Today The Independent newspaper in the UK published this piece on how some evangelicals are handling the thorny issue of homosexuality. Peter Ould does a good job of showing up some of the many inconsistencies and problems in the article. Peter’s blog by the way should be required reading for any evangelical thinking wanting to keep tabs on how this debate is evolving.
Instead of repeating his arguments, I wanted to take another angle looking at what lies ahead for evangelicals (and especially those in the established church) over the next decade or so.
Let’s look first at how evangelicals are portrayed by Jerome Taylor, author of this article. Firstly there is an acknowledgement of the success of evangelicals:
“Evangelicalism, the fastest growing form of Christianity in Britain today…”
And for positives, that’s about it. Get used to that.
Conservative evangelicals (which I would probably include myself in) are, of course, the worst of the lot.
“Much of the most vehement opposition to female leadership in the church and same-sex marriage legislation comes from the conservative sections of evangelical Christianity. They are groups whose dogmatic adherence to scripture allows them to justify the kind of bigotry that – like slavery and segregation – most of Britain has long ago deemed unconscionable.”
We are then, dogmatic bigots who if given half the chance would also be racists longing for the good old days of apartheid. It’s effective mudslinging even if entirely inaccurate.
However evangelicalism is usually poorly understood by the national press and is so here, with Tony Campolo (whose ministry and preaching I have often greatly appreciated) being described as more liberal than Brian McLaren (whose early writings I also found helpful) and Jay Bakker (who I’ve never heard of before). Bakker trots out the usual rubbish of comparing homosexuality with eating shellfish. Again it’s effective because it makes conservative evangelicals sound ridiculous. But as far as I understand it on this issue McLaren is more liberal than Tony but not Tony’s wife, Peggy Campolo who supports full equality in the church for LGBT couples.
In a culture of mass ignorance of Christianity, the opponents of the gospel do not need to win arguments against well thought through theology they just need to make us look stupid. And that isn’t very hard to do. In a culture war in the UK the church is hopelessly outgunned. Too few comedians, politicians, journalists and headline makers to hold off for very long.
However I think there are some warnings for egalitarian evangelicals, a softer less bigoted bunch than their more conservative brothers and sisters. Recently Krish Kandiah engaged with Tim Keller and The Gospel Coalition over their complementarian approach to ministry. Krish was at pains to point out that, “As an egalitarian I have a very high view of scripture” and pushed back against Keller’s position “that egalitarians cannot hold to a high view of scripture and come to their conclusions – it has to involve loosening their grip on scripture at some point.”
What has this to do with the Independent article, you may wonder? Well Krish then argues that being an egalitarian is not on a trajectory that necessarily leads to an acceptance of homosexuality, “As an egalitarian I believe that leadership roles are available to men and women in the church, this does not lead me to change my views on homosexual sex.”
The problem for Krish is that in the media this view is already being undermined, not least of course because of the trajectory of former evangelicals such as McLaren. Anyway, here is how The Independent puts it:
“Reinterpreting the Bible to allow for same sex relationships is crucial for evangelicals because they place such a profound importance on scriptural purity.”
Here it recognizes the high view of scripture that evangelicals cherish but of course sees the need for reinterpretation. It’s what he says next that is very interesting:
“Conservative evangelicals naturally balk at this sort of scriptural revisionism but it has happened before. Two decades ago is was very difficult to find evangelical congregations who accepted the idea of women in leadership roles within their churches. Now it is just a minority of evangelical churches who still hold that view, precisely because the pieces of scripture that were once used to forbid female leadership have been reinterpreted.”
First of course is that the media calls it for what it is; scriptural revisionism. Second of course is that he sees evangelicals having done just that over the issue of gender. Most egalitarian evangelicals grimace at the word revisionism but again, it is what it is. The trap has been set, in the eyes of the media a narrative will emerge and it will only grow as this issue continues to come to the fore. There will be enormous pressure on egalitarian evangelicals to accept homosexuality (by that I mean as morally good in all its expressions) and they will not understand a refusal. Conservative evangelicals remember have already been dealt with as unreformable bigots who are already an irrelevance.
The reason for this is because (as I’ve said before) all the arguments egalitarians marshalled for the equality of women will be exactly the arguments used for full acceptance of homosexuality. Those that try to stand in the middle are about to get squeezed. The chances that the popular press will get William Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic is slim to say the least. In the pews I doubt that the idea that there is a trajectory of redemption on the issue of gender but not in sexuality is unlikely to hold. Indeed the connection that it should apply in all three cases is popular, it will sound compelling and it’s already being made.
“Rewind another 200 years and a similar thing happened with slavery. It was primarily evangelicals like William Wilberforce and John Wesley who preached that although sections of scripture could be used to defend slavery, the overriding message of that Christ came down to set captive free – a key sermon recorded by Luke – trumped any justification for the continuation of what was clearly an abhorrent and un-Christlike practice.”
Slavery, women and next homosexuality. The trajectory is clear and my fear for my egalitarian evangelical friends is that their best defences is instead the Maginot line – the line holds fine but fails to defend France. Look to your defences!
The second strand of the narrative that will dominate is at the end of the piece with the claims of silent majority (likely imaginary at this point) which will become a vocal minority (real) and which will in turn become an irresistible grassroots pressure for reform,
“There’s a younger generation of evangelicals growing up now who don’t have an issue with same-sex relationships and can’t understand why others do. And Church leaders are beginning to realise that if they don’t soften their attitude soon, their churches will become irrelevant.”
Evangelicals have always oddly been worried by irrelevance, but that’s a pressure. You saw it in the debate over women bishops, ‘we will be irrelevant if we don’t have them’ as if we weren’t already an irrelevance or as if it was the main reason 90% of Britons don’t regularly attend a church of any description.
Krish pushed back at John Piper who essentially questioned whether evangelical egalitarians will have the courage to stand strong on other issues. There’s going to be plenty of opportunity over the next few years to prove that courage.