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Evangelicalism’s ‘Flight 93’ Moment: Reflections on the Nashville Statement

September 12th, 2017 | 15 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

What does the Nashville Statement mean? And to whom should we look to help us understand? Conservative evangelicals have been gripped by such questions since the CBMW released the statement two weeks ago. Yet while its advocates and defenders have touted its importance and its benefits, I fear the ensuing discussion has left conservative evangelicals as bereft of sound guidance on questions of gender identity and sexual orientation as we were prior to its release. My reflections here are variations on that theme.

Statements, Counterstatements, and Conservative Evangelical Critics

The self-parody of the progressive ‘Christian’ response to the Nashville Statement is the place to start. While more sober criticisms contained enough truth to sound respectable, they were soon overwhelmed by farcical counterstatements that reaffirmed the progressive sexual ethic is not recognizably Christian. Their pseudo-theological dressings mean you have to squint to see what they really want: polyamory. Which is mildly disappointing, I must say. A paganism undefiled by the trappings of evangelical formalism would be more fun than the lukewarm, ‘respectable’ version on offer. Progressive Christians should put down their Enneagram charts and make paganism great again. After all, I can think more enjoyable ways of fighting to make polyamory permissible than releasing a statement.

Such a sad spectacle, though, merely confirmed the Nashville Statement’s defenders in the righteousness of their cause. As Albert Mohler told the Washington Post, “the vitriol in response to our document showed why such clarification is necessary.” Denny Burk claimed to be “astonished” by the attention, but suggested that it was a sign the world had heard the good news. Owen Strachan claimed the mantle of John the Baptist.

And then there was the small band of conservative critics who tried to raise concerns about the statement’s presuppositions, meaning and purpose. Though such criticisms were relatively widely read, prominent advocates acted as though conservative evangelical critics simply did not exist. Strachan reduced critics to two categories: progressive pagans and weak-kneed evangelicals. Mohler’s typology of critics had four categories, none of which fit Preston Sprinkle or Carl Trueman. And then there was Alastair Roberts, who signed it, defended it and then critiqued it. But you wouldn’t know about the last if you followed the statement’s leading advocates: they only touted Alastair’s endorsement. After the existence of conservative critics was confirmed in the Washington Post, Strachan switched tactics, arguing the statement’s 170 signatories outnumber the five critics who were named.[1]

The effort to publicly downplay and dismiss conservative critics has gone hand-in-hand with exaggerated claims of the statement’s importance and the breadth of its signatories, in order to convey that it represents all of conservative evangelicalism. Burk had the audacity to put the statement in the same ‘tradition’ as the creeds. Strachan described it (apparently without irony) as a “landmark in theological history” from a “globe-spanning” coalition—thus shrinking the world to the U.S. and U.K. and demonstrating the very parochialism progressives are often charged with. Strachan is of course right that the 170 signatories is more than the five critics. And yet—only 170? Play the “who’s missing from the signatories” game. It’s a long and not uninfluential list. I was not surprised Rod Dreher met conservative evangelical pastors unhappy with it, none of whom apparently wanted to be named. I suspect conservative evangelical discontent about this statement runs deep, even if it is mostly silent.

My aim in describing this landscape is not to match Strachan’s hyperbole with an overinflated account of the scope of dissent. It is just the silence of such conservative individuals and institutions that makes Strachan’s claim this document speaks for evangelicals seem reasonable. Yet while people remain silent for many reasons, these days everyone assumes that silence means consent. And exaggerating the quality, importance, and scope of this statement also intrinsically raises the stakes for public disagreement—which is, I suspect, partially the point of such rhetoric. As the defenders’s unwillingness to publicly engage conservative evangelical critics indicates, the payoff for doing so is also quite low. Until conservative evangelicals with influence publicly demur, then, this statement sets the framework by which conservative evangelicals are known and judged.

Culture War or Catechesis?

The preoccupation with progressives by the statement’s lead defenders also calls into question the accuracy of its stated purpose. Denny Burk, President of CBMW, has suggested that “one of the most important things to understand about The Nashville Statement is that it was not primarily aimed at the outside world,” but at the “evangelical Christian world where so much confusion on these questions seems to remain.” It is emphatically not a “culture-war document,” he writes, but meant to “catechize God’s people.”

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?

And why is there not more attention to the pastoral dynamics of how these affirmations and denials are to be worked out in the context of local communities? For a statement signed by a heavy concentration of Baptists, its form and substance have little to do with congregational life. It is a “statement” by an evangelicalism that has left ecclesial communities behind in favor of trans-denominational, parachurch partnerships.

And if catechism is the aim, why has the public defense barely registered (at best) conservative critics like Wendy Alsup? Why does “catechesis” require maintaining the public appearance of unity? A real catechetical process is meant not to force a person into doctrinal conformity, but to elicit questions and objections for the aim of understanding. The disparity between the stated aim of this document and the actions of its defenders make it plausible to infer that conservative critics also no longer count as “God’s people.” Is this too part of the document’s purpose?

And if 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? Confession is the first act of Christian witness, the grounds on which we name our own status as forgiven by God and subsequently as authorized to pass judgment. It is the presupposition of speaking Christianly, rather than merely affirming Christian doctrines. There is no such thing as Christian pedagogy that fails to include it when passing moral censure, as this statement does. Any judgment that lacks confession cannot be the judgment of grace—or of God.

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? When Owen Strachan touts the statement made “national news” for purportedly non-controversial beliefs, it’s hard to not wonder: Is it possible they have had their reward in full? 

Idealism and Intentions

Beneath the various defenses of the Nashville Statement lies a subtle but pernicious idealism that appeals to the intentions of the authors as the definitive answer for what the statement is and means. For the drafters, the statement’s social positioning, origins, and context have no bearing on how we are to interpret its significance. Their intentions are the only criteria that matter. 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.[2]

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. Are we supposed to wait for an authoritative pronouncement on the statement’s scope, as Burk did on Article 10? Are we even supposed to take that ‘clarification’ as definitive?

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.

Second, such an idealistic criterion is also a double-standard that defenders of this statement have not been willing to grant to their interlocutors. Burk’s claim that this was not a new moment in our culture wars turns entirely on whether we accept his testimony about this statement’s purpose. But Burk has also developed a trajectory that helps people interpret the meaning and significance of statements within the broader social currents, which empowered much of the recent conservative critique of James K.A. Smith’s comment on the limits of orthodoxy. But the social conditions of our public actions do not only matter when convenient. They set the framework for responsible speech and action, and entail that we are not the exclusive or even best interpreters of our own words.

The Flight 93 Statement

The Nashville Statement is the Flight 93 statement. It is striking how similar its defenses have been to arguments that evangelicals should vote for Trump. The sense of crisis the preamble announces is so pervasive that it justifies not just any statement, but this one. Anything else makes the perfect the enemy of the good. One signer told me Article 10 alone should impel me to sign, because the urgency of the hour demands it. ‘Choose ye this day’, the statement announces, and voting third party is clearly a waste. The impulse to close ranks and reassert evangelicalism’s identity publicly and the eagerness to indulge in the rhetorical excess of the statement’s importance have the same roots in the despair that governs our politics. Those Nashville pastors were right to detect an elusive commonality between evangelical support for Trump and the dynamics surrounding this statement, even if the vast majority of its signers were strong and faithful critics of Trump’s campaign.

Only time will tell, but I fear the Nashville Statement will be no more a win for conservative evangelicals than the election of Donald Trump. While it has exposed the silliness of progressive foes, it has also galvanized them and dangerously inflated our confidence in our own rightness and strength. The statement draws some of the right boundaries, but in the wrong way. And at least one boundary ought not to be drawn, or needs to be clarified. It comes to many right conclusions, but reflects principles and ideas that have born bad fruit within evangelicalism.

It is not my perfectionism that animates my resistance to this statement. Rather, it is my abiding concern that the church of Jesus Christ not pursue short-term “wins” like the Nashville Statement at the expense of sowing seeds for the long-term renewal of our own sexual ethics. My concern for the Nashville Statement is thus pastoral; my critique is that the document is not pastoral enough. It is not perfection I am seeking, but the humility to name our sin. The only way forward for an evangelicalism broken by the sexual revolution begins not with the announcement of the truth, but by confessing all those things we have both done and left undone.

A Coda

The first time I ever considered becoming a theologian was at a youth conference my freshman year of high school. My dad had pastored a small church for several years. When a pastor from an affiliated church realized I was his son as I argued with him, he told me I would probably become a theologian. He was almost right. I do not claim the title. But he also told me something about my dad that I have never forgotten: “I like your dad. He’s a straight shooter—he’ll tell you exactly what he thinks.” In this, I am my father’s son, and proudly so.

We have been reminded this week that the work of charity is a truth-telling one. It is also more than that, as I have again learned while struggling to reach an equitable assessment of the significance of the Nashville Statement and its public discussion surrounding for conservative evangelicalism. My own failures of charity are manifold; they are doubtlessly present in this essay.

But with those signers, I think charity demands that we at least honestly confess the truth. So will I try to do: The deliberate overlooking of conservative evangelical critics of this statement, the double standards at work in its defenses, and the extraordinary pressure to affirm it because of the hour’s urgency suggest that we evangelicals are more interested in proclaiming our virtues than practicing them.

[1] Burk has now responded to Ron Belgau’s critique. This is the first such response, and it is notable because Belgau is…Roman Catholic.

[1] To Burk: Doesn’t the statement answer its own rhetorical question by announcing who has held firm, namely, those who signed it? Is the question of evangelical’s future the equivalent of an admission of responsibility for its present by the signers? Or are they themselves, by signing the statement, showing that they are not the problem?

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Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.