I initially demurred from signing The Nashville Statement. Despite some enthusiasm of others, something didn’t quite feel right.
It was not that I thought it would make me a marked man. I’ve done that 2000+ times here alone in the life of this blog (the veneer of pseudonymity having worn exceeding thin).
It was partly that I was uncertain what I’d be endorsing or opposing under the rubric “transgenderism.” Gender dysphoria is a real thing, and no more blameworthy than any other involuntary feeling; it seemed unlikely that the framers would condemn it, but I just wasn’t sure how precise they’d been.
I’m not sure I’ve yet figured out my personal hesitancy well enough to articulate it, but Matthew Lee Anderson figured out his, and it’s quite impressive for short notice. I think perhaps he has analyzed a generic problem in statements like this and found this one no exception.
All block quotes are Anderson unless otherwise noted, and all boldface emphasis is added:
The [Preamble’s] conflict with the “spirit of our age” sets up the series of affirmation and denials, where we discover a very narrow ethical focus on same-sex sexual desires and questions of transgender identity.
My initial reaction: “Well, duh! Where do you think the battle is being fought?” And there’s some truth in that reaction — if “battle” is the correct mindset. But Anderson’s a step ahead of me:
While Article 1, for instance, offers a broad affirmation of the nature and theological significance of marriage, the denial aims only at gay and polygamous marriages. … Such questions are the controversies of our day; it is undoubtedly the case that the signers of the statement would say more, not less, if asked about related subjects. But I take it that such a narrow focus is not simply a rhetorical problem: it represents a failure to bring the statement up to the minimum standards for biblical, ecclesiastically centered judgment of those who are wrong.
… While it is reasonable, and even likely, that those who frame the statement would want to resist collapsing those who adopt the “spirit of our age” into them, those who are outside the evangelical churches, [i.e., create an “us versus them” mentality, if you’re struggling as I did to understand this thought – Tipsy] such an effect is inevitable. In the same way, those who sign the statement are the people who denounce the “spirit of the age,” and do so against those who wish to affirm the licitness of gay desires and sex-transitions. The narrow focus of the boundary-setting that this statement aims at thus turns evangelicalism’s attention outward, toward its outer edges and toward those who lie beyond them.
Even if the statement draws the boundary in the right place, then, it inherently and intentionally obscures the fact that whether evangelicals embrace the “spirit of our age” is not a decision before us: It is a decision that has been already made. A “secular spirit” manifests every time an evangelical pastor remarries someone who was divorced without cause. It comes to the surface every time an evangelical couple pursues in vitro fertilization, and so undoes the “God-ordained link” between the reproductive organs and the union of the couple’s love. Every time an evangelical couple “feels the Lord calling” them to surrogacy, there the “spirit of our age” appears. And yes, it happens every time an evangelical utters the damnable phrase, “Well, I’m an evangelical, which means I’m okay with contraception”—as though that were somehow a mark of evangelical identity. (I’ve run out of fingers trying to count the number of times I’ve heard that, from pastors and from laypeople.)
To point out such realities … discloses how the strategy being deployed by progressives on sexual ethics was originally used by evangelicals for purposes more comfortable and convenient to our heterosexual and child-idolizing circles. An anthropology that affirms the theological significance of bodily life will weigh equally against a whole host of procreative practices that do not come up in this statement. Such practices are as deep and fundamental rejections of our bodily and sexual life as gay sex and transgender surgery are. That there is internal disagreement among evangelicals is no justification for the narrow scope of judgments and denials; such disagreement, after all, is the position that progressive Christians are seeking to gain.
This is not “whataboutism” from an enemy of Evangelicalism. It is a legitimate call, from within the Evangelical fold, to take care of the beam in the Evangelical eye before treating the mote in “their” eyes.
Anderson then turns to part of what justifies my suspicion that he “saw them coming”:
I have long argued that we should understand our current crisis about sexuality through two principles. First, the spectacles and obvious disputes this statement responds to are the sideshow, not the main action. Those obvious manifestations of the “spirit of our age” are not the ones we should worry about; it is those that are not obvious, the subtle temptations that lure us in without us realizing their deadly force …
The second principle follows on the first: the spectacles of obvious disagreement happen precisely because we have not been more focused on ordering our own houses …
The failure to acknowledge the depth of evangelicalism’s complicity in the “spirit of our age” is interdependent with the statement’s description of the norms to which we are all held …
When he turns his attention to “God’s revealed will … for chastity within marriage,” he reveals himself a true kindred spirit and has me in the palm of his hand.
[T]he statement … only offers a truncated, narrow form of the virtues in the realm of sex and marriage to which all Christians are called.
At the same time, the document’s narrow focus also includes an unfortunate (at best) narrowing of the community who the drafters think can claim the name “evangelical.” While the gang at Spiritual Friendship are capable of defending themselves, I take it that the denial of Article 7 is explicitly aimed at ruling out the subversive retrieval of “gay” they have been working on the past few years. While I am more than happy to accept many of the other boundary lines, I do think it a prudential failure in the face of the crisis this document outlines to preemptively winnow our ranks of those individuals who agree with our conclusions about the integrity of marriage and the morality of same-sex sexual behavior, but disagree about the meaning and significance of a “gay identity.” Paradoxically, while the minimalist approach is (presumably) aimed at generating consensus from the largest number of people, it does so only by cutting out from our midst some of conservative Christianity’s most eloquent and informed defenders.
Again, the clarity of Anderson’t hasty writing doesn’t quite measure up the the clarity of his considered principles. Let me explain the “Spiritual Friendship” allusion to those who have never followed the sexuality discussions among orthodox Christians. (I did for a while, partly because of a friend who’s in the thick of it, but it finally “plumb wore me out.”)
“Spiritual Friendship” is, loosely speaking, a forum for gay and gay-friendly orthodox Christians who affirm the kind of rigorous sexual standards embodied in the Nashville Statement, including chastity, but do not reject labels like like “gay,” “lesbian,” “LGBT” and whatnot as virtual identity-markers. Article 7 of the Nashville Statement seems to reject that as beyond the pale — as something about which Evangelicals cannot “agree to disagree.” I’m not taking sides, just explaining. You can probably imagine why some consider this too far out, promoting Panglossian inauthenticity.
If the Nashville Statement were addressed to Evangelicals inclined to stray from Biblical standards, it would present a different look, but it is pretty clearly outward-directed, toward the Zeitgeist that threatens to seduce or else persecute. In so doing, it comes across as a bit sanctimonious, if only tacitly: “We, the Evangelical faithful, are holding this line on God’s standards for sexuality despite the gay and trans juggernaut — (except where God’s standard have been so utterly routed that we’re too embarrassed even to talk about it).”
As a former Evangelical, I am less enthusiastic than ever about chiming into the chorus.
Then comes (drum roll!) The Pastrix, Nadia Bolz Weber, floating her Denver Statement, which truly is about a mile high. It is a “progressive Christian,” though not plausibly “progressive Evangelical,” counterstatement.
It’s probably accurate to say I disagree with every
word thought up until Article 15(a):
WE AFFRIM (sic) that the church has often been indistinguishable from the dominant culture in the ways in which it has sanctified oppression and bigotry towards historically marginalized and demonized people groups, of which the LGBTQ+ community is one.
This is true enough not to warrant disagreement. The rest indignantly rejects 2000 years of essentially unbroken teaching.
Everything else seems to assume a Budweiser worldview: you only go ’round once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can get. We’ll baptize that gusto, by gum! To hell with “the limits and definitions previously imposed by fundamentalist Christians” that suggest that the Budweiser worldview is no way to be authentically Christian, and that a Pastor/rix does not promote genuine human thriving by:
- healing wounds not lightly, but not at all since wounds are really gifts, doncha know?
- saying “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.”
- selling their teaching to the highest bidders with itching ears.
In a forced choice, I’d reject The Pastrix in a heartbeat and embrace the Nashville Statement. But there is no forced choice. I’ll just soldier on.
UPDATE: Rod Dreher, who was one of the enthusiastic “first endorsers” from outside the Evangelical subculture, has a rejoinder to critics from within orthodox Christianity (apparently there’s more than one).
He may have had Anderson’s article in mind. If so, he summarizes Anderson’s argument fairly and far more succinctly than Anderson makes it (“In sum, the Nashville Statement, the criticism goes, failed to repudiate the Sexual Revolution”), but then rejects that criticism on the theory that you needn’t say everything in order to say anything licitly.
That’s true, I guess, logs and specks aside, but I still think at least a prefatory nod toward Evangelicalism’s internal compromise with the sexual revolution — a compromise deep enough that they’d not have been able to reach consensus had thy tried — would have injected a welcome note of humility.
The only thing that gives Dreher serious pause is the reading of Article 7 that seemingly writes Spiritual Friendship out of Evangelicalism which, he grudgingly allows, makes the statement imperfect.
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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)