Tensions on the left side of American evangelicalism had been building for years, and then Christian ethics professor David Gushee drew a bright red line.
Many religious groups reject gay-rights efforts because of ancient doctrines on marriage and sexuality, he noted in a Religion News Service (RNS) essay last year. Some have tried to do this quietly.
“It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it,” wrote Gushee, who teaches at Mercer University, a hub for Bible Belt progressives. He is the author of numerous books, including “Changing Our Mind, Kingdom Ethics.”
Gushee warned the orthodox: “Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.”
This warning was one moment of clarity that led to the August 25 Nashville Statement from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The manifesto restates many ancient Christian doctrines, such as: “God designed marriage as a covenantal union of only a man and a woman that is the sole context for sexual intercourse.”
However, the preamble addresses new challenges, stating: “Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.”
Thus, Article 10 states: “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.”
First signers of the document included Anglican theologian J.I. Packer, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore, WORLD magazine editor Marvin Olasky, theologian R.C. Sproul, National Religious Broadcasters President Jerry A. Johnson and evangelical authors such as John Piper and Rosaria Butterfield. All six presidents of the Southern Baptist seminaries signed, along with numerous former SBC presidents such as the Revs. Jack Graham, Fred Luter, Frank S. Page and James Merritt. Initial signers included both supporters, and outspoken critics, of President Donald Trump.
Liberal evangelical author Jen Hatmaker responded on Twitter: “The fruit of the ‘Nashville Statement’ is suffering, rejection, shame and despair.”
RNS columnist and LGBT activist Jonathan Merritt — son of the former SBC president — added that “a statement like this is unlikely to move the needle with those who aren’t already in agreement. It is all head and no heart. … It is all words and no word-made-flesh.”
Another symbolic reaction came from 400-plus alumni of Union University, the Southern Baptist campus in Jackson, Tennessee, where Gushee taught for a decade before moving to Mercer. Their petition protested Union President Samuel Oliver’s signature, calling the Nashville Statement “a declaration of bigotry and condemnation that is a far cry from the faith, hope, love and acceptance we were taught was the hallmark of the faith of Union University.”
Union professor Hunter Baker responded by asking these alumni if Union had somehow hidden its orthodox doctrines on moral issues — which have not changed — when they enrolled. Should the school now abandon students, parents, faculty and donors who support its stand on marriage and sexuality?
The key to the Nashville Statement is that it addresses theology, not politics, and was primarily written “to other evangelicals who are considering compromises in the face of cultural pressures that have radically increased in recent years,” said Baker in an interview.
Right now, most of these pressures are falling on Christians in academia, publishing and nonprofit ministries — such as those linked to medicine or work with the poor — that interact with corporations or government agencies, he said. Many religious believers fear discrimination in major corporations and when seeking admittance to professional organizations and elite graduate schools.
“There is a fear that, if you maintain your beliefs in classical Christian doctrines, you will be pushed to the margins of mainstream American life,” he said. “It’s painful to clash with the culture. We get that, but we still wanted to urge other evangelicals to keep the faith.”