The ongoing dispute over the shape and meaning of “evangelicalism’s” understanding of sexual ethics took a sharper, more institutionally focused form yesterday. The CBMW convened what they are calling a “Coalition for Biblical Sexuality,” and released a series of affirmations and denials regarding the Bible’s teaching on both sexual desire and “transgenderism.” The list of signers is a “who’s who” of the Reformed evangelical world, with what I would describe as a generous smattering of individuals from other backgrounds. The statement is meant, as John Piper puts it, to “clarify Christian convictions.”
While I am generally ‘statement-averse,’ it seems reasonable to want a succinct depiction of the theological boundaries on these issues. If nothing else, such statements are efficient: they remove much of the work of retelling all of our convictions on a certain matter by giving us a public document to point to. It’s a lot easier to find all the people who are on board with a certain vision of the home, for instance, by asking what they make of the Danvers Statement.
Yet this virtue is also a vice: by creating a public context in which all the people who affirm certain doctrines or ideas are identified under the same banner, statements tacitly shift the playing field, such that to not sign is to signal disagreement. The only way to counteract this effect is through public criticism, and the subsequent formation of alternate communities. Hence, progressive evangelicals have already written their own counterstatement.
And here I am. My name will remain off the list of signers, for reasons that I think are serious enough to make public. It is a predictable role for me to fill. But I simply cannot lend my endorsement or my support to this statement, even though it has been eagerly affirmed by many people whom I admire and count as friends.
These are my reasons.
Problems with the Nashville Statement
The preamble to the statement announces that we are in a “period of historic transition.” The crisis it proclaims is grave: the “secular spirit of our age” stands against us, threatening the integrity, clarity, and conviction of the churches that proclaim the Gospel. There are two options here: either we recognize the “beauty of God’s design for human life,” or we embrace a sexual ethic and understanding of maleness and femaleness grounded in an “individual’s autonomous preferences.” Either our witness is counter-cultural, or it is not biblical.
It is not this contrast that worries me. Rather, I think on some level the crisis is a real one: beneath the arguments and debates over the appropriate shape of sexual desire lies the possibility that we would denude and diminish the church’s witness by being co-opted by a set of dispositions, attitudes, and practices that are deeply and inescapably antagonistic to the Gospel. I suspect, though do not know, that such an anxiety betrays the middle-class orientation of the document’s drafters. In any suburban evangelical church one is far more likely to encounter people for whom the whole set of issues under consideration simply don’t matter theologically than one is to meet, well, someone like me. By announcing the crisis up front, the drafters leave no question about the nature of their aims; they intend to caution as much as proclaim.
The 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. 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. A narrow, minimalist focus for a statement of this sort is understandable. 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.
In the first place, it is easy to see how the dichotomy the statement opens with maps on to the sociological realities which surround the statement. The statement draws its power and effect from its institutional location: if nobody who signed it ran churches or parachurches, nobody would care. 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, 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 is to introduce matters on which good evangelicals can “agree to disagree.” But doing so also 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.
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. Such arenas are more difficult to detect; but they are even harder to root out, as we are most inclined to willingly compromise ourselves ethically when we want what a practice promises us. Such a principle means the difference between affirming gay marriage and allowing IVF or any of the other practices which are part and parcel of the same ideology is irrelevant. The Church of Jesus Christ does not get a pass on its standards of holiness.
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. I suggested above this statement fails to meet a minimal, biblical standard for expressing judgment. Jesus’s demand that those who seek to correct others examine the planks in their own eye is framed in an interpersonal context, to be sure. But the same principle is given ecclesiastical form when Peter suggests that “judgment begins at the house of God.” The latter verse is interesting because Peter frames such introspective judgment as a response to suffering. This statement, though, meets the possibility of ‘martyrdom’ that the “spirit of our age” presents with silence about our churches’ failures. Such silence is no more sanctified than the silence that evangelical pastors retreat to when asked about gay marriage. It is a silence that would be the equivalent of failing to acknowledge the many and diverse ways a church allowed or affirmed racism in a statement denouncing the KKK.
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. Article 2 affirms that “God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside marriage and fidelity within marriage.” The denial makes it clear that the statement is focused on who one’s sexual desires and actions are ordered toward, namely, one’s spouse or non-spouse.
Yet God’s revealed will is for chastity within marriage as well. There are more forms of wrongdoing in the sphere of sexuality than directing one’s sexual desire toward a third party. It is possible to reduce a spouse to an instrument of one’s pleasure, or to engage in intrinsically wrong acts together. If the narrow scope of the document’s denials were accompanied by a robust affirmation of the possibility of such wrongdoing within marriage itself, I’d be more sympathetic to it. But it does not. Such an oversight could be justified by appealing to the document’s minimalist approach. But even if that mitigates the problem, the statement still 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 pre-emptively 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.
The failure of this document, then, is (again) not merely rhetorical. The omissions are as significant as what it explicitly includes. Nor do I think those omissions are merely a matter of differing prudential judgment about what our times require: I have described the statement as failing to meet the minimum conditions for public judgment, because I think there are actual Bible verses that indicate as much. While evangelicals practice self-loathing more than they ought, a statement from churchmen that asserts that a particular view of sexuality is essential to the faith must acknowledge our own complicity and entanglement in the very spirit that is being denounced. Otherwise, it fails to bear the authority of the Gospel it proclaims, an authority which stems from the confession of our sins and the proclamation of Christ’s saving work. Such a dual announcement is the necessary and indispensable precondition for our judgment of the world. The absence of such a confession leaves the affirmations and proclamations withering on the vine, without the grace and life of humility which allows us to see that we, the evangelical churches, have helped make this world as well. If the confidence and courage that the statement enjoins sound forced or hollow, this is why.
With the signers and the drafters of the Nashville Statement, I am persuaded that the current controversies over sex, gender, and marriage are of maximal importance. With those individuals, I agree that there are matters here essential to the truthful, beautiful articulation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With those individuals, I agree that the crisis in the evangelical church is real, and that those seeking to alter our institutions so that they affirm gay marriage undermine and distort the faith that all Christians, in all places and times have affirmed.
But issues of maximal importance deserve maximal responses. It is possible to say too little, as it is possible to say too much. If I have sometimes erred toward the latter vice in my exposition and defense of a traditional account of sex and gender, I have done so only because the deflationary and minimalist approach to such questions is itself an intrinsic part of the intellectual atmosphere which has left the orthodox Christian view unintelligible to so many.
But my frustration with the statement goes even deeper than its minimalism. The addition of such confessions would not have materially changed most of the document. It is just because they are so easy to include that this statement disappoints me so much. Little would have been lost, and much gained, through the acknowledgment that our own communities are central repositories of the problems this statement identifies.
If the difference between Christianity and what is on offer in our world is genuinely one of anthropology, then it can only be met and countered appropriately by demonstrating the difference in its fullness, in the places where those differences affect not just those who are gay or identify as trans but those of us who are happily married and have kids. The moral status of gay desires and transgender identity bottom out (at least in part) in what we make of our bodiliness, and of the womb, and of the social forms such material realities generate. Yet those are realities which implicate us all. Caitlyn Jenner could only become a phenomenon in a world formed from countless choices by ordinary, faithful, well-intentioned people who failed to see that the body has for them the same malleability and plasticity in other areas that Caitlyn Jenner expressed about it in the realm of sex and gender.
Six years ago, in a (justly) forgotten book, I argued that evangelicalism had tacitly adopted secular practices and habits through inattentiveness to our bodily life. It is not our explicit affirmations and denials that matter, I suggested, but what happens beneath the surfaces and outside the edges of our view. But that means the way to recover a community and a society of people who value the goodness of bodily life in its fullness is not through reducing the chief expressions of our public witness to the last, thin thread of sexual ethics that we can all still agree on. Rather, we must set about rediscovering and reviving the broad and beautiful backdrop of the goodness of mortal flesh, a goodness we have each denied in a thousand different ways. We cannot authentically or authoritatively name and resist the “spirit of our age” until we recognize that before the world made Caitlyn Jenner, we made it.