Just over 20 years ago I went to the Christian festival Spring Harvest for the first time. One of the seminars I went to during the week was on ‘Green Issues’ and was part of a series entitled Soapbox. The speaker was highly engaging and charismatic and I still vividly remember some of his lines:
“Green issues? I’ll tell you what, green issues are just another New Age heresy…we shouldn’t care about the rain forests, we should care about the Word of God. We should cut down more trees so we can print more Bibles…At the end of the day people don’t need oxygen, they need salvation.”
The idea behind these Soapbox seminars was that the speaker would be deliberately controversial, playing devil’s advocate to encourage the crowd to disagree and contradict him. A bit like Speaker’s Corner.
But there was a slight problem: hardly anyone did disagree with what was being said.
Apart from a few bearded blokes near the front who were almost frothing at the mouth, most of the people around me were in complete agreement. They were nodding and doing that ‘hmmmm’ of approval that Christians do when they agree with a speaker. Instead of being shouted down, the outrageous views were greeted with comments like ’He’s right’, ‘Absolutely!’ and even the odd ‘Amen’.
It was the last time that those Soapbox seminars were run at Spring Harvest.
And it was the first time I ever met Steve Chalke.
This is just one example of the power of influence that Steve Chalke has within the church. Back then he was the poster-boy for the Evangelical Christianity. His brilliant communication skills have inspired and invigorated thousands of people and he has been by far the most influential advocate for Christian social activism in the UK.
But over the last 10 years, Chalke’s views have become increasingly controversial within evangelical culture. It started with his book, written jointly with Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus which questioned the doctrine of penal substitution (that Jesus died to appease the wrath of God). Then last year he came out strongly in support of committed gay relationships. His most recent project questions the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. Each of these controversies have sent reverberations around the evangelical world.
I think some people see Steve Chalke a bit like Miley Cyrus. They appreciated him in his Hannah Montana years because he was fresh, talented and safely within the mainstream. But now many see him as subversive, a bad influence and even dangerous. More like a theological Wrecking Ball (do you see what I did there?)
Like many who are drawn deeper into social activism and a concern for justice, Chalke has been on a theological journey. Using a chart I have used a few times before, Chalke has moved in emphasis from the blue side of this chart over to the red:
A couple of weeks ago it was announced by the Evangelical Alliance that Oasis’s membership of the Alliance has been terminated. The key reason given is that Oasis (the organisation Steve Chalke founded) were deemed to be running a campaign to change the church’s historic perspective on sexuality. The news has caused immense debate on websites and blogs. (Read Oasis’ response here)
Benchmark of orthodoxy
As the Evangelical Alliance’s Basis of Faith is held up as a benchmark of orthodoxy, the EA have the increasingly impossible task of policing the boundaries of evangelicalism. And as I know from my 8 years at the Shaftesbury Society, remaining a member of the EA is very different to actually agreeing with its pronouncements, or adhering to them in practice. I think the key problem for the EA is that they are perceived as excluding dissent and closing down a discussion on sexuality that is urgently needed.
Shift of perspective
The reality I am continually seeing, especially among younger Christians and those committed to social justice, is a marked shift of perspective towards an inclusive and accepting position on same-sex relationships. Whatever is preached from pulpits, there are a wide range of views on sexuality within even the most conservative churches. Debates on these issues continually break out in the youth groups and home groups of evangelical churches and no one should pretend otherwise. I am not convinced that evangelical leaders are really facing up the huge sea-change that is going on.
After the publication of The Lost Message of Jesus, the Evangelical Alliance organised a major event where over 700 people gathered to discuss the meaning of Christ’s death and the atonement. It was an important event because, unlike the vast majority of tribal gatherings, it actually brought together people who disagreed. It did produce a heated discussion but at least it was happening in an open and honest way.
And this is what I think is needed on faith, the Bible and same-sex relationships. You can go to plenty of conferences which will reinforce either an inclusivist or conservative positions, but these often simply feed existing tribalism rather than create genuine dialogue.
I know plenty of Christians who I respect who hold different views on this issue. To talk in simplified terms, I work in a church setting which is inclusive and attend a church which is conservative. Like all churches, each has strengths and weaknesses.
Christians need to discuss sexuality honestly in a climate of faith, rather than fear. To listen, rather than label. To converse, rather than just seek to convert.
Sadly, this is not the perception given when organisations are ejected from networks. It is further evidence of the truth of Oliver O’Donovan’s phrase, that when it comes to the church and gay relationships, it is still “a conversation waiting to begin”.
Related article: When Two become One (tribalism in the Church, part 2)
23 thoughts on “Chalke and cheese: Oasis and the Evangelical Alliance”
Thanks Jon, sadly the people who have the influence needed to make this happen are too busy defending their position to seek something different. Meanwhile the truths they hold to so tightly are being ignored by a society that has seen this too often before.
Really appreciate your posts. Always really thoughtful and gracious.
Recently we had Miroslav Volf at the Re:Thinking A Public faith Conference here in Sydney. He has some very helpful things to say about malfunctions of faith – among other things he suggests that there is a tendency to coercive faith or to passive faith. I reckon we could plot some similarities with the chart above. Volf suggests that there needs to be a third way of what he calls an engaged faith. Very much what you are advocating, I think, in your blog. His very accessible book, A Public Faith, lays out this thinking really clearly.
For quite some time I have been reflecting that we need to move away from the dichotomy of liberal and conservative. And it is not a matter of so much conservatism and so much liberalism to get the mix just right – somehow living with the dialectical tension.
It seems to me that we are talking about a paradigm shift in the way frame up our theology and spirituality. It is not either/or. Our personal morality, our character, the spirituality which shapes it, ought to propel us into the public square and to inform our public morality and advocacy on behalf of and with others – helping to inform and shape the sorts of communities we want to be a part of.
Easy said, not so easy done and love that you keep seeding this stuff.
Thanks Peter for your kind words. Volf is someone I have tried to engage with – I found Exclusion and Embrace very good but quite hard to get into. But I have been reading his lighter book on forgiveness which is very good. I may well get ‘Public Faith’ as I like a recommendation! Thanks – its nice to know R&R is read all the way over in Oz!
Ha, maybe it’s time for a Lee Abbey Soapbox, Jon? 🙂
I think your post also shows the distorted elevation which we often give to our leaders and how we ought to change what we expect of them. I agree that certain leaders have often been targeted as ‘poster boys’. We need to get away from that pronto, from PR leadership to visible servitude. Maybe that way we wouldn’t get so many public punchups over theology.
Hi Matt – yes I completely agree. I told that story to expose that nonsense – the Christian celebrity stuff is very powerful – especially at such events and we have to demolish it. I think it starts with places like Camp where we don’t buy into that and make sure that solo things like giving talks are not elevated above all else.
I wonder whether with the seminars being chosen by campers we did move into a more responsive and honest place – maybe not a soapbox but maybe that’s an idea?!
Well Jon as you know It’s a rare event for me to even read Christain literature let alone respond, but as it you…… Maybe it might be helpful to resist talking about the differences between the various parties/sect of Christain thinking and start to look for deep similarities. Just a thought but I would imagine that if you were to lay aside the rhetoric and look at…..oh I don’t know…..relationship with Western consumerist lifestyle, that most of the divisions would start to look a lot more fragile. In fact you may also see that the identifiable church is much, much closer to the wider world than many of its members would imagine. My point is that while people like Mr Chalke and his counterparts in the EA, have made a name for themselves over the past 20 year within the Christian bubble, many have also been groomed by Neo-liberalism and become just as addicted to consumer anxiety as everyone else. The incompleteness and contradictions in many Christians lives compared to the teachings of Jesus should maybe leave us asking, regardless of doctrinal position, deeper questions than the role of celeberity figures within Christianity and their ‘controversial’ thoughts. It’s ironic that your article started within the circus tent of Spring Harvest talking about green issues. It’s seems to me a lot of these conversations enable us to avoid the fact that the narrative of greed continues to convert us all and debates like this just provide a tonic (non-alcoholic obviously) for us to hide out in our Christian fantasy, while not actually giving a shit!!
Chris – I am honoured to have you visit! And a comment too – careful, don’t go backsliding!
When you say that ‘lot of these conversations enable us to avoid the fact that the narrative of greed continues to convert us all and debates like this just provide a tonic for us to hide out in our Christian fantasy’ I would agree. I know there is a danger that even writing a blog enables me to live in my own fantasy – but this is why its important to me that writing/speaking/commentating is just a small % of what I do in real life.
This is why I like this Ken Leech’s quote ‘Our spiritual pilgrimage is not within an artificial religious world, but within the real world in which coal is mined and lemon meringue pie is made, the world in which companies are taken over and homeless people die in the street, the world in which wars are declared and millions long for peace and for justice.’
Ah Jon you missed my soapbox irony, I don’t really think these people don’t give a shit. As you know I’m not a fan of platform Christianity and all of its trappings. However, I think the real commonality which is lost in all of these conversations is that we are all trying to learn how to love. Be it Mt Chalke or the EA bods I think if you talked to them over a pint they would all express a primary narrative of questing for love. The polarity (and I would say subsequent safety) caused by such issues as those being debated can only be defused by such a narrative. The incompleteness and contradiction present within all our lives surely should make us very, very slow to speak and much quicker to listen to one another.
My only concern about discussions like this is that it is avoiding the broader picture, while continually focusing on a few peoples voices who are not really saying anything that radical.
I had a dream the other day and it was a bunch of people running with no clothes on from a forest fire. The only shelter that they could see was a house which was filled with another bunch of people, but they all had clothes on and were drinking and eating. As the naked people started to enter the house they were greeted with various responses. Some people immediately shared their clothes, food and drink while others tried to throw the naked people back out into the forest fire. The problem was that while all of this was going on no one was paying attention to the fact that the back of the house was also on fire and would not take long before it was also fully ablaze.
I will leave the meaning of that with you, but all I know is I was left with a deep sense of love for everyone and a deep sense that change is coming which will make many of our present actions and thoughts much less important than we currently think they are.
Thanks for this Jon. I like that you place this in a story – I think that is helpful. Your observation about what is preached from pulpits and what is believed and lived out in the pews not always being the same is pretty much what we found when we wrote the Lost Message of Jesus. Yes, there was a vocal conservative evangelical leadership raising concerns, but these were not necessarily the same concerns of those they were pastoring (a generalisation, I know, but it really does have some merit). A decade on, I think you are right, EA leadership isn’t necessarily speaking for those they are pastoring/leading. Therefore, just as in the atonement debate, this is as much a pastoral issue as it is a theological/doctrinal one. Alan Mann (The Lost Author of the Lost Message).
thanks for reading and commenting Alan. And I will go back and insert references to you in the post so you are not ‘lost’.
Hi Jon, wasn’t implying you should do that, this really was tongue in cheek – I just wanted you to know who was commenting so I was being transparent. I’m simply happy to read something thoughtful and respectful that has a good insight into the bigger picture. Peace.
No worries Alan, I knew it was light-hearted but it must be a bit annoying not being referenced so I didn’t want to be lazy! You must feel a bit like Midge Ure after Band Aid. I keep meaning to read your book on ‘Atonement for a ‘sinless’ society’ too.
I’lll take Midge Ure 🙂 Sadly, Sinless Society out of print (though I may be turning into a kindle edition). I’m currently reshaping my approach to writing and publishing and as part of that I hope to get an updated and popularised version of the book in print within the next few months. I’ll send you my email via a Facebook message so we can keep in touch. Cheers.
That would be great – thanks
“Like many who are drawn deeper into social activism and a concern for justice, Chalke has been on a theological journey”. I so relate to Steve Chalke’s journey, and the more I read about him, the more I love him (I guess he’s a Marmite character in today’s church).
Just curious – is this true of you too, Jon? Have you been on a similar journey? I notice you work in a similar field to me.
I’m a nurse with a homeless service, with a passion for inclusion (e.g. I deliver homelessness training to healthcare staff in order to break down myths and stigmatisation among healthcare staff towards homeless people), and for me too, writing is a small part of what I do in real life. Writing is part of who I am, and important in its own way, but what I write challenges me to live up to my own words in action.
Sorry for another shameless plug, but for your interest, here’s my latest blog post – this time on ‘We Occupy Jesus’: http://weoccupyjesus.org/2014/05/12/my-goodness-and-yours/
“Christians need to discuss sexuality honestly in a climate of faith, rather than fear. To listen, rather than label. To converse, rather than just seek to convert.”
And, I would add, *with* us – not *about* us and over our heads as if we gay Christians weren’t in the room. It’s just one more way of “other-ing”.
Amen and amen, and so often, the debate sends a chill down my spine, it sounds like the old debates ‘are black people naturally promiscuous/less intelligent?’ ‘can Jews be saved?’ in which you cannot join without being accused of special pleading.
The problem is that Steve Chalke has not merely given up the infallibility or whatever of the BIble, but he seems no longer to accept its authority, putting himself as a judge over it. And that is indeed not evangelical. Especially the Old Testament comes in for severe criticism from Steve.
Steve very much accepts the authority of scripture. What he is doing is asking the question, are we understanding and interpreting the scriptures correctly? And that is perfectly appropriate thing to do. You may be settled in your views, Steve may be not. But that doesn’t mean one can confuse hermeneutical questions with someone standing over scripture as judge and denying its authority. Indeed, one could argue that asking questions of God’s Word places you under its authority, rather than over it. Let us not stand in judgement over someone because we are content with what we believe.
The late Professor Robert Davidson remarked that his issues with all too many evangelicals was that “they did not take the Bible seriously enough”. The hermeneutic issue is a critical one for all who want to give the Bible proper authority.
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