November 2017 Credo
Without a doubt, human sexuality is one of the most controversial issues that the modern church faces. Insofar as the church is situated within a cultural milieu, it is in some sense influenced and sometimes inadvertently even shaped by society’s strongest sentiments. This is especially true with issues surrounding homosexuality.
Buffeted by unrelenting pressures from all sides, Christians have sometimes come under considerable stress to simply acquiesce to their demands. And recently, a number of conservative Christian thinkers and leaders appear to have buckled under the strain.
For example, in a recent public lecture, Nicholas Wolterstorff shocked those who have always known him to be theologically conservative by expressing his approval for same-sex marriage. ‘I’ve listened to these people’, says Wolterstorff, ‘To their agony. To their feelings of exclusion and oppression. To their longings. To their expressions of love. To their commitments. To their faith. So listening has changed me’.
In an interview conducted by columnist Jonathan Merritt of Religion New Service, Eugene Petersen, the celebrated author of The Message also affirmed same-sex marriage. He told Merritt that the ‘debate about lesbians and gays might be over’ and that he would conduct a same-sex wedding if he were a pastor.
Soon after the interview was published, however, Petersen retracted his statements. ‘To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm the biblical view of everything’, he said in a subsequent statement.
Amidst these episodes of capitulation and flip-flop by some of the most prominent conservative Christian leaders, the Nashville Statement on human sexuality is refreshing, timely and welcomed (https://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/The_Nashville_Statement_Initial_Signatories_List.pdf).
The Statement is uncompromisingly faithful to Scripture, and provides a reliable compass to help the church navigate safely through the fog of confusion about sexuality and gender.
In its preamble, the Statement underscores the fact that Christians in the 21st century inhabit a period of ‘historic transition’. As Western culture drifts from its Judeo-Christian heritage, we witness ‘massive revisions of what it means to be a human being’.
This has brought about radical changes to the way in which we understand human sexuality. ‘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’.
The Statement presents a series of affirmations and denials (in 14 articles) concerning human sexuality based on the teachings of Scripture. In the rest of this article, I will briefly highlight some of its most salient points.
The Statement begins by clearly articulating its position concerning marriage (Article 1). Everything that it has to say about human sexuality and sexual relations in subsequent articles is framed by its biblical view of marriage.
The Statement eschews the view that homosexual, polygamous and polyarmorous ‘marriages’ are part and parcel of God’s design. It states categorically that marriage as God had intended it is a ‘covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, husband and wife’.
Against the prevailing secular understanding of marriage as a contract, the Statement insists on the covenantal nature of this union.
Sexual relations between a man and a woman are appropriate only within the covenant of marriage. The Statement clearly affirms ‘chastity outside marriage and fidelity within marriage’, and rejects all forms of sexual immorality, including sexual intercourse outside marriage (Article 2).
The divine institution of marriage is established on the doctrine of creation, especially that creation of human beings as male and female (Articles 3 & 4).
The Statement affirms that God created human beings as male and female as bearers of his image and ‘equal before God as persons’ (Article 3). In addition, sexual distinctions – male and female – are not the tragic results of the fall. Instead, they are ‘divinely ordained’, that is, they ‘reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing’ (Article 4).
God has created humans as sexed beings. Sexual difference – being male or female – is therefore not a social construct, but a biological reality ordained by the loving Creator for human flourishing. This means that human sexuality cannot be re-defined according to the temper of the times, the whims and fancies of the prevailing culture.
Articles 3 & 4 set the stage for the more complex issues surrounding human sexuality. They include the dissonance that some people experience between their biological sex and their self-conception as male and female (Articles 5–8). These articles deal primarily with homosexuality and transgenderism.
Article 5 makes clear that neither physical anomalies (inter-sex?) nor psychological conditions (gender dysphoria) ‘nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male and female’. The Statement rejects the claim that ‘adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption’ (Article 7).
Article 6 maintains that those with sexual disorders are bearers of the divine image and ‘have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers’. Article 8 in turn gives the assurance that people who experience same-sex attraction ‘may live a rich and fruitful life pleasing to God through faith in Jesus Christ …’
Sin receives its first mention in Article 9. The authors of the Statement judiciously avoid singling out homosexual acts alone, but include both homosexual and heterosexual immorality in this brief article. ‘We affirm that sin distorts sexual desires by directing them away from the marriage covenant and toward sexual immorality – a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality’.
The remaining four articles of the Statement address a number of different issues. These include attitudes towards homosexual immorality to the efficacy of divine grace in conquering sexual temptations and sins.
Article 10 states that ‘it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism’. Such approval, it notes, can never be seen as a ‘matter of moral indifference’ but rather essentially as a ‘departure from Christian faithfulness and witness’. Article 11 underscores ‘our duty to speak the truth in love at all times’.
Article 12 affirms that the grace of God in Christ has transforming power that enables Christians to ‘walk in a manner worthy of the Lord’. This same grace enables ‘sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions’, states Article 13, and to see the connection between biological sex and one’s self-conception as male and female.
Article 14 is a summary of the Gospel.
Like most documents of this nature, some passages are lacking in clarity and issues that are either left out or given just a cursory mention should be given more attention.
For example, it would be helpful to make clear the distinction between experiencing same-sex attraction and having homosexual sex. It would also be helpful to clarify that while the Bible categorically prohibits homosexual sex, it does not address the issue of sexual orientation.
The issue of sexual orientation, so important in the current debate, is totally omitted by the Statement.
Article 6 appears to be most problematic because of its lack of clarity. Who exactly is the Statement referring to by ‘those born with a physical disorder of sex development’ – the homosexual, transgendered or inter-sex person?
Since inter-sexuality is not mentioned at all, the unfortunate impression is that the Statement affirms the biological basis for homosexuality and transgenderism. But if Article 6 refers to the inter-sex person (which I think it does), it should make this more explicit.
But these minor glitches aside, the Nashville Statement is a clear and robust articulation of the Christian vision of human sexuality. It is thoroughly biblical and in harmony with the orthodox teachings of the Church throughout the centuries.
Since its publication, however, the Nashville Statement has been heavily criticised. This should not surprise us.
Some of the most venomous criticisms come from Christians who appear to have become subservient to the very culture to which they were called to exercise a prophetic witness.
For example, Brian McLaren (of ‘emerging church movement’ fame) scathingly opines that theologically the Statement ‘is based on the same regressive way of reading the Bible that was used to justify slavery, anti-Semitism, apartheid, the suppression of women, the rejection of good science, and the slaughter of native people’.
On the social front, McLaren says, the Statement ‘plays into the same virulent scapegoating that has encouraged the KKK and other white supremacists to take off their sheets’.
Finally, he adds that politically it ‘perfectly serves the purposes of Trumpism by creating a pristine and pure “us” who need to push the dirty “other” to the margins’.
Some Christians may no doubt find such rhetoric compelling. But these sweeping harangues are in fact vacuous and ludicrous. They only show how far some Christians have capitulated to the prevailing culture.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.