Did Public Controversy over the Nashville Statement Hurt the Cause?
We now get over 1,200 emails a month from listeners. Thank you — please keep them coming in. And of course we got a few emails relating to the Nashville Statement, which was a public document you signed, Pastor John, on human sexuality. But we actually only got ten emails about the statement in total, and most of those emails were sympathetic. By far, the most articulate pushback came from a listener named Amy in this email. “Hello, Pastor John, thank you for this podcast! I’m sure you’re aware of the criticisms surrounding the Nashville Statement, released back in August from outside the church but also from within the evangelical world, too. It created quite a stir. I know of faithful, orthodox, reformed church planters and pastors working in larger metropolitan contexts who find this statement unhelpful, even as the document contains affirmations and denials that are completely true, biblical, and agreeable to them. It seems to be a matter of two related questions: (1) Is hot-topic orthodoxy, announced and affirmed in the wide-open public realm, appropriate in a ‘casting pearls before swine’ kind of way? and (2) Is it helpful or harmful for outreach to draw public lines in the sand over ideology, which, at worst, is seen as politically motivated by the world, or is at least something that adds a new wall of separation between the Christians in a local church from the liberal, unbelieving neighbors they are trying to reach within a neighborhood, first through relationship building? I hope this makes sense. Do either questions concern you?”
Maybe just a response to each of her two questions. I hear two questions in the second, so maybe three things to respond to even though there is so much more that could be said. I’ll just mention that at the end maybe. She’s asked her two questions; I’ll try to be faithful to those two questions rather than talking about things that I would like to talk about as well. There are so many criticisms and so many things that need to be said.
Yes, the questions do concern me because all questions that relate to serious dissensions among brothers and sisters concern me. First, I don’t think Jesus’s statement in Matthew 7:6 — “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” — was intended by Jesus to limit the public preaching of the whole counsel of God. Think with me about that for just a minute.
“Christ-exalting chastity is a beautiful pearl that should be set on a pedestal before the world.”
What is the best pearl we have? The best pearl we have is the preaching of the gospel of Christ crucified — Christ crucified for sinners; risen from the dead; and received by faith for the forgiveness of sins, for the hope of eternal life, and for power to walk in holiness. It’s just the rock-solid core of gospel preaching. That’s the sweetest pearl. Those are the beautiful pearls we have to offer the world.
What the New Testament makes clear is that every time that precious pearl is preached it will be both believed and reviled. It is “to one a fragrance from life to life,” so it is believed. And “to one a fragrance from death to death,” so people hate it, and they die because they hate it (2 Corinthians 2:16). It brings out sheep-like faith, and it brings out swine-like trampling. Both effects happened when Jesus preached the pearl and when Paul preached the pearl. And both effects happen when we preach the pearl. The pearl will always be found as precious by some and utterly offensive by others.
Since that’s always the case — since Jesus and Paul acted that way in spite of the fact that that’s the case — I don’t think Jesus meant that we shouldn’t put precious pearls before the public where they might be trampled. They will always be trampled. They always will be. Some will pick them up and love them and die for them. Others will stomp on them.
Here’s what I think Jesus meant. I think an example of what he meant is found in Matthew 21:23–27, where Jesus was asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23). Jesus didn’t like their attitude. They were very devious, and so he asked them a question: “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (Matthew 21:25).
They’re so devious that they conspired together to lie and say they didn’t know, when in fact they do know. They know what they think, and they’re just politicking with Jesus. So Jesus refuses to answer them: “I won’t talk to you, I don’t talk to that kind of people” (see Matthew 21:27). He wouldn’t give them the pearl. He wouldn’t cast a pearl before these rascals because he saw that they had just revealed how devious their whole conversation was with him. That’s all they meant to do — trample. They weren’t eager to hear the truth at all. They tried to trap him.
Set It on a Pedestal
Behind Amy’s question, however, I think is the question “Is the Christian vision of covenant-keeping marriage between a man and a woman, and Christ-dependent chastity among homosexuals or heterosexuals — people who have same-sex attraction and people who don’t — is that vision of covenant-keeping marriage between a man and a woman, and Christ-dependent chastity outside marriage, is that a beautiful pearl that should be held up for the world to know and possibly, by grace, admire? With the implication that distortions of the pearl and attacks on the pearl are inevitable just like they have always been?
I think the Christian vision — the vision of the creation of mankind as male and female, of marriage as a covenant-keeping, lifelong bond between a man and a woman (a husband and a wife), and of a courageous, Christ-exalting chastity outside marriage (or in marriage, for that matter) — is a beautiful pearl that should be set on a pedestal before the world, even knowing that today many in the world hate this pearl, mock this pearl, and do everything they can to trample on and shatter this pearl.
That leads to the second question that Amy has because they really are all linked together.
The Public Ear
Her language inclines me to think that she may not have the same view of this pearl that I do. But I don’t know. She wonders whether a line should be drawn in the sand over ideology, which at worst could be seen as politically motivated by the world. I’m not sure what she means by the word ideology. It sounds like a category of thinking which is not part of important Christian pearls — Christian revelation that the world needs, and not part of a beautiful pearl. So I’m not sure what she would include in ideology.
“Accusations of being politically motivated will always be there.”
The fact that the world will see public statements, public articles or blogs, public preaching (which all preaching is) — the fact that the world will see all the statements, all the articles, all the preaching about human sexuality today as politically motivated (which it will be) surely cannot be the criterion of the faithfulness of our preaching or our article writing or our public statements. Such accusations of being politically motivated will always be the case. There will always be people who twist what you say to have connotations and implications that you don’t want them to have, and you didn’t intend. That’s exactly the way people treated the preaching of Jesus.
They said that he’s going to tear down the temple. That’s pretty political. Well, he didn’t. They’re twisting his words; they’re not finding a legitimate complaint. In other words, he was accused of speaking with political motivation, and this conflict was not marginal. It was public, and it got him killed. It got him killed! Yet he said the very controversial words he knew would get him in that kind of trouble. It was the same with Paul’s preaching (according to 2 Peter 3), where people are twisting what Paul has to say. It will always be the case.
If someone thinks that there’s a way to preach and write and make statements and do anything else in public that presents the pearls of biblical truth without encountering in social media and other ways a thousand angry critics, they’re just naïve. It cannot be done. Let me say this as strongly as I know how. The day is long gone in America where it is possible to be publicly faithful as a Christian to the truth of God and not be excoriated. I’m going to say it again: the day is long gone in America where it is possible to be publicly faithful as a Christian to the truth of the Bible and not be excoriated. Jesus said, “You will be hated by all nations” (Matthew 24:9). You can pick any part of the biblical truth you want, and that will be true.
The second part of Amy’s second question wonders whether the Nashville Statement “adds a new wall of separation between the Christians in a local church and the liberal, unbelieving neighbors that they are trying to reach.” My answer to that is no, I don’t think anything has been added. That’s the keyword: added — added to what separates Bible-believing people from non-Bible-believing people.
“The day is long gone in America where you could publicly be faithful as a Christian and not be excoriated.”
Of course, the Nashville Statement makes explicit the difference between what the world regards as a pearl and what Bible believers regard as a pearl — indeed, what most of the world has regarded as a pearl for the entire history of humankind.
I will just appeal (this is really a personal appeal, so take it for what it’s worth, and I hope folks who are resistant to the Nashville Statement for various reasons will at least listen carefully) to those whose method of evangelism — or “being missional” as we say today — includes the effort to conceal offensive biblical things about the pearl of the Christian life. Those folks may not only be missing golden opportunities for biblical witness, precisely because offensive things are out in the public, but they may also be abandoning the way Jesus and the apostles did their public ministry. Let me say a word about each of those concerns that I have.
Might it not be God’s design that at school or in the office or at the gym, when people are fuming about the Nashville Statement or anything like it, you insightfully and creatively and courageously and joyfully show them (start where they are in their fuming and show them) that these true statements, which Amy says are true, are in fact beautiful. This is a beautiful pearl.
The real challenge is not to make Jesus look beautiful by hiding some of his cherished convictions. The real challenge is to trace all his views, including his most offensive ones, back to the beautiful root of this person and up to the beautiful flower of his glory and his purpose is for all of mankind. That’s the challenge we may be missing by huffing and puffing about how controversial things are.
We really must ask ourselves — this is a broader concern I have that seems to be between the lines here — we really must ask ourselves whether Jesus and the apostles did their missional evangelistic work in a way that beautiful but controversial teachings were concealed.
Crowds were listening to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Crowds of people heard him, no doubt for many of them for the first time. It was not a select group — not a house group that can handle hard things. And to that crowd he said that being angry is like murder, and it will send you to hell. He said that lust is like adultery, and it will send you to hell.
“If someone thinks they can make public statements without encountering thousands of angry critics, they’re naïve.”
Those are his words. Those are the strongest words in the Bible about hell. He said, “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14). He said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). He was saying these to people who were saying, “Whoa, who is this? Who is this talking like that?” They’re all incredibly offensive words spoken to the crowds.
When people wanted to follow Jesus, he asked them, “Are you sure? Can you build this tower? Can you defeat this army? Can you live without a home?” (see Luke 14:25–33). He told them to count the cost. He didn’t hide anything. He didn’t try to conceal the cost. When Paul preached to Festus, Festus said, “Paul, you are out of your mind” (Acts 26:24). Paul didn’t say, “Well, I must have blown it. My evangelistic mission or strategy has just made me useless.” He said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words” (Acts 26:25).
There is just so much more to say in regard to the Nashville Statement. Things that need to be said about Donald Trump, and the moral compromise of evangelicals who minimized his unrepentant lechery. Things that need to be said about our rampant divorce culture in and outside the church. Things that need to be said about evangelical contrition for aiding and abetting the collapse of sexual immorality, and on and on. I’ve already gone on way too long for a podcast like this. What I wanted to do is take Amy’s two questions and try to be faithful to that, and maybe we can do more later.