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.