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Reflecting on the Origins and Purposes of the Nashville Statement

November 16, 2022

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Eikon.

What the organizers of the Nashville Statement saw as merely repeating what the church had always implicitly, if not at times explicitly, taught about human sexuality and embodiment, it was not received that way — to put it mildly. My experience helping organize the Nashville Statement stands to this day as one of the most significant memories of my career — a career, I should add, that has never run away from public controversy, but sees moments of public debate as necessary clarifications and precursors to continued faithfulness. My goal in this brief essay is to explain the origins of the Nashville Statement, the immediate response to its release, and its enduring significance.

The Nashville Statement is more or less a prequel to the Danvers Statement by way of content, even though it came afterward. Danvers dealt with ecclesial skirmishes related to pastoral roles and complementarity. The Nashville Statement was written in response not simply to egalitarianism, but to Western culture jettisoning Christian sexual ethics wholesale.

As I recall the events that led to the Nashville Statement, it began with Denny Burk contacting me to gauge my interest in helping coordinate a statement on sexuality and gender. CBMW was looking for a partner to collaborate with in order to help bolster the statement’s gravitas and convening authority. Because of our aligned goals and convictions, Burk contacted me. I was then working for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and at that point in my career, I had already taken public stances and written books on marriage and transgenderism. I saw it as imperative for evangelical Christians to speak clearer on these issues, believing as I did then that a secularizing culture was going to force evangelicalism’s hand on the issues one way or another. So why not run towards the battle? After agreeing with Burk’s need for such a statement, I approached the leadership of the ERLC and proposed that the 2017 Research Institute gathering happening concurrently alongside our 2017 National Conference be the venue to help convene a gathering of scholars from across the spectrum of evangelicalism to draft and ratify such a statement. The leadership of the ERLC \ enthusiastically supported the decision, particularly my boss, Phillip Bethancourt. Bethancourt was responsible for the ERLC’s part in the Nashville Statement coalition, and for that he is owed respect and gratitude.

The statement had been circulating for several weeks beforehand. The lead drafter was Denny Burk, after which I believe John Piper then had serious contributions. Other scholars, pastors, and potential signatories were invited to offer feedback through Google spreadsheets. Even considering the modest length of the Nashville Statement, I was struck by how much back-and-forth there was as to the precision of language. That was an eye-opening experience to see the value of peer-review. Eventually, a deadline for no further commenting was reached, and the document was taken to Nashville for further discussion. The gathering was organized to further discuss, debate, and ratify the document. Leaders of the effort knew we were headed into the gathering with a document mostly likely 90-95% in final form, which proved to be right.

I honestly forget how many were in attendance, but upwards of one hundred influential pastors and scholars spent the day in a conference room at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. There, we heard several talks related to the need for the statement. Changes were incorporated into the statement made by requests from the floor, which were profoundly helpful. As a legal technicality, it was the Council Members of CBMW that would be formally “adopting” the statement, but there was also a vote taken in the room to officially pass the document. There were no “no” votes if I recall correctly, some abstentions, and beyond that, affirmation by show of hands. Those agreeing to the statement were invited to put their name on a formal “Nashville Statement” document after the event concluded.

Then came the release of the Nashville Statement on August 29, 2017. The response to the Nashville Statement stunned me. From trending nationally on Twitter, to denunciations of the statement by Hollywood celebrities, the Mayor of Nashville, and even fellow evangelical Christians (Christianity Today’s Mark Galli would go on to pen a silly editorial against it that failed to represent the Nashville Statement accurately). For a few days, if you were intricately involved with the Nashville Statement, it felt like one was on a very lonely island. Some relational tensions flared in the backchannels. News reports were done about the statement. Alternative “Nashville Statements” were drafted by progressive Christians. I have to believe that in the history of Christendom, the blowback the Nashville Statement received would have to rank up there in terms of public notoriety and public infamy. I am still convinced that the amount of vitriol registered was but a foretaste of the moral change and moral tsunami that was sweeping across Western culture. Had another statement populated with high profile Christian leaders come out in different form, there still would have been criticism.

If there is any regret I have about the Nashville Statement, it was the timing of its release. When the statement was released, Hurricane Harvey was raging and doing incredible damage in Texas. Honest self-criticism could easily accuse the Nashville Statement of being tone deaf in the timing of its release. We could have waited a few weeks, but didn’t. That was a mistake. But for the substance of the Nashville Statement, I have no regrets and would do it again tomorrow if it was necessary.

What always mystified me, continuing to the present day, is the extent to which individuals can misread the purpose of a document, especially the Nashville Statement. The Nashville Statement was never intended to be the final, authoritative, and exhaustive statement on gender and sexuality. If anything, it was a mere blueprint. Our intention was that churches and institutions would then take the skeletal outline of the Nashville Statement and build upon it (which, not incidentally, the PCA ended up doing). One can say much more than the Nashville Statement said (and arguably should), but never less.

Others sadly cast the Nashville Statement as a Trumpian “culture war” artifact that was organized out of fear. I find the fear component particularly ironic since the very purpose of the Nashville Statement was to boldly clarify that matters of gender and sexuality are not adiaphora, but intricately tied to the logic of Scripture and creedal orthodoxy. “Fearful” or “longing for more nostalgic times” are not serious characterizations of those involved with its drafting and release. Others accused the drafters of failing to reckon with Christianity’s own hypocrisy and complicity in the sexual revolution. I am happy to acknowledge that evangelical Christianity has never been flawless in the execution of its own doctrine and ethics. That’s a fine criticism for others to make and for evangelicals to self-correct, even if I’m not persuaded its inclusion was absolutely necessary. But I wholeheartedly reject the depiction of the Nashville Statement as any sort of tool to litigate the culture war. “Culture War” is a cheap and convenient metaphor to affix to virtually any cause that conservative Christians see as vital to the integrity of Christian doctrine and ethics.

The Nashville Statement endures into the present. I don’t know exact numbers, but considering that thousands of individuals have signed it, an untold number of institutions we only find out after the fact have adopted it, and even denominations have embraced the principles explicitly derived from the Nashville Statement, these facts leave me completely resolved that the Nashville Statement was a success and worth doing. My wish going forward is not only that the Nashville Statement continues to be adopted, but that even more faithful articulations of the tenets of the Nashville Statement are explicated for the sake of Christ’s church.

Andrew T. Walker teaches Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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