Let’s not be inordinately concerned about the recent Nashville Statement, signed last week by some 150 “evangelicals,” from mega-Calvinist John Piper to sort-of-Arminian James Robison. (About half are Southern Baptists, by the way). It’s really nothing new. Christians have been OCD-ing about sex since Paul’s dictum to libidinously smoldering first-century believers: “It is better to marry than to burn.”
Rules about sex and marriage span Christian history. Augustine linked marriage to procreation; but even marital sex was sin if you smiled during it. Assorted popes demanded priestly celibacy, except for themselves. Post-Reformation Catholics believed Martin Luther’s ecclesiastical schism (500 years ago next month) centered in his lascivious desire to marry an ex-nun. (They had six children, by the way.)
In 1730s Northampton, Mass., pastor Jonathan Edwards sought to abolish youthful practices like “night-walking” and “promiscuous gatherings” for “mirth and jollity,” called “frolicks,” not to mention licentious “bundling” (look it up). Critics of frontier camp meetings speculated that sweat-soaked revivals produced new-birth converts in the summer and newly-birthed babies nine months later. Baptist pastors ordered my youthful generation not to “marry outside the faith,” and that meant Catholics and Methodists, not Muslims. Twentieth-century law and gospel were invoked to prevent biracial couples from becoming “unequally yoked,” often with “biblical” justification.
This summer’s Nashville Statement is about sex, the homosexual kind mostly, to which signers are adamantly opposed. They state their convictions on the matter with uncompromising clarity, denying “that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.” Signatories also deny that “approval of homosexual immorality and transgenderism is a matter … about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.” End of discussion.
I take the statement and its signatories seriously, but fear that “the issue is never the issue,” as an old Benedictine friend says. Critics have already challenged the document’s approach to sex, marriage and LGBTQs, so perhaps we might explore some of its broader implications.
First, to claim moral high ground as arbiters of “biblical manhood/womanhood” is to live there, so it would be helpful to know how many signatories cut a moral/ethical deal to vote for Donald Trump, the most publicly lascivious chief executive since Bill Clinton. Those who voted a Trump ticket could have confessed the obvious — that they went silent about, or closed their eyes to, Trump’s long-term sex-laced behaviors, immorality they denounce in the rest of us, gay or straight. When one of their number (Russell Moore) spoke out, Southern Baptist Convention Trumpanistas silenced him forthwith. Signers, don’t dictate morality to certain Americans that you don’t demand of the president. A simple asterisk beside those Trump-oriented signatories could be helpful and honest.
Second, signers might stop whining that “Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian.” Historically sensitized, albeit theologically unwashed, Christians (like me) might ask: “When was it not?” Even a glance at history and gospel suggests that much “Christian culture” inside and outside of the church the church was consistently post-Christian. The Inquisition was post-Christian, as was the burning of Michael Servetus in Geneva; and the drowning of Anabaptist Felix Mantz in Protestant Zurich. Boston Puritans turned post-Christian when they hanged Mary Dyer in 1660. Chattel slavery alone, brought to America in 1619, suggests that the country was post-Christian from the start.
The church is called to be a witness in every culture, and, as Roger Williams reminded us, there are no really Christian cultures, only Christian people, bound to Christ by faith, not citizenship. Perhaps the signers are really mourning the loss of a post-Constantinian culture in a society where Protestant privilege wanes and churches must give witness to Christ’s gospel, not depending on principalities and powers to assist them.
Third, alongside condemnation of sexual identity and marriage among LGBTQ folks, why is the statement silent on divorce, particularly Jesus’ “hard sayings” on the topic, including adultery between remarried divorced persons? To speak of marriage between “one man and one woman” and ignore Jesus’ own commentary on marriage and divorce appears to undercut the biblical foundation the statement works so hard to establish.
A simple oversight? A larger issue not appropriate for this document? Or a subtle recognition that while numerous LGBTQ-oriented individuals are claiming marriage as a foundational relationship, large numbers of heterosexual couples are eschewing marriage altogether or living in serial marriages for better or for worse. The silence on divorce shatters many of the biblical mandates the document so ardently demands.
Finally, reading the Nashville Statement sent me straight to the story of the blind man in John chapter 9, when the disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents? Why was he born blind?” — questions linking physical conditions with moral corruption. Jesus will have none of it, healing the man in a literally earthy way (John 9:6-7) and moving beyond their questions to deal directly with the man’s physical condition and true self. (The guy is healed before he believes, by the way.)
Theological controversy ensues; the story ends as the first-century religious crowd won’t believe the ex-blind man was really healed, arrogantly declaring: “Who are you to give us lessons, born and bred in sin as you are?” It’s a line that will not let me go when reading the Nashville Statement.
Ironically (providentially?) I’m historically though not ideologically bonded to three of the signers. Mark, Al and James took church history with me years ago in Louisville at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Amid our differences, I still count them as friends who with me share something of God’s grace made known in Jesus.
But I’m also bonded with LGBTQ-oriented friends from my classes at SBTS, Samford University and Wake Forest University, folks like Scott, Chris, Brian, JR, Adam, Lindsey, Mamie, Greg and Liam, a community of whole persons who taught me this: if God’s grace is not sufficient for them just as they believe God made them, then there’s not much room for the rest of us either. Such radical grace, shows up, often unrecognized, in all sorts of “post-Christian” cultures (and churches), taking us where we thought we’d never go, but where Jesus has been present all along.