The Nashville Statement…down the road
Almost a year ago I (and thousands of others) signed the once infamous Nashville Statement. Obviously it generated a great deal of controversy with a wide variety of responses. On his daily podcast, The Briefing, Al Mohler perfectly summarized the various responses like this:
“On the one hand you have those who read it understand it immediately to have the ring of biblical truth. They understand that it’s not only true but that it needed to be said [response 1]. And they will emphatically support it. Secondly, you will have those who are a bit more reticent. They’re going to say I know that’s what the Bible says. But do you really have to say that out loud [response 2]? The third response is people who say I don’t think that’s right. I’m not sure why I don’t think it’s right, but I’m not comfortable saying that, and I wish you hadn’t said it [response 3]. And the fourth response is we operate from an entirely different worldview. You’re absolutely wrong evangelicals when you set out the Nashville statement, and we’re going to correct you, and we’re going to repudiate you [response 4].” -from the Briefing transcript
No one was surprised by responses 3 and 4, the confused and the progressive respectively. But the second one is the most interesting and important response group. These are what I am labeling the embarrassed orthodox.
The Embarrassed Orthodox
Folks like Pastor Skye Jethani:
“It’s difficult to imagine what the authors of the statement hoped to accomplish. If their goal was to … open minds to biblical teaching, they miscalculated spectacularly.”
In this same vein prominent Christian Apologist Preston Sprinkle wrote:
“this statement was…impersonal and one-sided. “WE AFFIRM…WE DENY…” who talks like this anymore? What does this do for the 14-year-old kid in the youth group who’s contemplating suicide because for some unchosen reason, he doesn’t feel at home in his own body and daily wishes he had a female one? So he puts on a mask at school for fear of getting beat up, mocked, or tormented on social media. He’s terrified to tell anyone…Where is he in this statement?”
To be clear Sprinkle and Lethani are both on record affirming the essential beliefs that the NS articulates. In other words they have signed the content of the NS through intellectual assent. But they won’t formally sign it for what they consider to be loving pastoral reasons.
It should almost go without saying that these “arguments” from the embarrassed orthodox are not very strong. But I must admit that after signing I had some doubts about the timing. Its not as if the Evangelical position on this matter is a secret although clarity is never a bad thing. But why now? Was it really important to make this statement now? Our country seems remarkably divided already and the NS framers knew this would generate further controversy. I didn’t have a great answer to this question. But when my alma mater, Biola University, came under fire for having numerous faculty members sign I felt compelled to understand why or if the timing mattered. So I sought out some of our excellent faculty.
Orthodox and Unashamed Perspectives
Dr. Alan Gomes, Professor of Historical Theology, gave me a very thorough answer:
“It’s an extremely important issue because our gender and sexuality are key facets of who we are as beings of dignity and worth, created in God’s image. The teaching of LGBTQ activists is highly destructive in this regard, both to themselves and to society at large. So one reason we must speak to this is out of concern…for their own good and for the good of others. But another reason for speaking out is because these activists, as with the left in this country generally, are attempting to shut down our right to freely express our faith when they find it disagreeable. Particularly for those whom God has called to be leaders in the church, it is critical that we not be intimidated and cowed into silence, especially on a subject that is so fundamental to human flourishing and so foundational to who we are as creatures made in God’s image.”
Professor Gomes has a reputation for rigorous logical clarity, on full display here. And I find myself in complete agreement with him on this matter. To restate the NS is primarily about maintaining Evangelical clarity on an ethical issue over which much heat is produced but very little light. And to maintain a public religious witness in post Obergafel America. This is very important in the fight to protect our First Amendment rights. This makes the statement very timely. In fact three months on the statement seems more relevant and timely than ever. It was more important than anyone truly realized at the time.
[Editorial Interruption: I wrote this piece almost half a year ago but couldn’t find a publisher for it anywhere. I forgot about it until recently. I’ve made a few changes to keep it up to date. But I had forgotten about this next paragraph. I’ve decided to leave it as is but emboldened. The remainder of this piece has also remained untouched in that regard but this paragraph was the most significant.]
The Masterpiece Cakeshop vs Colorado Supreme Court Case was argued on Dec. 5 but a verdict has not yet been handed down. And if the verdict is split coming down to Justice “Swing Vote” Tony, well it’s pretty obvious which way he’s gonna swing. Which means that at the time of this writing SCOTUS is trying to seriously determine whether or not it is constitutional to violate the 1st amendment. In other words our highest court is unsure if it is constitutional to violate the constitution.
I asked Dr. Erik Thoennes about the theological scope of the statement. He said “The statement certainly represents the perspective of other traditions, but it was written by evangelicals with evangelicals in mind. The Nashville Statement should be a resource for Christian leaders and churches, Christians in general, to use as a baseline for our thinking on these things.”
That means that the NS is not truly a political document. It is not a statement of religious belief versus secularism or one vision of sexual ethics vs another. This is not an act of cultural or political warfare. This is not a Republican statement or even primarily intended to be conservative. It is an Evangelical expression of belief grounded in the good news of Jesus the Messiah designed to bring communal clarity. It was written for us and by us.
Of course Evangelicals are not alone in these beliefs but unlike the Manhattan Declaration this is not an attempt to ecumenically gather for conservative battle. It is a “baseline” for Christians who submit to biblical teaching on sexuality.
No one was surprised when this was interpreted as culture war or a mistaken attempt at gathering converts against the LGBTQ$Z agenda. But that has more to do with the total lack of religious literacy on the American left than it does the NS.
The ramifications of the post Obergafel world only start with the post Masterpiece Cakeshop world. Ramifications that SCOTUS was completely cognizant of while crafting that unconstitutional decision. Of course it’s still possible that the post Cakeshop world is not an America devoid of 1st amendment protection. As the great philosopher Mel Brooks once said “Hope for the best, expect the worst.”
And as with all things in America these days our beloved orange POTUS factors into this. The Trump connection is important and complicated shown by the Washington Post’s further reporting on Jethani:
“Had white evangelicals leaders … withheld support for Mr. Trump after the infamous ‘Access Hollywood’ tapes, maybe their opposition to same-sex marriage would be viewed … as a principled, rather than a bigoted, position,” said Skye Jethani, a prominent Chicago-area pastor and author. The Nashville Statement met such criticism in part because white evangelicals’ broad voting support of Trump, at 81 percent, despite his moral violations, “squandered” their moral authority, he said.”
Different Sorts of Evangelicals
So clearly some of the embarrassed orthodox issue is connected to the outcome of the 2016 presidential race. Evangelicals infamously made a massive contribution. To better understand how Trump support may or may not be connected to the continued significance of the NS I sought out one of Biola’s Political Science Professors, Dr. Darren Guerra.
He explained to me that Evangelical political support during 2016 fell into 3 categories:
“Jacksonian Evangelicals made up about 30–35%. These are the core Trump voters. They probably will not abandon him no matter what. They tend to be less religious or politically conservative falling more along American populist lines. The second and by far the largest group are the Tocquevillian Evangelicals. They are Tocquevillian in the sense that they attend church more often than Jacksonians, have high levels of religiosity and higher levels of social capital. In other words they are active in their communities in ways the Jacksonians are not. These are mainstream Evangelicals who came to Trump late. Certainly after the Republican convention. Their support for Trump is contingent and transactional based mostly on threats to religious liberty. The last and smallest group are Evangelical elites. Elites had a higher social cost to pay for supporting Trump and generally did not. Falwell being a notable exception.”
But how do these groups relate to the NS?
“Tocquevillians probably make up the majority of signers. Trump is certainly not a cultural warrior on issues of human sexuality and yet, a lot of that 81% of Evangelicals still care about culture. So the NS still communicates that these issues still matter to evangelicals, at least as far as they pertain to their own communities and churches.”
This makes perfect sense because post Obergafel the RNC platform had become ambiguous on this point. As Guerra put it to me “It’s still up in the air for Republicans but some people are just happy to not have to deal with it anymore. Politically people don’t want to talk about it or address it and even theologically they’d rather go along to get along. Which is one of the reasons why the Nashville statement provides leadership that is lacking right now.”
To leave no ambiguity here the NS has deep political significance because it is not a political statement. And to successfully make our case against attempts at religious compulsion we have to prove that the GOP may have changed but the Christian Faith has not. Almost 2000 years ago the Apostle Matthew recorded Jesus as saying “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”