The Evangelical Alliance rejects Oasis, and me?

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.

Steve ChalkeOver 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”.

The Faithworks Declaration

Last week I wrote about the Westminster 2010 Declaration of Christian Conscience, and expressed mixed feelings about it. This week I can commend a different Christian declaration relating to the General Election: The Faithworks 2010 Declaration. Thanks to The Simple Pastor for the link – the first I had seen highlighting the declaration, although others including David Keen had linked to other election-related material from Faithworks.

Faithworks is the Christian campaigning group founded by Steve Chalke, who intends to present the Declaration in person to the incoming Prime Minister. Steve has already interviewed the three main contenders, and David Keen has embedded the video, which deserves a lot more than the 1081 views it has received so far.

Here is the text of the Declaration:

This is why we are calling on the incoming Prime Minister to:

  1. Recognise the important contribution that local churches and Christian charities have made historically, and can make in the coming years in providing services within local communities across the UK.
  2. Acknowledge the indispensible role that faith in Christ plays in the motivation and effectiveness of welfare programs developed by churches and Christian charities.
  3. Encourage and promote further initiatives and deeper partnership underpinned by legislation, which assess services based on best value and contribution to the whole community, without discriminating against the faith that is vital to the success of the work of churches and faith-based organisations.

Now some might consider me hypocritical for rejecting the Westminster 2010 Declaration as not comprehensive enough but accepting this Faithworks Declaration which is much less comprehensive. The difference is that the Westminster Declaration seems to claim to be comprehensive, whereas the Faithworks one is explicitly about one particular area of concern to Christians – one which has been ignored by the Westminster group.

Incidentally the Westminster Declaration has attracted so far only 22,403 signatures – not very impressive beside the 71,127 currently signed up for the Facebook campaign to get Christian music topping the UK Charts!

Somehow I can’t see the Westminster Declaration, however well supported, having much effect on British political life. But, if it gets good support, the Faithworks Declaration, presented by a man who clearly already has the respect of our political leaders (although sadly not of some Christian leaders), has a real chance of affecting how our next government, of whatever colour, relates to Christian and other faith-based groups working for the good of this country’s community. Go ahead and sign up!

Worship, cessationism, and Steve Chalke

As I predicted in last week, I have been rather busy recently, so no time for an in depth post, just for some reflections on what I have been reading.

Today I have had some time for blogging, but have been distracted into an interesting conversation at TC Robinson’s blog New Leaven. The post that started it was on worship, and indeed ties up somewhat with my last post. But the discussion on it quickly got on to how worship might be affected by the alleged cease of spiritual gifts, or some of them, at the end of the apostolic age. The cessationists Richard and dvopilgrim seem to be arguing that the clearest biblical model for church worship, in 1 Corinthians 14, is no longer valid because prophecy and other gifts have ceased. Thus they set aside the specific commands of God through the Apostle Paul, starting in verse 1, because they conflict with a human tradition of teaching. At least, that’s my side of the discussion; read the comment thread for Richard and dvo’s responses.

Meanwhile David Matthias, who is an elder in newfrontiers, gives a positive report of a meeting with Steve Chalke. This makes a nice change from the attitude of his fellow newfrontiers elder Adrian Warnock (correction 6th March: Adrian is not an elder at his church, but he is a regular preacher there), who a couple of years ago in effect publicly cursed Chalke – and by extension myself. David doesn’t agree with Steve about the atonement, but he shows proper Christian love in his disagreement.

Well, I suppose I shouldn’t expect newfrontiers elders all to be of one mind, as I certainly wouldn’t expect that of Church of England ministers. Indeed recently I have been getting to know and working well with one of the elders of our local newfrontiers church here in Chelmsford. I have no idea of this man’s attitude to Steve’s teaching. But it is somewhat ironic that this church meets in Adrian’s old school but uses the same name as Steve’s Oasis organisation.

Avery Dulles (1918-2008) on Jesus' Atoning Death

Since this blog is back on the subject of why Jesus died, I thought it would be interesting to link to the views of the recently deceased Avery Dulles, a Roman Catholic cardinal described by John Hobbins as “an enthusiastic supporter of the Evangelical Catholic movement” (John’s link replaced by a more appropriate one). Michael Barber has posted an extract from Dulles’ writing which is of great relevance to the atonement debates on this blog and others.

Here is a large part of what Michael quotes from Dulles:

One person may represent another, but cannot substitute for that other except in a merely functional way. As Dorothee Sölle has brilliantly explained, substitution is the definitive exchange of reified objects, whereas representation is the provisional intervention of persons on behalf of other persons. To retain this distinction, it seems preferable to avoid speaking of “substitutionary atonement” in the case of Jesus Christ. Sölle herself proposes to speak rather of Christ the Representative…

Because there is no mechanical substitution of one person for another, the representative death of Christ does not automatically remit the guilt of sinners. The merits of Christ are not simply imputed to us by some kind of juridical fiction; rather we are truly and inwardly healed through the infusion of the grace that flows from him. We have to allow ourselves to be taken over by Christ as he stands in for us. This we do by appropriating Christ’s action on our behalf through free and personal acts of faith, hope, and loving obedience…

Does the vicarious nature of redemption mean that Jesus is punished in our place? Some authors, indulging in very powerful rhetoric, describe in lurid terms the way in which the wrath of the eternal Father was visited upon the guiltless Son, so that he felt rejected and even hated by God…

Against these views, I would insist that Jesus remained at all times the well-beloved Son, living in close communion with the Father through the incomparable grace that flooded his soul…

The advantages of the representational sacrifice theory, and the answers to the objections raised against it, may be clarified by a review of the alternative theories described at the opening of this paper. In some ways the sacrificial interpretation, as I have proposed it, resembles the first theory, that of penal substitution, but the differences are important. Both theories maintain that Jesus suffered terrible ordeals and thereby won for sinners a release from the pains they deserve. But the penal substitution theory makes it appear that God punishes the innocent in place of the guilty, thereby suggesting that God is unjust. The theory of representative headship, by contrast, looks upon Jesus as one who offered satisfaction, rather than endured punishment. These are true alternatives. As Anselm insisted, sin requires either punishment or satisfaction; satisfaction takes the place of punishment… Satisfaction is voluntarily given, whereas punishment must be coercively endured. Satisfaction, unlike punishment, can be offered by the innocent as well as by the guilty.

Punishment, as an act of justice, must be strictly proportioned to the offense, but satisfaction, as a work of love, may be superabundant. According to Thomas Aquinas, Christ “offered to God more than was required to compensate for the sin of all humanity.”

For more of this, read Michael’s post, or follow his link (which I have not done) to the whole of Dulles’ article.

What Dulles wrote seems to me to make a lot of sense. Penal substitution is sometimes seen as a mere variant of Anselm’s satisfaction model of the atonement. But Dulles makes it clear how different it is – or at least how different certain popular understandings of penal substitution are. And it is against these popular understandings that writers like Steve Chalke and Jeffrey John reacted so strongly.

But, to be fair, the position of the more careful proponents of penal substitutionary atonement, such as J.I. Packer, is not so different from that of Dulles. Packer writes:

The Trinitarian principle is that the three distinct persons within the divine unity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, always work inseparably together, as in creation, so in providence and in every aspect of the work of redemption. … It was with his own will and his own love mirroring the Father’s, therefore, that he took the place of human sinners exposed to divine judgment and laid down his life as a sacrifice for them, entering fully into the state and experience of death that was due to them. Then he rose from death to reign by the Father’s appointment in the kingdom of God.

I would be surprised if Dulles would have had serious disagreement with Packer’s article.

Atonement: the Warnock wars

I am keeping up my resolution not to read Adrian Warnock’s blog. But that doesn’t stop me reading about his latest offerings at his unrelated namesake Dave’s blog. And what I read there doesn’t encourage me to start reading Adrian’s again. It seems that these two have restarted what Adrian has called the “Warnock wars”, and on most issues here I am firmly on Dave’s side.

In his latest series Adrian, as reported by Dave, returns to the issue of the atonement, and Steve Chalke’s view of it. The first of Dave’s new series of posts ends with:

Well thank-you very much Adrian, I am sure we are all grateful for your attempts to break up reconciliation between evangelical Christians.

Make sure you read several other posts and comments before moving on to Dave’s latest post, which ends as follows:

Near the start of his post Adrian writes:

One of my major concerns about this whole debate is what a rejection of PSA does to our view of the Bible.

Absolutely it challenges a simplisitic partial reading of Scripture in favour of a thorough and respectful dialogue with the whole of Scripture – a truely evangelical approach to scripture. What a wonderful idea that is, fopr me the wonder of opening up models of atonement and considering others besides Penal Substitution is that we find new ways of understanding God that are far more in tune with Jesus the Son of God as revealed in Scripture. Go on try it, I promise the view on this side of the fence is fantastic. What a wonderful loving God we serve!

Mark Driscoll head to head with Joel Osteen

Adrian Warnock has posted an interesting video (ten minutes long) of two well-known American preachers head to head. The video is basically part of a sermon by Mark Driscoll, but it includes a long clip from a sermon by Joel Osteen. Driscoll is one of Adrian’s favourites, and has had some generally not so favourable mention on this blog; nevertheless I respect him for his no-nonsense approach. Osteen is, I understand, well known in the USA for his prosperity teaching on TV and radio, but is not so well known here in the UK.

Adrian’s main point in posting this video is to present it as “a model of gracious rebuke”, of Osteen by Driscoll. And indeed it is this. If only Adrian and his other favourite speakers had treated Steve Chalke with this same grace, rather than accusing him of heresy! Then the whole atonement debate would have been a lot less bitter. I too need to take Driscoll as an example of how to show gentle wisdom over such issues.

But I want to look more at the different approaches represented here by Osteen and Driscoll. Continue reading

PS doesn't matter: hyperbole or understatement?

Lingamish, in a comment, is relieved to read that Penal Substitution just doesn’t matter. Well, in comments on his new lingalinga blog he and I were just discussing hyperbole, which he calls “my default discourse register”; I wrote

We Brits, maybe the Kiwis too, go in more for understatement.

to which he replied

Understatement on the Internet works about as well as whispering in a train station.

Maybe. Well, the Kiwi I had in mind in the above quote was not our friend Andrew, and as I can’t read his mind I’m not sure quite how literally he intended anyone to take his post Why PS just doesn’t matter. But for me, affirming what Andrew wrote was in fact a touch of hyperbole. Or is a hyperbolic statement of something negative, like this one, in fact understatement? Of course what I wrote, and probably what Andrew wrote, was intended as a reaction to the hype (this word is surely an abbreviation of “hyperbole”) about Steve Chalke’s comments and about Pierced for Our Transgressions.

Let me clarify my position. I do affirm and believe in the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, as defined for example by JI Packer in a clearly Trinitarian way, as one proper and valid description of the atonement. But this doctrine seems to be largely a theoretical one, with no practical consequences, as long as the character of God is not demeaned by presentations with connotations of pagan child sacrifice. It is not central to my faith or to my understanding of it. I am happy for theologians to debate this doctrine, as long as they heed Packer’s point that “there is here an element of transcendent mystery” and avoid presuming to tie down God’s work with detailed formulations. But these are matters for the experts, not for everyday teaching in churches, and still less for initial presentations of the Gospel to unbelievers.

In a comment here, in response to one of mine, Iyov asked:

Hmm, which is the more important doctrine in Christian thought: Junia or atonement. Tough one.

A tough one indeed! Of course the atonement has been discussed more through the ages. However, decisions on practical issues for the church, whether one accepts women in leadership, depend on a proper understanding of Junia in Romans 16:7; see the more than 30 postings about this at Better Bibles Blog. But what are the practical consequences of a precise understanding of the atonement? None, as far as I can see, except for ones artificially imposed by those who set up a particular doctrine of the atonement as a touchstone for unity.

So let’s cut the hype and move on to some understatement about penal substitutionary atonement.

Adrian claims at last to have finished his series on the atonement. We shall see if this really is the end. If so, I expect to bring my discussion of this issue to a gradual end, although I do intend to look at the second part of Reuben’s review of Pierced for Our Transgressions, and I also plan to read and review Norman McIlwain’s book The Biblical Revelation of the Cross, of which he kindly sent me a copy.

Cunningham: God does forgive

Sorry to keep on about the atonement, but this is important …

Previously I reported that Richard Cunningham, Director of UCCF, said that “God never forgives”, or “God doesn’t forgive sin”. I am pleased to report, courtesy of Adrian who has posted an article by him, that Cunningham now seems to have gone back on those words. For now he writes:

Forgiveness only becomes possible if God in Christ is punished for our sin and thus manages to satisfy (propitiate) God’s wrath towards human wickedness.

Presumably these printed words are to be understood as more authoritative than his words in a sermon, variously reported and not given in their full context. Since Cunningham does seem to believe in some kind of forgiveness of sins, I can now retract my accusation of heresy. I would like to apologise for the misunderstanding.

But what are we to make of this new version of Cunningham’s thinking?

Continue reading

Adrian curses Chalke, Wright and me

My last post on Adrian’s apostasy was not to be taken seriously. But this one is. Apostasy is not quite the right word. But what is the right word for someone who pronounces a public curse on his brothers and sisters in Christ for disagreeing with him on a theological issue?

In fact I rather appreciated most of Adrian’s interview with the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions. It helped me to understand better where these authors are coming from and why they felt the need to write this book – although I can’t entirely agree with them. It is only in the last few paragraphs of Adrian’s interview that he steps well beyond the mark.

Continue reading