WIT welcomes Kristen Daley Mosier as a guest poster. Her full bio is available on her first post with our blog.
In the aftermath of white supremacist violence, earthquakes south of the border, and a series of devastating climatic events in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, many evangelicals find themselves digging through the rubble in response to a different menace. The Nashville Statement (more a ‘manifesto’ than a statement, and not at all representative of Nashville the city) has left some significant casualties—namely, those who consider themselves ‘evangelical’ but don’t want to close the gate entirely on the LGBTQ+ community.
There have been numerous responses in praise and condemnation of the Statement, and they have tended to fall along well-trodden paths. Progressives denounce it. Devotees of John Piper love it. However, I have curiously observed those who find themselves in the murky middle: prominent evangelicals, typically men, whose conscience may not allow total denouncement of queer Christians, but who cannot support them either. You see, the challenge with systematic theology is that seemingly good seeds laid in one region may result in thorns elsewhere. Given that theological anthropology stems from the beginning, where One God creates two people, how God is rendered at creation (is God yet Father? Where is the Spirit?) will ascribe value to the cosmos and (not least of all) humanity. And so, as someone who finds herself on the margins of evangelical discourse, I believe it is important not only to highlight the theological consequences of a rigid, unyielding theological anthropology, but to then connect it to the material impact on persons who fall outside theological ‘norms’. Bodies suffer when theological anthropologies are “clarified” to exclude entire communities.
The Statement itself says nothing new or surprising. Presented by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood it succinctly states a binary theological anthropology that, using biological determinism as its crutch, refutes the lived realities of anyone who exists somewhere on the LGBTQ+ gender spectrum. Many Christian leaders and communities that seek greater inclusion have been quick to rebuke the Nashville Statement. Frankly, I do not believe it is a document that LGBTQ+ people of faith need to concern themselves with (other than simply to be aware of it as yet another aggression lobbed in their direction). Yet there are some very real and material consequences both in the theology of the piece, and in its parlance. For anyone in ministry and theology who identifies as other than cis-gendered male, this document illustrates a violence toward the body that is not unfamiliar. It locates complementarian ideology within biological sex, and imports a masculinist, patriarchal value system to the subtext throughout the document.
What Was Said
The Nashville Statement offers singular clarity in an age of multiplicity when it comes to defining “what it means to be a human being.” According to the authors, God has designed human life for God’s glory, in the form of male and female, to be in “total allegiance” to God. In fact, we are to be grateful for God’s design, and express it either in holy marriage or by living a celibate life devoted to God. “This is the path not only of glorifying God, but of knowing ourselves.” Such clarification is needed at this time, because a secular spirit challenges the church, against which she must “unashamedly proclaim [Jesus’] way as the way of life.”
In article three of the document, it states, “We affirm that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female. We deny that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.” Two things to point out in the affirmation: first, by capitalizing Adam and Eve, the image of two individuals (one a man and the other a woman) is codified as the origin point for all of humanity. Secondly, male and female are made in his image—God is monolithically masculine, yet somehow both male and female bear God’s image. As for what the statement denies, the authors were kind enough to assign ‘equal dignity and worth’ to women and men. However, the phrase “divinely ordained differences” is intensely problematic, as others have pointed out. Namely, what are those divinely ordained differences? Neither of the two creation narratives in Genesis (Priestly, Gen. 1:1-2:3; Yahwist, Gen. 2:4-25) articulates much more than ‘male’ and ‘female’ within the text.
Throughout the statement, the only clarification given as to what differentiates a man from a woman is located in one’s physiology. It is the genitalia one has been given that determines whether he is a he or she is a she. According to the authors, to go against one’s biological self is to deny God’s design. As the preamble states, “Our true identity, as male and female persons, is given by God.” The underlying concern seems to be, can two people, when they come together, procreate?
Article five affirms “that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.” This is perhaps the ultimate essentialist definition, which denies any role for cultural norms and therefore leaves unexamined the significance of particular persons stating such claims. The truth seems undeniable that those born with a uterus are female, and those born with a penis are male, to put it crassly. Notice that it is the “reproductive structures” that are the differentiating factors, leaving a myriad of questions when those structures are not fully formed, or have to be removed, or what role hormones might play. In denying human agency in how we can know ourselves as sexual beings, the authors decree by fiat the gender of everyone born, which then sets the stage for the prescribed social expressions of the determined gender.
Regarding language, only the divine aspects of God as Creator and God in Christ are involved in the construction of this document. Thus God can be rendered as a monolithic authority—Father and Son united—and the authors are simply conveying biblical truth. The church is feminine in the preamble, while God has a masculine pronoun throughout, setting up a foundational dichotomy.
What Wasn’t Said… In So Many Words
Running in the background is a previous dispute with other evangelical theologians for being non-Trinitarian, in that certain authors affirm eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. The claim is that they “affirm the full deity of the Son as well as his eternal submission to the Father.” Jesus of Nazareth is said to be both fully God and eternally subordinate to the Father. While they can claim historical support for such a view, it also lends itself to a rigid hermeneutic that all but denies the role and sovereignty of the third Person of the Trinity. To place Son and Spirit as fully subordinate to the will of the Father may counter any accusations of Tritheism, but it means losing any perichoretic dynamism, like that found in Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14-17.
Perhaps this should not be surprising coming from an organization that states as its mission “to set forth the teachings of the Bible about the complementary differences between men and women, created equally in the image of God, because these teachings are essential for obedience to Scripture and for the health of the family and the church.”1 To claim that a complementarian view is “essential” is to make an authoritative claim for evangelical faith to which not all evangelicals can or will ascribe. Furthermore, the appeal to “health of the family and the church” reveals the deeper anxiety behind their project.
The reader is left with a clear set of dichotomous relationships:
God : Christ
Christ : Church
Male : Female
In this schema, authority falls strictly to one side with subordination as its natural counterpart. It is less a dialectic than a clear path of allegiance. To the three relationships listed above, I would also add that of Head : Body (1 Cor. 11:2-3).
Evangelical Critique: What’s Missing
In reviewing a myriad of responses, mostly from those who self-identify as evangelical,2 the central binary of male/female was not the heart of the matter for them. In fact, many agreed that the statement was in line with traditional anthropology. Where leading voices took umbrage was the language of “essentials” in article ten.
We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.
That the authors redrew a line to include “homosexual immorality or transgenderism” as an essential, has caused a great deal of distress among authors—less for the topic itself than for the fact that it is considered to be a contemporary social issue and not part of traditional discourse. Dissenting evangelical responses decry the language in the statement as heavy-handed and contrary to Jesus’ own pastoral approach to sinners in the gospel, but they generally do not make a clear connection between the anthropology and its material effects on bodies in the church.
Using the Nashville Statement as a tool, the authors effectively remap the kingdom of God to explicitly exclude anyone who is gender nonconforming. Furthermore, anyone who might be sympathetic toward them must be called to account, their faithfulness to scripture called into question. By aligning views on homosexuality with a complementarian binary, the document effectively sets up a vertical power dynamic that demands allegiance upward, toward God, and permits ‘discipline’ downward. Additionally, with the third Person of the Trinity absent, the possibility for direct communion between God and other bodies is foreclosed.
The writers claim with scripture that “Jesus came to bring us life…” yet that claim is left suspended, virtually inaccessible. This is not the body of Christ that nourishes and creates new life, but Jesus rendered in print—the word who cannot be fully embodied apart from the will of God the Father. The church itself is reduced to a collection of male and female units who either align with the values set forth in the statement, or who fall outside God’s grace. With God rendered in monolithic fashion, there is no mention of the beauty and diversity found within creation. Creation itself is ordered by a masculine God, its diversity is simply part of a divine design and not an expression of Godself, as three Persons eternally in communion. The church (“she”) is subordinated to God (“he”) in such a way as to justify male ‘headship’ in marriage and over the church as a whole. Using the apocalyptic metaphor of the church as the bride of Christ (Rev. 21.2, 9f) ignores the Pauline metaphor of the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12.27; Col. 1.18), which would be messier and perhaps even contradictory to the dichotomy essential to the Nashville Statement.
The church as the body of Christ holds dangerous resonance with the sacrament of Eucharist, which relies upon the elements of matter and Spirit. To acknowledge bodies broken would grate against the more evangelical/Zwinglian sensibility of the ordinance of communion, whereby only those worthy may break bread as a memorial to Jesus’ sacrifice (1 Cor. 11.27-29). And this is where thorns puncture the vision of Paradise set up by the authors of the Nashville Statement: omitting the Person of the Spirit at creation reduces the fullness of God both in the beginning and now in the present. If Jesus Christ is the Firstborn of all creation, and if it was by the power of the Spirit that he was resurrected after dying on the cross, then the church becomes a symbol of New Creation, and the act of breaking bread more than a sign of obedience or ‘total allegiance.’ Rather, Eucharist is a remembrance not only of Jesus’ triumph over death but also of the gathering of the seas at creation, of the death that a seed must undertake in order to yield plants and fruit. When the church as the body of Christ comes to the table, it does so remembering that Jesus ate with sinners. Jesus Christ redefined ‘Lordship’ as dying that others might live.
The body of Christ that is a symbol of New Creation knows itself not as male or female—the church is not a she—but it is a site for abundance, healing, and nourishment. (Consider how a compost pile mixes and mingles a variety of matter to enrich and coax life anew through decomposition.) Reducing the God of Creation to God the Father does violence to the whole body. The imago Dei will only be male when Father and Son rule side by side. From here it is a short step to denying the full humanity of women and anyone else deemed Other. This is the primary consequence of a binary theological anthropology born of a non-Trinitarian creation theology. Unfortunately, it is the ground from which so much evangelical theology has grown.
- From the website of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. ↩
- See especially the Evangelical channel of Patheos.com. Key voices include Scot McKnight “Jesus Creed,” Michael Bird “Euangelion,” and Josh Daffern “New Wineskins.” Only a few bloggers on the Progressive Christian and Nonreligious channels commented on the Nashville Statement. ↩