The Meaning of the Nashville Line in the Sand

The anti-LGBTQ Nashville Statement was developed by a partnership of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

The hundreds of Southern Baptist and conservative Reformed leaders who initially signed the recent Nashville Statement, have always opposed all forms of sexuality and gender expressions outside of heterosexual marriage. But in the face of broad cultural and legal acceptance of marriage equality and increased visibility and acceptance of transgender people, they decided to take a stand – and to develop an organizing campaign to carry it forward. The Nashville Statement offers a detailed and arguably historic condemnation of LGBTQ people, and those who tolerate or approve of them, especially Christians.  “Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century,” they declared, “find themselves living in a period of historic transition.”  And they are forming a coalition to recharge the so-called culture war and make clear that it will never be over.

The Nashville Statement was developed by a partnership of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), and released in tandem with a national meeting of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Policy Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in August. The ERLC is the public policy arm of the SBC.  The Louisville, Kentucky- based CBMW is an ecumenical theological faction promoting their notions of biblically approved sexuality and gender roles, which was founded three decades ago as a response to the influence of feminism. The group’s notion of complementarity, the idea that men and women have different and distinct roles to play in God’s plan for the home and the church, has been influential among conservative Christians, for example in leading the Southern Baptist Convention’s decision to disallow any more women clergy and women in leadership, and encouraging women to instead submit to their husbands.

The CBMW makes their vision for the Nashville Statement going forward, clear on their web site, stating:  “In the months and years to come, the mission of CBMW will include distributing The Nashville Statement and developing resources to equip pastors and churches to stand firm for the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality.”

The Preamble of the Nashville Statement contrasts their view of biblical marriage with what they see as the alternative. “God created human beings for his glory,” they say, and that, “It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences.”   Sexuality outside of heterosexual marriage, regardless of what kind, they say, is ruinous to people and dishonors God.

Significantly, the ERLC issued a “Nashville Declaration on Same Sex Marriage” in 2005, which acknowledged and built on a number of previous statements on biblical marriage and sexuality. This, they said, was a “response to the serious challenge to the traditional biblical definition of marriage.”  (It was signed by many of the same people as later signed the Nashville Statement.) Thus for this faction of Christianity, changes in the culture or the law do not change their doctrine, rather it changes their approach to law and society and the politics of the moment.  The latest Statement is more evolved than earlier statements, probably because the culture from their point of view has become more complex, and requires a more detailed response to contemporary challenges.

Article 1 of the Nashville Statement reasserts their foundational idea regarding God’s intention is for marriage to be a “lifelong” (no divorce), heterosexual commitment.

WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife…

WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

Article 2 of the Statement, highlights their belief that sexuality is reserved for those within heterosexual marriage; and that any form of sexuality outside of marriage (including premarital sex) is not justified, and that the only legitimate way of life is chastity for those outside the covenant of marriage.

WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.

WE DENY that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.

Thus consistent with earlier statements from this faction of Christianity, “biblical marriage” is the lens through which The Nashville Declaration views all matters of sexuality and gender.  In Article 9 for example, they affirm that sin directs people away from “the marriage covenant and toward sexual immorality— a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality.”

But the coalition also sees non-biblical sexual transgressions, and what they call “gender self-conceptions,” as forgivable. In Article 13 for example, they say “the grace of God in Christ enables sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions.”  That such statements may be as wrongheaded as reparative or conversion therapy, should not detract from recognizing the coalition’s seriousness and that this will factor into legal struggles over marriage and other matters of gender and sexuality, notably equality for transgender people, for the foreseeable future.

The Statement has been met with a flood of criticism including from fellow evangelicals and other Christians who support and respect the dignity and equality of LGBTQ people. The discussion quickly spilled out onto Twitter, where Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary declared, “I signed the Nashville Statement. It’s an expression of love for same-sex attracted people.”  To which liberal evangelical author Rachel Held Evans replied: “What kind of twisted expression of ‘love’ declares parents who accept their LGBTQ kids outside the faith, leads to suicides, secrets & pain?”

Leaders of the mainline United Church of Christ, for example, said that the Statement is “an affront to our values as Christians.”  It is. But it is also an overt attack on their Christianity. Indeed, the Nashville Statement may be best viewed as a declaration of doctrinal and anti-democratic war.  The Statement and the public remarks of those involved are unambiguous about their disrespect for the rule of law regarding the civil and religious rights of others.

The Nashville Statement coalition does not consider those who disagree with them to be Christians at all.  Article 10 of the coalition’s manifesto declares that “it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism [sic] and that such an approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.”  Denny Burk, President of CBMW, told The Washington Post:  “Readers who perceive Article 10 as a line in the sand have rightly perceived what this declaration is about. Anyone who persistently rejects God’s revelation about sexual holiness and virtue is rejecting Christianity altogether, even if they claim otherwise.”

It is no coincidence that The Nashville Statement comes at a time when mainline Protestant churches are increasingly open and welcoming to LGBTQ people, and the Roman Catholic Church under Francis (as well as less doctrinaire evangelicals) is seeking to be more welcoming and more tolerant as well.

But while Burk makes clear that they are not kidding when they say they mean to “draw a line in the sand” what they mean by this metaphor is worth considering.

CBMW co-founder (and Bethlehem College and Seminary Chancellor) John Piper said, “There is no effort to equivocate for the sake of wider, but muddled, acceptance. It touches the most fundamental and urgent questions of the hour, without presuming to be a blueprint for political action.”

The Nashville Statement is certainly not a political blueprint – but it has obvious political implications and intent.

The Nashville Statement is certainly not a political blueprint – but it has obvious political implications and intent.  The Statement has been in development for at least a year and could have been issued at any time in any venue, but the coalition chose the annual national political conference of the SBC; and it was signed not only by top denominational leaders past and present, but by top political professionals of the Christian Right.  What’s more, the partnership of ERLC and CBMW and the signatories to the Statement see themselves as an ongoing “coalition” – which certainly suggests that they do not intend for what happened in Nashville, to stay in Nashville.  The statement may, for example, have implications for the further development of doctrine in evangelical denominations and what is taught in related seminaries.  It may also help inform the Christian Right’s efforts to gain institutional religious exemptions from civil rights laws at all levels.

Albert Mohler made the link between Article 10 and the campaign for religious exemptions from the law. On a radio talk show, he was asked “What does Article 10 of the Nashville Statement imply for the treatment of employees, colleagues and customers?”  Mohler responded by stating that “society may say a man can marry a man; a woman can marry a woman, but we cannot enter into that sin” and, he added, “we can’t endorse it.”

The unambiguous relationship between the Statement and the coalition’s approach to politics and public policy reveals why this must not be dismissed or downplayed. A look at the initial signatories is illuminating as well. They include the current president of the ERLC Russell Moore and his predecessor Richard Land. They are joined by the current and several past SBC presidents as well as  Christian Right leaders Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; Paul Weber, who leads Focus on the Family’s political arm, the Family Policy Alliance; James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; and E. Calvin Beisner founder of the climate change denial organization, Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation; as well as Eric Teetsel, formerly the executive director of the coalition promoting The Manhattan Declaration – the  2009 ecumenical, Catholic-led manifesto, that established issues of “life,” “marriage,” and “religious liberty” as the tri-partite agenda of the contemporary Christian Right as well as that of the American Catholic Bishops.  (Teetsel now leads the Kansas affiliate of the Family Policy Alliance.  He is also the son in law of former Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS), president Trump’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and a fierce opponent of LGBTQ rights.) One signatory that doesn’t quite fit the mold is Stephen Strang, publisher of Charisma magazine and a leading figure in the emerging New Apostolic Reformation, which has moved much of charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity into a more Reformed camp.  Strang’s involvement may be a harbinger of a broadening and deepening of the trend to dominionism in this sector.

While Statement proponent Piper sought to downplay its political significance, others tried to dismiss the significance of the Statement altogether. Evangelical writer Jonathan Merritt, for one, optimistically claims that “this statement won’t change anything.”  Perhaps.  But his argument strangely hinges on a claim that echoes the National Rifle Association’s infamous slogan that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. He concludes, “Proclamations don’t shape history; people do.”  But while it is true that people shape history through their actions – proclamations are something people do when they want to shape history.

Merritt’s argument falls apart in two additional obvious ways.

First, he attempts to rewrite history by asserting that other statements from various times and places were inconsequential. He cites, for example, the 2009 Manhattan Declaration – an historic manifesto that established a broad shared platform initially signed by some 150 Roman Catholic prelates, evangelical leaders as well as key figures of the Christian Right in both its evangelical and Catholic expressions.   It was signed by more than 500,000 people. The CBMW intends to use the document as an organizing tool, collecting signatories apparently emulating the method of The Manhattan Declaration, and informing and educating their constituencies.

Second, such statements are not primarily intended to persuade anyone outside of their own constituencies of anything. From the Nicaean Creed to Martin Luther’s  95 theses (its 500th anniversary is being commemorated this year), to the Westminster Confession, to the numerous Christian statements, encyclicals, and manifestos of today, Christians have always declared, defined, re-defined, and updated themselves in this way. The organizers of the Nashville Statement say that is what they are doing. And indeed, throughout history, and not just of Christianity, this kind of unity and resolve in the face of adversity matters to any grouping, of any kind – and it must not be taken lightly.

It could be that Denny Burk’s line in the sand will, like sand castles, wash away over time.  But LGBTQ rights activists – and all of society – need to keep in mind that when Burk and his colleagues use the line in the sand metaphor, they are saying they mean to fight.