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.