John the Baptist and the Nashville Statement

The gospel is a transforming gospel; Christ is a transforming savior

Just days ago, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released, in partnership with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the “Nashville Statement” on biblical sexuality. The document is truly a landmark in theological history. In an age when there is little clarity on sexual matters, and a permissive, even pagan, ethic creeps into the church, the Nashville Statement clarifies what sexual fidelity to Christ entails.

The statement, not surprisingly, has received ferocious pushback from non-Christian voices. Even some evangelicals have raised concerns; the statement, they worry, will make it hard to build bridges to unbelievers. Better, it seems, to cultivate friendships, engage in conversations, and avoid public statements about ethical matters. Keep things personal; refrain from going public.

I understand this concern. There are surely matters, perhaps many, that do not merit a major declaration. But the Nashville Statement does not cover lesser matters. The Nashville Statement lends invaluable biblical clarity to pastors and Christian leaders who are seeking, with great headwinds in their face, to help sinners pulled by homosexual and transgender identity to find Christ. The Nashville Statement engages several of the most vexing and unanswered questions of our day, and does so with grace and truth in equal measure.

The stance just taken by CBMW and the ERLC, in partnership with warm-hearted, Christ-loving evangelicals across the denominational spectrum, reminds me of another controversial public stance. Two millennia ago, John the Baptist came preaching Christ. His message was the Messiah; his call was to holiness. As John preached, he somehow gained the ear of Herod, a political leader akin to a powerful governor in our day. John had access to Herod, and he had the priceless opportunity to tell him of his need for spiritual salvation. Surely John spoke of these things. But that was not all he said to Herod.

John the Baptist rebuked Herod for divorcing his wife and marrying his half-brother’s spouse, Herodias. Matthew’s Gospel gives a succinct record of John’s words to Herod: “It is not lawful for you to have her” (Matthew 14:4) We have no extended prologue, no longer record of how the conversation went. Scholar R. T. France notes that John’s comments came in the context of “public denunciation” (France, Matthew, 555). It appears that this happened repeatedly; John did not merely warn Herod once, but “kept on telling” him that he was sinning, and thus in danger of spending eternity in hell.

If our goal as Christians in a fallen world is to gain access to unbelievers and do all we can to keep it, let us be bracingly honest: John the Baptist did a poor job of it. He angered the governor, got sent to prison (where he was chained to a wall), and occasioned his own beheading. Church history suggests that this was not enough for Herodias: she stabbed his tongue with her hairpin. Here is the point for our considerations: it was not the announcement of the Messiah that ended John’s short life. It was the clear declaration of sexual ethics that sent him into eternity. It is a biblical curiosity, rarely preached on, but hugely important for us today in a similarly pagan context: the forerunner of Christ died because he called a wicked governor, a public figure, to repent.

We learn an invaluable truth through John’s martyrdom (he is after all the first martyr, killed even before Christ, showing us just how much of a forerunner he was). We learn that our sexual ethics are not divorced from the gospel. They are bound up with the gospel. You could say it this way: the gospel creates sexual ethics, as I have said elsewhere. The Word of God has always done so. In ancient Israel, homosexuality and cross-dressing called for full repentance (see Deuteronomy 22). In the New Testament era, these same sins are condemned (see Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 11). You cannot follow Christ but keep your eyes blind to your behavior, or others’. The gospel is a transforming gospel; Christ is a transforming savior (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Sexual sin, as with unrighteousness of any kind, merits a loving response, and love of the biblical kind means not that we affirm sin, but that we seek the rescue of those in danger of the righteous wrath of almighty God.

The Nashville Statement does not represent a nuking of existing bridges to Christ. Calling sin sinful, and urging the wayward to repent and trust Christ, is not problematic for Christian witness. It is Christian witness. There is no witness without it. There is no love without it. There is no hope without it. Out of such a biblical conviction, let us build friendships with unbelievers wherever we can. Let us never stop emulating John the Baptist—let us tell the truth to them, the whole truth.

Let us also count the cost. Any stance that promotes the Word of God is going to rile the devil, as the Nashville Statement surely has. But we are not people who fear the devil, or who fear the world. We love God, and we love our neighbor, and so we will walk John’s path, and share John’s message, and point the lost—infinitely far from God, just as we once were—to John’s Messiah.