Design, teleology, and the Nashville Statement

Many conservative critiques of the Nashville Statement boil down to a complaint about its scope. Critics acknowledge that the statement’s affirmations and denials are basically sound, but they complain that the statement should have covered more ground. That is a legitimate line of critique, even though it should not be confused with a refutation of what the statement does in fact say.

I suspect that every one of the Nashville Statement‘s signatories would affirm much more than is included in the document but that none of them would want to affirm less than what is in the document. And one of the key concepts included in the statement is the idea that God’s design for his creation discloses to us his will for our lives as male and female. The Nashville Statement refers to God’s design no less than nine times:

  • “The beauty of God’s design for human life”
  • “God created human beings for his glory, and… his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female.”
  • “The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures…”
  • “We believe that God’s design for his creation and his way of salvation serve to bring him the greatest glory and bring us the greatest good”
  • “WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.
    WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.”
  • “WE AFFIRM that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.”
  • “WE AFFIRM that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.”
  • “WE DENY any obligation to speak in such ways that dishonor God’s design of his image-bearers as male and female.”

Why the accent on God’s design? Because God’s design is integral to any faithful account of Christian sexual ethics. God’s design in creation is foundational for understanding what God requires of us. We must test every moral claim not only by the specific statements of scripture but also by whether they conform to God’s design for us as sexual beings. Oliver O’Donovan puts it this way:

The order of things that God has made is there. It is objective, and mankind has a place within it. Christian ethics, therefore, has an objective reference because it is concerned with man’s life in accordance with this order. . . Thus Christian moral judgments in principle address every man (Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 17).

God has designed his creatures to live and move and have their being within the order that he has established. To believe or to act contrary to that order is not only self-destructive but also sinful.

God designed everything with a purpose, including our sexual lives. His design reveals the purposes for which he made us and helps us to distinguish that which is good and true from that which is errant and false. As I have argued elsewhere,

We ought to evaluate the ethics of any sexual act on the basis of its ability to encompass the four purposes [of sex]: consummation, procreation, love, and pleasure. In addition to that, we ought to consider how the act in question relates to the overall purpose of marriage and to the ultimate end of glorifying God. Christian ethical reflection has to take into account the whole counsel of God. Ethical decision making can fall short of that ideal when Christians are quick to label something a matter of Christian freedom simply because there is no explicit prohibition in Scripture. Even without an explicit prohibition, an act may fall short of the glory of God because it does not achieve His purposes for human sexuality (What Is the Meaning of Sex, pp. 117-118).

God’s design in nature and his revelation in scripture are not at odds. On the contrary, they are perfectly congruent, and they both reveal his will for us sexually. God’s design for male and female, therefore, is not arbitrary. It is the revelation of his will for our lives.

Are there many other helpful and necessary things to say about sexual ethics not included in the Nashville Statement? Of course there are. But that doesn’t render the items that are covered any less essential. And that includes our personal and physical design as male and female.