Jonathan Bartley

How evangelicals are betraying their heritage

By Jonathan Bartley
July 15, 2009

Two weeks ago a new coalition of evangelical and Anglo-Catholic parishes launched within the Church of England, claiming to uphold the "traditional biblical view" on homosexuality.

But such a coalition was unlikely to have beencontemplated by evangelicals at many times gone by. For the original evangelical spirit, with its reforming zeal and progressive outlook, was more often at odds with traditionalists, than aligned with them. The idea of an alliance with those of a conservative disposition would have been an anathema.

This should give evangelicals pause for thought. The new partnership is an indication of the extent to which evangelicals have turned their backs on their own heritage. Long gone are the Christian pioneers marked out by their radical and refreshing message of love. In their place stand backward looking, establishment figures intent on maintaining a certain religiosity.

Often quoted by evangelicals, particularly during the recent celebrations marking the anniversary of the end of the transatlantic slave trade, were the activities of the Clapham sect, maverick MP William Wilberforce and the wider movement which over decades brought significant reform and change. The presence of members of the church who were on the other side of the debate is often forgotten. And as with the current division over homosexuality, both sides used arguments from the Bible to make their case.

Only one side however, claimed to be upholding "traditional biblical morality" and that was the one which wanted to defend the church's involvement in perpetuating injustice. It was the establishment Christians, the conservatives, who defended the traditional religious ideas which brought pain and suffering to thousands. It was evangelicals who brought the new biblical interpretation.

Go back another hundred years and one finds that the origins of evangelicalism lay in its radical challenge to moralising legalism. John Wesley, with his message of justification by faith, was locked out of churches. His biblical message was believed by the religious to undermine morality, not uphold it.

The evangelical heritage, for all its faults, is a rich one. Much evangelical activism has been driven by love and concern for surrounding society. The huge outpouring of philanthropy in the 18th and 19th centuries laid many of the foundations for the welfare state. Historian Kathleen Heasman suggested that at least half of such activity was evangelical in character.

One might ask, as the new breed of establishment evangelicals launched its latest initiative, where the display of love was? Was it in the evangelical Bishop of Rochester's comments reported by the Daily Telegraph that gay people should repent?

Or was it perhaps in the groups of Christians who stood alongside the marginalised and attended the Gay Pride march in London wearing badges and stickers quoting verses from the Bible such as 1 John 4, 18: "Love drives out fear".

Evangelical leader John Stott defined evangelicals are "Bible people" and "Gospel people". The Bible and the Gospel are claimed by both sides in the debate about the place of gay men and women within the church. But neither side should forget that the Gospel, as defined by evangelicals long ago, offered a message of liberty in place of legalism and never belonged to those who excluded and condemned.


This article first appeared in the Guardian's Comment Is Free.

(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia.

Keywords:gafcon | fca | evangelicals
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