The Evangelical Alliance’s decision to remove Steve Chalke’s organisation Oasis from membership raises the question of what defines an evangelical today. Justin...
Evangelicals divided over EA split from Steve Chalke
Since the Evangelical Alliance (EA) announced last week that the Oasis Trust would be removed from membership, Christians across the spectrum have written to support and condemn the decision.
Some evangelicals have questioned whether the EA have breached their own code of conduct while others have expressed their support for the organisation’s ‘painful but courageous’ decision.
The Alliance posted an interview with its general director, Steve Clifford, on its website explaining the decision to its members. In it Clifford emphasised that the decision was not based upon the individual opinions of Steve Chalke, or any individual EA member, but on the expectations of the relationship between the Alliance and member organisations.
He said: ‘After many months of prayerful discussion and with some pain, the Alliance council (made up of more than 80 senior evangelical leaders from a wide range of churches and organisational backgrounds) concluded that a relationship between an organisation and one of its members in which the member was unwilling to comply with a reasonable request from the council, was untenable.’
He added: ‘The issue which resulted in the eventual withdrawal of Oasis Trust from membership was one of “relationship” […] and what can be legitimately expected as that relationship is outworked in the context of a diverse evangelical community.’
The decision, he said, was made with reference to the EA’s Basis of Faith and its Evangelical Relationships Commitment. However, some have questioned whether the decision goes against the Alliance’s affirmation to ‘respect the diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding that God grants to His people, and acknowledge that some differences over issues not essential to salvation may well remain until the end of time.’
The former head of theology at the EA, Justin Thacker, criticised the decision on his blog, comparing it with past controversies, particularly John Stott’s change in position on hell in the 1980s.
He wrote: ‘Once again we have a popular evangelical leader (Steve Chalke) questioning, what is undoubtedly, traditional evangelical orthodoxy. Once again, the Alliance has been forced to take some kind of stand, to make it clear where evangelical orthodoxy should lie. Yet, on this occasion the breadth and tolerance that was so ably demonstrated in The Nature of Hell seems to be absent. Why is this the case?’
Thacker went on to say: ‘My fear is that what really distinguishes the hell debates of the late 20th century and the homosexuality debates today is that while the former was essentially an in-house debate, the latter very clearly is not. The secular world simply didn’t care what conclusions we reached on hell, but they care very deeply what we say about homosexuality.’
Alan Molineaux wrote on the Red Letter Christians website (the website associated with activists Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne), entitled ‘Exclusion is a powerful way to silence dissenting voices’. He questioned whether the EA can really claim to speak for the UK’s 2 million evangelical Christians (as it claims on its website), particularly when it is well-known that Christians disagree on the theology of sexuality.
Molineaux wrote: ‘Now I ask you: when Steve Chalke raised his challenge did the EA return to ask its members for their opinions on such matters? No, they chose to represent them without knowing what they might feel. Did they look to the rest of the UK evangelical community for support? No, they gathered as a board and decided the subject was too hot to handle.
‘If they had looked for consensus before choosing to exclude Rev Chalke’s organisation they may have achieved something near a level of honesty that might be useful. Unfortunately they have now given a clear signal that honesty is not welcome amongst UK evangelicals.’
There were also several negative responses to the decision on Twitter. Notably, theologian and religious commentator Vicky Beeching tweeted: ‘My hope is that there CAN BE room within the Evangelical Church family for differing opinions on the theology of human sexuality.’
"My hope is that there CAN BE room within the Evangelical Church family for differing opinions on the theology of human sexuality." - @vickybeeching
Beeching has joined Chalke in writing publicly about her support for same-sex marriage, alongside her desire to remain ‘evangelical’. She has also commented on the backlash this has caused among her fans from her former role as a worship leader and songwriter.
Other evangelical leaders have shown their support for the EA’s decision. Andrew Wilson, who participated in a debate with Steve Chalke for Premier Christianity on the authority of scripture, wrote on the Think Theology blog that ‘I think they’ve made a painful, but right and very courageous decision.’
Wilson systematically defended the EA’s decision against the public criticism it has received, including addressing the claims that the EA has been Pharisaical, divisive and inconsistent.
In response to Thacker’s comparison with Stott, he wrote: ‘The fact that this comparison is even being made is somewhat discouraging when it comes to the levels of discernment in contemporary evangelicalism. There are all sorts of things I could say about John Stott’s view of the Bible, and the enormous distance between it and Steve Chalke’s view, and the way he would have responded if the EA had asked him to mention the traditional evangelical view on his website (!), but if we restrict ourselves to a comparison between the two key issues (hell and sexuality), we quickly see the problem. Stott’s view, at worst, would lead people to be confused about the nature of hell. Chalke’s would lead people to end up there.’
Wilson was joined in his support of the EA by pastor and writer Sam Allberry, one of the co-ordinators of the Living Out website, which provides resources for same-sex attracted Christians.
Allberry tweeted: ‘We can legitimately say it’s not apple pie not just when it’s not how mum makes it, but when it no longer seems to have any apples in it.’ He then added: ‘In other words, it won’t do to insist you’re evangelical just because you say you are, and then complain when others say you’re not.’
"It won't do to insist you're evangelical just because you say you are, and then complain when others say you're not" - @SamAllberry
Theologian Ian Paul also expressed his support on his blog. ‘EA’s action here will certainly not make it popular. But could it be that it is actually offering a thought-through response and demonstrating consistent commitment to its position, even though that does not go down well in wider society? If so, is this not something the church needs to be doing a little more often?’
Steve Chalke told Premier Christianity that he was saddened by what the EA had done, but still considered himself an evangelical. He said: ‘I’d like this conversation to continue, so I would urge people to read what I wrote and enter into that discussion. The world is having this conversation and the Church must have it – and is having it.’