Guest post by Alistair Roberts
Note: Alistair Roberts signed the Nashville Statement, but has some reservations from a conservative perspective. He agreed to repost his lengthier observations here.
I’ve posted some thoughts here.
The Nashville Statement is a reassertion and defence of the creational reality of humanity, of the basic anthropological difference: that humanity is created and divinely blessed with fruitfulness as male and female. It is this reality that is under assault today on various fronts, as the natural order of creation is challenged by those who variously deny this difference, whether they reduce the sexed body to a superficial façade that can be changed, abandon substantive sexed selfhood for radical gender performativity, studiously downplay the ways in which the sexes are naturally physically and psychologically ordered to each other, or detach marriage from any procreative end or form. In standing against these developments, we aren’t expressing some peculiar or eccentric claims of Christian theology, but upholding creational realities that have been generally recognised across human ages and cultures.
Read the whole article.
As I suggest in the article, the Nashville Statement is far from perfect in a number of respects and various critical pieces have been written about it by writers who hold to firmly orthodox positions on sexual ethics (see Matt Lee Anderson’s remarks here, for instance). There are a number of things that I would have liked to have seen in it, including:
- A much more robust account of the grounding of sexual ethics in creational reality, making clear that this isn’t just a matter of biblical revelation and that explicit scriptural teaching isn’t the only way to arrive at a basic understanding of marriage or the problems with same-sex relations and transgender ideology.
- A clearer admission of the many ways in which evangelicals themselves have been complicit in or compromised by the shifts being challenged. The ways we have participated in a culture of divorce, the normalization of a contraceptive approach to marital relations, our downplaying of the procreative calling of marriage, and widespread use of pornography among Christians are all sins we must openly confess and address if we are to have any real success in dealing with the issues that the Statement highlights. These things are all connected: same-sex marriage was a fairly direct outgrowth of cultural trends that we are all fairly profoundly compromised by.
- A much firmer statement about the ways in which relations between men and women have been disordered by the Fall, with the result that natural differences are twisted towards mutual frustration, oppression, and destruction.
- A better framing of the seventh article, whose denial seems to push back against groups such as the Spiritual Friendship crowd, but which lacks the clarity it really needs to do this well. In my reading of it, I think it allows—perhaps unwittingly, I don’t know—for the accommodation of some of their concerns and positions as potentially orthodox, while firmly resisting certain of their ways of framing things. I think such challenge is needed, but I fear some signers and framers of the Statement will have dismissed the Spiritual Friendship position without adequately understanding what they are presenting. It is important to recognize that male androphilia and female gynephilia are naturally disordered and that the significance of nature isn’t negated by grace: that naturally, in the good and proper functioning of creation, men are sexually attracted to women and women to men. It is also important, however, to appreciate that the ‘homosexuality’ of gay and lesbian persons is typically merely one aspect of broader experiences of selfhood and lebenswelt that, though perhaps atypical for their sexes (remember, sexuality is a gender difference—men are gynephiles and women are androphiles), can often find legitimate expression in ways that aren’t sexual, and which can be very good and praiseworthy. The Spiritual Friendship crowd, whatever their faults, are actually trying to forge a positive vision of what faithful Christian discipleship looks like for persons in such a position. I fear that, if we aren’t careful, we will be trying to beat something with nothing.
- A strong word against the vicious animus against LGBT persons that has far too often infected Christian contexts, rendering an orthodox stance on sexual holiness odious to those who cannot separate it from the personal hatred that they have experienced from Christians on account of their sexuality. The radical loss of the credibility of Christian sexual ethics in society has many causes, but this must be placed near the top. It is great to see the call to present the truth in a loving way, but without a direct condemnation of the hatred for and unhealthy obsession with LGBT persons that exists in many quarters of society and the Church, we won’t really be addressing our own sins.
The credibility of the Statement has also been harmed by many factors, including:
- The fact that leading signers of the document have also been leading advocates of profoundly unorthodox understandings of the Trinity (Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, in particular), which they have developed in close connection with their understanding of gender relations.
- The lack of humility and attentiveness in dealing with orthodox critics.
- The culture warrior mindset and high reactivity that has been in evidence among various supporters of the statement, producing an attitude dulled to valid criticism and overly driven by fighting cultural enemies, rather than by well-differentiated confession of the truth.
- The insensitive timing of the release, during the extreme flooding of Houston.
- The compromised nature of CBMW, with its failure adequately to address and repent of Trinitarian error among its leading members, or the ways that its particular forms of ideologizing and prescribing gender roles have been experienced as deeply damaging for many who have lived in communities and marriages shaped by them.
- The fact that it emerges from a context with a pronounced good ol’ boy network where much peer pressure, arm-twisting, and other forms of subtle coercion occur behind the scenes to ensure compliance and enforce consensus. The destructiveness of this culture is increasingly recognized, most particularly in the context of church abuse scandals, which have revealed lives destroyed by cover-ups.
- The general sense that the network of leaders is detached from and unsensitized to the concerns of the actual people who the articles of the statement will most weigh upon. The fact that they have long been fairly inattentive to the critical voices of conservative Christian women hasn’t helped either.
- The fact that some of signers were vocal supporters of President Trump or are otherwise involved with him (Richard Land, James Robison, Ronnie Floyd, Jack Graham, Wayne Grudem, etc.).
- The perception that the signers of the document don’t strongly oppose each other on their obvious points of error, which leads to skepticism about their commitment to speak the truth in love: is there a ‘no enemies on the right’ attitude at play here?
- The relative silence of the same conservative evangelicals on important issues where their own sins and compromises and those of their constituencies would have to be faced more directly—racism chief among them.
In signing the Statement, I do not dismiss these concerns or deny these failures. Rather, I stand as a deeply flawed Christian with other deeply flawed Christians in upholding Christian truths of deep consequence. In standing with them at this point, I do not abdicate my duty of loving truthful speech to them as my Christian neighbours. Nor do I believe that co-belligerency should cover over errors and sins. Quite the opposite: it is to our neighbours, to those to whom we stand most closely, that we have the most immediate duty of truth-speaking.
I recently wrote about the importance of ‘responsible engagement in a reactive age.’ I argued for the necessity of engagement without reactivity and the extreme intensification of party spirit that typically entails. The whole context of the gender and sexuality debates, especially in the US is toxic in its reactivity, with parties constantly reacting against each other, rather than overcoming the urge to react in a well-differentiated and non-reactive commitment to the truth. Both sides of the discussion of the Nashville Statement has swiftly been overwhelmed by this poisonous reactive environment, with people’s thinking and positioning driven by personal animus, party spirit, and reaction against others, rather than by non-reactive commitment to the truth. Whether it is people on the left being pushed driven into profound error by the kickback from the shots they reactively fire to their right or people on the right allowing people’s commitment to their side of the culture war to blind them to their damaging and destructive errors, this is deeply saddening to witness.
In signing the statement, like a number of Christians I admire and greatly respect who did the same, I wanted to stand for the truth that I believe it contains. I did this, well aware that it would expose me to attacks and criticisms from both friends and hostile opponents. I wanted to resist my natural urge to play a reactive and partisan game and I wanted to encourage others, to the small degree that I can, to do the same. In our context, the offense of the truth has become entangled with the perceived (and sometimes real) unpleasantness of certain parties. People seeking to dissociate themselves from the latter can unintentionally strengthen the cause of those reacting against the truth itself and many will discredit the truth by the shrewd demonization of its advocates.
While I have genuine concerns about and strong criticisms of the positions and behaviour of a number of people who signed with me, I also recognize the godliness and spiritual wisdom that is much in evidence among my fellow signatories, and have been and continue to be greatly blessed by the witness and ministry of no small number of them. I also recognize, for instance, that some of them have been resolute, despite being embattled, in their vocal criticisms of President Trump’s behaviour. Others have strongly opposed the Trinitarian errors that have arisen in complementarian circles.
In signing the statement, I am not committing myself to walk in lockstep with a particular party, but am joining with fellow flawed Christians in bearing witness to what I believe to be essential Christian truth. In signing the statement, I assume a measure of responsibility for the people to whom I am joining myself. This is not the responsibility of complete identification, but a responsibility discharged in faithful Christian neighbourliness, in speaking the truth in love to each other, resisting every temptation to find community in lies, cover-ups, or cowardly silence.
Disengagement, purposeful dissociation, or lack of engagement were all open options for me. I am an Anglican in the UK, largely outside of the politics and intense interpersonal dynamics of the US evangelical scene. In signing the statement, I wanted to pursue the path of responsible and differentiated engagement (read more about the ideas informing my posture here). I am writing a book on the subject of a Christian account of the sexes and I believe that it is particularly important for me to practice and encourage such differentiated engagement in the context of disputes that have so often been profoundly lacking in it. Rather than articulate my own vision in some great isolation that would morally quarantine me from the messiness of the actual politics of the gender debates, I wanted to be firmly engaged in them.
However, it is imperative to me that this engagement is responsible and differentiated, rather than reactive and partisan. I don’t want to see truth effaced by partisanship and will try to take the side of truth, even when I may be uncomfortable about some of my companions, or may have to take stances up against my friends. This same commitment to truth will lead me to firm but loving criticism of close Christian neighbours with whom I differ. My hope is that through this behaviour I will be a faithful servant of and witness to the truth, rather than holding it the prisoner of party spirit. I also hope that I will be an example to others and that, as a non-reactive and loving critic, I will be able to play some small part in moving my Christian neighbours away from reactivity and further towards the truth. Nothing will change if we just dissociate from each other. My intent is to adopt a better way, to be prepared to make the first move, to exhibit the mastery of self that helps to defuse contexts of explosive reactivity.
As I seek to commit myself to such responsible and differentiated engagement, I stand in great need of others’ responsible and differentiated engagement with me. I have been challenged and helped by various people who have thoughtfully criticized the statement over the last few days and by others who have aligned themselves with it. In addition to their counsel, I also value people’s prayers for prudence in such difficult matters. I respect and appreciate the personal friends who have privately and publicly criticized my decision to sign the statement: their concerns are not invalid and it took courage for them to subject the bond of our friendship to the testing of candour. I hope that I will manifest the same courage to speak the truth in love that they have demonstrated with me, especially as, in aligning myself with others in such causes, I have assumed a greater responsibility in this regard.