Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in his podcast of August 30th explained the Nashville Statement as an effort to establish “biblical clarity” in an era of growing confusion about what the Bible says about “God’s design” for human sexuality. He also stated among other comments, that contemporary changes in the culture are “subverting” human beings, blurring their distinction from other creatures. (http://www.albertmohler.com/category/podcast/the-briefing/)
In the preamble, the writers speak twice of the way in which the world seems bent on ruin, and they seek to offer a contrasting “clean, counter-cultural witness.” The ruination of the culture of the world, of Jesus’ “way of life” grounded in their very narrow description of human sexuality is their stake in the ground. The myopic, self-absorbed language here emerges in the first sentence of the third paragraph. “We are persuaded that faithfulness in our generations means declaring once again the true story of the world and of our place in it…” Whose place? Their place. A group of 148 “initial signatories,” the vast majority of whom were white men, Southern Baptist leaders of SBC seminaries, large churches, and the SBC convention. A core group are members of Trump’s Religious Advisory Board. I counted 13 women and 10 men of color on the list.
Let’s take a closer look at this statement and see what is really going on here. If you haven’t read it, you need to in order to follow my comments about the statement. Just google “Nashville Statement” and it and all sorts of commentaries will pop up.
Definitely Fundamentalists, Hardly Evangelicals
The very first statement of this group of self-identified “evangelical Christians” seeks to speak on behalf of, and indeed, define “evangelical” as those who believe what the statement communicates. Let us be clear. The group clearly co-opts the term. This statement functions as an expression of fundamentalist Christianity. Not all Christians are fundamentalists. Not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. But fundamentalism, by definition, assumes that to be Christian, one must be a fundamentalist. My argument is supported by several dynamics that we find in the statement. But first, let’s identify what the Fundamentalist movement was/is and key characteristics of classic Fundamentalism relevant to this statement and my argument.
The Fundamentalist movement began in the late 1800’s and gained strength in the early 20th century as a rejection of modernism– directions in Christianity that utilized practices of Biblical criticism in Bible Study and were often committed to issues of social justice. Historic moments in the Fundamentalist movement include the printing of the pamphlet series, The Fundamentals, (1910-1915) and the Scopes Trial (1925). Interchangeably called “evangelicals” and “fundamentalists,” for several decades, the movement split between evangelicals (e.g. Billy Graham) and fundamentalists ( John R. Rice, Jerry Falwell) in the 1950’s. Fundamentalist beliefs relevant to our discussion today include:
- The doctrine of inerrancy and the literal reading of the Bible, especially with regard to scientific evidence countered by their doctrine of Creationism.
- Separation of the community from others with whom they disagree on doctrines and practices.
Not all evangelicals hold to these doctrines.
Selective Biblical Proof Texting – of “God’s Design” and “Eunuchs”
First, we find fundamentalist arguments in the language of “God’s design.” This phrase is contemporary fundamentalist lingo for Creationism, a doctrine grounded in a literal, inerrant reading of the first chapters of Genesis. Included in God’s design is, therefore, the creation of human beings as male and female. The authors are quick to point out that Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, but never extend the logic further and note that this would then mean that God is both male and female. They don’t extend the logic, because they can’t – or their whole system starts to fall apart. And of course, God, as Creator and Lord (3rd paragraph), is always referred to as “he”.
Second, a fundamentalist characteristic of the statement is found in Article 6 – the horrific selective, proof-texting and misuse of the Matthew 19.12 passage “eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.” The authors use it as an acknowledgement by Jesus that persons born with a “physical disorder of sex development” actually exist. BUT, go back and read the entire 19th chapter. When we do, we find that the reference to eunuchs is Jesus’ conclusion to the discussion on human choice to marry, to divorce, and whether or not one can handle a call to celibacy in the face of the pending near arrival of the Reign of God.
A Wesleyan-Methodist Response:
John Wesley, in his “Address to the Clergy” composed in 1756, asserted that ministers, along with many other gifts, ought to have: “a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment, and a capacity of reasoning with some closeness” … “a competent share of the meaning of Scripture” that included knowledge of both Greek and Hebrew, the meaning of the literal words of the Bible, and an ability to engage in what we now call textual criticism:
No less necessary is a knowledge of the Scriptures, which teach us how to teach others; yea, a knowledge of all the Scriptures; seeing scripture interprets scripture; one part fixing the sense of another. So that, whether it be true or not, that every good textuary is a good Divine, it is certain none can be a good Divine who is not a good textuary. None else can be mighty in the Scriptures; able both to instruct and to stop the mouths of gainsayers. … Should he not likewise be able to deduce the proper corollaries, speculative and practical, from each text; to solve the difficulties which arise, and answer the objections which are or may be raised against it; and to make a suitable application of all to the consciences of his hearers…*
But also expedient to “good textuary” work was a knowledge of “profane history, of ancient customs, of chronology and geography, for (one) that would thoroughly understand the Scriptures… Some knowledge of the sciences also, …
For what is this, if rightly understood, but the art of good sense of apprehending, things clearly, judging truly, and reasoning conclusively. What is it, viewed in another light, but the art of learning and teaching; whether by convincing or persuading. What is there, then, in the whole compass of science, to be desired in comparison of it. (And) some acquaintance with what has been termed the second part of logic, (metaphysics,) (Wesley’s parentheses) (and) … Should not a Minister be acquainted too with at least the general grounds of natural philosophy? Is not this a great help to the accurate understanding several passages of Scripture? Assisted by this, he may himself comprehend, and on proper occasions explain to others, how the invisible things of God are seen from the creation of the world….*
Wesley was a son of the Enlightenment as well as the deeply passionate founder of the Methodist movement. He read and studied the classics and history; he knew the medical sciences to the extent they existed in his day – and wrote about it. He did not do his thinking in an intellectual vacuum. The Enlightenment was the kick off for the modernist era that fundamentalists are so vituperatively against. The anti-historical, anti-scientific, anti-psychological, anti-everything modernist bias in Fundamentalism was not Wesley’s way.
And just as the selective proof-texting method of fundamentalism is exemplified in this statement, I imagine that when it comes to embracing selectively today’s science that does work for them – like the development of pharmaceuticals and medical procedures that work to preserve their biological functioning – they are apt to accept and are probably quite able to pay for them.
Theology – The Nature of God
Another fundamentalist element of the statement is found in the distinct absence of a Trinitarian view of the nature of God. What we find here is, God as Creator and Lord and Jesus as Lord and Savior. But, their interconnectedness is hard to identify. And, more significantly, there is no mention of the existence, presence, and work of the Holy Spirit. The mere existence of the Holy Spirit, much less even a nod to the possibility that the Holy Spirit is God acting in our present life and world, beckoning and moving us closer to God’s self, threatens the main point of the statement – that it is all about what God did during those seven days of creation, between then and just after the Fall, and all that we need and can know about God is in the Bible.
Did the Holy Spirit not exist at creation? If that’s the case did Jesus not exist at creation? If not, when does God become Trinity? Then what do you say about John 1? To acknowledge that the Holy Spirit as a part of who God has always been, might have been present in creation then, and may be at work in the world now, and much less even may be inspiring a new understanding of the Bible, again, breaks down their entire system. This is not only an absence of a key tenet of Christianity; it is idolatry of the Bible. The Bible becomes the only way we can know God, which of course means, “he” who controls the interpretation of the Bible, controls that understanding of Jesus’ “way of life” in the world.
A Wesley-Methodist Response
A belief in the Trinity, “God in Three Persons,” as three in one and one in three, is a non-negotiable tenet of Wesley and Methodism. Period. Not God with three personalities; not God who acts in three different ways; but that paradoxical reality of one in three and three in one since before the beginning of time. I refer you to Sermon 55 of Wesley’s sermons composed in 1775.
Hence, we cannot but infer, that there are ten thousand mistakes which may consist with real religion; with regard to which every candid, considerate man will think and let think. But there are some truths more important than others. It seems there are some which are of deep importance. I do not term them fundamental truths; because that is an ambiguous word: And hence there have been so many warm disputes about the number of fundamentals. But surely there are some which it nearly concerns us to know, as having a close connexion with vital religion. And doubtless we may rank among these that contained in the words above cited: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.”
The way the statement reads with its absence of the Holy Spirit is akin to the Arianist views that were established as heresy in the late 3rd century and supposedly settled at Nicaea. Simply put, you can’t speak of or ignore one person of God as though it is disconnected from the others and has no bearing on the presence and work of the other two.
Theology – the Nature of the Church
Yet, another fundamentalist thread in the statement is found in the authors’ views of the nature of the Church. In the preamble, there is a tension between wanting to be the “called out, counter-cultural” voice in the world – standing against the “secular spirit of the age” that is the cause of the pending ruination of the world and wanting to be the way of the world. “The secular spirit of our age” is set up as “the greatest challenge” to the Christian church. And when tied together with Article 10 those of us who claim to be Christian and are either allies of or are LBGTQ+ Christians, are not real Christians.
So, there is no indication that the Christian church as the one, holy, apostolic, universal Church exists. The true Christian church exists only where this particular approach to biblical interpretation is upheld. This is a direct expression of the fundamentalist understanding of “first degree separation” – the refusal to associate with groups that believe in doctrines and social mores that are different from their own – and second degree separation – the refusal to associate with groups that do not practice first degree separation.
A Wesleyan-Methodist Response
I refer you to Wesley’s Sermon 74, based on Ephesians 4. 1-6.
Here, then, is a clear unexceptionable answer to that question, “What is the Church” The catholic or universal Church is, all the persons in the universe whom God hath so called out of the world as to entitle them to the preceding character; as to be “one body,” united by “one spirit;” having “one faith, one hope, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in them all.”
15. That part of this great body, of the universal Church, which inhabits any one kingdom or nation, we may properly term a National Church; as, the Church of France, the Church of England, the Church of Scotland. A smaller part of the universal Church are the Christians that inhabit one city or town; as the Church of Ephesus, and the rest of the seven Churches mentioned in the Revelation. Two or three Christian believers united together are a Church in the narrowest sense of the word. Such was the Church in the house of Philemon, and that in the house of Nymphas, mentioned Col. 4:15. A particular Church may, therefore, consist of any number of members, whether two or three, or two or three millions. But still, whether they be larger or smaller, the same idea is to be preserved. They are one body, and have one Spirit, one Lord, one hope, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.
Theology – the Nature of Human Relationships
Finally, deeply buried but driven within the need (a) to belabor binary descriptions of male and female throughout the statement, (b) to state what for most of us is the obvious in Article 3 – that as persons, (both but distinctly) male and female (Article 6 notwithstanding), persons are equal before God and equal in dignity and worth, and (c) to communicate subliminally in the statement’s limited use of feminine pronouns for only the Church, we find a “separate but equal” agenda that points to and reinforces views of a radical distinction between gender roles in the household, in the work place, and in the church. Janet Fishburn in her book Confronting the Idolatry of the Family: A New Vision for the Household of God speaks brilliantly about the conflation of this emphasis on “the family pew” and ministry in the church and its negative impact on several decades of families, especially those formed in the 1970’s to the present.
Even the remote possibility that persons with an understanding and/or experience of non-binary sexual orientation and gender identity might reside with acceptance within God’s plan for humanity and the world, screws up the neatly constructed 20th century system of the nuclear family, the concept of which did not even exist until the late stages of the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England (curiously, the same era in which Dispensationalism was first proposed) and was embedded in U.S. culture after World War II. This notion of the nuclear family still does not exist in many other parts of the world!
So not only does the statement reflect an idolatry of the family, it reflects an idolatry of maleness. If God is “he” and is progenitor of all that is, and Eve was created for Adam, (despite that testy mention of her being created in God’s image as well!) then, of course, straight men are the only human beings with the ability to stand in the pulpit and reflect the image of God outward to other straight men and women.
A Wesleyan-Methodist Response
I wish I had reference to a sermon or address by John Wesley for this one. I don’t. And the point is not just about whether or not women should be ordained. But the ordination of women is the essential role that breaks through every established radically binary practice of a community that may remain. It is so controversial in many communities because, once again, that stake in the ground begins to splinter away. Do you see how it is all woven together?
What we do have is a long history of continuous improvement regarding the distinguishing roles that women have played both in Wesley’s life and in Methodism. But let’s look at Wesley’s practice. Wesley grew in his understanding of God’s call in the lives of women, giving them the opportunity to lead classes and bands in the earlier years of the movement, and in 1761 actually licensed Sarah Crosby, in 1771 endorsed Mary Bosanquet, and in 1787 Sarah Mallett entered the travelling preaching ministry. After Wesley, Methodists tended to reflect the views of the culture in which they lived. In Methodism’s earliest years and first century in the U.S., women were instrumental in leading class meetings and bands, engendering tract and mission societies, starting Sunday Schools, and funding the Church’s outreach. Gradually, women were granted entry as stewards and lay members of our conferences (the late 1800’s-1918). And, while a few women were given local preaching licenses in the late 1800’s and even ordained, specifically in the Methodist Protestant Church, full clergy rights were finally granted to women only in 1956 in The Methodist Church.
Wesley believed that the calling of God to preach was an “extraordinary call.” As he aged, he both witnessed and affirmed the set apart ministry of women with his words and actions. It just took Methodism a long time to catch up to John Wesley.
SO, for the authors and signers of the statement, the direction toward understanding and affirming the existence of non-binary sexuality as normal for some and the need for gender transition by others is the next step in not only challenging their “way of life”; it challenges their personal, social, and institutional power. They are the ones, who ironically, held power in U.S. society for decades and want to protect their way of life through the misrepresentation of what the whole Bible says. They are speaking out because they are losing power in the dirty, mainstream culture that they controlled for decades.
So, for Methodists, let’s also be clear. We may have divided views about binary sexual identity. We may be engaged in struggle – both personal and institutional – about the future directions of The United Methodist Church. We may be evangelical, progressive, a member of the muddled middle or just confused. But we are NOT fundamentalists who are staking our entire doctrine on the first three chapters of Genesis. Selah.
*Wesley Works, Thomas Jackson edt. Vol. 10, 1872, 482-483.