Nashville Statement: When Christians disagree about sex
The recent Nashville statement has brought conservative Christianity’s relationship with sexual issues front and center into the mainstream media. USA Today describes the Nashville statement this way, “A coalition of conservative evangelical leaders laid out their beliefs on human sexuality, including opposition to same-sex marriage and fluid gender identity, in a new doctrinal statement.”
If you are familiar with the ministry Authentic Intimacy, you know how deeply I care about sexual theology and God's truth. I've spent the past five years teaching and defending a biblical view of sexuality. Cultural trends have caused vast confusion around homosexuality, gender, and other sexual issues, and we need to be clear on God's design for sex. But I am also concerned that the message of the Gospel isn’t lost in our dialogue about sex.
Our commitment to unity must be as clear as our theology of sexuality. It’s just as important that you know how to respond when you meet a Christian who disagrees with you as it is for you to know where you stand on LGBT issues. After all, Jesus said that we would be known “by our love for one another,” not necessarily by our theology of human sexuality. Research indicates that whether or not you believe that God condones same-sex marriage may have more to do with your generation than it does your commitment to Jesus Christ. We can’t simply write off everyone who has a different view of sexuality as “not one of us.”
Unity within the body of Christ is very important to God. Jesus over and over again emphasized this point. But here’s the catch. Jesus didn’t just want us to be united with each other, but to be united in Him. A “Christian” isn’t just someone who claims the label, but one who embraces the Savior. This means that we can’t ignore theology and how people live for the sake of getting along. Hence the tension to integrate two essential truths: we are called to be united with our spiritual brothers and sisters, yet we are also called to stand on the truth of God's word.
So, how should we respond when other Christians have such different views on important sexual topics? How can we possibly work together and be unified if we can’t agree on God’s design for sexuality?
What’s the real issue?
AW Tozer wrote, “The question before us, and the question that really matters, is simply what do you think of Christ? And what are you going to do with Christ? Every question we might ever have can be boiled down to the subject of Jesus Christ.” Tozer’s wisdom also applies to conversations about sexuality. Before we ever talk about gay marriage or sexual ethics, we have to talk about the more important foundational issues of what we believe about God, the Bible, and human nature.
Our lack of Christian unity through the sexual revolution may actually have very little to do with the sexual questions of our time. Differing views on gay marriage, cohabitation, pornography, and gender aren’t primarily what divide us. These are just the external issues that have exposed the confusion of what we believe about God and His Word. Do we believe the Bible is authoritative, divinely inspired, and relevant without cultural revision? Do we believe that human nature is at heart rebellious and damned without God’s intervention? And what do we really believe about Jesus? Do we believe He was a nice teacher who made people feel good, or that He is the Son of God, deserving of our worship?
If we disagree on the answers to these questions, we have far greater problems than addressing issues like pornography and homosexuality. Our confusion about sexuality is rooted in our confusion about God. As we interact with fellow Christians, let’s start by affirming these foundational truths that have for too long been neglected in our seeker-friendly churches.
We can know how to be united in Christ when we agree to study and apply the Bible. The challenge is that we can’t just study and apply what the Bible says about sex. We must also study and apply what the Bible teaches about love and Christian unity. Are we applying passages like, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32)? Are we pursing unity through humility as Paul taught in Philippians 2? As he wrote to Timothy, are we patient, kind and gently instructing those who disagree with us even as we teach the truth "in and out of season?"
Seek to understand.
We know from history that sincere men and women of God have sharply disagreed on many interpretations and applications of the Bible. I have met with many Christians who have a sincere faith and belief in God’s Word but who are confident that God would be ok with same-sex committed relationships. We can't simply walk away from each other because my brother celebrates something that I believe the Scripture teaches is sin. How do we pursue truth together? The first thing I want to do in this situation is to understand that person’s perspective. I might ask, “Why is this important to you?” or “Tell me about how you came to that conclusion?” Sometimes this leads to a theological discussion, but most often there is a personal reason. The person has a good friend or relative who is same-sex attracted and can’t reconcile God not approving of a loving sexual relationship. Or there is a story of Christian bigotry and hatred towards the LGBT community. By listening and learning, I have earned the right to share my convictions about God's design for sexuality and why it is so central to Christian doctrine.
I’ve learned that even if I don't agree with a fellow Christian’s theology of marriage and sexuality, I may have something to learn about the struggle of translating God’s love into their world. For generations, the Christian church has upheld a God-honoring theology of marriage, but has often failed to demonstrate God’s love and grace to hurting people. Christians have also been rightly accused of applying a biblical teaching about sex only to some sins (homosexuality, premarital sex) while ignoring others (pornography, seeing women as sex objects, using sex selfishly in marriage). How much of the current sexual revolution is a backlash against the Christian dogmatism, hypocrisy, and judgement against those in sexual sin and brokenness? We have as much to learn as we do to teach. If we cut off the conversation at the point of disagreement, we have no room to challenge each other according to the Scripture, pursuing Christian unity.
I’m not suggesting that we solve these important issues through compromise, but that we strive together to know the mind and heart of Christ. Dialogue does not mean compromise. Of the seven things listed that God hates in Proverbs 6, none of them are sexually oriented but included in the list are arrogance and causing division among God’s people (verses 6-19). When we stand before God one day, we will not only be accountable for how we held to His truth, but also for how we extended His love to one another.
We need each other. Not just those in our own denominations and demographics, we need the body of Christ. We need to know why the twenty-somethings see the LGBT movement as a civil rights issue. We need to hear from the older sages who can teach us church history and reflections of wisdom from many years of following Jesus. We need to embrace fellow Christians who have very different experiences and who read the Bible through a different lens.
While the Bible and God's design for sexuality haven't changed, our culture is continually shifting, presenting new information and challenges in how we articulate a biblical perspective of sexuality. As Paul wrote, "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone." None of us, including me, has this one hundred percent figured out. I’m constantly learning from people who have different experiences and viewpoints. Their input doesn’t make me change my view of biblical sexuality, but helps me refine how I live it out with sensitivity and conviction.
Even though we are one, unity among Christians will never just happen. We have to work at it, value it, pray for it, and pursue it. Christians are to be different from the world not simply in our theology but also in how we treat one another. As disturbing as the vast theological divides around sexuality is the vitriol, arrogance, and name-calling among Christians. What if God uses us to reach the world not only because we get the theology right but also because we are able to humble ourselves and be gracious to people with whom we may sharply disagree? What if the world marvels not at our brilliant explanations but at our unexplainable ability to pursue truth across denominations and generations?
Follow Up Resources from Dr. Juli Slattery:
Blog: Why I Care About Your Sex Life
Podcast: We Are All Sexually Broken
Podcast: God Created You To Be Sexual