The Benedict Option and the Nashville Statement

Over the weekend, I wrote a long email to Rod Dreher in response to some things he had said about the Nashville Statement. This morning, he published it on his blog, along with some responses of his own. Although I don’t agree with everything he said in response, I will think through what he has to say before responding in more depth. In the meantime, I share my letter and encourage you to check out his responses. At the end of this post, I’ve also included several important points from online discussion of the letter, from Rod Dreher, Justin Taylor, Matthew Schmitz, Denny Burk, and Dan Mattson. I am grateful for the thoughtful discussion I have seen in response to the letter. 

The Benedict Option

Dear Rod,

I’m writing in reply to your response to criticisms of the Nashville Statement. Although some of your other responses, like the email from Chris Roberts and the piece on the cost of the divorce culture, addressed some of my concerns, I think it would be helpful to explain my worries about your response in more depth.

In the first place, I was surprised by this post because, when I read The Benedict Option, I was particularly impressed with your analysis of the sexual revolution in Chapter 9. You spelled out the ways that it has not only corrupted the surrounding culture, but has also penetrated into the church, undermining many Christians’ faith. Like Russell Moore’s 2014 keynote on “Slow Motion Sexual Revolutionaries,” you spoke prophetically of the ways that Christians have been co-opted by the sexual revolution. You made clear that we need to recover a distinctly Christian way of thinking about sexuality and living in sexual purity. Your whole book is about how we need to stand apart from the anti-Christian ethos of modern culture, and do better at building community practices that enable us pass on the faith, catechize, and keep us from turning into moralistic therapeutic Deists.

But there are two ways of distancing ourselves from the ethos of the broader culture.

The first—which I understood you to be advocating in The Benedict Option—is a repentance which recognizes that we have been drawn away from God and into worldly ways of thinking. We need the purification that can only come through asceticism, and so we seek the encouragement and accountability of other Christians to be faithful and to pass on the faith.

The second, however, is to become a self-righteous clique, whose members don’t call each other out, but instead focus on blaming all their problems on those outside the clique, whether other Christians who fall short by the clique’s standards, or non-Christians.

The Nashville Statement falls pretty clearly into the second category. The preamble asks,

Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from Jesus, and unashamedly proclaim his way as the way of life? Will she maintain her clear, counter-cultural witness to a world that seems bent on ruin?

[Note: Please see Denny Burke’s comments below for his clarification of this point.]

The answer to these questions, obviously, is that many churches have already lost their biblical conviction, clarity, and courage—especially regarding sex. I grew up Southern Baptist, and have first-hand experience of the “slow motion sexual revolution” that Russell Moore describes. And I’ve watched how that shaped my Christian peers’ acceptance of gay marriage.

However, in the historical account implicit in the Nashville Statement, none of that ever happened. The church is beset by the culture, yes, but still standing firm, and the only question is whether our heroes will continue to stand firm or will cave before the homosexual and transgender onslaught. And yet, the statement itself abandons biblical clarity, courage, and conviction on a wide range of other challenges to the sanctity of marriage.

To cite just one example, by far the best thing about the Nashville Statement is the clarity with which it speaks about God’s creation as an essential foundation to Christian thinking about sexuality:

By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. 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 pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.

However, the New Testament passages which show this most clearly are Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12, where Jesus invokes Genesis 1 and 2 to reject permissive divorce: a subject which the Statement does not address directly at all. (And this is not because divorce and remarriage after divorce are not serious challenges in the churches the signers of the Nashville statement represent.)

I understand, as you point out, that it would be very difficult to get widespread agreement from the signers of the Nashville Statement on what the virtue of chastity demands on a variety of sexual issues other than homosexuality and transgenderism. But simply to write that is to write a reasonably damning (I do not use the word casually) indictment of the state of American Christianity.

I called Chapter 9 of The Benedict Option prophetic because you were willing to speak to Christians’ own failures. You wrote:

Americans accepted gay marriage so quickly because it resonated with what they had already come to believe about the meaning of heterosexual sex and marriage.

We have gay marriage because the straight majority came to see sexuality as something primarily for personal pleasure and self-expression and only secondarily for procreation. We have gay marriage because the straight majority, in turn, came to see marriage in the same way—and two generations of Americans have grown up with these nominalist values on sex and marriage as normative.

And in “Is the Benedict Option Good for Gays,” you reiterate, “In the book, I am clear that this is not the fault of gays, that the heterosexuals who made the Sexual Revolution’s first wave demolished the Christian model of sex and sexuality. I quote Philip Rieff, no Christian he, on how the Sexual Revolution dissolves orthodox Christianity.”

In response to criticism of the Nashville Statement, you wrote that “if the church normalizes SOGI [Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity] ideology, it surrenders grounds from which to fight these other disorders.” But equally, as you have shown in the past, if the church normalizes no-fault divorce and other aspects of the (hetero)sexual revolution, it surrenders the ground from which to fight SOGI ideology. Given how clearly you drew the link between these past failures and the current fights about sexual orientation and gender identity in The Benedict Option, it surprises me that you defend the Nashville Statement, despite its silence on no-fault divorce and other offenses against the sanctity of marriage which have become acceptable (even if still viewed with some concern) within conservative Christian culture.

Still, SOGI has become a unique threat to traditional Christian belief, which you describe elsewhere as “the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war.” It’s worth saying more about why. In The Benedict Option, you wrote:

Tying the gay rights cause to the civil rights movement was a strategic masterstroke. Though homosexuality and race are two very different phenomena, the media took the equivalence for granted and rarely if ever gave opposing voices a chance to be heard.

However, this move was made plausible by Christians who decided to single out gay people for unique shaming and condemnation, while ignoring heterosexual sin. Instead of presenting chastity as a difficult challenge which all Christians are called to, Christian rhetoric focused on condemning the homosexual aspects of the sexual revolution while making a (sometimes uneasy) truce with the more “respectable” heterosexual revolutionaries.

In the small Southern Baptist Church I grew up in, the youth group was served with James Dobson’s Preparing for Adolescence, where he recommended masturbation as a safety valve for adolescent hormones. The heterosexual youth fooled around at a rate that was not easily distinguishable from that of the unchurched boys and girls at the local schools, and the adults pretended not to notice. And, from the pulpit, we heard things like, “If America doesn’t bring back the death penalty for homosexuality, God will destroy us the way He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.”

When I was in college, I briefly attended Rev. Ken Hutcherson’s Antioch Bible Church in Seattle. Hutcherson cheerfully threw around epithets like “faggoty-assed” and made jokes in sermons like, “If I was in a drugstore and some guy opened the door for me, I’d rip his arm off and beat him with the wet end.” In 2004, Hutcherson organized the Mayday for Marriage rally in Washington, DC, and in 2010, he presided over Rush Limbaugh’s fourth marriage. When questioned, Hutcherson claimed, “The Buffalo Bills went to the Super Bowl and they lost a lot of times, but they never gave up. Rush Limbaugh never gave up on the institution of marriage.” For some reason, Chritianity Today’s reporter didn’t ask for Hutcherson’s Scripture references for this answer.

A few years ago, you said that every pastor should read the letter you published as “Confessions Of An Ex-Evangelical, Pro-SSM Millennial.” I hope it’s not presumptuous to recommend that you re-read it now. Your correspondent wrote:

In all the years I was a member, my evangelical church made exactly one argument about SSM. It’s the argument I like to call the Argument from Ickiness:  Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worst kind of sinner you can be.  Period, done, amen, pass the casserole.

I could keep multiplying examples—like the callousness of the Christian right to the suffering of AIDS victims in the 1980s—but I think most people realize that there’s a bad track record here. And it is precisely because of the kind of double standards I’ve just described that comparisons to Jim Crow make sense to so many people. They don’t see Christians as bigots because they hear it in the liberal media. Many who grew up in Christian homes think it because they heard it and saw it from the pulpit growing up.

What is the cost of all this?

From time to time, I have debated with Justin Lee, the gay-affirming founder of the Gay Christian Network. Like me, Justin grew up Southern Baptist. Sometimes, someone will ask me why I think Justin “changed his theology” to support gay marriage, while I stuck with conservative theology. However, the question actually rests on a misunderstanding. I did not “hold onto” the theology of marriage I learned in Southern Baptist Churches growing up. If I had, I would support same-sex marriage.

When I listen to Justin’s presentations, what I hear in his arguments for same-sex marriage is simply the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with. Many of his arguments are modified versions of the arguments which I heard to rationalize divorce and contraception in the Southern Baptist congregation I grew up in.

And because of the obvious prejudice of so many conservative Christians toward gay people, it’s easy for him to dismiss conservative exegesis as Pharisaical legalism.

And it’s not just gay Christians like Justin who make that leap. Many of my straight friends struggle to articulate a coherent vision of Christian marriage in which it would make sense to say “no” to same-sex marriage. And the reason they are unable to do this is both the acceptance of the heterosexual offenses against the sanctity of marriage which the Nashville Statement remains silent on, and the hostility toward gay people, including those trying to obey, which the Nashville Statement embodies.

This brings me to article 7 of the Nashville Statement. Like your Evangelical pastor friend, I suspect that the wording of article 7 was chosen to exclude Spiritual Friendship. Although the language of “self conception” is new, there’s a long history with Denny Burk and others at the CBMW criticizing Spiritual Friendship in similar terms. (With regard to your conversations with Rosaria Butterfield about us, please see Jeremy Erickson’s responses to her attacks here and here. Her public remarks about us also seriously misrepresented the Presbyterian Church in America and Reformed University Fellowship.)

All Spiritual Friendship writers support the belief that same sex sexual acts are sinful. All support the belief that same-sex lust is sinful. All would agree that the temptation to sexual acts or lust should be resisted. But we are not Freudians. We do not believe that all attraction to a person of the same sex is reducible to sexual temptation or lust.

The Spiritual Friendship blog is named after Aelred of Rievaulx’s treatise on friendship because we believe that the Christian anthropology of friendship provides the foundation for rightly ordered same sex love (we aren’t alone in this belief: the Catholic Church recommends friendship in numerous pastoral documents about homosexuality).

If, as many have suggested, it turns out that the drafters of the Nashville Statement did, in fact, intend to exclude those at Spiritual Friendship, while remaining silent about straight Christians who have compromised on divorce and other aspects of the sexual revolution, that would only reinforce the argument that conservative Christians are not motivated by upholding what the Bible says about human sexuality, but rather by hostility toward gay people, including those who reject the sexual revolution and seek to live chaste lives.

Given the stakes for the Statement, and for Christian witness in contemporary culture, I think the CBMW needs to publicly clarify their intent ASAP.

I’ve long been grateful for your writing. You are an independent thinker, willing to speak out when others stay silent. You rightly called out the Catholic Bishops for their failure to address the abuse crisis when many other Catholic writers stayed silent. The Benedict Option is starting a necessary conversation for Christians who want to figure out how to remain remain orthodox in our increasingly secular culture. I’m grateful to you for calling attention to Spiritual Friendship’s approach, and for publishing Christopher Roberts’s email on Why It’s Okay For Christians To Say ‘Gay’. While I’m not a huge fan of the analogy between homosexuality and alcoholism, his email does explain some of the reasons I am willing to identify with others who are gay, while fully embracing Christian teaching about sexual purity, including lust in the heart, and seeking to reorder my own affections in line with Christian teaching on friendship.

I began by saying that there are two ways of turning away from the broader culture. I’ve always understood you to advocate the first, the repentant and penitential way. But your defense of the Nashville Statement, it seems to me, makes it easier for Christians to respond in the second, self-righteous way. I hope that you will continue to speak prophetically, as you have in the past, against the kind of self-satisfied Christian culture which cannot see its own complicity in the sexual revolution, and hence cannot preach a living faith either to the surrounding culture or within its own institutions.

Your friend in Christ,

Ron Belgau

In his response, Rod highlighted the difference in my experience and his own:

The first thing that came to mind when I read the letter is how very different my own experience of sexual teaching within church is. I’ve said many times before here that I really don’t know much about Evangelical culture. I went to a Mainline Protestant church as a child (and not very often at that). My only direct adult experience of Christianity is within Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

So, I think one gap in my understanding of how the Nashville Statement is received by others is that I never heard anybody disparage gays from the pulpit or in a church setting. My experience has, to the contrary, been that no priest or church leader (aside from the Pope) would talk about sexuality (homo or hetero) at all.

As I’ve written in the past on my blog and in my books, Christ led me out of heterosexual sin into chastity as a Roman Catholic convert. I recall with some bitterness still (I regret to admit) how back in the 1990s, when I was a new convert and struggling mightily to be chaste, the Catholic Church (in the form of parish priests) left me all alone. In 13 years of regular Catholic practice, the only time I heard sex of any kind addressed from the pulpit was one occasion when a visiting priest at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in DC criticized contraception and abortion. Other than that, I’ve heard priests (especially in south Florida, where I lived for three years) criticizing “judgmentalism” towards gays, and preaching acceptance — by which they meant affirmation.

I’ve never heard an Orthodox priest preach on sexuality of any kind — this, in 11 years as a practicing Orthodox.

Point is, my only experience of sexuality as discussed in parish churches (minus books and papal encyclicals) has been either total avoidance, or pro-gay boosterism. Overwhelmingly, it’s total avoidance. That’s why something bold and clear, like the Nashville Statement, is so appealing to me, despite my misgivings about some of it. Christian leaders on my sides of the two great schisms in Christianity have been mostly silent, and if they’ve said anything, it’s tended to be perfunctory at best. I prefer the bold, if flawed, approach that the Nashville Statement Evangelicals take to the silence in the pulpit and public square of so many others.

I think this is an important point, which Justin Taylor of Crossway and the Gospel Coalition effectively and charitably spelled out on Twitter:

On the helpful Ron Belgau/Rod Dreher exchange, I wonder if we all might grow in graciousness to one another if we remembered the great diversity of our backgrounds in, and experiences with, evangelicalism and how that affects the way we see things.

E.g., I’ve attended evangelical churches my entire adult life and my experience of culture-war sermons are more in line with Rod than Ron. If I had grown up in Ron’s context, though, it seems probable that I would more instinctively resonate with his suspicions. It’s been said that theology is biography—an overstatement, but one that conveys an important point. None of us stands on neutral ground.

Matthew Schmitz of First Things honed in on what I think is the money quote in the whole piece:

From time to time, I have debated with Justin Lee, the gay-affirming founder of the Gay Christian Network. Like me, Justin grew up Southern Baptist. Sometimes, someone will ask me why I think Justin “changed his theology” to support gay marriage, while I stuck with conservative theology. However, the question actually rests on a misunderstanding. I did not “hold onto” the theology of marriage I learned in Southern Baptist Churches growing up. If I had, I would support same-sex marriage.

When I listen to Justin’s presentations, what I hear in his arguments for same-sex marriage is simply the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with. Many of his arguments are modified versions of the arguments which I heard to rationalize divorce and contraception in the Southern Baptist congregation I grew up in.

Schmitz also added:

Sooner or later, evangelicals will have to choose between Humanae Vitae and the Human Rights Campaign.

I agree with Schmitz. Elizabeth Anscombe made this case in her 1972 essay, “Contraception and Chastity“:

If contraceptive intercourse is permissible, then what objection could there be after all to mutual masturbation, or copulation in vase indebito, sodomy, buggery (I should perhaps remark that I am using a legal term here – not indulging in bad language), when normal copulation is impossible or inadvisable (or in any case, according to taste)? It can’t be the mere pattern of bodily behaviour in which the stimulation is procured that makes all the difference! But if such things are all right, it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual intercourse, for example. I am not saying: if you think contraception all right you will do these other things; not at all. The habit of respectability persists and old prejudices die hard. But I am saying: you will have no solid reason against these things. You will have no answer to someone who proclaims as many do that they are good too. You cannot point to the known fact that Christianity drew people out of the pagan world, always saying no to these things. Because, if you are defending contraception, you will have rejected Christian tradition.

In my letter to Rod I said relatively little about contraception because I recognize that the case is harder to make for Evangelicals, since the Bible does not directly address contraception. This does not mean the case cannot be made—all Protestants shared the belief that contraception was wrong until the Anglican communion made a limited accommodation to contraception in 1930; it was not until the 1960s that Evangelicals followed Christianity Today editor Carl F. H. Henry in approving the post-Griswold contraceptive culture. I also came around to the traditional Christian position on contraceptives as an Evangelical, seven years before I was received into the Catholic Church. This conviction was key to keeping me from rationalizing my way into arguments for gay marriage using the often shady logic that led the evangelicals I grew up around to see no problem with teenage masturbation, tolerate divorce and remarriage, and embrace contraception.

But the case is not made with a simple proof-text (though Genesis 1:28 is a promising start); it requires deeper reflection on God’s plan in creating human beings male and female. The case against divorce is more easily made without stretching the Evangelical epistemology: there are several clear proof-texts, which I cited in my letter. Because of the clear Biblical case, I saw this as a more effective point of engagement with the drafters of the Nashville Statement. And, indeed, Denny Burk tweeted:

I have many disagreements with Ron, but one thing we don’t disagree a/b is the scandal of Southern Baptist divorce. On The Scandal Of Southern Baptist Divorce

Burk expanded his reaction in a blog post “On the Scandal of Divorce“:

But before getting into disagreement, I would highlight one part of Ron’s letter that I completely agree with. Ron points out that many Southern Baptists have totally capitulated to the divorce culture and have a really bad track record here. He also argues that conservative evangelicals writ large have allowed and tolerated this moral collapse for decades.

I completely agree with him about that. The widespread acceptance of no-fault divorce shows that our culture and capitulating Christians were redefining marriage long before gay marriage was on anyone’s radar screen. That is in part why the Southern Baptist Convention overwhelmingly approved a resolution in 2010 “On the Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce.”

He then quoted from his 2013 book, What Is the Meaning of Sex?:

There may be no greater blight on the testimony of Christianity in our culture than the church’s near total capitulation to the divorce culture… What is perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that so many Christian marriages seem to have accommodated themselves to American divorce culture. Not only did churches say very little when no-fault divorce became the legal reality of our land, but they also said very little when no-fault divorce became the practical reality of the people sitting in our pews. Though practicing Christians tend to have lower divorce rates than the general population, the numbers are still very concerning… Perhaps there is some consolation in the knowledge that church-attending Evangelicals seem to fare better than those who are less devout. Nevertheless, it is a spiritual crisis that more than one-third of the more committed evangelicals report having been divorced or separated. The numbers are still far too high for those who confess to believe what the Bible teaches about the sanctity of marriage.

He closed the quotation from his book with this devastating quote from John Calvin:

They who, for slight causes, rashly allow of divorces, violate, in one single particular, all the laws of nature, and reduce them to nothing. If we should make it a point of conscience not to separate a father from his son, it is still greater wickedness to dissolve the bond which God has preferred to all others.

I welcome Denny’s willingness to engage thoughtfully, even in the face of the kind of harsh critique I offered above. Our chief disagreement, at least in what he has said so far, lies in how to interpret this paragraph of the Nashville Statement:

Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from Jesus, and unashamedly proclaim his way as the way of life? Will she maintain her clear, counter-cultural witness to a world that seems bent on ruin?

As I argued above, I think this paragraph fails to acknowledge the sweeping compromises evangelicals have already made on sexual ethics. Denny, however, sees it differently:

I understand this paragraph to mean that although many among us have already bowed the knee to Baal, there are many who have not. This paragraph frames the document, in my view, as a statement for a compromised church. The question is who is going to win out? The ones who have bowed the knee or the ones who have not?

Denny’s blog post also points to an opinion piece he wrote for The Hill, entitled “Keeping Christianity weird: Why the Nashville Statement matters.” Check it out for further context.

Finally, Daniel Mattson, who has been a critic of Spiritual Friendship, tweeted:

I don’t always agree with @ronbelgau on all things, but he raises good points here about Evangelical inconsistencies

As I said at the beginning of this post, please check out Rod’s full commentary on my email. While I don’t agree with everything he says, I appreciate the discussion and clarification that has ensued. As I said, in my original letter to Rod, I really like the way the Nashville Statement grounds our understanding of sexuality in creation. Whether we’re talking about fornication (1 Corinthians 6:13-20), divorce (Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12), contraception (Genesis 1:28), or homosexuality (Romans 1:18-32), the New Testament makes clear it comes back to our natural recognition of our Creator in what He has made and what He has revealed in the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2.

It’s critical for both Catholics and evangelicals to recover that vision and make it central to our belief and practice. Insofar as the Nashville Statement, my letter to Rod Dreher above, and the ensuing discussions contribute to that, we are moving in the right direction.

Thanks again, everyone. I really appreciate the attention this letter has received, and the thoughtful replies it has generated. It is unfortunate that Christian teaching is sometimes honed through conflict, “as iron sharpens iron,” but I’m grateful for a conversation that has, I think, generated more light than heat, something that does not always happen in discussions of homosexuality in these tense days.

5 thoughts on “The Benedict Option and the Nashville Statement

  1. Pingback: The Benedict Option and the Nashville Statement | Daily Roll - Reflections

  2. The problem that I have with Rod’s statement is that commenters on his blog have brought the same point to attention on numerous occasions. He’s either being willfully blind or he’s lying.

    That said, Ron makes an excellent point. Once you open the door to recreational sex between married couples, and thereby separate sex and marriage from procreation, you forfeit any theologically sound basis for opposing sex between committed same-sex couples. Truth be told, evangelicals haven’t believed in conjugal marriage for at least three generations. Their opposition to homosexuality had more to do with a commitment to conservative neo-Freudian social theory than to anything Christian.

  3. Pingback: Notes for University of Dallas Talk | Spiritual Friendship

  4. Pingback: God Loves the Broken, and We Should Too | Spiritual Friendship

  5. This notion, attributed here to Anscombe, that contraception opens the door to all manner of sexual deviance has its appeal. It is reasoned that if sex is separated from conception, then a sex act can pursued in any context whatever. Obviously there are strong motivations for reasoning in this way. “If you heterosexuals will not take on all the biological messiness of sex for your own convenience, then you have no leg to stand on when you ask anyone else to limit in any way their consumption of it.”

    But to those who submit to a biological and biblical (for both proceed from God) worldview, such arguments as Anscombe’s must have no force. The man and woman differ at the molecular level, the XX & the XY are fundamentally different (intersex notwithstanding) and these differences thoroughly pervade all aspects of life – anatomy of organs, bones, muscles, hormones (daily experience), brain function, time bound cycles – all of life. And sex itself is not isolated to a single moment as is suggested in this non-Christian argument. The act always has roots in time previous to the moment and has long lasting impacts beyond that moment. Yes, fertilization, in the absence of contraception, is sometimes one of those impacts, but far from the only one.

    Even God’s description of marriage: the man and woman leaving their respective families and cleaving to each other, goes beyond any act or moment, but directly refers to the acts prior to the moment (leaving) and also its long lasting future impact (cleaving). The sexual experience as the Bible describes and biology reflects occurs within the context of the couple’s broader families of origin, the years of the couple’s life together and the broader society – regardless of fertility. So while contraception does alter one among a thousand elements of Biblical and biological design for sex, those who reason, as Anscombe did, reject the very obvious and far reaching implications and interactions of the biblical and biological sexual concept.

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