Sailing toward a new Downgrade Controversy

Labels of secondary importance…


Thanks for your responses to my comments in ‘Hand in Glove’ my previous blog piece.

As an ‘evangelical’ Christian, I am used to being labelled as a fundamentalist, an extremist or a bigot. Of course all of these descriptions are false, evangelicals are historically activists, conversionists, hold the authority of Scripture in high regard and give it central shaping force in our lives and we are committed to the cross being central to our understanding of God, salvation and Christ’s purposes in the world.

I am actually heartened that we are able to conduct a debate, even a public debate, without destroying one another. Perhaps the world can see that we do not hate one another, after all…

‘Evangelicalism’ is best defined, as much as it can be, by something like David Bebington’s four characteristics mentioned above, but that is another set of conversations. I think it is important to have a discussion about the nature of ‘evangelical’ conviction, especially when the description is claimed by those engaged in the debate. We evangelicals claim to love the bible. Of course we are free to change our minds, to move on in our convictions or beliefs, but when we do, we must be able to ask whether or not we can rightly describe ourselves as ‘evangelicals’ That is a good conversation to have, bearing in mind that any label – be ‘evangelical’, ‘baptist’, ‘pentecostal’, ‘protestant’ or ‘catholic’ (or ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ for that matter) is at best secondary to the central identification of being a Christ-follower.

The Great Question within the question – Another Downgrade Controversy?

I think, and it is only a hunch, that we are entering a period of great possibility. Judging by the comments on my blog, Steve Chalke’s, Steve Holme’s, Steve Clifford’s, David Kerrigan’s et al, I am thrilled that we seem to be discussing and debating rather than attacking. That is terrific news for the world who watch us discussing. Well done to each and every contributor mentioned above for the grace and tenor of the dialogue so far. Yet – and here I push the boat out a bit – I think we are in the throes of a 21st century downgrade controversy. I know for baptists, that phrase wreaks of history and pain and sorrow. Reading the correspondences of the late 1800’s is heart-breaking, The same is true of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I do think, however, that we are heading in the same direction…

What do we do with the bible? Wrestle – of course! Debate – of course! Struggle together – of course! Listen to one another’s arguments. Think, pray, reflect. All of these are vital. New social history, nuances on words, historical and political contexts and faithful but unflinchingly brave exegesis are a vital part of the theologian’s (and the pastor’s) toolkit. I think that is what many of us are seeking to do – including you. Yet we are stepping further.

We are dismantling a word here, a phrase there, an inuendo in that clause and an inference in that sentence. In doing so, we are seeking to understand, but we must be careful. For without realising it, our healthy wrestling with Scripture will become a pyrrhic victory in which we build a beautiful and appealing argument to modern eyes and ears whilst at the same time undermining the foundations that hold any ‘gospel’ building up.

The issue of human sexuality is one of many that we must address whilst at the same time seeking to be faithful. For all the ink spilled, the words used, the arguments set out and the passion expressed, there remains this ‘problem’ of Scripture. The biblical story sets a direction of travel for women, for slaves, for divorce, for re-marriage, for Gentiles, for Jews and for a whole plethora of other things. It sets no such direction of travel for active same sex partnerships. Having made the argument for a better and much more genuine pastoral response; having confessed our failures to embrace and love and care for people who have same sex attraction; sought to differentiate between deep and meaningful friendships between people of the same gender (which are not forbidden in Scripture) and sexually active same sex relationships (which are, in my view clearly forbidden because the Scripture is clear about sexual union taking place within the marriage of a man and a woman) and having argued that the call to abstinence, self-control and sexual expression is not simply made on gay people but also on widows, widowers, those who fall in love with someone other than their wives or husbands, single people who do not want to be single and a number of other categories, I am still left with the feeling that this is not enough. We want the bible to endorse something that it does not. We are seeking approval from Scripture for a lifestyle that sits beyond the approval of God’s Word. That is not just about sexuality – that is about a creed, a culture, and perhaps even a church, that is seeking to create a God in the image of our culture and use words that our culture resonates with to justify the God we had created.

God is more than a big version of us.

60 years ago Karl Barth, a ‘neo-evangelical’ warned that the evangelical church was creating a God in it’s image and he pleaded with the church to avoid creating a God that was nothing more than a big version of us.

My deep fear is that the rush toward an ‘inclusive’ Gospel is nowhere near radical enough. If we are not careful, it will undermine the very core of truth we claim to love, it will relativise our expression of hope and acceptance so that it looks like what our culture wants it to, but worst of all, it will create a church which is detached from the moorings of truth whilst at the same time claiming to know that our compass is set. To close with the analogy, the magnetic north of our culture will set us on a path which will take us far away from the true north of Scripture -eventually.


  1. We preach and live the word of God without fear or favour, every jot and tittle as william tyndale translated matthew 5:18. That should be every christians goal. The problem is that we as christians have created organisations which of perceived financial necessity crave public and institutional acceptance. This is where unfortunately steve chalke like icarus flew too close to the sun. This is also why we havnt yet seen the full force of Gods church in this country because the Church of England has not yet been released from its establishment chains.


  2. AW Tozer once said “The heaviest obligation lying upon the Christian Church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worthy of Him”.
    When asked what was the most important commandment, Jesus replied by saying, “`Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
    My concern is that I am finding and increasing tendency in the church to be placing its primacy on the 2nd commandment, rather than the first When we do this, instead of looking like Christ, we end up looking like humanists.
    When my wife and I married, she made me promise that I would always love God more than her. She said that only by doing this could I love her the way she should be loved. The same is true of the church. If we are truly to have God’s perspective in our love for others, then we need to start by discovering the God of the bible, his purposes and loving him with everything we have.


  3. Malcolm, another great piece of writing that has stimulated and stirred my soul. Like you, I have been so pleased to see the dialogue over the issues raised in your previous blog. I also feel a real affinity to what you were referring to when you mentioned the fear of rushing towards an inclusive gospel at the expense of a radical one. When I reflect upon the people who have made our church their home, many have been impacted by a Gospel that is generous enough to welcome with wide arms and hearts yet radical enough to call an individual to repentance and transformation.


  4. I sincerely hope we do not have a new Downgrade Controversy. It was charaterised by fear over the general direction of the church, sweeping statements about general groups of people, and has run and run in effect in the divide between liberals and evangelicals throughout the last century, with certain groups of evangelicals accusing others of going liberal.
    Jonathan Bacon, discussing this on Malcolm Facebook page, has helpfully observed this dimension of the sexuality debate, which has probably been the most visible so far.
    However there are in fact two debates going on here around the same issue. The first is that age old liberal / evangelical divide which has run for ages. This was the core division when the matter was discussed for example in the URC. It could be characterised (simplified) as whether we put aside the authority of the bible, in which case there is no reason not to affirm gay sex. The liberals would of course accuse the evangelicals of putting a book or dogma above people’s lives and needs.
    However there is a second line of division around this issue, between evangelicals who hold scripture to be authoritative, but who are divided over how it actually applies to this very particular issue.
    The danger, and the indicators towards a new downgrade controversy are the tendency to assume it is the same, old, conversation, that those who advocate blessing same sex unions are joining the liberal or slightly liberal camp & down grading the authority of scripture.
    For some it is, but there are scholars who still take the highest view of scripture arguing that this is about what scripture says into this new question: That scripture knows of promiscuity in hetero and homosexual forms and condemns it. It knows of faithful love, but only the hetero kind – so what would it say of faithful homo love which was unheard of in it’s day?. (And why is Jesus silent on it?). This is a very brief simplification of the argument, please do read it properly expounded as I doubt I have done it justice. (Or Baptists could ask a BU trainer to come and help you explore both sides in detail).
    Whatever conclusion people come to on that question – and it’s not as simple as it looks, I hope folks can see that for many in the BU and the EA, this isn’t the old evangelical / liberal divide, nor is it a new downgrade with evangelicals becoming liberal, but a debate between evangelicals about what the authoritative word says to this new phenomenon.
    My point is that each side should respect fellow evangelicals wrestling with a problem of interpretation, rather than assume that those asking the searching questions or challenging the traditional interpretation have ceased to be evangelical.


  5. Brian, you say that we ‘should respect fellow evangelicals wrestling with a problem of interpretation.’ There are issues which tax the minds of even the greatest scholars but on this I don’t think that there is a problem. I, like others, have spent many hours researching the evidence but the Biblical teaching still seems clear and unambiguous to me. It’s the application of that teaching which I am wrestling with, not the teaching itself. How do we make the church a place where people who are gay feel welcome, even loved, even though we do not condone their lifestyle? Tony Campolo says that we have convinced gay people that God hates them but now we have to convince them that He loves them. There’s a lot of work which needs to be done.
    Brian you say ‘I hope folks can see that for many in the BU and the EA, this isn’t the old evangelical / liberal divide, nor is it a new downgrade with evangelicals becoming liberal, but a debate between evangelicals about what the authoritative word says to this new phenomenon.’ As a friend and fellow Baptist minister, I know that this is how it seems to you but I think Malcolm could be right. I was saying to someone only yesterday that I think that the church is facing a challenge to hold firmly onto scripture in the midst of the current storm. I believe that we need to be alert without being alarmist.


  6. Amongst all the rhetoric, name-calling and bad blood there is seen over this issue, most evangelicals are indeed honestly struggling to find where scripture may support gay relationships. We understand the inclusivity of the Gospel, and to accept, even support, monogamous same-sex relationships would be easy in our society’s current climate. But for most of us, it seems, we cannot find that support in the Scriptures, and all the social arguments in the world cannot override Scripture.
    There is an assumption in out current society’s thinking, that what I want, I should have. Contrary to observation, we have this view that life should be easy, trouble-free, pain-free. If I am gay, should I not be able to love and have sex? Our own experience, I am sure, is that life is not easy, we don’t always get what we want, many of us live with deep pain through long periods of our lives. Yet God seems to have a different agenda, where “what does us good” may not be what we want. It is often through grief and unresolved pain that God meets us, and builds the person He loves. Our society will never understand this. I do not put this forward as “an answer”, but just to prod at a hidden assumption that underlies the drive towards acceptance of gay relationships.
    As our society accelerates down the hill of ever-increasing sexual liberty, at what point do we draw a line in the sand?


  7. Malcolm, thank you for articulating so clearly and graciously what at least some of us believe, but are struggling to express, because we’re not sure how to do it without pouring fuel on the fire, or getting drawn into empty arguments about words.


  8. The dealer is not the one who will be paying for the car for 6 years, you are. When you go car shopping, don’t go above a set maximum no matter what you’re getting told by the dealer.


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