The Gospel and Self-Conception: A Defense of Article 7 of the Nashville Statement

As Christ claims all things for himself in his redemptive work, so he claims for himself the consciousness of man.

In the words of the Missouri Presbytery’s report on their investigation of Revoice, “The statement alienated the Side B community, who felt that the authors of the Nashville Statement did not consider the,ir [sic] viewpoints or experiences. They were especially offended by the language ‘we deny adopting a homosexual or transsexual self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes’ since Side B proponents identify as ‘gay,’ but qualify the meaning of the term.”

 

If you stop and take the time to take notice of just how often in the New Testament the Gospel impacts, changes, gives imperatives for, or opposes the cognitive life of man, you will find that the prevalence is staggering.[i] As Christ claims all things for himself in his redemptive work, so he claims for himself the consciousness of man.

Jesus in his explanation of the Greatest Commandment, as the Lord and Lawgiver of his people, sees fit to append to Deut. 6:5 that we are to love God with all of our mind, as well as all heart and soul (Matt. 22:37; Mk. 12:30; Lk. 10:27). Paul tells us that the Gospel demands of us not to “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2)

Among this mass of intersections between the Gospel and the cognitive life of man is an imperative in Romans 6:11 which has particular relevance for discussions in the PCA which have now gained even more gravity in light of the actions of the 47th General Assembly.

In response to Overture 4 from Calvary Presbytery the 47th General Assembly opted (after a lengthy and impassioned debate) to “declare the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood’s ‘Nashville Statement’ on biblical sexuality as a biblically faithful declaration and refer the ‘Nashville Statement’ to the Committee on Discipleship Ministries for inclusion and promotion among its denominational teaching materials.”

Debate over this proposal covered a wide range of things which I will not touch upon here. But one of the most salient objections marshalled by those opposed to the overture which spoke to the actual content of the Nashville Statement centered on Article 7 of the statement.

Article 7 reads:

WE AFFIRM that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.
WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.

In the words of the Missouri Presbytery’s report on their investigation of Revoice, “The statement alienated the Side B community, who felt that the authors of the Nashville Statement did not consider the,ir [sic] viewpoints or experiences. They were especially offended by the language ‘we deny adopting a homosexual or transsexual self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes’ since Side B proponents identify as ‘gay,’ but qualify the meaning of the term.”[ii]

Questions of Identity and Nate Collins’ Project

Nate Collins, the founder and president of ReVoice, authored a book in which the question of the relationship between same-sex attraction and Christian identity was at the center of his overarching purpose. His descriptive subtitle indicates that centrality: All but Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, & Sexuality. We cannot treat the entire complex of issues which Collins addresses in his 312 page book in the space of this post, however, putting our finger on a few key elements is needed before we proceed, especially given that frequently it is claimed in the debate over “side B” Christians that the various spokespersons are talking past one another.

One element that needs to be noted is that Collins deploys an array of eclectically appropriated sociological schools of thought in order to serve the goal of helping to “understand the concrete benefits of encouraging gay people to integrate their orientation into their Christian identity.”[iii] Prominent in the conceptual framework Collins constructs is the school of social identity theory represented in Henri Taijfel and John Turner.[iv] I will not give a detailed recounting of Collins deployment of these thinkers here. I note them, however, in order to point up how much of the technical terminology Collins deploys in his own systematic-theological project assumes the conceptual framework of these schools. His use of terms like “nested subgroup,” and “subgroup v. subtype” comes from this appropriation. This makes a conversation about Collins’ claims about a space for an identity as a “gay Christian” quite complex. His project of constructing space within the church for a “gay Christian identity” is at points largely dependent upon very specific and very detailed theories of sociology.

Another key element that needs to be noted in Collins’ project is his central thesis that “being gay (understood as an aesthetic orientation) is not sinful in itself. . .”[v] Collins contends that what the church needs in order to address the current crisis of sexuality is “a degree of theological innovation”[vi] which involves a re-centering of gay orientation off an exclusive focus on sexual attraction and onto what Collins terms an “aesthetic orientation.”[vii] Collins writes,

If we are to speak of an aesthetic orientation and use it to differentiate between gay and straight, we would say that both gay men and straight women are, for example, less aware (in general) of the beauty of feminine personhood than straight men or lesbian women. These general patterns that we discern in the way people experience the beauty of others are now the basis for distinguishing between straight and nonstraight orientations, rather than an impulse toward sexual activity.[viii]

This theological-ethical innovation which moves gay orientation off an axis of sexuality to a relational aesthetic is the linchpin of Collins’ claim that a gay orientation can be and should be integrated into a larger Christian identity for those who experience same-sex attraction. It is what allows Collins to claim that as “individual people with a particular identity” Christians who experience same-sex attraction can submit their gay orientation to Christ as part of “the global claim of the Christian calling to submit all things to the lordship of Christ”[ix] and yet not have the lordship of Christ eradicate that orientation from one’s identity.

As submission to the lordship of Christ looks categorically unique when it comes to submitting one’s sinful desires to Christ, we can say without exaggeration that the entirety of Collins’ projects hinges upon his attempt to carve out a space for a gay orientation that is morally neutral. While both a chaste heterosexual orientation for a single Christian and a monogamous heterosexual orientation for a married Christian sit in a subordinate way to union with Christ in the hierarchy of Christian self-conception and identity, a homosexual orientation and self-conception sit in an antithetical way to union with Christ as it is sinful. The two things are morally incomparable in that respect. They are thus also in many ways (but not all ways) incomparable in what they respectively look like as the Christian submits them to the lordship of Christ. Now, a full critical engagement and refutation of Collins’ thesis about a morally neutral gay aesthetic orientation is beyond the scope of my purposes here. Such an engagement is needed, but that would require an entirely distinct article from what follows. I will simply say here that it is most unclear what exactly a non-sexual gay orientation is, or to put things in the common terminology of the conversation, it is apparently contradictory to speak of a nonsexual homosexual orientation.

A redefinition of gayness which takes sexuality out of the picture produces a conceptual mutation that appears to be rather unrecognizable in comparison to the issues involved in the debate over a Christian sexual ethic thus far. If an aesthetic orientation towards members of the same gender is non-romantic and non-sexual, it is hard to see how it could be labeled as “gay,” since gayness has historically been understood to encompass an aesthetic appreciation for the physical and personal beauty of another member of the same sex that is irreducibly oriented to the possibility of romance and sexual intercourse. The rest of my article will proceed on the assumption that Collins’ conceptual project to create a theological category for gayness as a morally neutral aesthetic orientation is an unsuccessful one.

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