The PCA and The Nashville Statement

[The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)] endorsing the Nashville Statement was an odd move. The Statement itself is a jumble. It purports to be a broad account of Christian teachings on sexuality, but has nothing to say about divorce, contraception, or biomedical tech, and says very little about procreation as an essential good in Christian marriage. This makes the statement lopsided in its teachings about sexuality in ways that are evangelistically disastrous where the [Tim Keller and Reformed University Fellowship] wing of the PCA tends to be most active.

… The right … needs to recognize that what they confuse for progressive drift is usually the more banal work of finding ways to present the faith to people with minimal knowledge of Christianity, or with some deep hostility to orthodoxy …

Contrary to some hyperbolic claims, there is no serious movement in the PCA to reject historic teachings about sexuality. Those who dissented on Nashville did not do so because they are progressive on sexual ethics, but because of the procedural and pastoral issues cited above—as well as the lopsidedness of the statement itself.

Jake Meador

Apart from garbling a little denominational history (the PCA did not exist in the late 60s when the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy was issued — but then neither did Jake), Jake nails this.

I read the Nashville Statement and many reactions to it when it was issued (I clipped 20 items on the topic), and it was both sloppy (e.g., what’s the “homosexual self-conception” Christians should not adopt?) and lopsided (what about the sexual sins and dubious practices of heterosexuals? [Crickets.])

I often object to “whataboutism” as a rhetorical ploy to defend the indefensible, but the Preamble of the Nashville Statement does indeed promise “a broad account of Christian teachings on sexuality,” whereas the Statement is negative only on homosexuality, with flaws both rhetorical and pastoral, and without coming anywhere near stepping on any heterosexual toes about un-natural practices that have been adopted wholesale and uncritically.

People should not feel compelled to endorse sloppy and lopsided statements to prove their orthodoxy.

[This post is not categorized “lifework” or “deathwork,” just to prove that I maintain some sense of proportion. But had I waded in on the topics about which the Nashville Statement is silent, the “deathwork” category probably would have been invoked.]

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More Nashville thoughts

I really should just let the Evangelicals have their internal quarrel, but I’ve now seen a moderately-popular Orthodox blog argue that Orthodox clergy and hierarchs should support the Nashville Statement, so here we go again.

It almost certainly won’t be the last word on the Nashville Statement, but Matthew Lee Anderson, who earlier announced why he wouldn’t sign the statement, has revisited the topic in light of many reactions and defenses over the last few weeks. The heavily-annotated result is simply devastating to the procedural claims of the Nashville proponents — which are mutually-contradictory to boot. (“Do we contradict ourselves? Very well, then we contradict ourselves, We are large, We contain multitudes.“)

The official story is that the Statement was for Christian catechesis and not a tactic of culture war. By the time I finished Anderson’s latest foray, I was persuaded that the authors and signers are disingenuous, delusional or, likeliest (since they are mostly honorable people), unwittingly divided.

Far, far too much about the statement belies its catechetical intent; far, far too much about the chosen means of dissemination belies the denial of culture war:

While forming God’s people is a thoroughly laudable aim, I wonder: why then the website, the press release, and the signatories? The means of communication are not neutral, after all. They deliberately invite attention not just from evangelicals, but the world. If the form of such statements is part of catechesis, then why were Bible verses left off? And why were reasons for each of the affirmations and denials not given, or definitions of terms not supplied? Such additions would dramatically expand the statement’s length. But what does that matter, if the purpose is catechism and not the culture war?

[I]f the aim is the formation of Christians, doesn’t that mean confessing our complicity in the spirit of the age becomes—non-negotiable? Mohler obliquely alludes to Ron Belgau’s version of this critique, assuring us that evangelicals really know our shortcomings. But if the statement’s purpose is catechesis—shouldn’t it then express something of the atmosphere of repentance, especially if evangelicalism’s leadership already agrees such a response is justified?

In short: the Nashville Statement is more apt for catechesis in our endless culture war than the confident, faithful affirmation of the Gospel within our churches. We know it is more apt for such a purpose partly because that is how its defenders have used it, contrary to their claim that it is not a “culture war document.” The statement’s affirmations and silences, its form and its presentation are consciously designed to reach as broad an audience as our media allow. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But it is literally unbelievable that the drafters are “astounded” by the attention they have received. How precisely does one write a statement announcing a crisis, and then claim to be surprised when controversy ensues?

We are asked to see this statement not as a reflection of a movement of Christians invested in a narrow understanding of gender roles but as an inclusive document that makes room for all evangelicals. We are asked to ignore the fact that its form and content are designed to generate public attention, and simply accept on testimony that this is not a culture-war document. We are asked to forget that the preamble passes a sweeping judgment on the spirit of our age, but the affirmation and denials only name manifestations that are easy to distance ourselves from. We are asked to accept that this statement is important enough that it belongs in the same sentence as the creeds, but told not to make the “perfect the enemy of the good.”

The appeal to such intentions would be more persuasive if its signers agreed on what it means. But the statement is no model of clarity where it counts for conservative critics. Burk claims it’s purpose is the churches, but John Piper claims the audience is both the church and the world. Mohler reads the statement and says nothing about it acknowledging complicity. Burk’s inventive reading discovers such an acknowledgment in the preamble.

Or consider Article 7. The ‘plain sense’ obviously writes out Wes Hill and Spiritual Friendship. They are the only group known publicly to whom such an article would uniquely apply. Because those who are affirming are ruled out on the other statements, the only reason to add the boundary in Article 7 is if one thinks Wes Hill is outside of it. But Tom Schreiner signed the statement, and he says it doesn’t apply to Spiritual Friendship. Alastair Roberts says it does …

The appeal to intentions in order to settle matters of dispute is a shibboleth in evangelical circles, but there are (at least) two deep, relevant problems with it. First, it is ironically a close cousin of the ‘spirit of the age’ that the Nashville Statement so forcefully denounces. One person ignores the social and material conditions of their bodies and angelically asserts they have a different gender; another ignores the social and material conditions of their words and angelically asserts that they have meant something different than what we heard. Such a principle is self-exonerating; it means no one can be wrong about what they have done, because their private, inaccessible intentions are the final arbiter of what they’ve done. It is a principle that subsequently breeds deep self-deception and insularity, as it is a trump card that ends disagreement and dissent.

Note that my concerns don’t interrogate the literal substance of the statement apart from Articles 7 and 10, and I’m not even ready to say flatly that either of those two is mistaken.

Be it remembered, though, that CBMW — the driving force behind the statement — stood for “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” though they seem to be eschewing that name now. CBMW propounded and still propounds a complementarian view of the sexes that (1) is in conscious contradiction of egalitarianism, and (2) can take an ugly turn — and not just in abusive husbands or boyfriends:

The topic at hand in the Nashville Statement involves homosexuality and transgenderism. But those who have espoused and followed CBMW dogmatically over the years should confess their own complicity, at times, in gender confusion, in pushing conservative followers to not trust their own body’s revelation of their biological sex. I ministered at Mars Hill Church for years and witnessed for more years after I left the harm done to individuals’ understanding of their God-given sex by the hyper masculinity and hyper femininity that were taught through CBMW literature and leaders (along with Doug and Nancy Wilson and Martha Peace) who “discipled” Mark Driscoll and our congregation. Though many attendees certainly entered Mars Hill with a misunderstanding of sexuality, the teaching they received there often contributed to GREATER sexual confusion. I can not tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with folks wrestling with their sexuality in light of the ways they didn’t fit Mark’s caricature of the manly man. And all this happened under the discipleship and influence of the former leaders of CBMW, many who remain on its council and whose names are on this new document.

The mere fact we even have phrases like “manly man” or “effeminate men” in our churches is a travesty that adds to confusion. Biblically, a man is a man because he has male sexual organs. A woman is a woman for the same reason.  Hannah Anderson, Bekah Mason, and Rachael Starke have sharpened my thinking on this.

It was the false teaching of gnosticism in Bible times that separated the realities of the human body from the spirit. Though one may feel they don’t fit uber conservative perceptions of gender, our material bodies matter. I am a woman, not because I feel super feminine or perceive myself as a girly girl, but because my material body has the female genetic makeup and physical features that go with it. I am a godly Christian woman because, despite my overly logical mind that doesn’t particularly enjoy teaching young children, planning weekly family meals, or wearing feminine colors, I submit to Christ and God’s Word. In my circles at Mars Hill, Driscoll and Owen Strachan’s teaching in particular compounded this disconnect between what our bodies say we are (man or woman) and what we feel we are (for instance, Driscoll’s caricature of a “real” man). Oh the damage we have done in the Church, the ways we have contributed to gender confusion by our language of “real” men and “true” women. We went beyond Scripture for years in our teaching on what it means to be a man or a woman, and we must own our part in the confusion this created within our own churches and repent, otherwise we hamstring any new discussions and statements on the subject.

(Wendy Alsup, emphasis added) Mark Driscoll really became a freak show of one before being defined out of Evangelicalism under the No True Scotsman standard.

But how about Wendy Alsup’s insight: the CBMW-inspired manly manhood and womanly womanhood give tacit aid and comfort (or so it seems to me) to ideas like “well, penis aside, I feel like a woman because I’m not so muy macho as Mark Driscoll.”

As a guy who likes music, singing, writing, poetry, fine dining, travel, is re-learning French, and who doesn’t care much for sportsball (especially the kinds that lead to brain damage in the participants) but has no gender dysphoria whatever, I kind of have a personal stake in telling Mark Driscoll that his hypermasculine stereotypes are full of sh*t. And if his schtick was a legitimate outgrowth of CBMW nurture, then I’m not too keen on CBMW, either.

I’m not sure what game the CBMW is playing in the Nashville Statement (I’m not sure they do, either), so I’m not going to play along.

Pre-Publication Update: I have been completely unaware of Preston Sprinkle, as I was of Owen Strachan. Sprinkle has his own interesting Christian take on  the Nashville Statement. Note especially his bullet points.

(Yes, I cringe and get suspicious whenever someone says “heteronormative.”)

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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)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

More on The Nashville Statement

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 inevitableIn 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 fertilizationand 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)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.