Rhetorical Questions #1: #NashvilleStatement

(I am taking the discussion around this as inspiration for what may become an ongoing series analyzing case studies in rhetoric and culture as I find time. The purpose is not for me to brag about all of the rhetorical terminology I know, but to put it to work in an accessible fashion. Admittedly, this one is going to be long and personal.)

A few days ago, I received questions from multiple people regarding my brief commentary on the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s (CBMW). The statement is an update to their founding document, the 1987 Danvers Statement. Much has been said about the theological content of both statements. Since August 25, the day the statement was posted, social media has been blazes with commendations and denunciations of all shapes and sizes.

I’ll preface these remarks by noting that there is much more that could be said about both the content and rhetoric of the statement. What follows are only a few of my thoughts about how this statement functions in our shared life.

1. Excessive

As many of the signers and writers of the statement have mentioned at length, the theological content of this statement should not be surprising to anyone who is paying attention to such things. A comparison of the rationale of the Danvers and Nashville statement is almost identical. Both are in response to “historic transition” and “concerning contemporary developments” related to the wider Christian community and the surrounding culture’s understanding and expression of gender and sexuality.
It’s true that the cultural difference between the late 80s and now is no small matter. The Danvers statement uses phrases like “widespread ambivalence” and “growing claims of legitimacy” or words like “upsurge” and “emerging” to describe the beliefs and practices they deny. In the Nashville Statement, we see how the language moves from foreboding concern to a “great challenge” and “massive revision” and even “common” the full “loss of biblical conviction” in church’s and amid cultures that do not agree with their teaching.

Finally, the plethora of Statements in response to the Nashville Statement should not surprise us. One of the most basic points that can be made in rhetoric in the West goes back to Aristotle’s classic modes of persuasion: logos (reason/logic), pathos (emotion/experience), ethos (morality/character). Statements are not intended to explain reasoning or logic – they are intended to declare! The authors and signers provide the passion of their belief and the example of their lives as the persuasive force. The reader is to be convicted, and then compelled to unite in defense of the truth against outsiders.

And this brings us full circle. What does this provide, that the Danvers Statement didn’t? Many on social media remarked that it was silly for people to be angry about the Nashville Statement because everyone already knows what conservative Evangelicals believe. So, one wonders, why did the Danvers Statement need to be replaced?

2. Calloused/Harmful

Despite its intent, the Nashville Statement is destructive insomuch as it further alienates LGBTQ+ people. These are people who are more at risk from suicide, abuse, harassment, bullying, rape, depression, addiction, violence, institutional rejection, etc. But harm can often be an abstract political term. To avoid a too long discussion on the nature of harm, I turn to the stories I’ve personally heard and read about how the language the Nashville Statement include is received by many of those it condemns.

It would be difficult to be unaware of the anger and mistrust between the church-at-large and LGBTQ+ people. Many of them have stories of growing up in church. The Church, who is called to love as Christ loves. God first loved us even as we were dead enemies of the Kingdom.

Yet, for many LGBTQ+ people, the church was the first place they learned hate. Their ministers, family, and friends professed love with their mouths, but their hearts were far from love. Despite “ten ways to show truth and love your neighbor” articles and calls for friendship they did not feel loved. For some reason, the profession of love from those closest to them, despite its intent the message was not received. What went wrong? Where do we place the blame?

Here is where the language of the Nashville Statement comes in. Imagine for a moment, that you experienced what LGBTQ+ people did. How would you feel when you read the Nashville Statement? How would you feel if your minister, family, and friends professed love for you with this language? Would you feel loved?

I would not be at all surprised if people answered the questions above in different ways. Some might say that the LGBTQ+ person was too sinful to see the love for what it was. Others, may know exactly what it feels like to be rejected by those you love. Others may want to talk about the need to balance truth and love. Certain readers, may be frustrated/angry/etc at my attempts to get them to see outside of their personal experience and interpretations.

How are we to respond in the face of the destruction that this has caused in the life of people, families, churches, etc? Do we welcome all who want to draw close to Christ? Are we to declare the correct view and expect people to align perfectly or be ostracized? Are we to profess love to people without worrying about how they receive it? What does it mean to love those who we believe to be enemies of the gospel? These important questions cannot be answered by an abstract statement that draws a line in the sand.

3. Without Jurisdiction

The issue of theological jurisdiction, official authority to make judgments for doctrinal statements or creeds has become more and more bizarre in the wake schisms in the church. The power of councils like the one’s in Nicaea and Chalcedonia is grounded in the joint witness of the church across the nations at that time.

Yet, in our age, the church no longer speaks as one. Despite our desire for ecumenism and the call of scripture that the people of God may be one as God is one, we are left with the aftermath of the great schisms and the precedent they set. This is part of my reasoning for being generally statement-averse. I respect the creeds and confessions of those who have come before us, yet the more separated the church becomes the less reliable many of these statements are.

When Jesus prays for all believers, past-present-future, he prays that we may be one and it is in our oneness that we will point to the unity of the Godhead. This is where the authority of the great councils comes from.

When this point comes up in Burk’s writings about the Nashville Statement he does something clever. He knows that all of the above is true. The CBMW does not have the authority to speak for the whole church. Instead, he says that they merely borrowed the naming convention of a variety of famous statements that trace back to those great councils.

This is a veiled argument from authority. By naming the Nashville Statement among these others, his reader feels the weight of historical church decisions, without Burk actually needing to claim that authority. This is a common move in conservative evangelical circles when it comes to the use of tradition. This methodology allows them to pick and choose the parts of church history they like without having to actually submit and own up to the church’s history as a whole.

With this history in mind, it should not surprise anyone that the entire LGBTQ+ community and their allies didn’t all simultaneously repent. Many of them have the same relationship with history and culture as the conservative evangelicalism in which they were raised. They’ve been trained to ignore statements of power from institutions they disagree with. This is not true of all evangelicals, LGBTQ+ or otherwise, nevertheless it is a major factor in 21st century developments.

4. Internally Inconsistent

Lastly, the rhetorical danger of the Nashville Statement is further emphasized by the inclusion of denials alongside affirmations (the latter of which was obviously deemed sufficient in 1987.)

It is not truly possible for me to only comment on the form of the Statement without also indirectly addressing its content. In order to be as winsome as I could, my first reading of the document was done from the perspective of a conservative complementarian. I figured it would be internally consistent from this perspective.

Yet, when I read through the fourteen articles, I noticed something troubling. I would not have been able to affirm this statement even when I shared all of the conservative complementarian assumptions. I assumed that these 14 articles were meant to be integrated and build upon one another.

Thus, I was surprised to see the lack of clarity in articles 3-6. The following claims are included in these articles:

A. God created the first human beings in the image of God, as distinct male and female. (3)
B. These divinely ordained differences are good, and are not the result of the Fall. (4)
C. Specifically, male and female reproductive systems are integral to God’s design (5)
D. Physical and psychological conditions do not nullify God’s design. (5)
E. Those born with physical or psychological conditions are created in the image of God and are equal in worth to other image-bearers. (6)

I’m not sure one can sign off on all of these without risk of contradicting one’s self. It seems there are three choices, none of which enable you affirm all of these articles: 1. God only designed male/female, nothing else exists. 2. God intended male/female, but the Fall had detrimental affect sex and gender. 3. God intended a continuum of sex/gender.

Choice 1 uses A-C, but does not account for D and E. Choice 2 has to drop B in order to affirm the rest. Choice 3 drops A-C, but affirms D and E.

A reading the Statement as a whole makes it clear that that Choice 1 is what is intended. This is even shown in article 6 when it states that those who are not clearly male/female “should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.” So, even this Statement, which claims to be full of conviction does not actually go as far as many go in explicitly affirming choice 2. This means that a careful reader of the statement should be confused on this point, as an explicit verdict is not reached. A peculiar fate for a Statement so focused on clarity and conviction.

Conclusion

Many people in my circles have been dismayed by any disagreement with the Nashville Statement. The assumption is that by not agreeing with the Statement one capitulates to Secular culture and abandons Jesus.

This response is completely unsurprising! (Especially given the discussion of Burk’s interpretation of article 10.) In response, I can say that I’ve come to the positions I have through continued prayer, fellowship, and study of scripture. Furthermore, it is the emphasis on what “position” one ascribes to that often distracts from the real pain and growth happening around us. I’m trained in philosophy and theology. I have great love for labels and distinct positions. But they should not be the final end of the Christian life.

To summarize, if we treat our Christianity as a bounded set, we will be primarily concerned with naming who is in and who is out. This teaches us to disconnect cognitive affirmation of the gospel from discipleship and the expression of the fruits of the spirit. But, if we are concerned with orienting ourselves and others toward Jesus, we find the grace to embrace and celebrate all who are expressing the fruits of the Spirit that can only come God. Only then can we stop trying to be an elite guard that patrols the boundaries of God’s kingdom. Instead we ought to invest our time, our energy, our bodies, our whole selves in the sanctifying process that is making us into the Kingdom of God. “So that all may see and recognize, and consider and gain insight as well, that the hand of the Lord has done this, and the Holy One of Israel has created it.”

“Would it not be better to be dead than to have this horrible fear that Aslan has come and is not like the Aslan we have believed in and longed for? It is as if the sun rose one day and were a black sun.”

“But courage, child: we are all between the paws of the true Aslan.”

-excerpts from C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle

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