In a perfect world, thoughtful Christians would be able to ignore the recently published Nashville Statement.
Produced under the auspices of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the document was endorsed by over 150 “Initial Signers” from conservative seminaries, divinity schools, churches, and lobbying organizations. The document upholds strictly dualistic understandings of sex and gender and conservative political policies that the signatories seem to think follow directly from this picture of human sexuality.
Ideally, Christians should ignore the Statement because it is theologically and ethically stale. It is a three-page list of assertions without any kind of argumentation that ignores important developments in theology and ethics from the last 50 years or so. Before exploring the danger of the statement, let me explain one reason why it is inadequate.
The text’s inadequacy is most readily apparent in its disregard for commonly accepted Christian sources for theology and ethics. The text fails to make clear how and why the signatories arrive at their dualistic understandings of sex and gender on the basis of Christian sources. When it does make some mention of sources such as scripture, tradition, or natural law, the engagement is tortured and lazy. Its use of the Bible proves the point.
There are references to Biblical texts, but the Statement’s interpretation ignores central developments from scriptural and ethical scholarship that have interpreted these texts. It is as though authors such as Dale Martin, for instance, never produced any scholarship at the intersection of sex, gender, ethics, and the Bible.
Church teaching is also a confused source in the document. There are no explicit invocations of church doctrine, although the preamble contains general laments about the “secular spirit of our age” and about shifting sexual mores in “post-Christian” culture. The Statement’s engagement of church history as a source is weak not only because it simply (and wrongly) assumes US society is post-Christian, but also because it fails to cite any specific church doctrine to support its positions. Much less does the statement acknowledge that church teaching can change in response to new understandings about human sexuality.
Natural law logic is perhaps the most pervasive kind of reasoning in the statement. This is strange for a document subtitled “A Coalition for Biblical Sexuality.” The primacy of the natural law from a document that claims to attend so closely to the Bible is enough to confuse readers about the logic of the doctrine’s assertions.
In addition, though, the natural law references it contains are vague and lack awareness that human conceptions of sexual order are contested. As Margaret Farley has argued, natural law argumentation about human sexuality does not “shed much light on the moral status of same-sex relationships,” for example.
Even more, discussions of sexuality based on natural law premises should note that what seems to be orderly for some people is, for others, oppression that leads to alienation and suicide. The Statement’s use of natural law reasoning does not come close to doing so.
The problem is not that the statement should not use sources such as Biblical texts, church teaching, and the natural law. Any Christian attempts to explain ethical positions and defend political policy recommendations should use such sources. But they need to be clear about which sources are primary and why. They need to acknowledge scholarship that has used these sources to defend opposing moral and political visions.
And they need to be clear and responsible in their own use of sources. The Nashville Statement doesn’t meet any of these standards. Instead, it simply makes theological and ethical assertions toward oppressive political policy. The last thing American society needs in a volatile and polarized debate about sexuality and politics is these kinds of assertion from powerful Christians.
The awkward use of sources is most evident in the signatories’ impoverished attempt to acknowledge intersex people. In Article V, the signatories “deny that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.” In Article VI, they allude to intersexuality as “physical disorder” and “ambiguity.”
These assertions use a kind of natural law logic, implying that creation is orderly and that we can determine moral positions if we properly understand that order. They try to include intersex people, who have been excluded from political conversations about sexuality and marriage for far too long, within Christianity’s ostensibly loving embrace. But the use of natural law logic is far too superficial to accomplish these goals.
An adequate use of natural law logic would recognize that fallible human understandings of “order” change in light of new knowledge. It would include not only intersexuality, but also infertility and parenting outcomes in the conversation. It would ask whether the “order” of human sexuality can be reduced to procreative capacity. And it would see that intersex people reveal to us how unstable our “traditional” conceptions of masculinity, femininity, and the politics of reproduction and child-rearing really are.
This passage includes a Biblical reference which is even more problematic than the natural law reasoning on intersexuality. Drawing on Matthew 19, the signatories claim that intersex people “are acknowledged by our Lord Jesus in his words about ‘eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.’” Without asking questions about what counts as anachronism in Biblical interpretation, the context of the passage in Matthew is enough to dismiss the entire comparison. Using this comparison, the signatories seem to be saying that Jesus thought that sex and child-rearing were prohibited for intersex people.
Such an interpretation of Matthew 19 cannot be reconciled with the most basic standards of love and justice. Relegating the intersex population to such a position, whether by lazy natural law logic, tortured biblical interpretation, or any other inadequate use of Christian sources is shameful and the signatories should repent for having done so.
A more robust engagement of Christian sources would also refer in some way to human experiences. But the Nashville Statement makes no mention of the role of experience in shaping Christian theology and ethics. This is unfortunate because experience is one of the most important sources in political conversations surrounding sex, gender, and child-rearing.
The Nashville Statement clearly reflects the experience of some people—namely the cis-gendered, heterosexual people who produced it. Meanwhile, others’ experiences are completely ignored. Christian theology and ethics has made great strides in terms of widening the circle of experiences from which to draw. But, judging by the Nashville Statement, much more progress is necessary. The signatories need to listen more closely to the voices of gender non-conforming people on love, shame, faith, and other experiences before they make any other comments about sexual politics.
And here is where the Statement’s danger is most obvious. If the signatories actually listened to the voices of gender non-conforming people, they might understand how damaging their Statement is. The social pressure that demands adherence to dualisms of sex and gender is directly responsible for familial alienation that severs bonds of love and trust between LGBTQIA children and their parents. It is also directly responsible for high rates of suicide among LGBTQIA people.
Such pressure is the norm, and the Nashville Statement simply reinforces it. The signatories try to position themselves as “counter-cultural” (see the preamble), because they reject secular society’s increasing tolerance of gender non-conformity. Denny Burk, the Statement’s primary author, claims that his kind of Christianity is “weird” for doing so.
But the Nashville Statement isn’t counter-cultural or weird. It merely offers more of the same dangerous stigmatization of the LGBTQIA community that has dominated our society for too long. The statement’s poor reasoning and use of sources should make it irrelevant. Unfortunately, though, the stakes are so high for our LGBTQIA neighbors that all thoughtful Christians should read the statement and reject, or even condemn, it.
Daniel A. Morris is an independent scholar living in Northfield, Vermont. His training is in ethics and American religion. In 2015, his book Virtue and Irony in American Democracy: Revisiting Dewey and Niebuhr, was published with Lexington Books.