Nashville Nonsense

Since the Nashville Statement came out in August, much has been written in response. Some have hailed the statement as long overdue – a necessary anchor in the midst of changing mores. Some seem to agree with the statement but don’t like the clandestine process or the timing of its release. There are others, of course, who think that the statement is tone deaf to culture, violent against the LGBTQ community, and outright offensive. To be clear, that’s how I feel about it, but that’s not why I’m writing.

Over the past couple of months, many of those who believe that this statement is contrary to the way of Jesus, have responded. Some have pointed to the systemic context of the Coalition for Biblical Sexuality – the organization that sponsored the statement – and note that it produced another statement in 1987 called the “Danvers Statement.” The Danvers Statement asserts complementarianism, which distinguishes between the roles of men and women in both home and church. Their argument goes something like this, “Why in the world should we pay any attention to a group of people who are unwilling to affirm the brilliance, strength, capacity, and God given ability of women to lead and speak?” Another common response has been to argue that the gospel intrinsically opposes a perspective that denies the inclusion, favor, and love of God on everyone – especially those who are marginalized. 

Besides these two common responses, another very popular response has been for groups and individuals to write their own counter statements. A few examples are the Denver Statement, the Liturgists Statement, the Parish Church of St. Jerome Statement, the Landsdale Statement, and the Christians United Statement. Similar to the Nashville Statement, these are all situated within a similar rubric: preamble, followed by articles that first affirm and then deny certain ideas. It’s about this rubric, that I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

I’ll begin with a question. Why is this the rubric? To answer this question, we need to work backwards from an affirming/denying construct, which originated from articles of faith, which originated from creeds, which originated from empire.

The first official Christian Creed was formed during the Council of Nicaea, in 325. The Roman emperor Constantine was determined to unify the empire through Christianity. So, he called the council, presided over the council, and this resulted in the Nicene Creed. About this, it was said, “The Church had taken her first great step to define revealed doctrine more precisely in response to a challenge from a heretical theology.” And guess what happened to anyone who thought differently? Well, they were labeled a “heretic,” which resulted in excommunication, or imprisonment, or death, often by way of crucifixion. I hope you see the irony. 

The Nicene Creed – about 223 words in length – was reworked in 381 and it grew to be a little bit longer. In 451 came the Chalcedonian Creed. It was a 208 word sentence! Then in 500 came the Athanasian Creed. It was about 660 words in length. You get the point. Eventually, creedal form didn’t allow for all of the particulars and nuance that the church thought a person needed to confess. And so, along came confessions. Confessions were often comprised of articles – lots of articles. As an example, consider the London Baptist Confession of 1644. It contains 52 articles and is just over 6000 words in length. Six. Thousand. Words.

Incredible isn’t it? A renegade prophet strolls along the Sea of Galilee inviting, “Follow me.” He declares, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He breaks and bleeds and says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Then, after his death, resurrection, and ascension, small groups of people begin to gather in his name. They share their resources. They walk in his footsteps. They include the broken, unclean, and other. But then, empire articulates “revealed doctrine,” a delineation is made between “orthodox” and “heretic,” creeds grow into confessions, and just two thousand years later a rubric of affirmation and denial is so commonplace that no one pauses to ask, “Why this rubric?”

I am convinced that this way of navigating the world is flawed. In fact, I am convinced that it is anti-christ. Here’s why. When Jesus is approached by religious people and asked to clarify something, like, who is in and who is out, or who is right and who is wrong, Jesus regularly refuses to answer. Instead, he consistently asks a question, or tosses out a parable, or tells a story.

Consider this. In John 9, Jesus heals a blind man. The religious leaders do a little investigating to find out how the blind man was healed and when he tells them that Jesus healed him, and that Jesus is from God, they throw him out. Jesus hears about this and searches out the now-healed-blind man. When Jesus finds him, we read:

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

This story, and many that are similar to it in the gospels, must cause us pause. Jesus is saying that those who think they have gotten it all right, are actually wrong. To use his word, "blind." To be more specific, "blind and in sin." Amazing. It makes me want to ask a question. What if we've gotten it all wrong? And here's another question. What if Christianity, as it began in Jesus, was never supposed to be about getting it all perfectly right? And one more. What if thinking we have gotten it all perfectly right is actually getting it all wrong? Like Jesus says, “becoming blind and being in sin.” Well if that’s the case, and I think it is, then we would want to resist the temptation to engage in a rubric of affirmation and denial, in Jesus’ name. Instead, we would insist on telling parables that evoke questions – like Jesus, and we would tell stories that make space for this textured, complex, and mysterious reality called life – like the majority of the Bible.

One final thought. A rubric of affirmation and denial is a binary construct that divides. Nashville affirms and denies this. Denver affirms and denies that. Pharisees affirm and deny this. Sadducees affirm and deny that. Catholics affirm and deny this. Protestants affirm and deny that. You see what I’m getting at. Back and forth it goes. It never ends. It holds no possibility of understanding or appreciating, or even conversing with other. It simply puts a line in the sand and delineates Constantine’s battlefield in Jesus’ name. Enough.

Let’s put an end to the platitudes. Like Jesus, let’s abstain from engaging in the violence facilitated by empirical binary categories. Like early followers of Jesus, let’s gather around a common table that makes room for other. Let's resolve to asking questions and telling stories, which is the biblical and christological rubric for nurturing divine work in the world.

Divine Work
Straight lines bending
stone walls falling
blinding words
Into meals
and questions
and stories, that
        soften hearts
        and raise the religious