Friends, I have read the Nashville Statement, and it is stupid. Like, really, really dumb. Final season of Friends dumb. Blotting out the sun dumb. So dumb that it forms less of a theological statement than a Facebook post masquerading as a creed of the church. It is so monumentally stupid that the largest button on the page is “Sign Now,” as if taking the time to read the thing first would surely dissuade you from supporting it.
If you don’t know the statement in question, it is the latest in a series of such pronouncements from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a group of evangelical Christian leaders dedicated to fostering “Biblical Sexuality.” In other words, making sure everybody stays in their lane with their naughty bits and doesn’t freak the squares.
You may think this characterization oversimplified. Sadly, no. I hope Religion Dispatches will find someone to tease out such scholarly complexities as can be found here. But what I’ve said so far is a fairly accurate summary of this statement, issued with urgency for no discernible reason. (Is Caitlyn Jenner threatening to bring down our culture single-handedly? Seems like US Weekly would have covered it if that were the case.)
The statement consists of a preamble that would fit in a Facebook “What’s on your mind?” box with room to spare, and 15 articles, most of which would make two or three healthy-sized tweets. I suspect this is deliberate to make the thing more digestible, which would be excusable if there were any sense that it represented a distillation of a more thoughtful and detailed theological investigation. Again: sadly, no. It’s the same old stuff, repackaged in a slick web interface. At no point is there any indication that the authors have reconsidered earlier positions, beyond the obligatory “hate the sin, love the sinner” statements, and even those look suspiciously recycled.
There is no look into the complexities of sexual orientation, or what it means to form life-long partnerships with someone of the same gender, or how that might reflect the covenant-making God. The authors don’t even stop to consider that same-sex attraction might be more than hedonistic genitalism. Likewise, there’s no thought given to the science regarding gender/sexuality and the distress that transgender people suffer when forced to deny their identities —up to and including much higher mortality rates. There’s no wrestling with the phenomenon of intersex individuals, or what it might mean for the idea that “God created us man and woman,” only a pitying sentence about how God loves them, too. For cripes’ sake, they don’t even define sexuality.
Instead, we get article after article of: God made penises and vaginas to fit together, therefore anything else is deliberate and sinful disobedience, because you just want to get off, you dirty sinner. But we still love you, even though you’re going to hell! And they can’t even bring themselves to admit this in so many words. As a friend says, it’s this weird mix of high-mindedness and drivel, a velvet glove concealing a gospel hammer.
This is what happens when pastors speak like politicians, all bright lines and no gray areas. They pronounce anathema anyone who would dare disagree with them:
WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked by a concerned mother or couple if there is a creedal requirement for baptizing their child. It stems from the parents growing up in exclusionary communions where deviation from the party line means being cast out. They want to lift their child up to God’s grace and mercy, and they are afraid they will be told no because they can’t tick off every box on the statement of faith. And if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard in preparing for a wedding a nervous question about “Does your church believe…” followed by some horrific article of faith—well, let’s just say the parsonage would be getting an expansion.
Even worse, I have heard multiple stories about parents or grandparents denied communion or a funeral because they would not denounce a gay nephew or a transgender granddaughter. You think I exaggerate, but you know the words: sadly, no. Now the sin belongs not only to those who are actually involved in a same-sex relationship, or who don’t fit gender stereotypes, but to the relatives who love them, one and two steps away from the “offender” proper. It’s less Christianity than Jesus-flavored Stalinism, and it’s invariably about maintaining rigid gender roles. I do not know why selective literalists have chosen feminism, homosexuality, and now transgender status as their hill to die on. But they have, and it’s killing the faith.
There are any number of theological responses that could be made to this statement, questions about creation, covenant, sin, justice, even Christology. Nadia Bolz-Weber gets at some of them pretty well, and with a touch of humor.
But for me, it boils down to this: pastors owe their flock complexity. That doesn’t mean an academically rigorous, footnoted sermon every Sunday. Nor does it mean that every theological statement must be a ground-breaking book unto itself. It does mean reading scripture with sensitivity and nuance, and forgoing the temptation to see the world simplistically.
More important, it means that pastors and other religious leaders owe their followers consideration of their full life and faith. It means that we understand their loves as multi-faceted, their relationships more than one dimensional, their desires to reach God legitimate, their world confusing, ever-shifting, sometimes frightening, sometimes capable of breath-taking change under their feet—and ours. Those of us who study and proclaim the word of God owe those we speak to the humility to know that there is more to the divine than we can understand, imagine, or comprehend, even in the guidelines for moral holiness that have been passed down. Maybe, just maybe, even those people who don’t follow the rules as we understand them might be on to something. Offering the grace of complexity seems like the least we could do, as followers of a prostitute’s grandson who tore down every barrier to God he could find.