Steve Chalke’s public statement on the issue of homosexuality has inevitably ignited a firestorm of responses. Some are positive, most so far are negative and that’s to be expected. Most are respectful and I hope it remains that way.
If anyone wants to be in on the debate, then do Steve the courtesy of actually reading what he said. The longer version of his article is to be found here.
Because of the heightened nature of the debate, I feel it necessary to remind people, as others have done on their blogs, that what I express here is my own view, evidence of my own wrestling with scripture, and not a view that is representative of the mission I serve. That can be a tricky distinction to hold on to – not for me but the reader – but I ask that you do so.
So if I may attempt a contribution to the debate, it is from the perspective of one who makes no claims to be an academic in the technical sense of the term. This isn't some kind of self-deprecating platitude. I am not a biblical scholar nor a professional theologian and I need to learn from those for whom these are areas of expertise. But like many I am a thoughtful follower of Christ and if I may draw some comfort from scripture, it was often the religious elite who got things wrong while the unassuming man or woman got things profoundly right. So can I encourage a wider engagement with this important issue, not least from those who have a holy hunch that something needs to change and who will not be cowed by those who do know more but may not necessarily know better. Learn – yes. But take responsibility for your own discernment.
the issue of inclusion
I’ve written a number of times of my concern that gay people, many Christians among them, have found little reason historically to experience the church, and especially evangelical churches, as good news. That does not mean we change our convictions in order to somehow become good news – I know that – but it does create in me a restlessness to ensure that our inherited convictions are as trustworthy as we believe them to be. Theology and ethics have developed constantly over the centuries so we must not be fearful when these convictions come under the microscope.
I have made such pleas for a radical inclusion before now, most recently in my December 2012 posts “Who’s in? Who’s out? Who decides?" and “Theological Contours” and only reference these here as an indication that what I share are not a knee jerk reaction to this week's news.
Others will comment on the biblical exegesis of various texts, or on the strengths and weaknesses of Steve Chalke’s hermeneutics. There are characteristically robust but helpful contributions from Steve Clifford and Stephen Holmes on the EA website and so too from Malcolm Duncan though there are aspects of Malcolm’s blog that could have been better phrased and border on an attack on Steve’s integrity. (There will be others blogs too, but it would be helpful if there were no more from people called Steve!)
I probably need to place a stake in the ground, lest others presume they know my views. I’ve stated a few times that my views are actually quite conservative but I don’t think everyone believes me! I just didn’t want for the debate to be about fixed theological positions, which can stifle creative imagination but about attitudes to those we seem to exclude, but I guess at this stage it will help me to try and say a little about where I stand.
In my recent post (“Who’s in? Who’s out? Who decides?") I stated that a quest for a radical inclusion is not the same thing as saying I believe homosexuality can be viewed as some kind of equivalent but mirror-image of heterosexuality. This would be an unwarranted conclusion and flies in the face of the biblical testimony to the rootedness of heterosexuality in creation, in a way that homosexuality is not. This male-female rootedness in creation echoes something profoundly mysterious in the very nature of God (Genesis 1:27). This gives rise in turn to the simile of Christ to his church, and the resultant marriage / ‘bride of Christ’ metaphor (Ephesians 5). This is the basis of my opposition to the proposed redefinition of marriage being proposed by the Government, a view I expressed in a written submission to the Government when the consultation was open late last year. This may disappoint those who might have wondered I’d have thought otherwise but that’s my view.
the pastoral dimension
This leads me to the pastoral dimension. There are those who will argue that to advocate celibacy to a gay man or woman is no different than the call to celibacy given to a straight man or woman who is single. Please, can this argument be ditched and can we allow our hearts to connect to our heads. There is a world of difference between advocating celibacy because someone hasn’t met a life partner yet, and advocating celibacy because someone is gay. One holds out hope. The other is a life sentence without parole. I just do not see the equivalence here.
Likewise I must ask my friend Stephen Holmes to reflect further, not on the theoretical concept he points to when he talks of the power of the local church as a loving community in which our deepest needs can be met, but on the practicality of the following:
“One aspect of this strikes me as very significant for the pastoral issues that Steve [Chalke], very properly, raises: the New Testament witness is that the Church - each local church - should be the community in which we find our needs for intimate human relationship met”.
This again seems hopelessly idealistic to me. I have been part of some wonderful churches but not one that would come close to such an ideal. A single woman longing to be married, or a single gay man longing for love and companionship may be helped, but will not find an equivalent fulfillment in the company of their house group! In fact many single people, like many gay people, will say that the church just doesn’t know how to handle them.
What do I see as a way forward, apart from the unsavoury destructiveness that this issue so often triggers? As I have indicated above, my aim has never been to see the church reach the place where it can embrace homosexuality in such a way that it can treat it as equivalent to, but different from heterosexuality. (If this is Steve’s position then I don’t agree with him, but neither do I attribute it to him – let his own words speak). But in the absence of any other choices, could I suggest we need alternatives to consider. For instance:
(a) I can envisage a community of God’s people that accepts and declares that we have not reached the point of seeing homosexual relationships as something it can unreservedly affirm as normative.
(b) But out of deep pastoral concern and responsibility, and for the sake of expressing love towards those whose orientation is towards the same sex, that same community is willing to wholeheartedly receive them into the community of faith. They can be baptised, receive communion, and become church members as others do.
(c) Thirdly, and this would be a change, ministers if they felt able, would be permitted to participate in civil partnership ceremonies, or be able to offer a blessing to a gay couple if their church agreed, and do so without censure. Is it asking too much that a Baptist community that largely comprises those of a more traditional perspective create the space for those whose conscience dictates otherwise, for them to be given the liberty to minister in the light of those convictions?
(d) Lastly, there would likely be limitations we need to live with for now, for example in areas of ministry or leadership, in order to preserve the bonds of fellowship and to be consistent with (a) above.
Some gay Christians might see this as a step forward – others might be unhappy at being treated as second-class citizens. It’s a compromise borne of a deep desire to address this pastoral crisis. I don’t see any other options being put forward so the debate remains sterile, or becomes an all-or-nothing fight to the death.
theology and mission
My final perspectve is a mission one, and it is mission that has been the reason I have written on these issues over the last 2-3 years. Mission is predicated on theology, i.e. predicated on our understanding of the nature of God and the outworking of God’s purposes in the world.
Mission, for example, is propelled by our theological understanding of God’s activity in the call of Abram in Genesis 12, the kenosis of Philippians 2, the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 1 and so on. Theology and Mission are like parent and child. One begets the other.
But theology and mission have a more complex symbiotic relationship. Theology will always shape our mission, but mission will eventually challenge our theology. At its best, mission will in some cases go ahead of theology. This is because our mission will take us to the frontier places where faith and unfaith meet, where God’s Kingdom encounters the Kingdoms of this world, places where our faith has to be reworked and re-examined in the light of new challenges. Acts 10 and the encounter between Peter and Cornelius was a wonderful example of this, as was the resultant Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. In my more familiar world of global mission, the encounter between the gospel and the caste system (India), polygamy (West Africa), secularism (the West), and Marxist analysis of poverty and injustice (Latin American liberation theologies) are examples where a missionary encounter with these phenomena demanded of the church the need to rework its theology in the light of these new encounters.
So also today we are reworking, or may need to rework our theology in the light of globalisation, genetic engineering, global warming or the phenomenon of being able to keep people alive longer but often with a much-reduced quality of life. Into these categories there is also the overdue re-evaluation of the place of gay people within our society, and the pastoral crisis this presents to us as a church.
If this scares or unsettles you, then I would encourage you by not underestimating the degree of change that has already taken place. Only 45 years ago homosexuality was a crime in the UK - no Christians I know would advocate that today, but probably none but a handful raised their voices in protest in those years either. So too, many Christians, most I speak to, accept that civil partnerships offer to gay people the legal protections that any reasonable civil society should offer. What is my point? We’ve already changed and these things have not shaken the earth from its foundations.
To come back to Steve Chalke, I have something of a picture of what is happening here. Its imperfect but I’ll give it a go. I see that Steve as someone who has walked beyond the safety of the community perimeter to stand by those who are outside but who do not feel the community wants them inside unless they change. It’s a risk to step outside – it may prove to be wrong to have done so, but it may prove to be right. History will declare its judgement in its own time. God already knows. But you won’t find out by staying inside but only by taking the risk in venturing out.
In venturing out he has challenged those in the camp to review whether the boundaries are set in the right place. He has made his choice. But those in the camp now have a choice as well.
They could enlarge the boundary immediately, but that isn't going to happen and without a degree of unanimity, nor should it happen. Those in the camp can choose to reject him for daring to suggest the camp perimeter could be enlarged. I hope that doesn’t happen.
But they could also choose to firmly but graciously disagree, yet wish him well and pray for him as he explores this new landscape. I hope the latter is chosen.
I hope there will be those who will stand with him, at least as encouragers. I will for one, if only to be there as we rework that theology.
I know I won’t agree with him on all things. But I won’t condemn him for that.