Real Evangelicals are not anti-gay extremists

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”.

Roy ClementsIn 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.

and that

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.

0 thoughts on “Real Evangelicals are not anti-gay extremists

  1. Peter, I think both sides need to come to an understanding that we’re all in the same boat. We’re all sinners, straight and gay alike, and we all need to repent of our sinfulness and turn and follow Jesus. Both sides know what the scriptures say about homosexuality. It also says much the same about other sins. None of us can make it on our own; it’s all about the Grace of God in Jesus for us. My heart goes out to both sides. We all need to forgive as Christ forgives us.

  2. Thanks, Gary. Yes, we are all sinners saved by grace, and it is wrong to single out homosexual practice especially if at the same time we condone divorce and remarriage, greed, anger, oppressing foreigners, warmongering and all kinds of other sins which many evangelicals ignore.

  3. Thanks for the link to Roy’s pages, Peter. Having known him (not very closely) when I was a student in Cambridge in the 1990s, I have thought of him a lot over the last 12 years since his crisis. Always with great sadness – both for him and for those he influenced. Now I’ve read some of the papers on his website, and I sense a deep and sad irony in the way this issue, surely so much one of the heart is dominated by his pleas to head and reason. Perhaps then, in a way, his crisis was not despite his rationalist evangelicalism, but actually because of it!

  4. Peter, thank you for giving this an airing.

    To me, it’s firstly about hermeneutics – the interepretation of the Bible.

    Let’s start with creationism. Whether you call them fundamentalists or not, there are plenty of evangelicals who have young earth creationist views and regard this as the correct interpretation of the Bible. They consider the scientific evidence that contradicts this to be flawed. They would say that their position is also one of reason. An important factor behind this is that if you treat Genesis 1-3 as non-literal, it creates exegetical problems in the new testament, eg the Pauline view of Adam. They would say that the inspiration and authority of the Bible is only compatible with their view. So creationists tend to see other evangelicals as “compromised” and look down on them. You may think it’s just an American issue, but no, there is a huge divide over this topic in the UK as well.

    Likewise with sexuality. The traditional view is that the Bible says that homosexuality is deviant and sinful, and I suspect that a large majority of evangelicals take this position. What Roy Clements, and others, are doing, is to argue that this is a wrong interpretation of the Bible. For this they are ostracised by the mainstream evangelical community, which generally refuses to engage with the issues they raise other than by quoting proof-texts. I find this rather regrettable.

    I think it’s safe to conclude that evangelicals are fairly divided over creationism, but more united over sexuality.

    The second thing I see this as being about is power and authority. Who has the right to decide doctrine and interpret the Bible? I see this as a key driver behind disputes in the church – people want to be able to tell others what to believe. The evangelical establishment doesn’t like being challenged. Evangelicalism has such an emphasis on truth that it doesn’t really have a way of handling differences of opinion and typically uses division as a means of coping (hence the zillions of protestant denominations). The truth is that our movement is a hugely fragmented one.

    The third thing I see is the role of non-Biblical factors in deciding doctrine. Are you familiar with the wesleyan quadrilateral? Most evengelicals prefer to ignore this and claim “scripture alone”, but in reality they are also employing tradition, reason and experience. We don’t read the Bible in a vacuum – we interpret it based on many external factors. This ties in nicely with what you say in your latest post about arguing.

    Sorry this is a bit rambling – hope it makes sense.

  5. Thank you, Andy. Your point links in with my newer post Addicted to Arguing? How to persuade others.

    Sidefall, I would suggest that those who “consider the scientific evidence that contradicts [young earth creationism] to be flawed”, if they are not rejecting science, have been misled by pseudo-scientists making pronouncements about matters on which they are unqualified. We are talking about a huge mass of evidence here, for an ancient earth and for a succession of species, which cannot be dismantled by picking a few small holes in it. The interpretation of this may be debatable, but not the basic facts of what happened. I am aware of the argument about a literal Adam but don’t consider it to clinch the issue.

    On homosexuality, I would just say that the people you mention need to look more carefully at the Bible passages in question, in context, and they might realise that the issues are not as clear cut as they think. And yes, there are power and control issues here.

  6. Peter, I don’t think it was clear from my previous post that I am one who believes that science and the Bible are totally compatible. And I agree that the evidence in favour of an old earth and some form of evolution is very strong. So I have to conclude that our interpretation of the Bible must reflect that – namely we mustn’t treat the creation accounts as literal histories. But my point is that there are plenty of christians who do, and we accommodate both viewpoints within evangelicalism, although each side often looks down on the other.

    However, when it comes to sexuality, it seems that, probably because there is a general consensus of opinion, there is no tolerance for different viewpoints.

  7. Just to add that I also agree with you that there is scope for debate as to what the Bible actually says on sexuality. But it seems that if you even question the accepted wisdom on the subject, you’ll be shunned, and so few theologians are willing to look into it.

  8. Sidefall, just to clarify, I don’t mean to suggest that young earth creationists are not Evangelicals. I just think they are mistaken on that issues – as many other evangelicals must be mistaken (as they can’t all be right!) on other secondary issues like baptism, church government etc. I would have a problem only with those who try to claim that only their view on any of these issues is an acceptable evangelical one.

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