Nashville Statement on Biblical Sexuality: Different Takes by Robert Gagnon and Michael Bird

Related Post: Nashville Statement (2017): A Coalition for Biblical Sexuality

[If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point. The Apocryphal Martin Luther]

The Nashville Statement on Biblical sexuality does not answer all the questions that have arisen from the homosexual controversy. It is certainly not a complete, much less a perfect Statement. The purpose of any public statement is defined and delimited by its time and context. Like the historic creeds, it does not aim at full exposition of doctrine as to define the core beliefs and the boundaries of reflection.

Some evangelicals would like to suggest ways to sharpen what is basically an excellent statement. Others express concerns that it is not sufficiently pastoral. Still others, are worried that young people may misunderstand and therefore are put off by the Statement since the media has been effective in convincing many young people that being ‘gay’ does not necessarily suggest a promiscuous lifestyle. These are legitimate concerns. However, public statements have to navigate the fine balance between being concise and being comprehensive. We also need to keep in mind the central goals of the statement and its intended audience.

I have no knowledge of the attending circumstances when CMBW and ERLC drafted the Statement. I write as an interested observer. A statement like the Nashville Statement is drafted to address a specific situation. Positively, its main goal is to present the biblical vision of marriage as faithfully and succinctly as possible. Negatively, it is to clear the confusion which resulted when well-known writers like Nicholas Wolterstorff, David Gushee and Brian McClaren capitulate to cultural pressures and express sympathy and support for American homosexual activism. There is also a need for Church leaders to provide clear ethical guidelines to strengthen the conviction and commitment of ordinary Christians in response to the recent flip-flop comments by people like Eugene Peterson (altho to be fair, Peterson was speaking in good faith when he was ambushed by a loaded question from the interviewer).

It seems to me that the Statement’s immediate audience is the Church itself. Clarity and charity must begin with the household of God. This being the case, it would be good to have included an initial statement confessing that many members of the Church have failed to uphold God’s standards for sexual purity (e.g. regarding pre-marital sex and marital faithfulness) and build wholesome and loving heterosexual marriages, while affirming God’s forgiveness and healing for those who repent. Such a confession would preempt any suggestion that Evangelicals are speaking from a self-righteousness and judgmental spirit.

Hopefully, while the Statement aims at promoting clarity, convictions and commitment among Christians, the watching world will ‘overhear’ and take note of the Church’s stand that is based on a faithful and careful reading of the Bible. This would be good and necessary since homosexuality has become a public issue in the West, where homosexual activists are exploiting the law to drive the Church away from the public arena. However, responding to aggressive homosexual activism would require the Church to make a distinction between opposing homosexual activists who seek to impose their sexual ideology onto the Church and empathizing with the individual who struggles with the psychological and ethical consequences of experiencing same-sex attraction.

We should therefore judge the Statement based on what it seeks to address in its context, and not on what we feel it should have addressed. In this regard, the Statement clearly and unambiguously identifies the issues directly confronting the Church and offers a response that is biblically faithful, timely, succinct and yet sufficiently thorough.

Meanwhile, may I recommend that you read Robert Gagnon and Michael Bird’s different takes on the Statement?

A. Michael Bird’s Reflection of the Nashville Statement. After expressing his appreciation of some positive points in the Statement, Michael Bird writes: I regard the statement as deeply inadequate on several fronts.

First, article one, this only permits the existence of Christian marriage, not civil partnerships or even common law marriages. Even Christendom did not restrict male-female union to sacramentally blessed marriages. This denies the existence of secular or other-faith marriages, which is problematic in a multi-cultural context.

Second, articles five to seven and thirteen are grossly inadequate as either a theological statement or a pastoral response to people who are intersex or experience gender dysphoria. For a start, the operating assumption here is that biological sex and gender are the same thing. They are not. While sex informs gender, gender also encompasses the synthetic construction of cultural values and roles around biological sex. The statement also implies that one cannot identify as both “Gay” and “Christian,” which ostracizes so many good Christian people who are orthodox and even celibate in singleness. Plus, we have to remember that words like “transgender” are not self-evident, they are disputed in medical and queer discourse, so this statement requires a glossary. When it comes to things like transgender and intersex, the fact is that we do not fully understand the link between biology and psychology, so many things can adversely affect a person’s sexuality and identity. For instance, a male baby over exposed to estrogen while in-utero, or a woman who has male chromosomes. It is inaccurate to label people who are intersex as “eunuchs,” because they are not castrated males, rather, they have features of both male and female sex organs to some degree. To deal with intersex people and those who experience gender dyphoria – medically, psychologically, and pastorally – you need more than some church leaders making tweet length pronouncements. On this point, read Mark Yarhouse’s response to the Nashville Statement. Oh, and please, please, for the love of all that is good and holy, please watch The Gender Conversation lectures on 8. Gender, Biology, and Identity by Justine Toh, Andrew Sloanne, and Patricia Weerakoon. You will get a foretaste of the complexity that this topic is connected to.

Third, there was no affirmation of the pain experienced by LGBTI people, no recognition of the sins committed against them by the church, no concession about the inadequacy of many pastoral responses to LGBTI people, and no denunciation of homophobia.

Michael Bird concludes– the Nashville Statement is well-intention, some genuinely sound stuff is contained there, but the substance in places is superficial, and some parts are not beneficial to an evangelical witness to LGBTI people.


B. Robert Gagnon’s Response to Michael Bird in his Facebook:
I love Michael Bird and respect his work.That said, his response to the Nashville Statement reminds me of a Lincoln quote (and here I must apologize for an American reference since Michael is an Aussie). Lincoln was exasperated by the fact that McClellan wouldn’t attack unless Lincoln sent him more soldiers; but even when McClellan’s Army of the Potomac vastly outnumbered Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, he would still complain that he needed more troops. Lincoln’s response: “Sending men to that army is like shoveling fleas across a barnyard–half of them never get there.”

Well, getting all Evangelicals to sign on to a document that clearly and rightly states that “it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism” and indeed that it is “an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness” to give such approval is like trying to shovel flees across a barnyard; half of them never get there.

Some refuse to sign because *while they agree with the Statement* the Statement does not say everything that they want it to say. I made several suggestions for improvement. None were taken (I also made clear that my signing was not contingent on acceptance of the suggestions). I wasn’t invited to the Nashville conference that discussed and voted on the Statement (though perhaps membership in the CBMW may have been required for all invited). Arguably, there should have been a more broad-based drafting committee, since (I presume) this is a statement not just for complementarians but for all evangelicals who rightly recognize the importance of the male-female foundation for sexual unions.

Ultimately, what difference does all this make to signing? We are now facing a crisis in Evangelicalism in which the very foundation of Christian sexual ethics is being called into question. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. The ship could sink but some are complaining that certain other matters on board have not been properly attended to, matters that, while not unimportant, won’t ultimately have any bearing on whether the ship sinks. So because of their complaints they will not participate in the only concerted effort to right the ship.

Michael complains that the NS doesn’t address “homophobia.” If one produces a statement against polyamory or incest is it necessary in the statement to address “polyphobia” or “incest-phobia,” or to confess the church’s mistreatment of persons in a sexual relationship with two or more persons concurrently or persons who just happen to experience amorous desire for a sibling or parent? Moreover, “homophobia” is code in our society for any opposition to homosexual practice and transgenderism. It is not a helpful term.

Michael complains that the NS is a “grossly inadequate … pastoral response.” Yet the NS is not intended as a therapeutic document. Its purpose is not to lay out a procedure for how to treat gender identity disorder or same-sex attractions, nor to explain originating causes for such desires, nor still to explain how to minister to such persons in any specific detail (though the NS does address the importance of loving offenders). Like the great creedal affirmations of the past, the purpose is limited to affirming historic boundaries of faith and practice. This is entirely appropriate as one aspect of a whole endeavor.

Michael dislikes the fact that “the operating assumption” of the NS “is that biological sex and gender are the same thing. They are not.” I find this comment bizarre. The material point is that they *ought* to be the same thing or at least in harmony: that is, one’s self-constructed perception of sexual identity should match one’s biological sex. Problems arise when “sex” and “gender” don’t match, not when they do.
Michael complains that “the statement also implies that one cannot identify as both ‘Gay’ and ‘Christian.'” While I think that faithful Christians should not be describing themselves with a label that the vast majority understand as a positive self-affirming expression (e.g., it would be inappropriate for men to conceptualize themselves as “polyamorous Christians” even though they do experience non-monogamous sexual attractions), the NS actually nowhere explicitly states that a Christian cannot use a “gay” label. So because of an “implicit” perception, Michael won’t sign?

Michael complains that because (allegedly) words like “transgender” “are not self-evident,” the document is deficient because it lacks a “glossary.” It doesn’t need a glossary. All language carries a certain amount of imprecision. The salient point is whether readers will have sufficient sense of what is being referenced by the term; here they clearly will. He also critcizes the NS for not addressing “the link between biology and psychology.” But of what relevance is this? Either one affirms the moral acceptability in one or more cases of a person claiming to be a gender different from one’s biological sex or one doesn’t. It is not necessary in a creedal statement about what is acceptable belief and practice to address what links exist between biology and psychology. Parenthetically, I think Michael also misunderstands the reference to “born eunuchs” in Matt 19 as a reference to castrated males.

Michael also says that he can’t sign the document because Article 1 allegedly “only permits the existence of Christian marriage, not civil partnerships or even common law marriages,” thereby “restrict[ing] male-female union to sacramentally blessed marriages” which in turn “denies the existence of secular or other-faith marriage.”

I don’t think Article 1 does anything of the sort. Article 1 speaks about the way that *God* views marriage, not necessarily the way the partners of the union conceive of it. Two people entering into a marriage may not recognize the union as a God-ordained union, but it is nonetheless. They may not recognize that the union was intended by God to be lifelong; yet it is so from God’s vantage point such that if they dissolve it they remain culpable before God. They may not understand it as a representation of Christ and the Church; yet in God’s eyes that is what it is or at least ought to be.

My encouragement to Michael is: If you believe that “it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism” and indeed that it is “an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness” to give such approval, then sign the document and urge others to do so. Either you believe it or you don’t. If you don’t, say so and leave the other extraneous stuff to one side.



3 thoughts on “Nashville Statement on Biblical Sexuality: Different Takes by Robert Gagnon and Michael Bird”

  1. I want to make two quick comment in passing.

    1) Dr. Bird says “The statement also implies that one cannot identify as both ‘Gay’ and ‘Christian,’ …

    ~ Its just odd because if you go to the Gospel Coalition website, you will find adverts for the book, “Single, Gay, Christian” by Gregory Coles. At the IVPress website, the book has acclaim from Dr. D. A. Carson –> “To say this book is important is a painful understatement. It is the candid, moving, intensely personal story of a gay young man who wants to live his life under the authority of King Jesus and …”. Dr. Carson has of course signed the statement.

    My point is simply that there are those who signed the NS who apparently use said terms and I don’t think the NS implies what Dr. Bird says it implies. It is a perception issue.

    2) Western Culture is so awash in this stuff, that we have reached a point where something just simply has to be said. It just has to be said even if the Statement is not perfect and will need some work in the future. The last church that I recently left – a church that describes itself as moderate and not liberal – have two guest speakers on the schedule for the Fall. Both support SSM. Its hard to believe these things are happening within the Church, but I can multiply stories with other churches in my local area, who at least in terms of appearances look conservative. I am glad for the NS, because the Western Church needs to be prophetically pinged on this issue and a blog post here or a tweet there will not do. They lack the weight and visibility that a statement like the NS does.

    In Him,

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