teaching on marriage and gender has been a big hit.

Some conservative Christians have chided its omission of divorce, pornography and contraception. But most critiques of course comes from religious and secular liberals upset by the reminder that Christianity in all its major branches traditionally affirms sex only between husband wife and understands gender as physical reality, not self-identity.

The Nashville Statement, whose content differs little from the Catholic catechism on these issues, is mostly unexceptional in its conventional assertions about Christian belief and practice. Most denounced among its tenets is its assertion that dissent on sexual morality and the immutability of gender is “an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness,” as these questions are not a matter of “moral indifference.”

Some critiques, with rhetoric bordering on the hysterical, have portrayed this clause as placing dissenters outside divine grace and salvation. But it does not do so. It simply warns dissenters that when they stray from settled Christian teaching they are perilously leaving the consensus of the faithful across millennia and cultures.

Such dissent, especially for persons in authority, should never be treated lightly. Each of us, proportional to the influence allowed to us, will be held in judgment regarding our fidelity to the church’s teachings. The church does no one any favor by enabling or winking at disciples who stray asunder to the edges without technically crossing the line. Instead the church always pleas for ardent faithfulness to core teaching, its aspirational goal being not laxity but, as John Wesley stressed, perfection and holiness, without which no one can see the Lord.

Critics of the Nashville Statement should realize that about 95 percent of the world’s approximately 2.5 billion professed Christians are associated with branches of Christianity that share the Nashville Statement’s perspective. Of course not all are compliant with those teachings, and nobody complies completely, everyone relying on grace. But these teachings are the constant shelter under which the universal church rests.

Dissenting Christian institutions are almost entirely confined to declining Western liberal Protestant denominations. If the Nashville Statement’s critics were correct, these dying churches should be flourishing by their embrace of the spirit of the age. But in almost every culture and time, spiritual seekers are more drawn to religion that challenges, not that accommodates.

One critic of the Nashville Statement complained that it attempted in its certitude to shut down conversation. But it has achieved just the opposite. Critics troubled by the Nashville Statement’s omissions are welcome to respond with their own declarations that hopefully also strive for greater understanding of Christian doctrine and practice.

Nashville is a typically American Evangelical project. Roman Catholicism speaks through its magisterium. American denominations once spoke with authority through their conventions and assemblies of prelates. In our current decentralized, entrepreneurial post-denominational era there are few Christian institutions that address doctrine comprehensively and definitively. Declarations from self-collected Evangelical thinkers, pastors and activists are by definition ad hoc. But they serve a vital purpose and have become a primary teaching tool in American religious and cultural life.

Some critics of the Nashville Statement actually are simply critics of historic Christianity, which they are loath to admit. Others share the Nashville Statement’s aspirations but demand a standard of intellectual scope unlikely in our current cultural context. They should respond with more than criticism, adding to the debate rather than lamenting the Nashville Statement’s perceived faults. The Nashville Statement’s organizers should be thanked for their bracing assertions that stimulate further national conversations about Christian doctrine in our purportedly secular, post-Christian age.

Debates over the Nashville Statement also illustrate this typically overlooked point. Liberal Protestants and other modernists spent nearly a century contesting the supernatural tenets of Christian doctrine, a debate which they soundly lost to Evangelicals and other orthodox. Now the public debate has shifted to ethics and anthropology. The whirling adventure of orthodoxy that Chesterton celebrated nearly always entails stormy disputations but always in the end continues on its providential journey.

  1. Comment by Sidney Carlson on September 3, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    1. Major teaching of the Bible is encompassed in the creeds, but sexuality and gender specifics are a void historically, specifically homosexuality –which was believed OUTSIDE the design of Creation itself.
    2. The name of the man writing this article is to be made famous for one thing and that is his accuracy in church history — NOT in biblical teaching. Genesis 1: 27 speaks of the SPIRIT-IMAGE of Deity being created in TWO FORMS — a Male Spirit and a Female one. Thus, GENDER is NOT PHYSICAL but SPIRIT only and explains why scientists and anthropologists cannot find a MATERIAL causation or MEDICAL CURE for GENDER DYSPHORIA. Only the HOLY SPIRIT can heal the Soul and Spirit at Calvary’s exchange: “His scourging for my (gender) healing” (Is. 53. 5).

  2. Comment by Pete Jermey on September 4, 2017 at 3:18 am

    My biggest problem with Nashville was its Article 7, where it claimed that it is a sin to acknowledge that you are gay/homosexual or trans, even if you are celibate etc. This seems to me to be influenced more by American politics than by scripture and has the potential to cause great harm. Being gay/trans and not being able to access help or support can be a killer. In a more general sense, a lack of visible gay/trans people will allow a removal of basic rights and status (which many of the signatories have campaigned for for many years).

    Article 10 encourages people not to “accept” their friends and family who are gay or trans (regardless of behaviour) – again a cutting off of support and visibility.

  3. Comment by Rev Dr Marilyn Bennett on September 4, 2017 at 10:23 am

    Thank you, Mark. By the way, Western Liberal Protestants neutralized the authority under the guise of Higher Criticism. They also take those passages (even the words of Jesus) as descriptive of the culture at that time and not prescriptive of culture today which is ludicrous. Pro Life; Traditional Marriage; Authenticity and Authority of Scripture; Identity in Christ!

  4. Comment by Phil Ashey on September 5, 2017 at 6:28 am

    Thank you Mark for this essay. A great commentary on the Nashville Statement. Brilliant!

  5. Comment by BRENT WHITE on September 5, 2017 at 1:33 pm

    Well said. Thanks, Mark. For what it’s worth, I’m a UMC pastor who supports the statement and said so here:

  6. Comment by John Kenyon on September 6, 2017 at 3:57 am

    I have a visceral gut revulsion at white ‘Evangelical’ leaders that look like Beaver Cleaver come of age. Their authority in that community comes first from that image. I mean that it defies all that is holy to image Mark Tooley, like Ezekiel, shaving his head, laying naked in the street in Washington DC, and cooking his food with dried dung while prophesying. One needs to appear socially respectable and to toss in some scholastic phraseology with allusions to the decline of liberal denominations to make a clear, simple moral point.
    Homosexuality has been with us since Homo sapiens first stood erect on planet Earth. The issue has been litigated in every culture where male-female-children have formed families, clans, tribes and nations. The primacy of the heterosexual family is not arbitrary. It is a necessity.
    But just how lightly do Evangelicals take the issue? Let’s see. By in large they sat out the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but then declared themselves the moral majority in the late 1970s. So…hmmm. Who was in the street, like Ezekiel, shedding their blood? Who began raking in mega-bucks to build universities, television stations and gain political clout in Washington DC? So now we get to read a position paper heralded as important because it precipitates controversy. Fund raising letter certain to follow.
    And ya simply have to wonder why these folks claim the authority of the bible. The neo-moral majority has no moral authority in the United States. It has a well earned reputation as nothing but white cultural hegemony. Worse, white liberals think they ascended to the lofty heights of moral authority because they sided with Martin King and the struggle for civil rights coming out of the African American Church. Having wrested the mantle of “justice” away from the black Church, they now ignore its voices calling for the primacy of the heterosexual family as a necessity for the health and prosperity of all black Americans.
    At least the dissent of the United States Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges registered outrage. And they did not parse “eunuch” to do it. But why pay the price for moral authority when there such a great price to be gained by both sides in hyping this ancient, ancient issue? Just cry, “Hey! We’re for morality” or “Hey! We’re for justice”. Fund raising letters to follow.

  7. Comment by Mick on September 9, 2017 at 10:30 am

    Snot-nosed raises a stink at the family reunion Thanksgiving dinner while Dad (“white Evangelical leader”) graciously explains reality to the irresponsible and malcontent adult-kid whose only developed skill is running his mouth.

  8. Comment by Anneke on September 10, 2017 at 2:41 pm

    “well earned reputation as nothing but white cultural hegemony.”

    You obviously have not been to an evangelical church or know many evangelicals. I live in California. By far, the majority of Christians I know who support the Nashville Statement are Black or Asian. I will pray for you and the anti-White hatred that seems to consume you.

  9. Comment by Earl H. Foote on September 8, 2017 at 3:05 pm

    My biggest problem with the statement is, indeed, the declaration that people who dissent from the teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful are “leaving the fold” of Christianity. Each generation has its arguments over what is important, and some very influential Christian leaders assert as “non-negotiable” points that have little or no Biblical support. For example, many Christians oppose the consumption of alcoholic beverages, despite Christ’s obvious sacred uses of wine, including creating it out of water. I have heard, in all seriousness, divorced and remarried Christians quote Christ’s passage against divorce and say, triumphantly, “He said that marriage is between a man and a woman–so this passage is against homosexuality.” Did I miss something here? The issue of birth control is interesting, because many Christians condemn the practice, but many others permit it and even encourage it. In an age when Catholics and Lutherans are officially allowed to receive each other’s Communion elements, after all the years of bitterness between these two groups (for fun, read what the Pope and Martin Luther had to say to about each other!), I advise caution in considering any teaching outside the Creeds and the Gospels to be “eternal and unchanging.”

  10. Comment by Penny on September 15, 2017 at 10:59 am

    Well, Mark, you knew there would be those who would read your article and attack you and your words. Thank you for expressing what I, too, believe.

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