Since the Evangelical Alliance (EA) announced that Oasis Trust would be removed from membership following concerns over the organisation’s theology of same-sex relationships, Christians from across the spectrum have written to support and condemn the decision. In May, Oasis founder Steve Chalke also welcomed the Baptist Union’s updated guidelines for ministers on conducting same-sex ceremonies.

The Alliance posted an interview on its website with general director Steve Clifford explaining the Oasis decision to its members. In it Clifford emphasised that the decision was not based upon the individual opinions of Steve Chalke or any individual Alliance member, but on the expectations of the relationship between the Alliance and member organisations. The EA had asked Oasis to balance its resources on sexuality on its website but held that the changes made were insufficient.

Clifford 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 it 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.’

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.’

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 ‘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 coordinators 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.

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 the EA’s decision, but still considered himself an evangelical. ‘The world is having this conversation and the Church must have it – and is having it,’ he said.

Chalke, who is a Baptist minister, conducted a blessing for a civil partnership at his London church in 2012. At the time this was not permitted by the Baptist Union, however no disciplinary action was taken against him.

Since then, the Baptist Union has updated its guidelines to give ministers the freedom to be involved in same-sex ceremony services according to their own conscience and with the support of their congregations, without breach
of disciplinary guidelines.

The issue was discussed at the Baptist Assembly in May and the change to the guidelines is part of an ongoing consultation process responding to the change in the law on same-sex marriage which came into force in March. The Baptist Union’s understanding of a Christian marriage remains between a man and a woman.