The Nashville Statement, the Airing of Differences, and the State of the PCA
Recently, in anticipation of the Presbyterian Church in America’s annual Assembly, I wrote the longest blog post ever. Here, I share some final, releated thoughts in retrospect.
This year, our central and impassioned focus in the PCA was on marriage and sexuality, especially concerning people in our pews and pulpits who (a) experience same-sex attraction or “SSA,” and (b) seek encouragement and support in their efforts to honor and obey the historic, biblical teaching on sex and marriage.
On Monday, a 300-person conference convened called “A Time to Stand.” The conference was a response to and critique of a parachurch ministry called Revoice. Speakers included Albert Mohler, Kevin DeYoung, Ligon Duncan, David Strain, Tim Geiger, and a few others.
Revoice is not a ministry of the PCA. But many in the PCA have attended their conferences and benefitted from their efforts. This was evidenced by another, 500-person gathering mid-week, in which Revoice leaders were warmly welcomed, praised, and prayed over.
During the Assembly itself, there was an overture petitioning PCA pastors and elders to publicly affirm the so-called “Nashville Statement,” which has been a source of disagreement even among the most conservative evangelicals, as “a biblically faithful” Statement.
After debate, the Nashville Statement overture passed by a slim majority. 60% voted in its favor, and 40%, including me, voted against it.
(You can hear my 4-minute rationale for voting against the overture here.)
The Nashville Statement: Many “For” and many “Against”
One convincing argument in favor of affirming the Nashville Statement came from Kevin DeYoung, who pointed out that the original signers of the Statement are not extremists. They include some of the foremost leaders in evangelicalism today, like Russell Moore, D.A. Carson, John Piper, John Frame, Michael Horton, R.C. Sproul, Alistair Begg, and DeYoung himself, as well as same-sex attracted men and women like Sam Alberry, Vaughn Roberts, Rosaria Butterfield, and Jackie Hill Perry.
Among these and the other signers, with whom I disagree on the usefulness of the Nashville Statement but not on much else, are many of my own good friends.
On the “against” side of the debate, there were also many of us who did not sign the Nashville Statement. We, too, are not extremists. We, too, love the Bible and Jesus and biblical doctrine and ethics with all of our hearts.
We agree with most of the Nashville Statement’s content. But its matter-of-fact tone (We affirm…We deny…) strikes us as insufficient for pastoral care, evangelism, and mission. We believe it lacks the warmth and empathy required for navigating something as delicate and volatile as broken sexuality. It also lacks humble acknowledgment from the Church — including many of our churches — of how we have at times fumbled and even caused injury to sexually broken people and those who love them.
For an example of such injury, I encourage you to listen to this short, honest, heartfelt statement by Greg Johnson, one of our pastors who experiences SSA and is a 46-year old virgin, which Nashville Statement supporter and my friend, pastor Richard Phillips, described as “moving.”
Just as many esteemed leaders signed the Nashville Statement, many others did not, including all three of the PCA’s most recent moderators: George Robertson, Alex Jun, and Irwyn Ince.
Well-known thought leaders in the PCA like Tim Keller, Bryan Chappell, Scotty Smith, Stephen Um, Dan Doriani, Jerram Barrs, Charles McGowan, and Sandy Willson also did not sign the Nashville Statement.
“Mortification of Spin” podcast hosts Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt also did not sign and wrote about why.
Many other reformed thinkers and leaders did not sign the Nashville Statement, including Thabiti Anyabwile, Sinclair Ferguson, Paul Tripp, David Powlison, Philip Ryken, Crawford Loritts, Jeremy Treat, Tom Nelson, Richard Winter, and Richard Pratt.
Curiously, and perhaps most significantly, many whose ministries specialize in promoting repentance from sexual sin, and healing from sexual brokenness, also did not sign the Nashville Statement. Examples include:
- Tim Geiger and John Freeman from Harvest USA.
- Nate Collins and Stephen Moss from Revoice.
- Sean Maney from First Light.
- Pieter Valk from Equip.
- Caleb Kaltenbach from The Messy Grace Group.
- Preston Sprinkle from the Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender.
- Wheaton and Regent University psychologist and expert in sexual brokenness, Mark Yarhouse (Yarhouse shares his misgivings about the Nashville Statement here).
Each one of these is a foremost thinker and practitioner who embraces the historic, biblical teaching on sex and marriage, and did not sign the Nashville Statement.
Inside and outside of the PCA, it is quite clear that there are good, godly, biblically serious, reformed thinkers who have said both “yes” and “no” to the Nashville Statement.
The 40% must learn from the 60%
On one side of the debate, Kevin DeYoung also contended that a vote for doctrinal and moral clarity is not a vote against pastoral care, and vice versa. DeYoung is right. Jesus is the Truth, and the truth will set people free, so we must always contend for truth. Paul urged pastor Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely and to persevere in them, because in so doing he would save both himself and his hearers (1 Timothy 4:16). Doctrinal clarity is important. Biblically-based moral guardrails are something about which we cannot and must not be flippant, dismissive, or cavalier.
For example, while some of us aren’t bothered when we hear a Christian use the word “gay” to describe his/her unique temptation and struggle (I share more detailed thoughts about that here), putting the word “gay” in front of the word “Christian” always risks confusion, and sometimes creates stumbling blocks, for people that associate the word with its more common use. This includes teenagers and children, who hear messages almost daily that “gay” is something to be affirmed and celebrated versus something to be repented of and mortified. A case is made here, and understandably so, for considering a different and clearer vocabulary.
This is something that the 40% and the friends of Revoice must carefully consider.
The 60% must also learn from the 40%
On the other hand, those who are pressing for doctrinal and moral clarity must consider how discernible love, which is the defining mark of Jesus’ disciples, can easily get lost in even the most valiant efforts to be doctrinally and morally clear. Without love, Paul reminds us, even moral commitment and sound doctrine are useless, and therefore worthless (1 Corinthians 13).
Tim Keller recently wrote, “Something can be true theologically, and yet at the same time the application of that truth is done inappropriately.”
We mustn’t fall into a similar trap as Job’s counselors did. Speaking the truth in love requires emotional intelligence and warm, discernible empathy toward the struggles of others, especially when we have never walked in their shoes.
A key indicator that we are speaking the truth in love will be when people like Greg Johnson (see link above) start saying that they actually feel loved, listened to, understood, esteemed, and cared for, not just by some of our churches, but by all of them. Another indicator will be when our churches become widely known for how they solve the loneliness and isolation problem among chaste and same-sex attracted persons, versus being an actual cause. In these matters, we still have a ways to go.
As I pointed out in my short speech, there is not a single pastor or elder in the PCA who denies, diminishes, or wishes to do away with the historic, biblical teaching around sex and marriage. Our church members and neighbors are not confused about where we stand here. What some are confused about, however, is whether we possess a discernible, easy-to-detect, denomination-wide empathy toward sexual sinners and strugglers. Whether we are in the 40% or the 60%, it should go without saying that we owe this to them, for to be a Christian is to owe a debt of love to all. Our Lord does not break bruised reeds, and neither should we.
This is something that the 60% and Nashville Statement sympathizers, as well as those who are concerned about Revoice, must carefully consider.
We all must become “double majors”
Based on various factors such as wiring and experience and personal bias and the theological tribes we run with, some of us are prone to “major” in doctrinal precision and “minor” in pastoral tone. Likewise, others of us major and minor in the same things, but in the reverse.
Our shared task, as iron sharpens iron, is for all of us to become double-majors who are equally filled with truth and grace, with law and love, with repentance and kindness, with mortification and compassion, with moral clarity and discernible empathy…just as our Lord Jesus was.
“It is enough,” our King has told us, “for the servants to be like their Master.”
There is good reason to be encouraged
As part of the PCA’s 40% minority, I don’t think the Nashville Statement is the ideal Statement for us (see video link above). However, I am still more encouraged coming out of our Assembly than I am discouraged. In some ways, I am more optimistic about the PCA’s future than I’ve ever been. I believe that we are, warts and all, still one of the healthiest denominations in the world.
Why do I believe this? First, each and every one of us maintains a high view of Scripture. Second, we all want to shepherd and serve, faithfully and lovingly, those who are impacted by sexual sin and brokenness. Third, while some of us are talking past each other, the majority of us are talking to each other.
We are acting like every healthy family should
Our God condemns divisiveness and emphasizes unity among his people. He insists that we live as one, even as we wrestle with our differences. Jesus’ longest recorded prayer is that we, his sheep, will live as one (John 17:1-26). Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2:14-16 about demolishing social dividing walls does the same. Gossip and giving a false report about each other are repudiated in the ninth commandment, Paul’s letters, and elsewhere. Jews and Gentiles are told to work out their differences, and are forbidden from walking out on each other.
You get the point.
Like the early church, we in the PCA are also made up of many tribes, perspectives, pastoral models, and strategies.
Our parallel to the ancient “Jews” are the doctrinalists among us, whose legitimate concern is to love God by preaching sound doctrine and doing all things decently, in order, and with abundant clarity.
Our parallel to the ancient “Gentiles” are the missionalists among us, whose legitimate concern is to love our Neighbor in ways that resemble the radical ways in which Jesus did, especially among the least, the lost, the sinful, and the broken.
Doctrinalists struggle sometimes with missionalists, alleging that in their zeal for building relational bridges with sinners and strugglers, they can be perceived as fuzzy regarding biblical doctrine and morality.
This is a fair critique.
Missionalists struggle sometimes with doctrinalists, alleging that in their zeal for doctrinal precision and moral clarity, they can be perceived as lacking in care, compassion, and empathy.
This, too, is a fair critique.
As the PCA, we are what scholar and author Scot McKnight has called “a fellowship of differents.” Like the early church, we are 100% agreed that the Bible is the Word of God, inerrant in its original manuscripts, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice. But like the Jews and Gentiles, sometimes we express our shared belief in ways that seem on the surface to be incompatible.
I believe these tensions, and the diversity that drives them, is more a strength of ours than it is a weakness. Tim Keller agrees, and you can read about why in his essay from 2010 entitled, “What’s So Great About the PCA?”
Our unity has been tested before, but with other issues
Our unity in the PCA has been tested many times in the past. For example:
- Some have argued for strict subscription to our Confessional Standards, while others have argued for a more nuanced, “good faith” subscription.
- Some have argued for a narrower lexical range for the Hebrew word translated “day” in the creation account, while others have argued for a broader one.
- Some have argued for having deaconesses based on their biblically-formed convictions, while others have argued against having deaconesses based on their biblically-formed convictions.
One of the PCA’s finest moments was when Ligon Duncan and Tim Keller passionately defended their opposing positions, very publicly and with great respect for one another, regarding deaconesses. Even though neither man has been able to persuade the other, since that time Ligon and Tim have partnered together in the forming of a seminary. Tim’s view can be read here and Ligon’s here.
In all these debates and amid all these differences, what makes us a healthy family is that we have not parted ways through it all. For better and for worse, through good seasons and difficult ones, we are still together. We are still family to each other, and we are working to stay that way. I have yet to hear someone say in the wake of our Assembly, “Ok, that’s it for me. That’s the last straw. I’m out.”
Whether we are part of the 40% or the 60%, most whom I have interacted with seem to agree with items (2) and (3) of what Revoice co-founder and VP of operations, Stephen Moss, posted on social media after the Nashville Statement decision:
“Last night I felt three things very strongly:
1. This really really hurts.
2. I really really love these people…which makes (1) all the more true. And
3. I’m not going anywhere. Upon reflection, I guess that’s what it’s like to be a family.”
Like Stephen, I believe that the Revoice/Nashville Statement debates in the PCA present more of an opportunity for us to come together as family, as opposed to a cause for division.
Distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy families
In an unhealthy family, people either scream at and harshly judge each other, or they bury their thoughts, emotions, and viewpoints as they walk on eggshells with each other. In the PCA, except on rare occasions from the anxious and angry (and sometimes juvenile) fringes, these things are generally not happening.
Instead, what I mostly see is passionate, godly, Bible-esteeming, gospel-depending leaders trying to love and understand each other as they work through their differences. Messy though it may sometimes be, as iron sharpens iron, so one sharpens another (Proverbs 27:17).
We in the PCA are mostly debating, not fighting. Very few of our differences are moral or theological. Most of them are cultural and philosophical. The fact that we are passionately debating our differences means that we care, not only about the issues at hand and about being properly understood, but also about each other.
Toward a better, more useful “Statement”
One encouraging thing that came out of the Nashville Statement decision was our near-unanimous agreement that the Nashville Statement will be for us (a) a non-binding document that is available, but not required for use, and (b) will soon take a back seat to a collaborative Statement of our own.
Our newly-elected moderator, Howie Donahoe, has been tasked with assembling a study committee that represents our diversity of perspective. Howie is the perfect person to populate this committee. He has spent years getting people from differing perspectives to talk to each other instead of about each other, to humbly listen to and learn from one another, and to sharpen one another’s perspectives. I have been one of those whom Howie has brought to the table, for which I am grateful.
This committee, once appointed, will be tasked with creating a doctrinally sound and clear, pastorally sensitive and nuanced, and missionally helpful Statement that hopefully all of us can affirm with enthusiasm.
I can’t wait to see what they come up with. I predict that it will be exceptional.
We are stewarding our differences with love
At General Assembly, I attended both of the two gatherings mentioned above.
The first gathering was organized and led by men who have concerns with Revoice, several of whom also spoke at the Assembly in favor of affirming the Nashville Statement.
Because I am among those who sympathize with many of Revoice’s goals and objectives, I was a philosophical minority in this particular gathering. I attended because I had been warmly invited to do so by Jon Payne, the event organizer. Though I wasn’t on board with everything that was said up front, I never once felt like an alien. Instead, I felt very much at home with brothers. I experienced warm greetings, handshakes, and kind words from attendees and presenters alike.
One of my suspicions was also confirmed at this gathering, namely, that in spite of their differences, the 60% and the 40% also share some important similarities. This includes agreement, as several of the speakers affirmed, that SSA is a uniquely complex concern pastorally. Most people who struggle with SSA do not struggle for short seasons, but for a lifetime. Everyone seems agreed on this, just as we are agreed that every sinful desire, sexual and otherwise, must be mortified daily and placed beneath the mercies and sanctifying grace of Christ.
My name was mentioned once at the event when Ligon Duncan thanked me for introducing him to Revoice co-founder, Stephen Moss. The two are now happy to call each other friends. Later in the Assembly, Ligon also asked me to introduce him to Greg Johnson (the 46-year old, virgin pastor I reference above), whose church hosted the first Revoice Conference. In Ligon’s words (and I paraphrase), “I would like to meet Greg because I have heard so many great things about him and am eager to get to know him, learn from him, and understand his perspective better.”
Later in the week, Ligon and Greg were able to connect and have a warm, brotherly conversation together in which each sought to more deeply understand the other. After that meeting, Ligon told me how impressed he was with Greg as an articulate, biblically serious, brother in Christ.
The second gathering — the one hosted by PCA pastors and elders who mostly sided with the 40% minority — was also filled with warmth. There were no snarky comments made about “those on the other side.” There was no bowing up or arching the back or gnashing the teeth or getting snippy or posturing. Instead, there were calls for unity and respect and love, even (and especially) across lines of difference in our denomination.
Since the Assembly, pastors in the PCA have gone on their social media feeds and blogs, just as I am now — not only to talk about how they feel about Revoice or the Nashville Statement or to defend their own positions, but also to give voice to people with whom they disagree. Today, I saw a handful of leaders from the 40% share on Facebook several well-articulated, opposing positions from the 60%.
I love this kind of humility and fair-mindedness, don’t you? I think that Jesus loves it, too.
Our leaders in the PCA are wrestling through some important things, in a spirited way. As we do this, many are becoming less strident and more kind, from almost every angle except for the anxious, angry, juvenile fringes which are becoming increasingly rare. It seems that people are listening to each other and taking each other more seriously than they did in the past.
Spirited debate leads to rich and excellent outcomes
In a healthy family, you’re also supposed to air your laundry…all of it. Everyone is supposed to have a voice, and everyone is supposed to listen to others, with the understanding that iron sharpens iron.
The more detailed and passionate these kinds of discussions are, the more refined we can become in an eventual, and hopefully shared and unified, vocabulary and perspective.
This is how the great, historic statements like the Nicene and Apostles Creeds were formed, as well as the PCA’s own Westminster Standards. These creeds and standards did not fall out of the sky, nor were they formed from singular perspectives or insulated echo chambers or in a nanosecond. The disagreements and debates got heated sometimes, and documents were refined and refined again and again and again over time through disagreement and debate, in multiple iterations, until they reached their final and most universally celebrated forms. Hundreds of years later, we are among the grateful beneficiaries.
I look forward to what the PCA’s committee on sexuality and marriage comes up with. Based on an optimism that far exceeds any pessimism or discouragement I may feel, I am confident that this will be the case.
Although we still have many important things to work through together, and although some significant differences of perspective may remain, I hope that you will also share my optimism and confidence.
Please join me in praying for my beloved tribe, the PCA.
I love these people.
And I’m not going anywhere.
Click here to receive Scott’s weekly post in your email inbox.
Click here for info about Scott’s other books.
Click here to subscribe to Scott’s sermons.
Click here for information about Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
Connect with Scott on social media — Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.