Saying ‘No Thanks’ to the Nashville Statement: Part Three

July 2, 2019 12:06 pm

This is the final blog post I will write on why I could not sign the Nashville Statement or vote in favor of commending it during the recent PCA General Assembly.

It may be hard for some to imagine or understand that a person could be in agreement with 95% of a doctrinal statement on a matter and still be unable to sign it; no statement, after all, is perfect. I do agree with the vast majority of what the Statement proclaims, but my reservations are enough to make me pause.

My objections outlined in the two previous posts have to do first, with the way we handle such Statements in our own Ecclesiastical Assembly, and second with the silence of the Statement on the failures of the Church in regard to its loving and faithful witness to the Gospel among LGBTQ people and their families.

In this last, brief post let me note at the outset that the many good things this document says are exactly the reason so many colleagues and friends of mine feel able and compelled to sign and commend it. We do not disagree with one another, I am sure, on the vast majority of what it does say, and says clearly and faithfully. The Statement even insists that Christian communication of the Gospel be marked by charity as well as clarity:

WE AFFIRM our duty to speak the truth in love at all times, including when we speak to or about one another as male or female.

WE DENY any obligation to speak in such ways that dishonor God’s design of his image- bearers as male and female.

As I noted in my second post, I am saddened that the authors of the Statement missed the chance to follow this excellent counsel by beginning their work by noting our very marked lack of love, seen in numerous ways over many years. Nevertheless, I believe the authors and signers earnestly intend to follow Article 11 (I know my friends and colleagues do!), and in this, I rejoice.

Final Notes of Objection

My final three reasons for not commending this document concern the absence of practical pastoral wisdom in its articles, it’s statement concerning what amounts to ‘allowable vocabulary’ in the conversation about identity, and the apparent fixation on the issue of human sexuality by those in positions of leadership in some places in the Evangelical community.

First, immediately after the debate at the General Assembly that resulted in a majority vote in favor of commending the Nashville Statement, other Overtures were presented by those stating that these were needed in addition to the Nashville Statement because of the Statement’s lack of practical pastoral wisdom and counsel. Several speakers highlighted the weaknesses of the document, all making points I’d agree with. Again, in my view the proper place for the Nashville Statement in the PCA would be as one of many resources the Study Committee would consider in order to set before us a comprehensive, theologically sound, Biblically faithful, and pastorally wise document for the benefit of our Officers and Churches.

One man commented on a previous blog post that the PCA simply HAD to pass this or we would send the wrong signal to the rest of the Church and to the world. Respectfully, I don’t think it’s wise to make a PR exercise of our legislative work at General Assembly. Far too much is at stake. Whatever others may make of our communion, it is absolutely essential that we make every effort to present to our churches the very best in scholarship and wisdom. Such an undertaking takes time and rushing the roast to the table before it’s perfectly prepared makes for a very unpalatable meal. I look forward to the Study Committee’s work precisely because I know and trust the community from which this Committee will be formed; they are in many cases my theological heroes and I am eager to benefit from their work.

Nomenclature and Identity

Second, I want to note the issue of vocabulary in our discussion of identity, but in doing so first note our unity in the Gospel. The disagreement some have over the use of terminology like ‘Gay Christian’ is addressed in Article VII of the Nashville Statement under the words ‘ self-conception’ and yet this disagreement demonstrates how far reaching our unity is.

As I listened to the debate the other night, at least in reference to the Nashville Statement, I noted the Assembly’s deep unity as it debated the merits of commending the Statement or not.

The areas of the debate are over first, the extent of sanctification to be expected in this life and, second, the language used to describe those who experience this struggle. The first is a thorny theological matter of great consequence and I believe our Confessional Standards are a sure guide. The latter is important in regard to identity within the Christian Church and how we address those who are outside the Christian Church when we engage in witness or dialogue. Apart from these issues, there is no disagreement I am aware of. Let’s remember that as we try to help one another limp to the finish line on this difficult issue.

I myself do not find terminology like ‘Gay Christian’ to be helpful, the adjective modifying the noun, and leaving me wondering if a person who so identifies has fully grasped the totality, the radicality, of the change wrought by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit as he unites us to Christ. Others will parse the phrase as a double-barrelled noun, and that too seems problematic. BUT… I cannot and must not make this a shibboleth for fellowship.

Here is the reason this is so.

Firstly, our contemporary nomenclature is filled with the language of nineteenth and twentieth-century psychology, especially in regard to sexuality. Whether we are discussing words like ‘homosexual’ or ‘orientation’ we are using words that are rather recent inventions. Scripture does not speak of people in these ways. We are simply men and women, fallen image-bearers of God, regenerated or not. Our identity as humans is rooted in creation, fall, redemption in Christ, and human destiny is to be found in the consummation of the ages. It is not surprising then that when we borrow the language of the contemporary scene in an effort to teach Biblical truths we will sometimes stumble badly and feel a deep need for greater clarity.

Secondly, our world is in the midst of a massive shift away from the moral ecology in which it has found its moorings for centuries, turning to a very uncertain future in which what it even means to be human will be debated in earnest. The roots of our social deconstruction go deep into the soil of romanticism and visions of godless secularism, and the fruits of these aspirations have been and will continue to be bitter and deadly. The revolution around us is more than a generation in the making and was foretold by the likes of Schaeffer and others many years ago and ably summarized by the likes of Charles Taylor today.

In reference to human marital relations, this began not with the approval of homosexual marriage by our Courts, but with the redefinition of marriage codified in our laws as no-fault heterosexual divorce, a change many in Evangelicalism were only too happy to welcome.

In this climate of accelerating radical change, the very language we employ is having a difficult time keeping pace with the revolution. It is not surprising to me that many Christians struggle to find the right words to describe their situation in Christ while at the same time reaching back to the world in witness. Patience is needed. Listening is needed. If the Nashville Statement is used to shut down this conversation – and I have seen it used this way – then it will remain of limited value to us.

Nearly every Christian leader I speak with who has ministry experience with Gay and Lesbian people, or who themselves experience the temptations to live as such, have a certain degree of clarity about the terminology they believe is right and good – but also a generosity of spirit when it comes to the way others speak. I have seen this in too many to name here, and I am grateful for their example to me. I would like us to follow their lead, developing the language we need for both pastoral care and evangelistic endeavor.

Was This Really Needed? 

Lastly, I can’t help but note in closing that while Pastoral and Theological guidance is needed by the Church in every era, and our finest Pastors and Scholars across many disciplines must now give themselves to this important work afresh, I find it odd that this issue, in particular, was seized upon in 2016 as demanding a response. It was in many ways too little, too late, at least in terms of public witness, whatever benefits it may offer the wider Church.

Why not a Nashville Statement on Racism, in the Church and in the culture? Why not a Nashville Statement on the Christian treatment of Refugees as God’s image bearers? Are these not also compelling issues about which we might also bear public witness and assist the Church in its work and growth in grace? Why not a Nashville Statement on the abuse of women in Evangelical circles, some in churches led by a signer of the Statement?

I Love My Brothers

In closing, I want to be clear that I love and admire many of my brothers who not only worked on this statement but who have since signed it. I thank them for their labors…this is a difficult and challenging conversation to have among ourselves and I am glad we are doing this work. I am with you and I am for you.

I agree with so much of what the Nashville Statement says. It is not enough, however, for me to sign it. Its tone and spirit are inadequate for me to commend it as a teaching tool. Its silence on a crucial matter is, for me, a deep and fatal flaw.

I must believe our PCA Study Committee will exceed the Nashville Statement in Theological rigor, Biblical fidelity, Pastoral wisdom, and Gospel humility. That is at least my earnest prayer and hope. I love the PCA and delight to serve Jesus as a member and minister of this part of his Church.

Thank you to all who have commented, corrected, and encouraged me. Thank you most especially to my brothers and sisters – so many! – who have written me these past few days to tell me of their stories of Christ finding them in their awareness of same-sex desire, of their children and parents, and siblings, and friends… and how these posts have encouraged them in the Gospel. You have all encouraged me, and I am grateful.

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