Last week the Evangelical Alliance discontinued the membership of Oasis Trust, headed up by Steve Chalke.
After many months of prayerful discussion, the Evangelical Alliance council concluded that a relationship between an organisation and one of its members in which the member felt it could not comply with a reasonable request from council, was not tenable.
In the social media feeding frenzy that followed, quite a few things have been missed and are worth noting.
First, this was not a knee-jerk response, but followed a long period (since January) of private discussion, as the Oasis statement also notes. This looks like a good model for attempting to resolve disputes, in line with Jesus’ teaching in Matt 18, and is a contrast to much long-range pot-shotting that happens on this issue. This in itself does give some credibility to the statement that
The Evangelical Alliance council remain deeply respectful of the work and achievements of the Oasis Trust and have a strong desire to avoid any unseemly dispute and to speak well of each other.
Surely you don’t have to think someone is ‘evangelical’ to respect them? I am curious to see the way critics of this decision still seem to think ‘evangelical’ is merely a term of approval, a bit like the popular understanding of holding ‘Christian’ views, rather than defining or describing a particular theological position.
Secondly, although some have characterised this as a power-play, EA were not asking Chalke to stop making the case for a change in attitudes to same-sex relations, simply that an organisation with an influential ministry amongst young people, and claiming to be rooted in the Bible, would give equal prominence to the case for the ‘traditional’ view. Although some changes were made on the Oasis website, they could not agree to this.
Having heard the concerns expressed by the Alliance’s board and council as to what has been perceived by some as a campaign to change the Church’s historic view on human sexuality, the Oasis board did clarify their position as having ‘no corporate view on this matter’.
However they were unwilling to fulfil the council’s request to adjust the content of their website/resources and social media output to equally profile the traditional Christian view.
So Oasis have not even done as well as the Pilling Report in representing different views! Steve Chalke is not the same as Oasis Trust, but he is clearly a very influential figure. Given that Oasis would or could not put a contrary view alongside Chalke’s, it might be interesting to reflect on where the power plays are really going on.
Thirdly, although the question of sexuality was the presenting issue, it is clear that the root cause lies somewhere else. As Gillan Scott notes, this does not look like good PR for evangelicals, and in fact Chalke’s subsequent comments on the nature of the Bible might have been a better ‘fight’ to pick. Justin Thacker, former head of theology at EA, highlights the contrast with previous disputes:
My fear is that what really distinguishes the hell debates of the late 20th Century and the homosexuality debates today is that while the former was essentially an in-house debate, the latter very clearly is not. The secular world simply didn’t care what conclusions we reached on hell, but they care very deeply what we say about homosexuality.
But what he misses here is the underlying issue at stake. He does note that ‘..those, like Chalke, who have come to revise their views regarding homosexuality have done so while still upholding the authority of Scripture.’ And Chalke wants to be known as an evangelical. But it is very hard to treat this comment with much credibility, at least in relation to Scripture. As I observed previously:
When he says ‘The Bible is mistaken in attributing the actions to God that it does’, he really is saying that the Bible is an unreliable witness to the truth about God’s will, actions and intentions, much in the same way that Strauss, Schleiermacher and Harnack did. To that extent, he represents a position that most evangelicals have been working against for the last 200 years.
The reason for this is that I think it is very hard to reconcile a ‘revisionist’ position with a persuasive reading of Scripture, even though many people are trying to do this. Much more persuasive is the position of the biblical scholar and ‘revisionist’ Luke Timothy Johnson:
The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says?
I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good.
And a good number of others agree. Whether you think this is right or that my observation about the nature of the debate is true, it is clear that Chalke’s public position on the Bible is a long, long way from the EA statement of faith:
We believe in…
3. The divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.
The statement also sets out a Relationships Commitment which includes:
3. We respect the diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding that God grants to His people, and acknowledge that some differences over issues not essential to salvation may well remain until the end of time.
But given the way the same-sex issue is connected to the status of Scripture—and, more explicitly, Chalke’s own statements on the unreliability of Scripture—it is hard to see how this overrides the affirmation of Scripture in the statement of faith.
As usual, the most marginalised voice in all of this is that of Christians who experience same-sex attraction but who believe that the church’s ‘traditional’ teaching on marriage and sex is correct. Sam Allberry, who has contributed to the Living Out website, comments:
Today’s announcement from the EA is less about a particular stance on homosexuality than it is an affirmation of what Christians have always believed about the Bible – that it is God’s clear and good word for us all. Their statement will be a great encouragement to the many of us who experience same-sex attraction and yet who hold to the classic biblical understanding of human sexuality. I’m thankful for their leadership and care in what must have been a hard decision. We need to hold to what has always been defining for evangelicals – the ‘evangel’, the good news of Christ’s invitation to all broken and weary people to find true rest and satisfaction in him.
EA’s action here will certainly not make it popular. But could it be that it is actually offering a thought-through response and demonstrating consistent commitment to its position, even though that does not go down well in wider society? If so, is this not something the church needs to be doing a little more often?