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.

A Baptist Sexuality Summit for the Ethically Challenged

Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission ERLC

When Russell Moore ascended to the presidency of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), he claimed that he wanted to pull the public policy arm of the SBC back from the culture warring ways of his predecessor, Richard Land. The 42-year-old Moore said he believed that younger generations of evangelicals were put off by inflammatory rhetoric and political aggression on issues like marriage equality. But that public stance didn’t last long.

Moore soon faced sharp criticism from Christian Right figures such as American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, who said, “Since one man’s ‘pullback’ is another’s ‘full-scale retreat,’ social conservatives have a right to raise questions about the new course Moore is setting for the SBC.” Fox News contributor Sandy Rios added, “Whether Russell Moore wants it to be a war or not, it is a war. .. Southern Baptists are going to suffer.”

Fischer and Rios weren’t alone in their outrage, and if the ERLC’s upcoming (April 21-23) Leadership Summit on “The Gospel and Human Sexuality” is any indication, the difference between Moore and Land may be more a matter of style than substance. Indeed, Moore has selected two controversial figures, sociologist Mark Regnerus and Rev. Greg Belser (the Senior Pastor at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi) to headline the summit.

Mark Regnerus 

Regnerus gained conservative celebrity status this past year, thanks to his 2012 study published in the Social Science Research journal, which claims that children of same-sex couples face severe disadvantages growing up. As Slate’s Nathaniel Frank explained, “The study catapulted him into conservative stardom, making him a credentialed mouthpiece for the claim that LGBTQ equality harms kids and can be blocked not because of anti-gay bias but out of noble concern for children and families.”

“Regnerus’ article made waves,” Frank continued, “because it appeared to buck the trend of three decades of research showing kids with gay parents fare just as well as others. There’s one problem: Regnerus’ research doesn’t show what he says it does. Not remotely. No research ever has.”

Numerous scholars and professional societies agreed, including the American Sociological Association, and the study has been completely and thoroughly debunked. But, as Cole Parke has reported here at Eyes Right, that hasn’t stopped the Religious Right both in the U.S. and abroad from using the patina of academic respectability and authority Regnerus brings to thwart the advance of LGTBQ civil and human rights.

As reported by the LA Times, “When he struck down Proposition 8, the California amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman, Judge Vaughn R. Walker of Federal District Court in San Francisco said he had heard ‘no reliable evidence that allowing same-sex couples to marry will have any negative effects on society.’” This left the opponents of marriage equality in a quandary, and in desperate need for new evidence to bolster their failing legal arguments against marriage equality and adoption by same-sex couples.

In the wake of the Prop. 8 decision, opponents of marriage equality held a series of strategy meetings at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., in 2010. According to the New York Times, they “discussed the urgent need to generate new studies on family structures and children … One result was the marshaling of $785,000 for a large-scale study by Mark Regnerus, a meeting participant… .”

Among the meeting’s participants was Luis E. Tellez, president of the Witherspoon Institute, a neo-conservative think tank based in New Jersey – and whose co-founders include Christian Right strategist and Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, Robert P. George. After the Heritage Institute meetings, Witherspoon subsequently provided $695,000 to underwrite what became the Regnerus study, while the neo-conservative Bradley Foundation, where Robert P. George sits on the board of directors, also kicked-in $90,000.

But in addition to the debunking and criticism of the methodology and conclusions Regnerus’ study has faced among his peers and both the academic and scientific communities, it has also fallen on its face in court.

After hearing Regnerus testify and be cross-examined on the witness stand, Federal Judge Bernard A. Friedman struck down Michigan’s anti-marriage equality law in March, and called Regnerus’ study “entirely unbelievable,” and “not worthy of serious consideration.”  Judge Friedman further condemned the manufactured research and its right-wing sponsors, saying “[t]he funder clearly wanted a certain result, and Regnerus obliged.”

Rev. Greg Belser

Conferees will also be treated to the expertise of Rev. Greg Belser, who is not only a panelist at the sex summit, but is also a member of the ERLC’s Leadership Council.

The Southern Baptist Convention, which currently claims 15.9 million members in 46,000 churches in the U.S., has acknowledged the problem of child sex abuse within member churches. Still, too many Baptist leaders—like their Catholic counterparts—have responded to the problem with denials, inattention, and cover-ups. Eyes Right recently reported that Belser is the personification of how poorly the Southern Baptist Convention has addressed issues of child sex abuse by clergy.

Jeff Langworthy, a minister at Belser’s church, was accused of molesting children at two Mississippi Baptist churches before he transferred to serve at the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas – where additional allegations of child molestation apparently led Prestonwood leaders to quietly let Langworthy go without reporting the allegations to police (as was required by state law). Langworthy subsequently worked at Morrison Heights for 20 years, with no one the wiser about his past.

Persistent efforts by Amy Smith, an advocate with SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), led Morrison Heights to conduct an internal investigation in 2011. Belser initially decided to keep Langworthy on staff, but later allowed him to resign and to make a highly limited confession to the congregation about his “sexual indiscretions with younger males” in Texas.

After Langworthy’s confession surfaced online, police launched an investigation.  As the Associated Baptist Press reported, “Six men came forward claiming they were sexually abused by Langworthy as children in the early 1980s.”  But Morrison Heights (and Rev. Belser) refused to turn over the findings of their internal investigation to police or prosecutors, apparently following the legal advice of Phillip Gunn, a Morrison Heights elder and a state representative.

But even with Belser’s and Morrison Heights’ protection, Langworthy eventually pleaded guilty to five felonies committed against children at the two Mississippi Baptist churches.

Marching Ever Forward

With the checkered and highly questionable pasts of both Regnerus and Belser, ERLC’s “Leadership Summit” on sexuality probably portends that the SBC–and its political action arm–will continue their investment in a corrupt past.


When the “Family Values” Agenda Includes Child Sex Abuse

The exposure of widespread sex abuse by Roman Catholic clergy—and of the subsequent cover-ups by church leaders—has rocked the Catholic church for more than a decade. Less well known, though closely analogous, is the issue of widespread abuse within Protestant evangelical churches.  Such stories raise doubt that the evangelical/Catholic alliance that defines the contemporary Christian Right is, in any legitimate sense, a defender of “family values.”

Boz Tchividjian rattled the evangelical world in 2013, when he declared that the problem of child sex abuse in evangelicalism is “worse” than the problem in the Roman Catholic Church. The grandson of Billy Graham, a former child sex crimes prosecutor for the state of Florida, and now a law professor at Liberty University, Tchividjian has both the public profile to hold an audience, and the professional experience to back up his assertions.

Tchividjian is not the only prominent evangelical speaking out. “Catholic and Baptist leaders have more similarities than differences on the child-abuse front,” wrote Robert Parnham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “Both have harmed church members and the Christian witness by not swiftly addressing predatory clergy and designing reliable protective systems.”

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which currently claims 15.9 million members in 46,000 churches in the U.S., has acknowledged the problem of child sex abuse within member churches. Still, too many Baptist leaders—like their Catholic counterparts—have responded to the problem with denials, inattention, and cover-ups. Indeed, Rev. Peter Lumpkins of Georgia called for the SBC’s governing body to adopt “a zero-tolerance policy toward the sexual abuse of children in churches,” but now thinks church officials are ignoring his 2013 resolution.

As just one example, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), SBC’s public policy arm, is holding an April “summit” in Nashville on “The Gospel and Human Sexuality.” Yet the program fails to include anything about child sex abuse. “From broken marriages to pornography to homosexuality, sexual confusion and sexual brokenness has ravaged our culture and can deteriorate the integrity of our churches,” the published program declares.  It assures prospective conferees that they can “discover” how their “church and local congregations can be a beacon of hope, clarity, and restoration as the gospel is brought to bear on human sexuality.”

Greg Belser

Rev. Greg Belser

Adding insult to injury, Rev. Greg Belser, a man who epitomizes the problem in the SBC, is not only a member of the ERLC’s “leadership council,” but also a panelist at the sex summit.  The Senior Pastor at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi, Belser also happens to be at the center of a major, ongoing clergy sex abuse scandal.  In other words, the ERLC—the SBC body with delegated responsibility for addressing sex abuse within churches—features as a leader someone who himself is deeply entangled in a cover-up of abuse.

John Langworthy

Former-minister John Langworthy

Christa Brown, a leading advocate for reform in the SBC, contemplated the wider issue last year by drawing upon a quote attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “True evil lies not in the depraved act of the one, but in the silence of the many.” Indeed, the “silence of the many” helped facilitate the criminal career of John Langworthy, a youth music minister at Belser’s Morrison Heights church and a serial child molester. When allegations surfaced that Langworthy may have molested at least one boy, leaders at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Texas (one of the largest in the SBC), including the Senior Pastor (and future SBC President) Jack Graham, took the allegations seriously enough to fire Langworthy in 1989. Yet they did not report him to the police, although state law at the time required it.

Amy Smith, an advocate with SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), tried for more than two years to alert Morrison Heights Baptist Church leaders and Mississippi officials about Langworthy before Morrison Heights (the church where Langworthy had worked for two decades) finally conducted an internal investigation in 2011. Belser initially decided to keep Langworthy on staff but later allowed him to resign and to make a highly limited confession to the congregation about his “sexual indiscretions with younger males” in Texas—acts Langworthy described as “ungodly.” After Langworthy’s statement, Belser claimed that church officials had made “a biblical response” in the matter.

After Langworthy’s confession surfaced online, police launched an investigation.  As the Associated Baptist Press reported, “Six men came forward claiming they were sexually abused by Langworthy as children in the early 1980s.”  But Morrison Heights refused to turn over the findings of their internal investigation to police or prosecutors, apparently following the legal advice of Phillip Gunn, a Morrison Heights elder and a state representative.

That was in 2011.

Jack Graham

Prestonwood Senior Pastor Jack Graham

Langworthy went on to plead guilty to five felonies committed against boys at two Mississippi Baptist churches prior to his time at Prestonwood and Morrison Heights. Thanks to a plea deal, he did no time. Meanwhile, Gunn was elected Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives in 2012 (the first Republican since Reconstruction) and was also elected Trustee of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Graham, who served two terms as President of the SBC in 2003 and 2004, remains the Senior Pastor at Prestonwood and is fending off questions about his role in the Langworthy affair. Belser remains Senior Pastor at Morrison Heights.

Christa Brown, writing at StopBaptistPredators, suggests that SBC leaders have not created mechanisms for disciplining those who “cover-up for the unspeakable crimes of their colleagues,” either because they are afraid or because they just don’t care. She also observes that there is no denominational process for assessing clergy abuse reports, keeping records of ministerial abuses, or providing a way to inform congregations about accused ministers.

“One of the best ways to protect children in the future,” Brown concludes, “is to hear the voices of those who are attempting to tell about abuse in the past. Those voices almost always carry ugly, hard truths – truths about not only the preacher-predators but also about the many others who turned a blind eye or who were complicit in covering up for clergy child molestations.”

The “silence of the many” certainly includes those who, while claiming to uphold “family values,” remain unusually quiet in the face of crimes against children.  Even more egregious is that such abuse is occurring in the care of the churches they claim best represent these values. The story of this silence may well be the one for which they are most remembered.

Over the next year, PRA will be continuing to report on cover-up attempts within both Protestant and Catholic churches.