As you probably know by now, Steve Chalk’s Oasis Trust has been expelled from the Evangelical Alliance. Despite this, Chalke has been insisting that he is still an evangelical. There are two indisputable facts, as we look at the aftermath of this decision however:
Firstly, one of only two umbrella organisations representing Evangelicals in the UK has decided that they feel Chalke is out of step with the majority of Evangelical leaders in the UK. I don’t believe for a moment, that the second, Affinity, would be inviting Chalke to apply for membership there, either.
Secondly, a cursory look at what Twitter has had to say in response to the actions of the EA reveals that a lot of people who identify themselves as Christians have been disappointed in the actions of the EA. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the twitter stream reflects the entire spectrum of Christian thought on this subject. 140 characters are perfectly long enough to express that you disagree with someone, but not long enough to adequately express the finer nuances of why you agree.
It does seem to me that the fundamental issue here is that many people have confused two important labels: “Christian” and “Evangelical.” These words do overlap, but I firmly believe that Evangelicals are Christians, but not all Christians are Evangelical. This is explained more clearly in the following two key posts from my blog:
It is helpful for us to use labels, and that those labels actually mean something. Labels act a kind of shorthand. If we have a shared understanding a single word can take the place of a paragraph in explaining who we are, what we believe, and what kinds of people we most closely relate to.
It seems to me that the EA have made a judgement that they believe Chalke is not an Evangelical. But they have not implied that they believe he is not a Christian.
Growing up in the UK, I always got the impression that the Evangelicals were the dinosaurs, that we were outmoded. That we were on the decline. And that we were intellectually bankrupt, not facing the realities of developments in science, culture, and biblical scholarship.There was a prominent group known to both their critics and each other as “Liberal Christians” They believed they represented the future of Christianity. And yet it has been the Evangelicals that have seen remarkable growth while nobody remembers the liberal leaders of my youth.
For ten years now I have been arguing that Chalke and others are actually liberals. Unfortunately, many see that as a pejorative term. This wasn’t the case in my youth. People also argue that there is no historical continuity between the modern exponents of radical change in theology and the liberalism of the 20th century. I acknowledge that the historical point seems to be accurate, which is why I coined the term “Neoliberal”
Historically liberalism has always arisen from within orthodox groups, and it has represented a movement away from traditional ways of thinking about God, the Bible, and societal issues. There seems no doubt that part of the drive behind such movement is that society has changed. The idea is that revising our dusty doctrine will lead to greater acceptance by the World. In other words, if the Church will “get with the program” more people will want to come to church.
I would argue that such an approach does not work even at a pragmatic level. The history of the Church in the last 200 years or more is that movements that become more liberal gradually die out. There may be an initial bump of interest, but over time, the passion wanes, the energy dissipates, and the people stop coming. I have even heard it argued that “nobody” becomes a Christian in a liberal church. No doubt that is an overstatement. But the historical trends are insurmountable, “edgy” movements which aim to jettison unpopular teachings which stretch the credibility of the church in society tend towards decline. Prophetic movements which aim to stay true to the Bible grow.
Note that none of this precludes the idea that the Church can change as a whole in the way it approaches certain issues. This is particularly true when it comes to issues that affect Society as a whole rather than the Church itself. A good example of this is divorce. Historically the Church opposed attempts to make divorce easier to obtain. Now, even staunch evangelicals do not campaign to have divorce laws tightened. Christians as individuals within society often choose to follow a stricter line when it comes to divorce than society as a whole. They do this as part of their devotion to Christ, and their obedience to the Bible as they understand it. They do not seek to impose those views on the whole of society.
Significantly, most evangelicals will still believe that the Bible teaches that divorce is wrong except in very limited situations. Why? Because they believe that is the simple, obvious “face” meaning of the relevant Scriptures. Evangelicals tend to approach the Bible in a certain way. We can and do have all kinds of disagreements about all kinds of issues, and we can and do change our thinking on certain matters. But, you can tell who is an evangelical by the way we discuss such differences, and by our deference to the Bible. When I debated Rob Bell, it was very obvious we did not approach the Bible in the same way. Similarly, when Andrew Wilson debated Steve Chalke that distinction was if anything even more clear.
Generally speaking it is polite to call groups of people by the name they prefer to use of themselves. And the term, “liberal” has become a negative one. Many who have a similar approach to the Bible as Steve Chalke prefer to use the term “Progressive Christian” I may not like it very much myself, as it implies that the rest of us are “regressive” but perhaps we can see progressive as the opposite of conservative, instead. In any case, I do wonder if over time Chalke himself will own that label.
If you want to know whether you are an Evangelical or a Progressive Christian yourself, it seems to me that the test is really easy. Read the following two blog posts, one from my archive, and one from the Progressive Christianity channel here at Patheos. Then, decide which one represents most closely the way you choose to approach the Bible.
To summarise our differences, I will share some quotes from the first of those articles. If you find you agree with these statements then it would seem to me you are not an evangelical:
“Atheists and fundamentalists each tend to read the Bible in the same wooden, overly literalistic manner. The difference is that atheists reject what they read in that manner, while fundamentalists believe it.”
“We take the Bible too seriously, to read it all literally.”
“We don’t think that God wrote the Bible. We think it was written by fallible human beings who were inspired by (not dictated to by) the Holy Spirit. Hence, we don’t consider it to be infallible or inerrant.”
We employ a hermeneutic of compassion, love, and justice . . . A hermeneutic is “an interpretive lens” and intentional filter.
We also tend to employ a “canon within the canon” lens whereby we give greater weight and priority to certain texts over others.
[We are] willing to reject certain passages & theologies in the Bible and to affirm other ones
To me all that sounds a lot like Steve Chalke, and not like the majority of evangelicals at all.