Are Evangelicals unthinking extremists, filled with hate for homosexuals and others they don’t approve of, as often portrayed by the popular press? Roy Clements argues that real Evangelicals in fact “occupy the middle ground”.
In my post last week Do Evangelicals have to condemn gay sex? I linked to an article by Roy Clements What is an Evangelical? This was written in 2005, and so after he resigned as a pastor and a council member of the Evangelical Alliance and “came out” as gay.
It is hard to find a picture of Clements, despite his once high profile. The one I give here appears at a couple of websites, and appears to be dated 2002, but I cannot confirm that this is the right man. Note that I refrain from calling him “Dr” because his Ph.D. in Chemical Physics gives him no special authority relevant to this post.
Clements writes, without clarifying who apart from himself he means by “we”:
We have always regarded ourselves most emphatically as “evangelicals”, and our theological position has not changed in anyway. But we have been denounced as “liberals” because we do not accept the purported “evangelical view” on the gay issue.
There seems to be a determined attempt, at least by some within the evangelical camp, so to embed a particular view of homosexuality within the evangelical identity that there is no room left for dissenters like us. Indeed, the very existence of “gay evangelicals” has been conspicuously ignored in the entire debate. It seems, therefore, an appropriate moment to ask: “What is an evangelical?“. …
In much of the press coverage of the current debate, evangelicals have been portrayed as blinkered and intolerant extremists; and it must be admitted that the recent moralising pontifications of some self-appointed evangelical spokespersons have tended to encourage such a negative image. However, I want to suggest that, when they are true to their tradition, evangelicals are not extremists at all. On the contrary, they occupy the middle ground on these two key axes of Christian debate. It is only those who are currently trying to hijack the evangelical wing of the church and turn it into an anti-gay bandwagon who are extremists. And it is doubtful whether they deserve to be regarded as true evangelicals at all.
Clements goes on to explain how Evangelical identity ought rather to be determined by their stance on “these two key axes”. The first of them is “reason and the Bible”:
Evangelicals are, of course, first and foremost “Bible people”. … However, it is nonsense to suggest that evangelicals take their stand on the authority of the Bible in defiance of human reason. This has never been their position. True evangelicals have always sought to demonstrate that reason and the Bible are in harmony. When conflicts have arisen along this axis, evangelicals have always sought to hold on to both, even if this involves accepting a high degree of intellectual tension or uncertainty. The classic example of this, of course, has been the debate about creation and evolution. Thinking evangelicals … have recognised that it is no part of Christian discipleship to turn a blind eye to discoveries of science which indicate the earth is millions of years old.
Here Clements makes a contrast with “fundamentalists” who “adopt a blinkered literalism toward the Bible which science is not permitted to challenge” as well as with “liberals” who understand the Bible as a fallible witness. He is right to insist on this against the “fundamentalist” party which often tries to claim the Evangelical label as exclusively its own.
The second axis which Clements identifies is that of church tradition and individual conscience, and again he claims that evangelicals hold the centre ground, against “conservative catholics” who rely heavily on the institutional church and “radical protestants … who demonstrate little or no submission to the Christian community”. Now I’m not sure that the latter label is a fair one: radicalism does not imply individualism or a lack of commitment to the local church. But Clements is right to note that Evangelicals “have always tolerated diversity on a wide range of issues which they accept should be regarded as matters of private opinion.” And he is right to complain that Evangelicals are being pushed towards the conservative catholic position of uniformity on controversial issues.
Clements, for obvious reasons, then focuses on one particular controversial issue, homosexuality. He notes that
only a fundamentalist would suggest that, because the Bible has no idea of homosexual orientation, that this modern psychological understanding of what it means to be “gay” has to be rejected.
Only a very conservative catholic would try to force all Christians to follow a single line on an issue by appeal to the decisions of synods or the edict of popes.
Then he concludes his essay as follows:
Yet, for some unaccountable reason, evangelicals are not willing to keep either their minds or their options open over the question of homosexuality. Instead, they are allowing themselves to be aligned with conservative catholics and fundamentalists on the issue. It is, I say, a tragic abdication of our distinctive heritage. There will, of course, always be Christians around who perceive the wisdom of humbly holding the middle ground on the crucial twin axes we have discussed. The question is, will they for much longer want to call themselves “evangelicals”?
Roy Clements raises some very important issues here which need to be heard. Evangelical identity is under serious threat, both from those who want to impose uniformity on controversial issues, and from fundamentalists who want to reserve the name for themselves. Clements probably hasn’t been heard as clearly as he would otherwise have been because of his personal history. But he certainly should be heard.