My first talk was essentially a testimony. It was about how I became a Christian and how nothing has happened in the last fifty years to make me change my mind. In this second talk, however, I want to qualify the word Christian in an important way. I want to talk about why I am still an evangelical Christian.
“Evangelical”? some may ask—why insert that adjective. Isn’t it enough to say you are a Christian?
Well, yes, in many contexts it would be enough. I’m reminded of the story of the man who goes to heaven and finds by his feet a trapdoor in the clouds. He asks his angelic guide: “What’s down there?” and is told, in a hushed whisper “Shh, that’s the evangelicals—they think they’ve got all heaven to themselves!”
Well, I certainly don’t expect that there will really be any party-labels of that sort in the world to come.
Nevertheless, I have to say that, within a couple of years of my initial surrender to Christ as a student, I discovered that I often needed to insert the word “evangelical” into my description of my new Christian identity—and fifty years on, I still do.
Since I am addressing a company of Christians who also call themselves “evangelical”, I guess I am not alone in that, though I expect in recent years your loyalty to the word may have been sorely tested. Mine certainly has! As I said in my introduction to my first talk, this has not been because my theological position has changed in any major way, but rather because one particular ethical debate has been raised to the level of a defining issue by many evangelical leaders, institutions and churches. The goalposts have been moved in a way that has caused great embarrassment to me and I know to many of you too.
The new defining issue I am referring to of course is homosexuality. Some of us, who have always regarded ourselves most emphatically as “evangelicals”, have been disowned and disfranchised because we do not accept the purported “evangelical view” on the gay issue. There has been a determined attempt, at least by some within the evangelical camp, so to embed a particular view of homosexuality within the evangelical identity that there is no room left for dissenters. Indeed, the very possibility of being a “gay evangelical” has been conspicuously ignored or denied.
In this second talk, therefore, I want to identify what I believe are the true defining characteristics of an evangelical Christian and why I believe the attempt to make a particular line on homosexuality a defining issue is thoroughly misguided.
Here are three evangelical distinctive that I believe are of vital relevance:
Evangelicals have a high view of the authority of the Bible
Evangelicals seek to interpret the Bible in a responsible and scholarly fashion
Evangelicals respect personal conscience in regard to controversial issues
1. Evangelicals have a high view of the authority of the Bible
The evangelical theologian, Jim Packer, asserts in his best-selling book that Christianity is about “Knowing God”. Christians can be brave in trouble because of what they know of God’s sovereign providence. They pray for forgiveness because of what they know of God’s love and mercy. They try to be a better people because of what they know of God’s moral holiness. They are moved to worship because of what they know of God’s sovereign majesty. They evangelise because of what they know of God’s salvation for the world. All Christian belief, practice and experience is rooted in the possibility of knowing God.
“God” is not just an emotive buzz word for a Christian, a meaningless mantra we mindlessly recite in order to attain some spiritual high—it is a word rich in cognitive content. We are able to describe the God in whom we believe. Like Jeremiah, it’s our boast that we understand and know the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth (Jer. 9:24). So the primary question for any thinking Christian must be where do we get this treasured knowledge of God from?
There are two basic approaches; we can call them man-centred and God-centred.
By “man-centred” I mean the view that human beings discover the knowledge of God through philosophical reflection or mystical intuition. In other words, we humans find God for ourselves. I came to conclusion very early that evangelical Christians were right when they insisted that this method did not work, and could not work. As the apostle Paul puts it in his first Corinthian letter: “The world by its wisdom has not known God” (1 Corinthians 1:21). If God is anything at all like the omnipotent person Christianity claims, he can never be turned into a passive object of human investigation. He is the “I am”—the eternal subject—he can never be reduced to an “it”.
Fortunately there is an alternative: the God-centred approach.
Here the initiative lies not in our human search for God, but in God’s voluntary self-disclosure to us. And this is why the Bible is so important to those of us who call ourselves evangelicals—because the Bible is the primary source of that crucial divine revelation from which we gain our precious knowledge of God.
In the Bible, God has taken a personal initiative to reveal himself. In the shorthand we conventionally use—in our view, the Bible is “the Word of God”.
It is important that there are no misunderstandings at this point, so let me immediately make three clarifications.
First, when evangelicals say the Bible is the Word of God, they do not imply that the human race has no access to the knowledge of God outside the Bible. Against the extreme position adopted by some theologians in the Barthian school, evangelicals accept the existence of what theologians call “general revelation”. The eternal power and deity of God are perceptible in the created universe, says Paul in Romans 1—we do indeed have intuitive knowledge of God mediated through creation. The created world bears, as it were, the signature of the cosmic artist who designed it.
But there are two problems with this general revelation. First, we humans habitually turn a blind eye to it or distort the truth to which it witnesses because we are sinners, in rebellion against the God of whom it speaks; and second, while this intuitive awareness of God is enough to render us (as Paul puts it) “without excuse”, it is not enough to save us.
Second, when evangelicals say the Bible is the Word of God, they do not imply that God’s self-revelation is limited to the inspired words the Bible contains. In recent years, a number of theologians have emphasised the importance of redemptive events as the locus of divine revelation. A book by G. E. Wright, written back in the 1950s, The God who Acts, was a seminal exposé of this view, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is a most important perspective. Unlike the Muslims and the Mormons, we don’t just have a verbally inspired text that floated down from heaven in some mysterious way. Biblical revelation is anchored around supernatural divine interventions in history, and this historical context gives it objectivity and credibility which sets it apart from all the other religions which claim to be based on an inspired text.
However, revelatory events need to be interpreted, and it is precisely the function of the inspired word to give us that interpretation; biblical prophets and apostles not only to tell us what God has done in history, but what he means by it or achieved through it.
There is a fine example of this in 1 Corinthians 15, which many theologians believe is a very primitive Christian creed:
‘Christ died’ event
‘…for our sins…’ interpretation of event
‘…according to the Scriptures.’ source of the interpretation
Events only become revelatory acts as God himself explains them to us. And this is the chief function of the Bible; without it we’re reduced to being spectators trying to make sense of a subtle TV drama where the sound volume has been turned down to zero. We are not at liberty to interpret Christ’s death on the cross in any way we please—God has provided us with his own authoritative commentary on that pivotal event—in the Scriptures.
Thirdly, when evangelicals say that the Bible is the Word of God, they are in no way contradicting the perfection of Christ as the full and final revelation of God’s person to us. It would be equally true, and for many people far more appealing, if we said that our knowledge of God is primarily and supremely mediated through Christ. But fine and valid though such a statement would be, it would be unhelpful because it would not indicate what channel of access we who live in 2014 have to this Christ. There are today countless bogus Christs being offered to the world. There’s Christ the Hollywood superstar, Christ the anti-colonial freedom fighter, Christ the Eastern guru, Christ the humanitarian moralist. Everybody wants Jesus to hold their banner, to represent their enthusiasm. One is tempted to say, as in that old television quiz programme, ‘Will the real Jesus Christ please stand up?’
Where are we to find him?
There is only one answer, and that is in the God-authorised documents that speak of him. In this regard we must give credit to the New Delhi World Council of Churches conference in 1961 which revised the confessional basis of the World Council to read ‘A fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures’. Of course it must be ‘according to the Scriptures’, because there is no other Jesus to confess. Any other Jesus is an impostor. Christ coming as the Word made flesh did not supersede the need for the Bible. It made that need all the more obvious. Dare I put it this way—without wishing to seem impious—it would have been utterly pointless if God had sent Christ into the world without also accompanying his coming by an authoritative inspired interpretive word so that we could rightly understand who he was and what he had come to do.
Someone may protest that the whole idea of a divinely inspired text is too crazy to be believed, so perhaps a comparison may help at this point:
What happened to Mary that day in Nazareth? Christians believe that a fallible, sinful, human woman was so acted upon by the Holy Spirit that the child conceived in her womb was 100% human and 100% divine. He was her son and he was God’s Son. He was, as John so provocatively describes him, the “Word made flesh”.
And what happened in the cases of the prophets and the apostles? Evangelical Christians believe that in a similarly supernatural way, the Spirit of God so acted upon them, fallible, sinful and human though they were, that the words they wrote were 100% human and 100% divine—human words and God’s Word. The Word made scripture.
Of course it is miraculous. In one case it’s the miracle of the incarnation and in the other it’s the miracle of inspiration. But for those who believe the former there should be no intrinsic difficulty in believing the latter. Humanness and divinity are united in the Word made legible in a manner not unlike the way they united in the Word made flesh.
If we are asked for evidence of such a miraculous doctrine then we have three arguments to cite:
The Bible’s self testimony
‘All scripture is inspired by God’ (2 Tim. 3:16, RSV), the Greek word means ‘exhaled by the breath of God’. If someone complains that to defend the inspiration of the Bible by quoting the Bible is a circular argument, then we reply that the validity of an absolute authority can only be established by argument that is in some sense circular. In the nature of the case, there is no authority higher than that of the Word of God to which appeal might be made for ‘proof’ of the Bible’s divine origin.
The testimony of Christ
Even if we only accept that the Gospels provide us with a trustworthy account of Jesus’ teaching and reserve judgment on the question of their divine inspiration, we are compelled to conclude either that the doctrine of inspiration is true or that Christ was mistaken, for it is quite clear that he accepted fully the Old Testament’s divine authority. Scripture for him could not, as he put it, “be broken”. When faced with demonic temptation, the phrase “It is written …” carried all the authority necessary to silence inner doubt.
Well does John Bright comment in his book The Authority of the Old Testament, “I find it interesting and not a little odd that although the Old Testament on occasion offends our Christian feelings, it did not apparently offend Christ’s ‘Christian feeling. Could it really be that we are ethically and religiously more sensitive than he? Or is it perhaps that we do not view the Old Testament as he did?”
It is utterly inconsistent to couple a high view of Christ’s perfection with a low view of the Bible’s authority.
The testimony of the Holy Spirit
There is a lovely story of how Spurgeon used to gather crowds for open-air sermons. He would have a hat and put it down on the ground as if there were a little animal underneath it. He would point a quivering finger at it and say, “It’s alive, it’s alive!” Of course a crowd would gather, waiting to see what kind of animal he had got hidden under there. Then he would pick up the hat and underneath there would be a Bible, which he would then wave in the air announcing: “It’s alive!”, he would repeat and start to preach.
I don’t know whether such a tactic would work today. But what Spurgeon claimed, of course, was absolutely right. When we listen to or read from the Bible, we are placing ourselves in a most precarious place, because it is alive.
This final argument for the uniqueness of the Bible resonated powerfully with me as a young believer, of course, because that is exactly how I was converted. I was reading the Bible to prove the Christians wrong, when suddenly the tables were turned and the Word leapt up and grabbed me by the throat. The authority of the Bible always lies ultimately in its self-authenticating power. The Spirit of God acts through the Word to establish its authority in people’s hearts. And for that reason, of course, Scripture doesn’t really need to be defended by long-winded and dusty academic arguments about inspiration. The best way to defend it is to preach it. That was certainly my experience as a pastor to Cambridge university students. As Spurgeon said on another occasion: “You don’t need to defend a lion—you just let it out of the cage.”
As I say, I needed no convincing of this as a young Christian. Jesus had told me in the Gospel of John to “continue in his word” if I wanted to be a genuine disciple of his and know the liberating truth he had come to bring.
What did that mean in practice? Jesus had never written a book, so where was I to find “his word” so I could continue in it? The answer was self-evident—had he not been speaking to me all along?—through John’s gospel. The vehicle of Jesus’ word was the Bible. For me this was not initially a theological proposition, it was an indispensable part of my testimony. It was a spiritual experience.
I soon discovered quite a large company of students in my university who shared this experience. They worshipped in a wide range of different churches; some went to Anglican churches and some to non-conformist chapels; a sizeable number went to an obscure group I had never heard of before called “the Plymouth Brethren”; some held their hands in the air and spoke in tongues and others thought that kind of charismatic stuff was rather childish. But these differences of church affiliation and worship style didn’t seem to bother them too much, because they all had one thing in common—a high regard for the Bible and a desire to study it. The word they used to distinguish themselves in this respect was “evangelical”. Without any hesitation, I joined their number and began to call myself an evangelical Christian too.
And fifty years on, I still do.
This high view of Scripture, I suggest, is what primarily defines an evangelical. Not the Graham Kendrick worship songs and Charles Wesley hymns we sing, not the magazines we read, not the congregations we attend, not even organizations like the Evangelical Alliance that we belong to—whether you and I are right to call ourselves evangelicals hinges on the authority we ascribe to the Bible.
In giving such a high role to the Bible, evangelicals of course stand squarely in the tradition of reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin and their later disciples in English-speaking world, who are often called the puritans. In the 16th and 17th centuries these protestant believers challenged the spiritual decadence of the medieval church by a direct appeal to the authority of Bible over heads of popes, kings and councils. Evangelicals see themselves as the spiritual heirs of these great reforming pioneers. And I too am proud to identify with that rich heritage.
But it must also be said that a high view of Scripture on its own is not enough.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have a high view of scripture too, don’t they? So do any number of other bizarre sects. Are they to be called “evangelicals” then? Certainly not! It is pointless to say you believe the Bible is the Word of God unless you go on to explain the principles that control your interpretation of the Bible.
2. Evangelicals seek to interpret the Bible in a responsible and scholarly manner.
Nothing undermines the authority of the Bible more than the abuse of the text to support fanatical or crazy ideas. We can see today how allegiance to a crude, irrational interpretation of the Koran is bringing Islam into global contempt among civilised peoples. Well, the Bible can be abused like that too, and often has been. As Shakespeare wisely observes: “The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
However, once we raise the issue of biblical interpretation (or “hermeneutics” as it is technically called), we inevitably encounter a thorny theological debate about the tension between human reason and the Bible.
Should I base my opinions solely on Scripture or should I also give weight to the rational conclusions of human logic and modern science? Evangelicals distinguish themselves from liberal Christians on the one hand and fundamentalist Christians on the other by their response to this long standing controversy.
Evangelicals are, as we have already said, first and foremost “Bible people”—they confess the Bible to be the inspired Word of God—and, if it is to be consistent, such a confession must invest the Bible’s teaching with supreme authority. You can hardly accuse God of lying—if the Bible is the Word of God, it must be trustworthy, or the claim is vacuous.
However, it is nonsense to suggest that evangelicals take their stand on the authority of the Bible in defiance of human reason. This has never been their position. True evangelicals have always sought to demonstrate that reason and the Bible are in harmony. When conflicts have arisen along this axis, evangelicals have always sought to hold on to both, even if this involves accepting a high degree of intellectual angst or uncertainty.
A classic example of this, of course, has been the debate about creation and evolution. Thinking evangelicals have never yielded to the blinkered dogma which insists the world must have been made in seven days because Genesis says so. It is no part of Christian discipleship to turn a blind eye to discoveries of science which indicate the earth is millions of years old. In fact, a surprising number of our most able scientists are evangelical Christians, including biologists who are thoroughly persuaded of the general accuracy of evolutionary theory.
There are, of course, some Christians who do reject the findings of modern science; but such obscurantism is not representative of true evangelicalism. Although the term is not ideal, I shall call such anti-intellectuals the “fundamentalists”. While it would not be fair to place all young-earth creationists in that pejorative category, the majority of them undoubtedly do adopt a blinkered literalism toward the Bible which science is not permitted to challenge.
At the other extreme, of course, there are some Christians who experience no difficulty at all in embracing modern science because they see the Bible as simply a fallible witness to the human experience of God. If Moses or Paul or any of the other biblical authors say something which they find incompatible with modern thought, their solution is simple—the prophets were children of their time, so they got things wrong. The label is not ideal, but I shall call this the point of view espoused by “liberals”. The characteristic of liberal Christians is that they are not prepared to submit their minds to the authority of Scripture when it says things they find unacceptable. Instead, they arrogate to themselves the right to pick and choose the bits of the Bible they are prepared to agree with, effectively identifying what God says with their own opinions. In my view, this makes nonsense of the whole idea of God-centred revelation. It is precisely the kind of theological speculation that is forbidden in the second commandment. A “graven image” is the idol you get when you let your own imagination shape your idea of God.
Evangelicals, I say, occupy the middle ground between these fundamentalist and liberal extremes. They do not occupy it, let me hasten to add, by seeking some insipid compromise between reason and the Bible. On the contrary, they wrestle with the intellectual issues involved, sometimes over many decades, until a satisfying resolution of the tension between reason and the Bible is forthcoming. Almost invariably, such a resolution is associated with an advance in biblical interpretation. As a result, the biblical hermeneutics practiced by evangelicals is immensely sophisticated. They have always resisted the crude literalistic approach espoused by the fundamentalists, just as they have also refused to accept the liberals’ dismissal of parts of the Bible as “human error”. They have insisted that the truth is not to be found by letting go of either reason or Scripture, but only by holding on to both.
A willingness to listen to the voice of reason as we interpret the Bible is, of course, particularly important when pastoral issues are at stake. Modern science has thrown new light on the “nature” of many aspects of human behavior and psychology which were not properly understood in ancient times. The biblical interpretation of evangelicals takes into account the fact that divine inspiration accommodated itself to the pre-modern world-view of its original authors, even when their culture was ignorant or misinformed.
Demon possession is perhaps a good example of this. Ancient culture clearly had the wrong idea about mental illness, yet the Bible does not attempt to correct it. Whilst not arrogantly dismissing what the Bible says about this subject, therefore, evangelicals do not assume, as some fundamentalists do, that demon possession provides us with a complete and accurate explanation of the phenomenon of mental disorder.
In a not dissimilar way, we also now understand the phenomenon of homosexuality much better than we used to do. Its origin has not yet been discovered, but numerous possibilities have been discussed: a genetic predisposition; an abnormal hormone flux in the womb; remote or excessively intense relationships with one or both parents. The jury is still out on this debate, but the psychological evidence unambiguously indicates that sexual orientation is fixed at a very early age and is immutable. The most that the so-called ex-gay movement has ever been able to demonstrate is temporary modification of behaviour in a handful of cases, sustained by substantial social rewards. They have produced no evidence that anyone’s underlying orientation can be permanently changed, and there are plenty of gay Christians around who can testify to the damage which the futile quest for “healing” through such groups has caused them.
This new psychological knowledge about homosexuality must inform our interpretation and application of the biblical text. To refuse to allow such a revision would be fundamentalist obscurantism of a particularly dangerous kind because, like the issue of mental illness, it has such serious pastoral implications.
Only a fundamentalist would argue that, since the Bible talks about demon-possession, modern psychological ideas about mental illness are all wrong and szchizophrenics should therefore throw away their medication and seek exorcism instead. Similarly, only a fundamentalist would suggest that, because the Bible has no idea of homosexual orientation, this modern psychological understanding of what it means to be “gay” has to be rejected. Evangelicals occupy the middle ground when reason and Scripture seem to collide, and seek an interpretation that does justice to both.
In my judgement, the refusal to take sides in that theological tug-of-war has been amply vindicated. As a result of it, an Eeangelical’s confidence in the authority of Scripture never leads to a mindless recital of fundamentalist proof-texts. They seek rather a carefully nuanced and academically informed exposition of the Bible that does full justice to its historical and cultural background, its literary genre and to the uncertainties that still surround the original meaning of some parts its text. As a result, evangelical scholarship has won considerable respect in the academic world. Evangelicals have served as professors in the theology departments of secular universities and continue to do so.
They are distinguished by what I would describe as a responsible and scholarly approach to all questions of biblical interpretation. I certainly would not wish to be known as an evangelical if that was not true.
But that kind of intellectual integrity brings with it an inescapable corollary.
3. Evangelicals respect personal conscience in regard to controversial issues
Once we acknowledge that biblical interpretation can sometimes be a tricky subject, we have to acknowledge that different people may well interpret the Bible in different ways. So the question arises, how do we seek to handle such potential for disunity?
One very early response to the emergence of theological disagreement was to invoke the authority of the institutional church. Thus, when faced with a doctrinal conflict, the individual believer was instructed to surrender their conscience to the dictates of church tradition.
For the sake of giving it a label, I want to call this the conservative catholic solution—though I hasten to say that I am using the word “catholic” here with a small “c”, because, as I will stress a little later, although the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope remains the most extreme formulation of this attempt by the church to impose conformity on all Christians, such ecclesiastical authoritarianism has by no means been limited to the Vatican. There have been plenty of protestant bishops and ministers willing to claim infallibility for their particular interpretation of the biblical text and willing to persecute or excommunicate any who deny it.
In contrast to the conservative catholic view, on the other hand, there have always been brave Christians throughout church history who have insisted on their individual right to follow their own private understanding of the Holy Spirit’s leading on issues. I will call this the radical protestant view. Groups like the Anabaptists, the early Congregationalists and the Quakers faced appalling persecution in Europe during the 17th century because they dared to challenge the dictates of ecclesiastical authorities, and there is a clear historical link between those brave dissenters and modern evangelicals.
Of course, I am not suggesting that all evangelicals are non-conformists! Many remained loyal to the royalist establishment during Cromwell’s revolution, and in later centuries a strong evangelical party developed within the Church of England. If we are honest, we have to admit that relations between evangelical Anglicans and evangelical non-conformists have occasionally been tense. Nevertheless, my point is this: non-conformity has always been a recognized and respected element within Evangelicalism. Evangelicals have always respected personal conscience.
Let me immediately make plain that this does not mean that Evangelicalism is just a form of sanctified individualism. Certainly not! Evangelical Christians have always placed a great deal of theological emphasis on what Bible says about the church as the “the body of Christ” and the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit”. If non-conformity within their ranks has sometimes led to schism, this has always been characterised by great reluctance and regret. The non-conformist chapels that we see in every town and city are evidence of the persecuting intolerance of ecclesiastical authoritarians rather than of the bolshie revolutionary sedition of their founding dissenters.
Nevertheless, it remains a fundamental tenet of evangelical understanding that the grace of God is mediated to the Christian through a personal 1:1 faith relationship with Christ: not through the priest, not through the sacraments of the church, not through the Christian family even. Evangelicals believe that every human individual is accountable directly to God and must be free to believe and practise their faith according to their own conscience. For history clearly proves that church tradition is unreliable guide to a right understanding of the Bible.
Jesus himself warned about precisely this when he said to the Jewish leaders of his day: “You have made the Word of God void by your traditions” (Mark 7:13).
The trouble with tradition is that it obstructs change and sometimes change is necessary. Jesus himself brought change—and resistance to that change was one of the reasons he was crucified.
On many occasions, the church too has resisted change. Who can possibly deny that the church has made many grievous mistakes in its long history? It has used texts from the Bible to endorse serious theological error, to justify crazy military crusades and to retain unjust cultural prejudices against the Jews, against Muslims, against negroes, against women, and against gays.
Evangelicals believe the only way to correct those mistakes is by patiently attending to the Word of God as it comes to us, not through the distorting lens of church tradition, but afresh through contemporary Bible study. That I believe is why Jesus told new believers to “continue in his word”—for discipleship is a continuing process; when it comes to understanding the truth as it is in Jesus, we have never “arrived”. Our understanding of the Bible advances by an iterative procedure of constantly improving approximations to the truth. We understand the Bible better today than we did 500 years ago because this is how the Holy Spirit chooses to work. As the apostle Paul admitted, at any particular moment in church history, “we understand in part”, and will continue to do so until the final day arrives—only then will we know God as fully as he knows us (I Corinthians 13:8-12).
Such humility in regard to our current theological understanding must inevitably generate respect for other people’s opinions. In that respect the influence of the radical protestants in the English-speaking world has been enormously important. It was the need to accommodate the consciences of non-conformist Christians that taught the Western world the meaning of the word “toleration”. I might add that it is the absence of a similar accommodation to dissent that is causing such barbarous intolerance in the Middle East at the moment.
As I stressed earlier, it is a mistake to think that the enemies of the radical protestant in this respect were always based in Rome. Take the Pilgrim Fathers for example—they fled across the Atlantic primarily not from persecution by Catholics but by Lutherans and by Calvinists and, in this country by Anglican bishops. When they were about to set sail for America, their pastor John Robinson preached a sermon in which he bewailed the way that the reformed churches, just like Catholicism, had become stuck in the mire of tradition. To be a Christian is always to be constantly open to further light upon the truth as it is in Jesus, insisted Robinson. The church must never rest on the laurels of its earlier history, but always be open, not to new truth, but to a better understanding the truth that has been once and for all been given to us in the Bible.
Here is the key part of Robinson’s famous farewell speech:
“I charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.
The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. Whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, they (Lutherans) will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented. For though they were precious shining lights in their time, yet God has not revealed his whole will to them. And were they now living, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as they had received.”
His words later became the inspiration for a great non-conformist hymn.
We limit not the truth of God
To our poor reach of mind,
By notions of our day and sect, Crude, partial, and confined.
No, let a new and better hope
Within our hearts be stirred:
The Lord hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from His Word.
Sadly, I fear the words of that hymn would stick in the throats of many so-called evangelicals today, for they are stuck in their traditions every bit as much as were the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, the Catholics in Luther’s day, and the reformed churches in the days of John Robinson. As a result, like the Pilgrim Fathers, some who formerly called themselves “evangelicals” have felt compelled to “jump ship” and board the Mayflower, putting distance between themselves and the stick-in-the-mud version of Christian spirituality in which they were nurtured. It is sad—and in my view misjudged.
Because true evangelicals have always affirmed a radical non-conformist openness to new light from the Word, and for that reason they have always tolerated diversity on a wide range of issues which they accept should be regarded as matters of private opinion.
Baptism is a good example of this spirit of tolerance. The conservative catholic might well see such a sacrament as a necessary and even a “saving” rite on the grounds that this is what church tradition teaches. Evangelicals, on the other hand, while recognising the importance of baptism as a mark of church membership, are generally happy to leave the quantity of water involved and the maturity required of the candidate as matters of opinion. Thus paedobaptists and adult baptists, sprinklers and immersers, all happily coexist within the circle of evangelical fellowship. Your view of baptism is a matter of individual conscience—not an evangelical essential.
Because of this intrinsic spirit of tolerance, in spite of all the early rhetoric of the ecumenical movement, in fact Evangelicalism bridges the gaps between Christian denominations at the grassroots level far more successfully than the World Council of Churches has ever done.
One revealing indicator of the reluctance of evangelicals to impose an unnecessary degree of conformity on their brothers and sisters is the observation that evangelical statements of faith have always been limited in scope. Like the classic creeds of the early centuries, and the confessions of the reformed churches, evangelical statements of faith have always affirmed the great central doctrines of the Christian faith regarding the person and work of Christ, but have deliberately omitted controversial areas out of respect for liberty of conscience.
One particularly significant area of opinion which has been conspicuously sidestepped in this way is that of ethics.
This is all the more remarkable given that, at several times in history, evangelicals have exercised a powerful moral influence on society. One thinks of William Wilberforce’s classic campaign to abolish slavery, for instance. In the later Victorian era, evangelicals were enormously active in improving the welfare of children and women. Many Methodists and Welsh Baptists were early socialists. In the twentieth century, some evangelicals campaigned strongly against alcohol and smoking.
In short, moral concern has been a feature of evangelical life for hundreds of years.
But, significantly, these concerns have never been enshrined in evangelical statements of faith. Ethics has always been treated as an area where personal conscience must be respected. Some evangelicals opposed slavery, but others did not; some campaigned for social justice with the Liberals and Labour, but others remained steadfastly Tory; some supported prohibition, but others denounced it. Such controversies aroused strong feelings within the evangelical camp but it never destroyed its essential spiritual fellowship.
Keeping ethics out of statements of faith in this way was not a mere concession to pragmatism—there are at least two good theological reasons for it.
First, although the Bible sometimes addresses ethical issues, its overall intention is not moralistic. Unlike the Koran, the Bible is primarily a book of faith not a book of law. The opposite of a saint is not a sinner but an unbeliever. The Bible’s purpose is to give us a faith perspective on life in the broad sweep of its revelatory story; the concrete particulars of the morality it presents in its narration of this revelatory adventure cannot be ours without being passed through a hermeneutic filter involving an understanding of the difference of historical and cultural horizons.
In this respect it is arguable that many Christians make moral misjudgements because they use the Bible like Pharisees, wishing to define righteousness by a list of right and wrong acts (i.e. law), when Jesus actually rejected that kind of casuistry, urging his followers instead to work out how to act in any situation by applying his two golden rules: love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself.
Second, in situations of ethical uncertainty, evangelicals have always recognised that sometimes it is necessary to make judgements based on the optimisation of consequences rather than simplistic ideas of right and wrong. This is what we often call “the lesser of two evils” principle. Jesus himself seems to have endorsed it as an ethical approach in his comment on divorce. Divorce isn’t God’s ideal he said, but Moses allowed it because of “the hardness of men’s hearts”. In other words, divorce is never “good”, but sometimes in a fallen world there is no good choice available, only a choice between different degrees of bad—the lesser evil.
When you put these two considerations together, it is easy to see why wise evangelical theologians have decided to keep ethics out of their statements of faith—a moral verdict on an issue is not a timeless truth in the same way that the doctrine of the trinity is. There has to be room for consciences to differ as novel situations arise and new light on the biblical text is given.
Paul seems to me to be endorsing this morally flexible point of view very explicitly when he deals with the vexed question of eating meat that has been offered to idols. He insists that each believer should obey their own conscience on the matter and that the Christian community should not try to make a blanket rule to which everyone must conform.
A pertinent contemporary example might be the debate about abortion. There are quite a number of evangelical gynaecologists and obstetricians who believe it is sometimes morally right, or at least the lesser of two evils, to terminate a pregnancy. On the other hand, there is also a very powerful Christian lobby that holds that abortion under any circumstances is a form of murder. The argument over this modern moral issue has at times been extremely heated, but as far as I’m aware, it has been contained within the circle of evangelical fellowship. Even over such an emotive issue as the sanctity of unborn life, the private conscience of mothers and doctors has been respected. Abortion is an immensely complex ethical issue—made even more complicated by modern medical advances in embryology. Our creeds and statements of faith, therefore, wisely do not try to adjudicate upon it. The same could be said for any number of other modern ethical debates—the role of women, nuclear weapons, capital punishment—ethical debates of this kind have never been made a defining issue for evangelicals, nor should they.
We are united by our high view of scripture and our commitment to interpret the Bible in a scholarly and responsible fashion. But we do not always agree with one another; on theological issues like baptism, on pastoral issues like demon possession, on ethical issues like divorce and abortion, we respect liberty of conscience. Toleration is a fundamental lesson that we have learned during our long and sometimes turbulent history.
Why then?—Why then, in the name of God—is the debate about homosexuality being turned into an evangelical shibboleth?—a defining issue about which dissent is not allowed? Such intolerance is utterly out of line with our evangelical heritage of tolerance toward conscientious dissent on controversial issues.
There is in fact a painful irony in the way much of the press coverage of the gay debate has portrayed conservative Christians as blinkered and intolerant extremists. Given the moralising pontifications of some self-appointed evangelical spokespersons, such a negative image is hardly surprising. But it is completely unfair. For when they are true to their tradition, evangelicals are not extremists of that kind at all. On the contrary, a sweet and charitable reasonableness has always in the past characterized their internal disagreements.
I am reminded of the famous lines attributed to the puritan Richard Baxter and often quoted by John Stott:
On things that are essential—unity
On things that are not essential—liberty
In all things—charity.
It is only those who are currently trying to hijack the evangelical wing of the church and turn it into an anti-gay bandwagon who are extremists. A determined attempt is being made to relocate evangelicalism closer to the fundamentalist and conservative catholic extremes on the issue of homosexuality. Any kind of open-mindedness on this controversial issue is being portrayed as a compromising betrayal of biblical truth. The fact is, however, it is nothing of the kind. Tolerance of diversity of opinion is precisely where evangelicals should stand on this matter. For they know that the unity of the church must always be maintained without doing violence to the private consciences of individual believers. They know it is always better to tolerate a degree of diversity in faith and practice than to reintroduce the politics of the inquisition. By allowing themselves to be railroaded on this issue, evangelicals are ruining their hard-won reputation for intellectual rigour and social relevance. All the progress that they have made in establishing the credibility of the Christian gospel within modern western culture is being threatened by a group of loony militants who loudly insist that what a person thinks about gays is a crucial mark of orthodoxy.
I have news for them—it isn’t. It is a side issue.
At least, it is for everyone except the gay community who are directly affected by it. For homosexual Christians, however, this uncharacteristic intolerance on the part of our evangelical brother and sisters is highly problematic. It generates a profound contradiction between faith and experience. On the one hand, we are believers who have known the power of the Word and the Spirit of God in our lives. On the other hand, we long for fulfilment of our God-given potential for sexual intimacy. As in the case of heterosexuals, few of us are gifted with celibacy. So, as I said right at the start, sadly, for many the only way to resolve the cognitive dissonance to which Evangelicalism has subjected them has been to move theologically in the direction of liberal churches. Worse still, some gay evangelicals feel so spiritually abandoned, they have given up their faith altogether. I have a personal suspicion that some evangelical leaders have used the gay issue to play ecclesiastical power games. No doubt they consider the loss of a few adherents is a small price to pay for the political leverage they have achieved by raising the stakes on the gay issue so high. But there is a worrying absence of the Spirit of Jesus in their contemptuous disregard for the welfare of brothers and sisters whose only crime is to love someone of the same sex.
I say again, there is no disastrous compromise in adopting a tolerant respect for different views on this matter of homosexuality. Evangelicals know from experience that, when reason seems to collide with Scripture, or the church’s tradition with the individual’s conscience, toleration not persecution is the godly response. The intellectual flexibility and political manoeuvrability that comes from such a stance of principled sufferance has, on many other issues, enabled evangelicals to find a position of positive biblical balance, over against the contentious extremism of fundamentalist literalism, liberal scepticism, and ecclesiastical authoritarianism.
Yet, for some unaccountable reason, evangelicals are not willing to keep either their minds or their options open over the question of homosexuality.
That intolerance is not only damaging the church internally. The credibility of the church’s mission to the world is being undermined too.
Please allow me to say a few words about this in closing, for it is the consequence of the current situation that grieves me more than any other.
Although Evangelicalism can trace its roots back to the reformers, the puritans and the non-conformists, the word “evangelical” is supremely associated with the great 18th century revivals. Preachers like Wesley and Whitfield in Britain and the great Jonathan Edwards in New England, preached the simple biblical message of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. It was that “gospel preaching” that first gave rise to the term “evangelical”. They told men and woman who were Christian in name but not in experience “you must be born again”—and, as a result, empty churches were filled and multitudes of new churches and chapels built. The Holy Spirit breathed new life into the Christian community, and the whole of society felt the impact of the spiritual renewal. Preachers like Moody in the 19th century and Billy Graham in the 20th stand in that same tradition of “evangelical revival”. Indeed, the entire modern missionary movement has grown out of the zeal for evangelisation that it engendered.
The greatest priority of any evangelical worthy of the name must surely be to share the Christian message with others in obedience to Christ’s final missionary mandate: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel.” What is the use of an evangelical who cannot evangelise?
But today, hostility towards homophile relationships within the institutional church has, in my view, not only made the evangelisation of the gay community impossible, but has also grossly undermined the credibility of the Christian message for all people who live in the West under the age of 40.
This abdication of our missionary mandate for the sake of a moral crusade against homosexuality is all the more disastrous when it is viewed in a global context. We live in days when it is no longer communism that threatens the future of the church but a militant and barbaric form of Islam. There is plenty of evidence that the secular world is drawing the conclusion that any religion that claims to be based on a divinely inspired text is dangerous and fanatical. Evangelicals are being tarred with the same brush as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the warriors of the so-called Islamic State.
What are the evangelicals doing in these critical days, when militarised Islam once again threatens Christendom? They are fighting internally about whether a gay man or woman can be a priest or not!
I am reminded of famous story about the fall of Constantinople in 15th century. That city had since the time of the Roman empire been the capital of the Byzantine Church, but in the year 1484 it was besieged by the forces of the Islamic Ottomans. It was a crucial moment in the history of the world, not so far removed from the confrontation that is taking place once again right now in Turkey. Do you know what the Christian monks in Constantinople are reputed to have been doing during that siege in 1484? They were debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin!
A similar kind of suicidal blinkered mental block seems to be stultifying evangelicals today. I cannot express how much it grieves me—if Jesus wept over Jerusalem, how must he be weeping over the parlous state of the church today.
It is time to sum up:
Evangelicals disagree about many things—they always have—they disagree about war, abortion, divorce, the role of women, charismatic gifts, the second coming of Christ, and a hundred other issues. We work toward the resolution of those disagreements by studying the Bible together. This is what it means for us to “continue in Christ’s word”. Our experience is that, as we study the Bible together, according to his promise, the truth becomes clearer and previous mistakes are overcome—the Lord always has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word.
There are absolutely no grounds for treating the controversy about homosexuality in a different way. On the contrary, excluding gay Christians risks incurring a frighteningly serious rebuke from the Master. It would be better, Jesus said, to be drowned in the depths of the sea than to be a stumbling-block to one who believes in him; and a stumbling-block is precisely what many so-called evangelicals have become to those in the gay community that Christ wishes to call to faith in himself.
Personally, I refuse to dignify those who have become so spiritually effete with the honoured title of “Evangelical”. In my view, it is they who have forfeited the right to that name, not me.
I may be a gay man, but I am also still a Christian and an evangelical Christian at that.