Tag Archives: evangelicalism

On celebrating diversity within the church

What follows is the crystallisation of a few thoughts prompted by a recent Guardian article on what it perceives to be a crisis in the Church of England and how it is being taken over by a dastardly sect called evangelicals. This was followed up with a few conversations in various places on similar topics.

The thing that often frustrates me is that when Anglicans use the term ‘evangelical’ they often mean something rather different than when evangelicals use it. When one word is used to denote (or connote) different things, then a mutual lack of understanding can often, needlessly, ensue and can result in hostile, or otherwise unhealthy attitudes between members of the same faith. If one claims that evangelicalism is a “wing” of the Church of England, that’s a misleading statement. Evangelicalism is a far broader, richer, more varied church that can be contained within any denomination (even the largest of them). Rather than try to re-tread well-trodden ground to state who is and who is not evangelical, I attempted to demonstrate that the question wasn’t quite that simple via the use of a Venn diagram that I put together during the last 10 minutes of my lunch break.

 Christian expressions

The point in the diagram was not to highlight differences or to show “why I am not like you” or anything like that. It was rather the opposite. It was to celebrate the breadth and diversity of different expressions of christian identity. It was also to counter some of the overly-narrow focus that some expressions have of themselves, placing them in a broader context. It wasn’t meant to be a complete or accurate representation of all expressions of christianity, merely an improvement to that offered by The Guardian (which in turn, echoed a sentiment I come across frequently, particularly among those who have a phobia of evangelicals). If one were so inclined, you could find at least a dozen things to take umbrage with, and indeed some chose to deliberately miss the point by doing so.

To give example of a kind of unhealthy attitude referred to above,  take someone who is indoctrinated to think that a church must be liturgical in order to be whole, fully functioning, etc. The reason it’s unhealthy is because it gives rise to ecclesiastical snobbery and a hatred towards to the more ecclesiastically liberal churches that can have a well-rounded theology, with healthy worship that have no need of liturgy. Indeed just the other day I read a comment that expressed a fear of any involvement of evangelicalism within that person’s denomination, describing it as “theologically impoverished”. Such a view is not borne of understanding and love, but of ignorance and hatred.

I am not saying that evangelical churches are beyond reproach. There is a time and place for fair, reasoned and loving critique to help build one another up. Even if that sometimes takes the form a rebuke. Yet one must recall “the plank in your own eye” if you find it necessary to speak up about another church/tradition than your own (see here for a recent take on the Evangelical Alliance). Those critiques that carry the most weight come from those that can recognise the weaknesses in their own tradition. It’s fine to pick your particular strand of christian belief, be it Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, etc. but such an identity must be held to lightly, rather than clung on to in white-knuckle defensiveness.

One of the other illustrations that I like to use is that of dog breeding. You can have any number of different types of pedigrees and you have cross-bred mongrels. Pedigrees can look beautiful. But the preservation of the purity of their identity comes at the cost of poor health in some. In contrast, mongrels can be ugly things; one can spend time trying to work out the different breeds that have gone into making the dog what it is. Yet for their ugliness, they tend to be healthier dogs.

In this (yes, flawed, analogy) I’m a mongrel christian. I find my home in the Ichthus Christian Fellowship, but on the weeks when we don’t get to meet, I will regularly visit other churches. In the last 3 years alone, I’ve been to Assemblies of God, Baptist, Church of England, Congregationalist, FIEC, Methodist, New Frontiers, Pioneer, Redeemed Christian Church of God, URC and other independent churches. There are several attitudes one could take when visiting another church. One could go with a kind of sneering snobbery that seeks to see how they “do things wrong”, determined to see the bad and to leave with a smug sense of superiority about one’s own church. I much prefer to think of it as going to worship with a slightly more distant relative and seeing what good things they do that my home church doesn’t.

I’d encourage you to visit churches outside of your normal experience every once in a while. It’s possible you may find something very weird, compared to your regular worship experience, whether that be being asked to kneel in front of someone dressed in robes or seeing someone wave a flag. If you decide to not go back, preferring the ways you are familiar with, that’s OK. But at least if you go and engage with others, then you can come away having shared fellowship with a wider circle of christians than you otherwise might, and you get to experience a different part of the christian life first hand, rather than rely on 2nd hand accounts and scare stories.

Some choose to see different denominations as signs of division within the church. But try seeing it as a sign of diversity instead. Then sample that diversity. If your diet consists of knowing the nuance between different types of potato, then you’re not really having a varied diet. Likewise with churches. To taste and see just how good the Lord is, it helps to sample from a different dish every now and then.

A fresh alliance?

Last week, I read an article on the Evangelical Alliance (EA) website on the subject of diversity. This comes about a week after I did a survey for them on what it means to be an evangelical.

Both the article and the survey perturbed me somewhat. This is my attempt to articulate that discomfort.

In the survey, one of the questions was about what an values an evangelical christian should hold to. The first option there was along the lines of “Oppose same-sex marriage”. I shook my head in disappointment as I chose the option ‘Evangelicals should not do this’. It later got a bit farcical by giving the names of various celebrities and asking if they were evangelical, christian but not evangelical or not a christian. It seemed slightly valueless. Yet the article I read this week, penned by the Alliance’s General Director, spoke about diversity but didn’t mention what remains probably the most problematic issue faced by the Church in the 21st century – the acceptance of LGBT christians.

I’ve written before about the shameful decision that the EA made a few years ago when they ejected Oasis church for their leader’s stated support of the christian LGBT community.

It’s this sort of thing that gives evangelicals a bad name. To many, the term evangelical is automatically prefixed by the adjective ‘conservative’. Or for the particularly hateful, it is sometimes shortened to the pejorative term: con-evo. To someone who, like me, describes themselves as a liberal evangelical, this is somewhat irksome, as there is a kind of guilt-by-association levelled at me for being associated with those who hold views I don’t agree with. The common examples are being homophobic, opposed to women in ministry, anti-science, etc. I don’t deny that such views exist within evangelicalism. What I dispute is whether they define it or are otherwise characteristic of it. After all, such views also exist within the anglo-catholic world.

I would love it if everyone agreed with me on all things, it would make the world so much simpler and better (of course), but it’s never going to happen. I have to live and work with those who disagree with me, as do you. If we want to talk about diversity in evangelicalism, then that has to include diversity of opinion, of biblical interpretation and of praxis. Much as I might want everyone to be a liberal, overriding that is the desire for a Church (big C) that embraces both the liberal and the conservative. This is why, on the survey, I identified one of the key threats to evangelicalism as being the appointment of those who hold conservative views into positions of leadership. If the EA wants to embrace the idea of diversity seriously, then it has to change. It’s in danger of becoming the Conservative Evangelical Alliance, failing to properly welcome, respect, include and represent the views of those of us who are more liberal.

In its etymology, evangelicalism should be about bringing good news. The distinctive, defining feature should be the kerygmatic proclamation that the risen Jesus is the messiah. When Peter said that Jesus was the messiah (Christ), Jesus responded that that declaration was the rock upon which the church would be built. All else is mere window dressing. I want to be a part of a Church where the liberal can worship alongside the conservative, where LGBT are not part a hived-off community, but are fully integrated and where there can be good disagreement, where differences are set aside as we jointly focus on that which unites us.

One of the key passages that sums this up is 1 Corinthians 12:21-25

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.”

To many christians, evangelicalism is the less respectable member. And there’s often, sadly, good reason for thinking this. Though to those that hold more socially liberal views (usually in contrast to conservative ecclesiology) the attitude towards evangelicals is often more one of ostracism than of the biblical view above of treating them with respect. Anti-evangelicalism is really quite fashionable, but it’s not helpful. So much as I call for the evangelical world to be more open, so the plea has to turn around to the non-evangelicals to be more welcoming to their brethren. We all need each other and that which ought to unite us is far more powerful than anything that divides.

How I read the bible

Today I’m joining up with Balaam as we cross-post about how we each read the bible. This began life as a “positive alternative” to the extremely conservative view as espoused by Kevin DeYoung in his book, Taking God at His Word (see here a review of my review). It’s changed shape a bit since then, but I hope it still hangs together.

I will begin with a summary I have used before:

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 the bible in its 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’).

There’s quite a lot condensed in there and there are some things I’ve chosen not to say. For example, you not find in that affirmation a statement of inerrancy or about authority. So let me try to unpack some of these.

The Chicago statement

One of the best known statements on the authority of scripture is the Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy. Drafted in 1978, it gained the backing of a number of well respected biblical scholars including Don Carson, Norman Geisler, Wayne Grudem, John Meyer, J.I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer and R.C. Sproul. What is most bizarre about the statement is that only applies to the original texts, none of which any person alive has ever seen and where it is extremely doubtful if they even exist any more. It doesn’t apply to copies of the texts (which we have) or to translations (which we have in our homes). It is, in effect, a statement of confidence about a series of objects where their content can only be inferred, and even then, not perfectly. Yet the idea of inerrancy necessitates the idea of being able to reconstruct the texts perfectly. If we can only have a “pretty good idea” what the original texts said, down to the nearest letter, then inerrancy is a non-starter.

The temptation of inerrancy

If the bible could be shown to be inerrant, then of course it would make things a lot simpler. There would be no need to wrestle with issues or to think things through for oneself. You could simply open up a book and know that it is flawless.

As such, the idea of inerrancy is one that is greatly tempting. It is a temptation that many fall into. Yet to do falls foul of one clause of what we speak of as the greatest commandment: to love God with all your mind. Statements of inerrancy are a wish fulfilment; a wish to not have to work for understanding.

Paul instructs the church at Thessalonica to “test everything, hold on to what is good”. What happens when we apply this to the bible itself? When tested, we find that one cannot claim the bible is inerrant and remain an honest person. As a simple test, read the book of Acts. You find there three accounts of Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. Ask the question: did his companions hear a sound? Read the texts carefully and you will find self-contradiction within a single book. You may read much more widely and find discrepancies between books.

Authority of scripture?

The idea of ‘sola scriptura’ arose with the reformation as a reaction against catholicism, where tradition or the word of the pope were taken as authoritative. Scripture was relegated in importance and free reign was given for the catholic magisteria to make up whatever they wanted, hand that down, call it tradition and that became “orthodoxy”. It was from this approach that various aberrations sprung, including indulgences, papal infallibility, prostitute racing in the Vatican and transubstantiation.

Of course, a correction was needed.

Sola scriptura was what was formulated by the reformers as a kind of restorative simplicity. The trouble comes when you apply to the field of interpretation. There are few better examples of this than that demonstrated by Kevin DeYoung in the aforementioned work. In it, he claimed that scripture interpreted scripture and that since scripture was infallible then scripture’s own interpretation of scripture was also infallible. This is clearly an absurd circular argument, yet its adherents stick to it, because of their vice-like grip on the notion of infallibility. What ends up happening is that they shoe-horn in their own interpretation (which may or may not be correct) and defending it on the basis that it is scripture’s interpretation of itself.

Scripture, tradition and reason – an alternative trinity

Whenever the question of christian understanding crops up, there are 3 sources of information often cited: scripture, tradition and reason. How these three relate to one form the framework of many a person’s understanding. Some choose to emphasise one over the other two, two over the other one or they try to use all three equally.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I’m not the biggest fan of tradition in the world. It’s mainly because when it’s boiled down to its essence, it’s doing something because it’s something that’s been done before. It might sound all well and good to say that you are following in the same direction as esteemed women and men who have gone before us, but it rather breaks down if they’ve set off in the wrong direction.

So is reason the best way to go? Well it’s better than tradition, but if it is devoid of an evidential basis, then it just becomes stuff we make up. Some of it might be right, but there’s no proper way to tell. In this respect reason-in-a-vacuum is little different from the worst examples of mysticism.

So what’s the alternative?

Epistemology

When discussing the nature of the bible, the question of epistemology comes up very rarely. This is something I find both surprising and disappointing, as it seems to cut through a lot of the undergrowth created by the obsession with authority. Those who err on the conservative side of things have a tendency to treat the bible as a normative document, that which gives clear, reliable facts and instructions. At the more liberal end of the spectrum, there is the idea of the bible as formative, telling the story of God’s dealings with his people, often told parabolically. One should get the gist, but not get hung up too much on the details, particularly with regards to history.

I don’t wholly agree with either, but I think each has their merits. The person who anachronistically projects relatively modern standards of historiography onto the biblical authors, imagining them to have been the idealistic journalists of their day, detailing the facts in an impartial manner, is a fool. Such an approach gives rise to young earth creationism, an utterly defunct view that has done nothing to advance the proclamation of the gospel and has in fact given christians (including those who denounce such nonsense) a bad name.

To me the starting point of christianity has to be Jesus. Many have started off with the idea of “God” and many words are spilled before we even get onto Jesus. A very influential example that I’ve been reading about lately is Thomas Aquinas. His Summa Theologica begins with a lot of questions and talk of God, but scant all about Jesus, who is relegated to later parts of the book. This approach, adopted by many after Aquinas, can be called “Godianity” instead of “Christianity”. It is this parody that ends up as the target in so many critiques of the so-called “New Atheists“. The idea of God gets attacked, with Jesus barely getting a look-in.

But if we make Jesus the starting point of christian epistemology, then many of the critiques lose their focus. Instead, there is then either a resort to the Christ-myth hypothesis, which is in the same league of intellectualism as young earth creationism and homeopathy, or one has to undertake a serious engagement with Jesus. And how do we know about him? In the bible. One has to be able to read it critically, without the naivety of thinking the gospels are accounts that were documentary accounts, but such an approach shouldn’t allow for reading non-evident material into the texts. Though they may not be inerrant, they remain the earliest and most reliable evidence we have through which we understand the person, life, actions and deeds of Jesus. This understanding is then the lens that we put in our glasses, and through which we view the rest of the bible and the world.

This lens, though, can always be refined. By understanding the context of the time, religion, politics, geography, etc. in which Jesus’ story is told, we can better understand the hues and textures of the biblical story.

What then, of sola scriptura? If one gets stuck with the obsession over authority, then sola scriptura still stands, more or less. My proposal is that if we pull ourselves out of the mire of authority and instead go with epistemology, then biblical study becomes somewhat easier. There’s still hard work to do, and there is plenty in the bible to wrestle with, but I don’t agree with those who choose to ignore or simply argue around those aspects we find difficult, particularly in regards to the hot topics of today.

It might be argued that I’ve missed the point of sola scriptura, if one still thinks of the bible as the primary source of our epistemology, and that the key question is over who is allowed to interpret scripture. Here, I refer the reader to my idealistic view of theology, where church is informed by the theology of academia, but where academic theology is also informed by the life of the church, in a kind of virtuous circle. No person should be restricted from biblical interpretation, but it doesn’t mean that everyone’s view is necessarily right. It is a community matter to discern correct interpretation from false.

Conclusion?

How might this be summed up? Well, the bible is the starting point for our knowledge of the story of God acting in the world, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. From this start, we use whatever tools we can (be they reason, history, literature, sociology, etc) to try to understand it. If those conclusions, when tested, turn out to be good, they may be passed on and become something akin to a tradition, but we retain the right to constantly question received wisdom of ages past, nomatter how treasured they may be.

How would you like your church? Rare or well done

I wanted to pick up and expand a little on a point I made in last week’s post on the breaking of bread. In it, I said

This was church in the raw. We are an ecclesiastically liberal church, so there is no need for ceremony, for robes, for procession, for chanting or any number of things that distract and get in the way.

This may have been open to misinterpretation, so a little more clarity may be needed. When I say that things such as robes, procession, chanting, etc are unnecessary, I mean precisely that: unnecessary. I am not saying that they are inherently wrong. My point is that they are things which, though maybe originally intended to help, can end up getting in the way. Whether one includes or excludes these things is merely a matter of taste. My only disagreement is when people insist that to have them (or to not have them) is the “proper” way to do things. i.e. that to have them (or to exclude them) is a necessity.

Let’s pick up on the word ‘raw’ for a moment. It serves us quite well by way of analogy. Beef carpaccio is raw. I’ve had it a few times and quite like it. Others I know can’t stand it. They might prefer a steak that is well done, with a peppercorn sauce on top . We can both equally claim to like beef, but we just like it done differently. The problem arises when one or other makes a claim that ours is how beef should be done. i.e. to denigrate the authenticity of the other. To me, peppercorn sauce obscures and spoils the flavour of good beef; to others, it enhances the flavour.

We each can get entrenched in our ways, but it’s good to occasionally try things from another’s point of view. To use a different, but still culinary, analogy, I can’t stand tea. But once a year, I try a cup, to see if my tastes have changed. So far, they haven’t, but as it doesn’t make me physically ill, there’s no harm in trying something different once in a while.

Last year, I offered to take part in a tradition swap, where I would swap my nonconformism for a more traditionalist expression of christianity. There were no takers. I was rather disappointed by this, as it seemed that plenty were keen for me to temporarily give up my ways and see the virtue in theirs, but they were not willing to give up their ways and see the virtue in mine (seemingly, because of a kind of snobbery that looks down evangelicalism as a lesser form of christianity).

Christianity is a great and varied thing, with many different expressions. When we get used to one, there’s a risk we closet ourselves away and think of the paraphernalia that is built up in our expression as being somehow important. Then, when we see that others don’t do X or Y that we do, there’s a temptation to think that they are in some way lacking. I’m not suggesting we should all abandon our own churches and try a different one each week. Rather, just once in a while, maybe we should put down something we are holding on to in order to test if it necessary. Then, maybe, with a spare hand, pick up something else from another expression of christianity and see if it is helpful.

Oasis, unity and bad news for evangelicals?

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:

Social attitudes

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.]

Economic attitudes

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.

Unhelpful adjectives

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.

Uncertainty

Creative Commons: Horia Andrei Varlan

Creative Commons: Horia Andrei Varlan

In this blog post, I wanted to look in a bit more detail at a quote I posted on Twitter on Saturday the 4th. The quote was as follows:

“Interpreting the bible is very interesting, but we don’t really know what it means.”

This prompted a response from an old friend I know from university, asking me what I thought of it. I replied as follows:

“Kind of agree. I aim to declare with boldness that which I acknowledge I might be wrong about.”

This prompted a response from a Methodist follower of mine to say

“Then we are lost”

I stated at the time that I would then aim to put a little more nuance on this in a blog post. So this should hopefully add a little more flesh to the matter, though it is by no means my final word on the topic.

First, a little on the context. This came up at a monthly bible school I have recently started attending at the church I’ve settled at after having moved house last year. The overall discussion was about the Magi, with a significant portion devoted to whether or not they were Zoroastrians. The point at this stage in the discussion had been about Jewish eschatology and how a good many intelligent people had ideas about how and when the Messiah would come, but what actually happened, even though it fitted up with the Old Testament prophecies, still came rather unexpectedly. Therefore, though we have a wealth of ideas about christian eschatology, ideas of heaven, hell, resurrection and annihilation, it might well turn that we have all got a little bit right most mostly wrong, and that what we expect will be radically confounded. It was at this point that the original quote came in.

Quoting things on Twitter is fraught with danger, as the brevity of that medium necessarily entails curtailed explanations. I posted the quote almost at a whim (something I do far more often there than on this blog), but it highlighted a strand of thinking that often runs through my head; that being what I expressed briefly in my follow-up. To expand upon it, I would draw a dichotomy between humility and hubris. Humility says, “I might be wrong.” Hubris says, “I am right.” Of course, just about any human who holds an opinion does so because they think they are right. But it is one thing to think you are right and another to state categorically that you are right.

So I hold many opinions on a variety of topic – some of which get written about here, some of which it may be wiser to refrain from – and in each of these I think I’m correct. But to think that I am so well-informed, intelligent and wise to think that I understand all things perfectly would be absurd. I have been wrong about a great many things before and I think it is probable that there are views I hold now which will turn out to be wrong. Of course, I don’t at this time know which ones they are.

So when I use the word “know” I mean an epistemological certainty. Those things that I “know” are really very few. For all other things, one might consider some sort of scale of doubt. I might be pretty sure about some things. For example, I would have no doubt that the main colour of the laptop on which I am writing this is red. That is something I am happy to say I know. I am pretty sure of the contents of my fridge at the moment. I last looked in it a few hours ago and could quite happily run off a list of what’s there; yet I might make a mistake. I might have miscounted the tubs of yoghurt, for instance, or forgotten to put the sweet chilli sauce back in the fridge after using it for tonight’s dinner.

So when it comes to something like christianity, I am constantly revising my views in light of new evidence or a new perspective. Because I believe the great commission, I am an evangelical. It is right for the church (as a whole) to educate people about the gospel. And we do not do it with a spirit of timidity, but that doesn’t mean it is to be done with a kind of bolshie arrogance. To try to sell christianity as something that ‘has all the answers’ is to not only mislead others, but is a lie to oneself. I can say ‘this is what I believe and this is why’ and even state ‘I believe, to the best of my understanding, that this is true’ but I cannot go so far as to state my beliefs are unequivocally perfect and complete. And if they are not, then I must, out of honesty, confess that I might be wrong.

I bang my head against the wall when evangelicals are misleadingly portrayed – a response to Giles Fraser

When you have invested much of your life into something, it is bound to have an emotional effect if, or when, someone attacks it. Some attacks may be warranted; some may even be done with a measure of grace. Unfortunately, neither of these is could be said of Giles Fraser’s spiteful attack on evangelical christians which was published in the Guardian recently.

His misleading caricature on evangelical christians (or as I prefer to call them, christians – see here for more on what I mean by the term evangelical) seems, at the start, to be based on school assemblies he has with the under 5s. That, combined with the picture of Ned Flanders, did not bode well if this was meant to be a well thought-through, reasonable piece.

This is what evangelicals call “a personal relationship” by which they mean that Cheesus [sic] has become their boyfriend or best mate,” writes the anglican minister. Now I have met a handful of christians who might loosely, if somewhat mean-spiritedly, be described as holding such a view. They are, however, a tiny minority and may make up no more than half a dozen or so out of a medium-sized congregation of hundred or so. In this regard, there is a grain of truth in what he writes. But a grain of sand does not make a beach. To take such a viewpoint and apply it to a wide spectrum of belief is both unfair and unreasonable. Indeed, as I sat at my table to write this response I got rather stuck, given the variety of views that I have come across from evangelicals from a number of different denominations over the last three decades. As such, I can only write this from the perspective of one evangelical, me. Others may agree with what I have to say, some may disagree. That is the very nature of being a non-conformist and a result of free thinking.

So is Jesus my best buddy? Of course not, but there is an element of truth in the personal relationship theme. Because of Jesus’ actions at Easter, both the crucifixion and the resurrection, humans can be put in a right standing with relation to God. This idea is generally known as justification. Though the relationship is not really that of a boyfriend or best buddy, more like the relationship a child has with their parent. That said, it may still have aspects of friendship within it. John 15 records Jesus speaking to his disciples as his friends. Does this extend to his modern-day disciples? Maybe. James 2:23 refers to Abraham as a friend of God. Was that reserved for Abraham, or might it be possible for us? Possibly the best exposition of our relation to God is given in the book of Hebrews, where the writer describes the priesthood of all believers, with Jesus as the high priest, though I’ve written on this before if you want a fuller discussion.

There is not a little irony with Giles Fraser’s use of the term, ‘Patronising, superior and faux caring all at the same time.’ The first two could certainly be applied to his own article, although not the third as he seems to care even less about needlessly offending people than he does about portraying them accurately.

He states that ‘Rowan Williams never spoke of Cheesus [sic].’ Given Giles Fraser’s peculiar portrayal of ‘Cheesus’ this may well be right. However, even though such a simplistic viewpoint of christianity may exist, it is by no means the prevalent view, so not many evangelical christians, let alone the ministers of such churches, speak of Cheesus either. To judge all evangelicals on the basis of one or two who portray slightly lax thinking would be to judge all anglicans on the basis of one minister I encountered whose sermon consisted of reading the newspaper headlines and telling the congregation ‘As christians, this is what we ought to think of such-and-such.’ Nor would I base my view on my time at university, when our college chaplain, who was also canon at the local cathedral would only such much as allude to Jesus but never speak openly of him, let alone give an exposition of a passage of scripture. To him, Jesus was a figure that it was assumed all would know fully. Any sermons consisted of looking at pieces of art and talking about vague ways in which the art “reminded” us of a few aspects of Jesus’ character, though that never involved his turning the tables on the money changers or the one who endured agony on the cross. That was not the Jesus the chaplain preached about. Though such people exist, even in positions of seniority in the church of England, it would be unfair to characterise all anglicans as such. Indeed, as the chaplain was canon at Durham cathedral, it is likely that he knew the new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and his predecessor at Durham, Tom Wright, both of whom have been labelled at one time or another as coming from the “evangelical” end of the spectrum.

This brings me to the next point of engagement: Giles Fraser’s claim that to regard the cross as a moment of victory is “theologically illiterate.” Yet if the case can be so simple and accurate at the same time, then to do so would result in regarding Wright as such. After all, did he not write Jesus and the Victory of God which made just this point (in particular pages 592-611)? Though he may not be to everyone’s liking, it would be a brave man indeed who might call Wright theologically illiterate.  That said, as before, there is a modicum of truth in what Giles Fraser writes. If one were to solely view the cross as a moment of victory, then a vital aspect of Easter may be overlooked. Yet it would be equally wrong to ignore any aspect of God’s victory, pretending it didn’t happen.

The cross was undoubtedly an event of great suffering. Different people have different emphases on this suffering. You can you usually tell a catholic cross because the figure of Jesus will still be present on the cross. Those from a more protestant church will have the cross empty, perhaps focusing more on the resurrection. I may well be in the minority of evangelical christians who have read Moltmann’s The Crucified God, where the idea of God suffering is explored extensively. Though I’m not sure it’s required reading in high church anglicanism prior to confirmation. Whether we emphasise the suffering of the crucifixion or the joy of the resurrection, the two lynchpins of Easter ought not to be divorced from one another. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians, Paul opens his letter by talking of the power of the cross and declaring that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus the Messiah and him crucified.” Yet the natural progression of the letter leads him to climax the letter with chapter 15, perhaps one of the greatest expositions of resurrection theology and what it means for the world.

Giles Fraser supposes that ‘Cheesus [sic] cannot deal with tragedy.’ This seems to be the point that has upset most people, judging by the reactions I have read so far. I don’t deny that many christians have trouble in dealing with tragedy. But is this because we are evangelicals who hold to some Disney-like Jesus and spend our time singing “All things bright and beautiful”? No. We find it difficult because we are human. Tragedy is difficult whether you are low-church evangelical, high church, atheist or catholic. If anything, I’d be worried by anyone who did find tragedy easy to deal with. We all deal with loss in our own way and we all have different ways of responding to tragedy in those around us. Some feel the compulsion to say something, nomatter how platitudinous it may be. For my part, I treat others how I would want to be treated, which is to say I prefer on the whole to be left alone. I will offer, though only once, to listen to anyone if they want to talk or to offer practical help on things like cooking or cleaning. Simplistic words of comfort rarely go down well, yet it would be misleading to pretend that this is adopted by all evangelicals or that such an approach is unique to them. One of the thorniest questions that can be asked of a christian is ‘how can bad things happen to good people?’ not only because of the implicit assumption that we know and understand the meaning of the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ but because it is something  that is barely addressed in the gospels. The closest we have in in Luke 13 when Jesus refers to the tower of Siloam falling and killing lots of people. His answer is little more telling than if he had simply said, “shit happens.”

Perhaps one might consider engaging with just a few (out of many) books written on the subject of dealing with pain, tragedy or loss. Surely, if any writer is more likely to be found on the shelves of evangelicals, it is C.S. Lewis, author of The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. Or for looking at the subject of unanswered prayer, I’d highly recommend God on Mute. There is scant little of Cheesus in this work, even opening with a note of exasperation with some fellow evangelicals. Oh, by the way, the author, Pete Greig, happens to be on the staff at Holy Trinity Brompton, an anglican church which Giles Fraser seems to have, at best, deep suspicions about, or at worst, a disdainful phobia.

With the instalment of the new pope and the archbishop of Canterbury, religion has been near the top of the news a lot recently. Whether you like it or not, it is a topic that interests people. As a non-conformist evangelical, being neither a catholic or an anglican, I have been hoping that these two leaders who have the ears of much of the world might be able to use their positions to faithfully declare the gospel.  I don’t think they’ve made a bad start. Both catholic and anglican churches have their problems, which people love to focus on; but so do many other churches from other denominations who don’t command the same level of press coverage. Christians of all denominations need to be faithful to the gospel and present Jesus as accurately as we can to the rest of the world. Then people can make an informed decision as to whether to accept or reject him and his message. Caricatures of Jesus, whether peddled by evangelicals or high church traditionalists, are not helpful.

Theology ought not to be about publically bashing those we disagree but about studying the logos theou  – God’ word, working to understand what it means and its implications, listening to one another and to the voices from the who have engaged with the same questions. A church without theology is baseless and a theology without the church is pointless.