In the midst of relief efforts underway in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released what they have called the Nashville Statement. Named for the city in which it was written, it’s a 14-point declaration on human sexuality.
If you know anything about the CBMW or the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission which hosted the CBMW at its annual conference, then you can probably guess what the Statement says. Naturally, it caused quite a stir on social media, and many friends and colleagues of mine have publicly spoken out against it.
But for those of us in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I’m here to tell you why you shouldn’t be so upset about the Nashville Statement.
It’s nothing new.
The Nashville statement isn’t groundbreaking. None of the views it espouses are new teachings, or even new interpretations of old teachings. It required no theological discernment to write and doesn’t go into any depth (just like the Biblical interpretation that informs it). Many evangelical and fundamentalist churches hold to these same views. The Statement even acknowledges this lack of originality.
It says there are only two sexes (and that those “in between” physically must adhere to one or the other), gender is identical to biological sex, sex is solely for procreation, and cisgenderism and heterosexuality are the only gender identifications and sexualities created by God. Old hat, nothing revolutionary.
On many fundamental facts, it’s just plain wrong.
It’s based on a tired, shallow reading of the Bible. It also outright denies basic facts about humanity, sexuality, genetics, and science that have been known and proven for decades now. We know that in addition to visibly male and visibly female, there are people who visibly don’t conform to either side of the sex binary. There are XX and XY chromosome combinations (what we consider “female” and “male”), but also XXY, XO, and mutations that cause some XX to develop severely masculine features and some XY to develop female internal sex organs or features–all of which are associated with the term “intersex”.
The statement mischaracterizes the nature of homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, asexuality, queerness, genderfluidity, genderqueerness, and even heterosexuality. It relies on the “absence of evidence” informal fallacy in determining what is and what is not acceptable, which is a fallacy for a reason. It completely ignores decades of careful research around these questions. Frankly, the statement is not just narrow-minded in its understanding of theology, but also in its understanding of facts.
Finally, you shouldn’t be upset about the Nashville Statement because the ELCA accepts it.
Shocking, right? But go ahead and read Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, the ELCA’s social statement on… well, human sexuality. This is usually the statement cited when people talk about how awful the ELCA is (along with our horrible, terrible, no good willingness to work with the Episcopal Church). And in the eyes of many who signed the Nashville Statement, that sentiment is justified.
The ELCA’s social statement on human sexuality says many commendable things. It acknowledges that sexuality is for more than simple procreation. It recognizes that marriages can become so toxic, harmful, and dangerous that divorce must follow. It lifts up that some in the church recognize the validity of what it calls “lifelong, publicly accountable, monogamous, same-gender relationships”. It affirms a wider spectrum of sexuality and gender identity than the Nashville Statement. It supports birth control!
But have you read it? Then you know that it says this:
The historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions have recognized marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman.
We further believe that this church, on the basis of “the bound conscience,” will include these different understandings and practices within its life as it seeks to live out its mission and ministry in the world.
Which leads to this:
On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that same-gender sexual behavior is sinful, contrary to biblical teaching and their understanding of natural law. They believe same-gender sexual behavior carries the grave danger of unrepentant sin. They therefore conclude that the neighbor and the community are best served by calling people in same-gender sexual relationships to repentance for that behavior and to a celibate lifestyle. Such decisions are intended to be accompanied by pastoral response and community support.
The reality is that while some (few) parts of Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust are supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, it fails in two spectacular ways. One isn’t really the statement’s fault: social statements in the ELCA aren’t enforceable laws. They are teaching documents that guide policy, but they aren’t binding on anyone. Everyone is free to disregard them if they wish.
But the biggest failure is that Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust goes through all of this effort to carefully discuss sexuality, then explicitly and intentionally says that the harmful views of the Nashville Statement are not only found in the church, but should be honored and celebrated.
In theory, this sounds like a good idea. All viewpoints are acknowledged, our inability to agree is acknowledged, and there is a (tacit) commitment to continuing dialogue.
But this is what it looks like in practice: LGBTQ+ individuals routinely denied entrance to the candidacy process; LGBTQ+ candidates for ministry routinely denied interviews with congregations, or refused interviews by congregations; congregations refusing to allow their pastors to carry out the duties of their office for LGBTQ+ couples; LGBTQ+ individuals cast out of the community; all in the name of “bound conscience”. All of this is explicitly allowed in the church.
Tolerance of a belief ends when it leads to harmful action. And that’s what the ELCA allows. Our church explicitly allows discrimination against and the abuse of LGBTQ+ individuals because “bound conscience” protects not only attitudes, but actions that follow them. None of this is hypothetical–it happens, and the church condones it.
So yes. Continue the fight against the bad theology and science behind the Nashville Statement. We need to do better. We must do better. We didn’t sign the Nashville Statement. But it’s a little hypocritical to get too outraged by it when we allow its teachings in our own church.