I was sad to read this today:
the Evangelical Alliance have discontinued the membership of Oasis Trust.
The stated reason for this refers to “what has been perceived by some as a campaign to change the Church’s historic view on human sexuality”. Oasis UK, which was founded by Steve Chalke, has responded to this; see also Adrian Warnock’s blog post.
This parting of ways brings back memories for me from many years ago. In 1986 I attended the Spring Harvest Christian conference for the first time, at Prestatyn in North Wales. Graham Kendrick led the worship, highlighting his “Make Way” Carnival of Praise (“Shine, Jesus, Shine!” was the theme song the next year). Among the Christian leaders prominent at the event were Clive Calver, then General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance, and a young Baptist pastor Steve Chalke.
Clive Calver enthused the crowds that week with his vision for evangelical Christians putting aside differences over secondary matters to work together for the Gospel. He approached me personally, while I was browsing the book sale area, and signed me up as a personal member of the Alliance. I was happy to accept its vision, and its Basis of Faith. After 28 years, I am still a member and still happy to accept the (slightly revised) Basis of Faith. I note some things which are omitted from this document: any statement that the Bible is inerrant, and any mention of sexuality or sexual ethics.
Over the next few years Steve Chalke became a prominent figure in the British church, as he built up his now global Oasis network of community based projects. Among other projects, Oasis UK runs a number of Oasis Academies, Christian primary and secondary schools working within the state education system.
Meanwhile Chalke has become a controversial figure among evangelicals. As I reported here in 2007, his infamous words about “cosmic child abuse”, taken out of context by his critics, led to a split in the Spring Harvest movement. In the last few months he has caused renewed controversy with an article Restoring Confidence in the Bible, in which he questions, but does not reject, the historical accuracy of parts of the Old Testament, for example writing concerning Numbers 15:32-36:
Did God order this death or did Moses mishear him?
The Evangelical Alliance raised concerns about the “cosmic child abuse” controversy, but allowed Chalke and Oasis to remain Alliance members. However, they seem to have taken more serious issue with his 2013 paper A MATTER OF INTEGRITY: The Church, sexuality, inclusion and an open conversation, in which he takes on the thorny issue of the church accepting people in homosexual relationships. He writes:
Too often, those who seek to enter an exclusive, same-sex relationship have found themselves stigmatised and excluded by the Church. I have come to believe this is an injustice and out of step with God’s character as seen through Christ.
He seeks to justify his position with a detailed study of the relevant Bible passages – not by rejecting them as no longer applicable, as a non-evangelical would. His exegesis is of course controversial and not convincing to all. Nevertheless, the article is an attempt from within the evangelical tradition to apply biblical principles to a pressing pastoral issue.
As reported by Oasis, this article led to
an on-going conversation with the Evangelical Alliance. At their request, we have made several changes to our online content and believed that we had reached a point where both parties could be satisfied that our relationship would continue. We are, therefore, disappointed by their announcement…
However, it seems that the Evangelical Alliance Council has chosen this issue, and not the one of biblical authority or of the Atonement, as the grounds for declaring Oasis UK to be outside the evangelical family. It is extremely disappointing that this matter of sexual ethics has again been seen as more significant than central matters of the Christian faith.
The Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith says nothing about human sexuality, but it does include this, paragraph 4:
WE BELIEVE IN… The dignity of all people, made male and female in God’s image to love, be holy and care for creation, yet corrupted by sin, which incurs divine wrath and judgement.
Now I am sure that the drafters of this paragraph, with its very odd grammar, did not intend “to love”, with no explicit object, to include same sex relationships. But by expelling Oasis and rejecting Chalke’s call for “an open and generous acceptance of people with sexualities other than heterosexual”, the Alliance seems to be aligning itself with those in the church who stigmatise and exclude these people. Yet they too are among the “all people” whose dignity the Alliance professes to believe in – and all of us, not just them, are “yet corrupted by sin”.
In writing this, I don’t want to reject those who sincerely interpret Scripture as prohibiting same sex relationships, as long as they avoid judgmental or hate-filled expressions of those beliefs. But I do not consider it appropriate for the Evangelical Alliance, as an umbrella body, to take a definite position on this matter.
The Alliance also seems to be extending its belief in
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
to require its members to uphold a specific interpretation of those Scriptures, beyond what is specified elsewhere in the Basis of Faith.
In its action today the Evangelical Alliance seems to have turned its back on Clive Calver’s vision of evangelical Christians putting aside differences over secondary matters to work together. Instead it has elevated one particular secondary matter to be a touchstone of evangelicalism. And it has done so in a way which plays into the hands of the popular press, with its anti-Christian agenda of portraying the church as obsessed with sexuality and intolerably homophobic. This is most unfortunate.
Personally, I would not want to accept all of the positions that Steve Chalke has taken. But I would affirm his pastoral care for gay and lesbian people and his rejection of how the church has often stigmatised and excluded them. I would also affirm his right to explore, within the evangelical tradition, ways in which their full inclusion can be found compatible with biblical teaching. I would call on the Evangelical Alliance to reverse its decision and declare that acceptance of same sex relationships can be compatible with evangelicalism.
Since moving to the USA nearly two years ago, I have become more and more uneasy with the label “evangelical”. In North America this has become too much identified with positions on biblical inerrancy which I have never accepted, as well as with certain intolerant positions on “culture wars”, among which strong opposition to same sex marriage is currently prominent. I thought I was happy being an evangelical as defined in the UK, by the Evangelical Alliance among others. But if that definition is now shifting towards the American one, if specific positions on moral issues are becoming a touchstone, if “evangelical” is coming to mean much the same as “fundamentalist”, then is there any room left for people like me within the evangelical fold?
So, has the time come for me to join Oasis in parting company with the Evangelical Alliance? I hope not, but if things continue in the current direction this may be coming soon.
The Evangelical Alliance concludes its statement as follows:
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.
This at least is good. Let us indeed agree “to avoid any unseemly dispute and to speak well of each other”.