Sexuality: Evangelical Alliance responds unconvincingly to Steve Chalke
Evangelical Alliance general director Steve Clifford has criticised the influential evangelical leader Steve Chalke for changing his stance on homosexuality. UK-based Baptist minister Chalke now believes that the Bible does not rule out faithful, committed same-sex partnerships. While Clifford raises important issues, he is ultimately unconvincing.
In an article in Christianity magazine, Chalke had pointed out how easy it was to misread the Bible, as on the issues of the solar system, the role of women and slavery. Instead “thoughtful conformity to Christ – not unthinking conformity to either contemporary culture or ancient textual prohibitions” should be central to Christian ethical thinking.
He stated that the Bible is “a very diverse collection of books, written in many different times and cultures, containing an array of perspectives, not a few tensions, and even some apparent contradictions.” He suggested that it should be read as “the account of the ancient conversation initiated, inspired and guided by God with and among humanity”, through which knowledge grows of “the character of Yahweh; fully revealed only in Jesus”, and which continues, “involving all of those who give themselves to Christ’s on-going redemptive movement.”
In this light he re-examined the passages often taken as forbidding same-sex relationships, and questioned their applicability to permanent faithful partnerships. He emphasised the damage caused by the church’s historical “failure to provide homosexual people with any model of how to cope with their sexuality, except for those who have the gift of, or capacity for, celibacy. In this way we have left people vulnerable and isolated.” It was time instead to “consider nurturing positive models for permanent and monogamous homosexual relationships”.
Clifford’s response, published on the EA website and in Christianity Today, starts by mentioning that he is a longstanding friend of Chalke, but expresses “sadness and disappointment” that he “has not only distanced himself from the vast majority of the evangelical community here in the UK, but indeed from the Church across the world and 2,000 years of biblical interpretation.”
This is an exaggeration. There are plenty of evangelicals in the UK and beyond who broadly agree with Chalke or are undecided, and church tradition is rather more varied and at times ambiguous, though it is true that most Christians have disapproved of sex between two men or two women. But then, up to mediaeval times, most Christians believed that the Bible presented a very different picture of the cosmos from what is now known.
Clifford appears to fall into the trap of conformity other than to Christ. While he accuses Chalke of taking an approach to biblical interpretation which “allows for a god in the likeness of 21st century Western-European mindsets”, he fails to recognise that hostility to same-sex relationships may also be culturally influenced. Clifford seems reluctant to acknowledge that, if theologians of the calibre of Martin Luther could sometimes be wildly wrong, so might he. Certainly the work of the many eminent theologians calling for acceptance, some of them evangelical, should not be so dogmatically dismissed.
Likewise, Clifford criticises Chalke for undermining the many Christians attracted to the same sex who make “courageous lifestyle decisions” to be celibate. But what of the many others who end up in despair, sometimes even losing their faith?
“We all come to the gospel in our brokenness, with an attachment to things, self-centeredness, addictions, fears and pride. We all need a saviour in every area of our lives, including our sexuality,” declares Clifford. The “radical inclusiveness I believe the gospel offers to all of us. God doesn't leave us on our own, He promises to work in us, to bring us into our ultimate goal which is His likeness.”
But surely this applies as much to heterosexual as to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people, and there is considerable evidence that committed loving partnerships can be a space in which spiritual growth takes place.
However he is correct in urging that “Jesus requires us to disagree without being disagreeable. We must listen honestly and carefully to one another, being courteous and generous.”
* More from Ekklesia on this Steve Chalke: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/2438
* For a detailed analysis of the in-depth theological discussions relating to this issue, see: 'Journey towards acceptance: theologians and same-sex love': Journey towards acceptance: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17246
(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular commentator on religion, politics, theology and church affairs. An Ekklesia associate, she has particular expertise in the area of debates about sexuality and the Bible, and has written extensively for us and for others on these and allied topics - including several chapters in the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Ekklesia / Shoving Leopard, 2008).
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