This has been milling around my head for some time before I started to draft it a couple of weeks ago. After the events of last Friday, when the Evangelical Alliance decided to eject Oasis from membership, this has come into sharp relief. The discussion that then follows has been reshaped following this, though I have kept some aspects of the more general blog post I had begun. I hope it still reads OK, though please forgive me if it subsequently reads slightly jumbled and for any repetition.
The original question I had in mind was:
Are evangelicals bad news for the Church?
It’s a question that’s been bugging me some time. Whenever I read the term ‘evangelical’ (or the more condescending ‘evo’) it is almost always used in a negative sense.
I have written before about my frustrations when evangelicals are misleadingly portrayed. My objection is not a denial that there are issues within the very broad church that is evangelicalism, but rather that the negative aspects are those that people go looking for in order to highlight and then apply more generally so that they are portrayed as being in some way symptomatic of evangelicalism as a whole.
Part of the difficulty comes in trying to pin down precisely what one might mean by the term ‘evangelical’. There is little consensus (though not a violent disagreement, either, it might be added) amongst those who identify as evangelical as to precisely what they mean by it. I’ve broached the topic before, as has Danny Webster (who works for the Evangelical Alliance). My own church has its view here and the Evangelical Alliance has its own take. And these are just British viewpoints!
For an American viewpoint, one may look at the Evangelical manifesto. I must confess I was not aware of it’s existence until a few months ago, though upon reading it, I was struck by how much I agreed with it and was pleased by its moderate tone, in distinction from the tone one often hears coming across the Atlantic where the boundary between evangelical and fundamentalist views seems somewhat fuzzy.
As has been pointed out by others, the very breadth of evangelicalism sometimes waters down the effectiveness of the term. One danger is that ‘evangelical’ simply becomes a catch-all term used by those who don’t identify as such to label anyone with whom they disagree. In much of modern parlance, adjectives can be used as insults, and the most common word read in association with the term evangelical is ‘conservative’. In a world of black and white, it is not uncommon for ‘conservative’ to applied to someone, not on the grounds of a fair description, but rather to push them away and effectively say “[they’re conservative (i.e. bad) but we’re liberal (i.e. good)]” – The difficulty with this is that things aren’t really black and white and especially within christianity there are elements of being conservative and elements of being liberal in just about all strands of christian belief and expression. [late edit: as has been pointed out in the comments, some use the ‘liberal’/’conservative’ insult the other way around. My experience is that this is less common, but I acknowledge my limited experience may not be representative] To take just a few:
This encompasses some of the hottest topics in the Church today, not least those surrounding women in leadership roles and whether or not we fully affirm christians who identify as LGBTI. For the record, this evangelical does recognise women in leadership and has no issue worshipping alongside LGBTI christians, a term I would deny is oxymoronic. In so doing, I acknowledge that there are some who would differ from me in good faith; while I might, from time to time, try to persuade such a person, I would not seek to enforce my view on them or to break fellowship with them over such a matter. What sometimes frustrates me is when I see christians who like to portray themselves as liberal attacking or criticising other christians who hold different opinions on such matters, especially when they go looking for areas on which to disagree. It demonstrates a level of intolerance that I think is quite unloving and certainly a betrayal of the term ‘liberal’. [late edit: I saw this comment was under discussion on the Changing Attitudes FB page. An example which I would cite was a post I saw from a friend who consistently affirms as ‘liberal’ but who said they would not consider in a million years going to a church they perceived as being conservative, going so far as to question why such churches exist at all. In my view, this goes too far.]
Roughly speaking, is one a capitalist or a socialist. Confusion comes here when capitalists try to claim to be liberal by means of “neoliberalism” or “economic libertarianism” which are both shorthand terms for, in my view, “freedom to economically oppress others”. This is a massive topic which I have written a bit about before, so I won’t further expand on it today.
How one views the bible
Much of the discussion around (and around and around) this centres on how one views the principle of sola scriptura. In so doing, one needs to bear in mind the historical background of the reformation in which the principle was formed. It is an instance of ‘definition by opposition‘. One may get a glimpse of how non-evangelicals think evangelicals view the bible from a comment on this piece, but which represents a slight caricature. I cannot do justice to the matter here, so in summary all I will say is that I view the bible as a collection of books which is the most reliable source we have for understanding the origins, themes, aims and beliefs of the christian faith. To get as true and fair an understanding of christianity, out of which flows a faithful adherence, the Church and its members must make the best effort to understand it in its his historical context and from there to apply it to the society, geography and time that we find ourselves in today. That understanding may be aided by any available tools we have, whether that be linguistics, historiography, tradition, etc. (all of which may be brought together under the umbrella term, ‘theology’).
How we express our christianity
In very broad terms, which are sometimes helpful and sometimes not, we might use the analogy of “high church” or “low church”. Similar terms one might hear are “creeping up the candle”. Though this terminology originated with the English part of the reformation, it has come to indicate how ceremonial a church is. So a church that has a very conservative expression of worship, where the leaders have to dress in special clothes and where there’s bits of processing around and chanting could reasonably be called “high church”. In contrast, one might have a “low church” which is far more informal and where the worshippers are allowed a greater degree of freedom of expression. These latter churches, in their style of worship, is far more liberal.
Of course, these 4 I’ve listed are neither exhaustive nor are they mutually exclusive. For example, how one views the bible may well inform how one approaches the other 3. Yet it is sometimes the case that those which are more liberal in their expression of christianity are more conservative (capitalist) in their economic views. I think here particularly of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) which is known for both having an exuberant Pentecostal worship style and for advocacy in some parts of the church for the prosperity gospel. So it is that almost any church may be described as conservative by one group and as liberal by another.
Yet with almost any term one may choose to use to describe oneself or to describe other churches and christians, we risk trying to hold on to so tightly to the adjective as to what type of christian we wish to describe that we lose focus on being a christian. As such, I would advocate using adjectives with the utmost gentleness and little to no sense of posession, as one try to hold a bunch of bubbles in the hand. To press the matter too hard will simply burst the bubbles which may sparkle for a time, but are ultimately empty and pass quickly.
So with that said, what of the matters of the last week?
Oasis and the Evangelical Alliance
I would assume by now that anyone reading this is familiar with the events of last Friday. If you are not, I would refer you in the first instance to the two press releases made by the Evangelical Alliance and by Oasis regarding the expulsion of the latter from membership of the former.
The debate that has been stirred up has been phrased by some (unhelpfully in my view) as a battle for who gets to decide how the term ‘evangelical’ is defined, and consequently who can and cannot be described as such. This seems to me like too much stock is being placed in the adjective and that in so doing, emphasis from the noun is lost. i.e. in my view, it is more important to identify as a christian than it is to identify as an evangelical. So the actions of the Evangelical Alliance is not so much a threat to the use of the term ‘evangelical’, it is a threat to the use of the term ‘alliance’.
One of the great ironies over the Oasis/EA separation has been that in choosing to eject Oasis, the Evangelical Alliance has stepped outside of the reformation ‘tradition’ (for want of a better word) of questioning the status quo. They have sought to impose their own form of orthodoxy on others and have chosen to excommunicate a valued part of the alliance for not adhering to one particular interpretation. In so doing, they have acted, not as the reformers did (the latter of whom had great courage to step out of the shadow of medieval Catholicism), but have played the role of the authoritarian who dictates how scripture can and should be interpreted. [late edit: This is not intended as a Marcus Borg style ‘because is it orthodox, it must be wrong’ type argument. See the comments below]
While Chalke wanted to be open and welcoming, the Evangelical Alliance chose to make it a divisive issue. In my view, the most appropriate response is to try to restore unity, rather than exacerbate disunity. This is why I would disagree with @losthaystacks who indicated that she thought the most appropriate reaction was to end her personal membership of the Evangelical Alliance. There is a point to it – that to maintain membership may be interpreted as giving consent to the action taken – though I would disagree, preferring to maintain church unity and to speak plainly that one disagrees with a particular stance. In this way, I would agree with the Evangelical Alliance’s policy, which in this instance they seem to have chosen to not apply in this instance:
“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.”
“We call on each other, when speaking or writing of those issues of faith or practice that divide us, to acknowledge our own failings and the possibility that we ourselves may be mistaken, avoiding personal hostility and abuse, and speaking the truth in love and gentleness.”
So in that very spirit, I recognise that my view may be wrong (as always) but the evidence of the Evangelical Alliance’s treatment of Oasis appears to be an attempt at unity by bullying. In other words, “agree with us or we will have no fellowship with you”. The statement regarding the matter makes clear that there had been prior communication and that Oasis had been asked to distance themselves from the view held by Chalke. Yet the idea of resigning membership over the matter seems to be to be equally ungracious and no less an example of an attempt at unity by bullying.
The usefulness of an analogy
One of the key objections that Evangelical Alliance later cited was that Chalke was endorsing a change in the definition of marriage. During the discussion on the legislation as it was going through Parliament. As an example, you can read a well-articulated objection on these grounds over on @PeterOuld’s blog. Underlying the objection is the assumption that marriage should not be redefined. It is this assumption I would challenge on 2 accounts.
Firstly, the idea of marriage as being “between one man and one woman” is not a permanent an unchanging definition that has stood since time immemorial. It just hasn’t (until now) changed an awful lot in western democracies in the last few centuries. I well recall a useful set of seminars I attended a few years ago given by Rabbi Lionel Blue about how the changing definition of marriage can be seen just within the Torah; the example that sticks in mind was from Deuteronomy 24, where the granting of a certificate of divorce was a radical change recognising that the wife being divorced had a “greater level of humanness than a pot or a pan” (Rabbi Blue’s words, not mine).
The second objection is the analogy in the New Testament regarding the analogy of the church as the bride of Christ. As an approximation (hopefully not a caricature) the argument goes that to change the definition of marriage undermines or invalidates this analogy. Yet in my view, the underlying message of the analogy is not so closely tied to referent in the analogy that a change in the latter renders the former redundant. We might need, in later years, to do some more work to understanding it, but it seems odd to think that same-sex marriage is any threat to the idea of the Church as the body and bride of Christ. To cite 2 examples of this, one may understand the Parable of the Good Samaritan on a surface level as an encouragement to see all people as our neighbours, to whom we are to behave in a way honouring (and being part of) the kingdom of heaven, but one understands more how counter-intuitive this was once you realise the animosity between the Samaritans and the Jews. The fact that that precise ethnic tension is not obvious to today’s readers doesn’t render the message of the parable null and void. As a second example, the invention of the seed drill for regular planting of seeds did not invalidate the Parable of the Sower.
What does this say in our witness?
I am coming to an end, but if you have read thus far, I thank you for your patience. Though it has been pointed out how general the term ‘evangelical’ can be, I would hope that there can be agreement that a key feature is a particular emphasis which is placed on evangelism. Evangelism takes many forms. Part of it is pedagogical – teaching the world about the gospel so that one may make an informed decision as to whether or not to accept it. But it is more than that. Our very lives are to be a witness to the calling we have received; how we treat one another says a lot about the values we hold. This may be seen in Romans 12 and in particular in Jesus; exhortation: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
So what does the forcible exclusion of an organisation that is open and welcoming to all say as a witness?
What is says to me is that the message of the Evangelical Alliance only differs from that of Westboro Baptist Church in its tone, but not in content. [late edit: I am aware this is a provocative comparison. I considered removing it, but once drafted, I could think of a good reason to delete it; it remains my honest (though of course, potentially flawed) opinion] This undermines the living out of the principle of “love your neighbour as yourself”. In ejecting Oasis on the basis cited, there is an effective statement which says “evangelicals oppose equality for LGBTI people.” That is not a sentiment I agree with. Yet it would be a mistake to cause further disunity or to use this as a reason to abandon the Evangelical Alliance and all the very good work that they do, through their member organisation and individuals.
Unity isn’t easy. So while I agree with the support and inclusivity that Chalke has expressed, and while I disagree with the actions of the Evangelical Alliance, I will not speak a word of condemnation. That is all too easy to do and is, I believe, the cheap way out.
My remaining hope is that the hurt cause to LGBTI individuals, families and communities as a result of this will not deter them from the gospel. Not all evangelicals are open and welcoming, but many are. And I hope that there is peace and forgiveness, in spite of the cost.