A response to ‘A Matter of Integrity’ by my friend, Steve Chalke.
Unity and Diversity - learning the art of graceful disagreement.
A friend of mine recently used an illustration to help me understand how ‘truth’ and ‘culture’ fit together. She held up one of her hands, replete in a red glove. She explained that in any context and any culture, but particularly for Christians in regards to the process of biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, it was important to understand that ‘truth’ is always mediated into a given context, and then must be applied into another context. The glove she was wearing was the context of the truth. Her hand was the truth itself. Slowly she took off the glove that was on her hand, the original context, revealing the ‘truth’ of her hand and then she placed another glove onto the same hand. Same truth, but mediated and seen a different context.
That image has been very helpful to me over the last day or so as I have reflected on the words of a man I love and am honoured to call a friend – Steve Chalke. Over the last few days, Steve has take the step of sharing his changing thoughts on homosexuality and the way the ‘church’ responds to it. My respect and love for him has not changed in light of his words. I love him as much now as I did two days ago. In all that I am about to say, I want to plead with those entering this debate to do so with grace, love, compassion and mutual respect. Steve Chalke is still my brother in Christ. His views on homosexuality are not ones I share, but I am as convinced now as I have ever been that he loves Jesus Christ and longs to see God’s Kingdom come on the earth. Can we dialogue graciously? Perhaps this discussion can open into a demonstration to the rest of the world that we Christians really do love one another, that we are able to debate, dialogue and listen and that we do not have to destroy one another’s reputations when we disagree, even on the fundamentals.
Integrity means I too must speak – and listen.
I’ve known Steve for many years and we have discussed this issue on a number of occasions. My thinking, too, has changed over the years – but in a different way to Steve’s. I hear his heart in what he has shared, and I know him to be a loving pastor, a kind man and a courageous leader. Yet I think he’s making some basic mistakes in his thinking and in taking the position that he does in his extended article, ‘A Matter of Integrity’.
It’s because of integrity that I too, feel a need to say something. As I do, I speak as in individual. My name is associated with a number of organisations, charities and churches. I am humbled by those associations, but in this instance I want readers to understand that I speak for myself, not for others. It is the responsibility of each follower of Christ, in community with the traditions of the church and in submission to the authority of Scripture to prayerfully consider their own position on the issue of human sexuality, homosexual relationships and homoerotic practices.
I will be accused by some of being a bigot, being narrow-minded and being exclusive in what I am about to say. They will say that I have a stodgy, monolithic view of authority or that I use one set of hermeneutical principles in one context and a different set in another. I am not afraid of such criticisms, although I will be saddened by them. I have reached my conclusions through my own wrestling with Scripture, my own prayer and soul searching and my own desire to submit to God’s word. It is always dangerous for one side of a discussion to present itself as the ‘soul-searching’ side. On both sides of the debate of human sexuality in the church of Jesus Christ there are men and women who genuinely love God, genuinely love and serve people and genuinely commit to wrestling with Scripture and with Truth.
Integrity calls for us to be respectful of one another. Love calls us to listen. Grace calls us to hear. Compassion calls us to be careful how we treat others. Courage calls us to be honest. Truth calls us to be careful and obedient.
Beyond the debate about gay marriage and into the arena of culture.
Steve has articulated that he wants to speak into the wider debate around inclusion – I will come to that subject in a moment, but he indicates that his desire is to speak to that as a globally important issue rather than the domestic issue of gay marriage and all that goes with it. I appreciate the sentiment, but I wonder why he has chosen to speak now? Is it not precisely because the issue of homosexuality and the church’s response to gay people is in the public consciousness and the church’s thinking that his paper has appeared at this moment? If this was an issue that was not shaped by the culture in which we find ourselves then presumably Steve would have published his thoughts a number of months ago when he performed a blessing on a same sex couple in his church?
I am not criticizing his decision to share his thoughts now, but I am critiquing it. Surely the culture in which he and I find ourselves – or rather the cultures in which we find ourselves fashion the moments when we speak far more than we realize? Around us a debate rages about the issue of homosexuality and the church’s response to it. In the church, debate, disagreement and discussion are seen breaking out like wild fires. Steve cannot possibly try to suggest that these issues have not driven him to share his thoughts now, can he? Back to my illustration at the beginning of this article – the second glove is our context. If truth is always mediated through a context rather than in some kind of sterile, lifeless vacuum, then the truth of inclusion and what it means is affected by the culture in which it is discussed.
In the words of another friend, our words are nothing more than the clothes that our thoughts wear. So Steve’s words, as well as mine, are shaped by the culture in which we find ourselves and the world in which we live, move and have our being. So if Steve wants to move beyond the debate about gay marriage and so forth into the debate about inclusion, I want to say that the debate about inclusion cannot take place without acknowledging the plethora or words, ideas, feelings and principles that are swirling around the culture in which we live. This is not just a British question either! Across Europe, North America, Australia, and huge swathes of Asia the same conversations are taking place – and each one is shaped by the culture.
Permit me to make some simple points in my response.
1. Eisegesis is not good exegesis.
I want to make a simple point. To vault inclusion to the top of his principles and values then to seek to lean into Scripture and redefine inclusion in the light of what our society understands it to be is a masterstroke of eisegesis, but it is not biblical exegesis. I have no doubt that Steve’s intentions are good, but I believe his method is the wrong way round. I applaud his desire to wrestle with truth, to think about the bible and its messages of hope, love, inclusion and embrace in our world today. His failure, I think, is to start with what our society describes as ‘inclusion’ and it read it back into Scripture, then to use Scripture and arguments of relevance and compassion and justice and inclusion to justify the stance he now takes.
What if ‘loving your neighbour’ demands more than blind acceptance of their behavior or lifestyle? What if love means challenge? Any person who has been in a relationship of any value will know that the relationship demands the ability to talk honestly, openly and to disagree. It seems to me that morals and ethics and choices are not simply a laissez-faire affair, but that there are clear expectations of behavior and transformation articulated in the Bible – and these include sexual ethics and relationships. One cannot remove the challenge of the bible around ethics and morality, disrobe Scripture of language that no longer fits the modern wardrobe and then squeeze its message into attire that is neither faithful to nor connected with its original intent. You cannot reverse the bible’s teaching on the issue of human sexuality and at the same time claim to remain faithful to Scripture’s teaching on the same issue. You simply have to muster the courage to say you do not agree with the bible on the issue of human sexuality.
2. Is Steve’s understanding of ‘inclusion’ the right starting point?
So to some of the key issues that Steve raises in his article. I think Steve starts with an unspoken and faulty assumption about ‘inclusion.’ I have a couple of issues with his understanding of the word and how he uses it.
3. Inclusion and Invitation.
Firstly, it seems to me that the entire narrative of Israel, of Christ and of the Church’s mission and ministry in the world is fundamentally about love, service, demonstration and invitation. God invites Israel into covenant relationship with Himself. God invites us to follow Him. God invites us to embrace the message of the cross, its redemption, its hope, its forgiveness and its grace. Yet in each invitation there is a explanation. To follow Him, we are called to obey Him. To walk with Him, we must let Him take the lead. To receive His forgiveness, we must be willing to be acknowledge our wrongdoing. Receiving the grace of God in our lives and hearts is predicated upon our willingness to acknowledge our need of that grace.
I consider myself to be as committed to inclusion as Steve is. I passionately believe in a God who reaches out to where we are and reaches out His arms to embrace us. He offers us love, acceptance, forgiveness and a new start. He invites us to join Him in the task of transforming the world. Yet His invitation also requires an R.S.V.P. That response is the acknowledgement of our need of Him, our confession of our own failure and sin and our willingness to turn from those practices, habits and attitudes which dehumanize us or others such as greed, anger, prejudice, pride, self-centeredness, and yes, sexual conduct outside of marriage. Whilst some struggle with the old-fashioned word ‘sin’ I don’t. It is a word used to describe those things that we allow to become more important to us than God. Inclusion does not ignore these things. It does not brush them aside as cultural irrelevances. Inclusion is never at the expense of holiness. It is never at the expense of truth. Inclusion is never at the expense of grace.
The Bible’s teaching and the historic teaching of the church on the issue of human sexuality seem to be one of the clearest threads of Scripture to me. Sexual relationships are an expression of intimacy, love, union and mutual dependency across the genders that are given to us as a gift to be practiced within the context of a faithful and monogamous relationship between a man and a woman. The very act of sexual union between men and women is an articulation of the completeness of God, a picture of the perfect relationship within the Trinity that cannot be expressed in homoerotic relationships.
I cannot change a single person – I stopped trying many, many years ago. My job as a pastor is not to try to change people. It is however, my responsibility, to point people to the One who can change us. God’s invitation is not one that calls us to come as we are, ignore our faults and stay as we are. God’s invitation, which He has entrusted as a ministry of reconciliation, is to reach out to a world that is broken, flawed and cracked and to share His message of truth and His example of love.
The invitation of God to be included in His family requires an acknowledgement of our sin, our need of His grace and our submission to His will. He invites us to be included – but like any good host, He awaits our response.
4. Inclusion and acceptance / agreement.
I think Steve is right to highlight the mistreatment of gay people by many elements of the church. Homophobia has no place in the family of God. Yet I find myself sensing that the underbelly of his words could be interpreted by some as suggesting that if you do not fully welcome and embrace gay people into the life of your church family and facilitate their participation at whatever level they choose, then you are excluding them. As a pastor, I have no doubt that I am caring for men and women who are gay. I am sure that many of my congregation have family members who are gay. We welcome people of any sexual orientation into our church family. We are delighted to show hospitality, love, embrace, kindness and generosity to people irrespective of their sexual orientation.
We accept all people to share with us in our life as a church – but acceptance and agreement is not the same thing. This is a second area where Steve’s understanding of inclusion breaks down for me. As a follower of Christ, I am called to accept people irrespective of their lifestyle choices, their sexual orientation or their behaviours. As a follower of Christ and a leader in His church I am also called to appoint or select or recommend men and women and young people for leadership and fuller participation in the body of Christ. The latter involves a whole host of judgments, decisions, relationships and conversations. Indeed, the journey toward Christ should evidenced by ‘fruit’ that shows an increasing Christ-likeness in the follower. The absence of such fruit tells both the follower and those around her/him that their assumed ‘intimacy’ with God and love for Him may be false. When a person is following Christ and growing in relationship with God, then their lives will demonstrate the fruit of transformed thinking, behaviours and actions. The absence of such ‘fruit’ is an important alarm bell to ensure that the basic principle of Christian spirituality is protected. We are not called to a purely subjective understanding of our relationship with God. Christians are enabled by God to demonstrate objective ‘fruit’ of their self-claimed faith.
We are called to accept people into the family of faith, to welcome them, to embrace them and to love them. Yet acceptance must also allow room for challenge, for growth, for confession. An acceptance that denudes itself of the ability to be accountable and honest about mutual shortcomings and failures is not a real acceptance at all. Instead it is a paper-thin mirage that will crack under the pressure of real life and the choices that we must make.
5. Inclusion and Authority.
My third area of concern for Steve’s argument is that he seems to be defining inclusion in terms that are both loose and ever loosening. If what I have argued about inclusion with regards to both invitation and acceptance / agreement are true, then perhaps the greatest question of all is who or what decides what right behavior looks like? It is at this point that I think Steve has fallen into the quagmire of relativism that is absorbing both our culture, and sadly, much of our church life across the UK and beyond. It may be one of the points of sharpest disagreement I have with Steve.
There is a story told in Scripture of Jacob wrestling with God and walking away with a limp because God struck Jacob in the hip. My relationship with Scripture reminds me of this story. I have struggles with many passages of the bible, including to some extend its teaching on issues of sexual conduct. However, some years ago, in my own exploration of the Bible’s authority I came to the place where I realized that Jesus did not apologise for the Torah, so why did I feel I had the right to? It is often argued that since Jesus said nothing about homosexuality we should follow suit. There may be some truth in that in so far as it helps us to understand that sexual conduct is only one area of holiness and personality, it is not the full total of a person. However the fact that Jesus, a faithful Jew did not challenge, undermine or contradict the Torah’s teaching on human sexuality is a remarkable truth that should not be overlooked. If Christ came to fulfill the law and not to abolish it, then I cannot re-write it or ignore it.
As a follower of Christ and as an evangelical (the latter term is not of great importance to most people, but it must surely be acknowledged by Steve himself that he is not an ‘evangelical’ in any traditional or faithful understanding of the word) I believe in the central authority of Scripture in all matters of faith and doctrine and conduct in the church and in my life. I may wrestle with Scripture and struggle with some of it, but I have chosen to submit my life, my ministry and my spirituality to it and believe it to be the truth mediated through words. I cannot apologize for it, ignore it or explain it away. I read it through the lens of a ‘Jesus hermeneutic’ and therefore much of the Old Testament is legitimately re-interpreted through the lens of the New Testament Church as it reflects on the life, example and teaching of Christ.
It seems to me that Steve is replacing this historic position of the bible as the source of our authoritative reflections on piety, conduct and behaviour (including sexual ethics) with a lens that is shaped more by our society’s desire to be ‘inclusive’ than God’s revelation of what is right and what is wrong and His desire to ‘include’.
I respect and am grateful for the work of many of the theologians that Steve quotes in his exegesis of both the Old Testament and New Testament passages around homoerotic practice that he cites and I would be the last person to dismiss their commitment to search the Scriptures and wrestle with the truth. Yet at the same time, there is a basic principle for me that both they, and Steve, have entirely missed – the principle of the direction of travel of the Scriptural story.
Steve cites three examples of changes in social attitude – they are homosexuality, slavery and women. He argues that the church has changed its position on slavery and women and will one day do so on homosexuality. He may be right, but I think he is wrong. The role of women moves from one of strong subordination in the Old Testament (yet still within a strong framework of equality in Judaism which itself is remarkable) to one of equality by the time you read Colossians and the wider New Testament corpus. Slaves move from being perceived as ‘property’ to being described as brothers and, by implication, sisters in the epistle to Philemon. The language and approach to sexual practice and to homoerotic behaviour does not change at any point across the biblical corpus.
This is a sharp point of disagreement between Steve and me. I do not believe we are free to change this by creating a trajectory into agreement and endorsement of homoerotic behavior where the Bible does not set such a trajectory in the first place. To do so is, indeed, to move beyond the authority of Scripture and to instead hold Scripture under the authority of our culture. Such a step creates a relativist church and creates a sub-cultural Christian community with little to offer the world.
6. Context is everything.
Steve argues that the fact that some evangelicals have changed their position on the role of women and slavery is evidence that we will / should do so on this issue. Not only do I strongly disagree with his point, I think here he is guilty of unhelpful generalisations. The texts on women and submission are extremely limited in the New Testament. They are accompanied by evidence of a Christ who embraces women, a church that gave them roles and leadership and injunctions of mutual submission, partnership and leadership for both men and women. The one or two texts on slavery he cites are also coupled with a general sense of direction, not least Paul’s strong words to Philemon concerning Onesimus as Philemon’s brother. There is ample exegetical evidence in the New Testament that supports both egalitarianism in genders and abhorrence of slavery. There is simply no evidence whatsoever, not a shred, to support a re-invented hermeneutic to justify homoerotic behaviour. To suggest that those, like myself, who take a strong stance on gender equality and against injustice are somehow simply flimsy in our view of sexuality or tardy in allowing the same principles to weigh on our decisions and views in this area is unfair and less than I would have expected from my friend. Not only that, but by lumping the issues together, Steve is endangering good and faithful work by many exegetes and calling into question the integrity of others who love God and His word just as much as Steve, but have reached different conclusions.
The reality is that the context is everything. The context of Corinth strongly explains Paul’s words there; in Ephesus it shapes Paul’s word to Timothy and so forth. Yet in each and every context, the New Testament remains resolutely clear on homoerotic behavior.
My greatest fear is that Steve is speaking into a culture with which he has become so enmeshed that he is unable to see the distinction between our society’s definition or truth, goodness and inclusion and that of Scripture. There are many like Steve and I have no doubt that many will rise to defend what he has said. They will proclaim that the ‘game has changed’ because someone as prominent and well known as Steve Chalke has changed his mind. There are other lessons for us to learn here.
Why do we persistently look for men and women to be heroes in the church and take our lead from them? The best of men are men at best. Steve is a wonderful brother whom I am grateful for, but he is nothing more than a man. The best of us are people at best. Broken, flawed and in need of grace. Our words do not bring life. Our plans do not change the world. We are only under shepherds of the Great Shepherd. The impact of Steve’s article tells me that we must determine to move away from the celebrity driven culture that has invaded the church and we must each learn the art of wrestling with Scripture and seeking to live under is authority and power.
Secondly, the church in Britain and around the world is becoming what it wants to be. We stand at the cross roads of a decision which will impact all we are and all we do. The simple, prophetic question that shapes everything else is this: What will we do with the Bible? We can justify our morality, explain away our shallowness, be absorbed by our culture and became a pale imitation of the Bride of Christ that we are called to be – all we need do is place the authority of God’s word under our desire to be inclusive or loving or welcoming. It all boils down to what we understand the Gospel to be.
Christ did not come to reform us and make us a nicer version of us. He came to remake the world. We are not good people who need to be made nicer. Left to our own devices, we ignore God, turn from His ways, live as we choose and justify our behaviours and attitudes in a thousand ways.
Paul told Timothy that a day would come when preachers would tell people what their society wanted them to hear. They would shape and fashion the ‘Truth’ and the ‘Gospel’ to make it fit with their culture, their preferences and their morals. He also urges the young pastor to preach the truth in season and out of season. We need a new generation of men and women like Timothy – willing to be unpopular, ready to stand up for the truth, and not afraid to be rejected by society or the church.
Anyone who knows me will know that I am a strong believer in equality. I support Civil Partnerships and welcomed the Sexual Orientation Regulations when they were introduced a number of years ago. I stood with Steve and often alone as I faced the wrath of conservative evangelicals who thought I was endorsing homoerotic relationships. I was willing to be misunderstood, laughed at, attacked – sometimes physically – and ridiculed.
Some years have passed since then. My position on the basic dignity of ALL men and women remains absolute. My support of Civil Partnerships stands – although I do not understand why the government afford gay people this status yet refuses to offer it to heterosexual people, other than the assumption that the public agenda is driven by a vociferous lobby determined to make those of us who believe that homoerotic relationships are morally wrong look homophobic.
I am not homophobic but I know that I will be labeled as such. I am not a fundamentalist but I do believe in the authority of the bible. I am not an exclusivist, but I accept that some will fail to understand that you cannot have a conversation about ‘inclusion’ without identifying ‘exclusion’ and its consequences. Like Steve, I am the leader of a local church. Like Steve, I am involved in helping charities and working with excluded and vulnerable people. Like Steve, I am aware of my own sinfulness, shortcomings and failures. Unlike Steve, I believe that the Bible clearly prohibits homoerotic relationships.
The church must surely acknowledge that we have failed gay people. We must be repentant about this and change our ways. But the greatest dis-service we can do is to assume that two wrongs will make a right. I cannot condone what Scripture clearly prohibits – and I am not free to change its words to suit my perspective.
The coming weeks and months will indeed see debate and controversy, but in the midst of it all, please don’t assume that those of us who find ourselves unable or unwilling to embrace homoerotic relationships are homophobic, outdated or uncaring. I have afforded Steve the courtesy of not stigmatizing him, dismissing him or decrying him – please do the same with me and those like me.
Steve asks what Christ-like inclusion looks like? It looks like speaking the truth in love, holding out the branch of hope, grace and mercy afforded to us in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Jesus Steve speaks of invited all to follow Him, but He did not change the goal posts so that no one could reject Him.
Christ-like inclusion is seen in a Saviour who beckons all who will respond to Him to come and follow Him. Steve’s version of Christianity is danger of offering relationship with Christ on our terms not His. This is the greatest danger of all. Inclusion looks like a narrow road and a small gate. It looks like picking up a cross, denying yourself and following Jesus. It looks like obedience. It looks like a rejection of self and selfishness. It looks like keeping your body holy and pure. It looks like an acknowledgement of sin and dependency on God. Christian faith is not a lifestyle option to be added to the rest of our life-choices. It is a fundamental shifting of our thinking and perspectives so that we submit ourselves to Him. In all of this, it looks like hope for the broken, grace for the weak and forgiveness for those who know they need it. Gay, straight, black, white, man, woman, rich or poor – we must all kneel at the cross if we are to be followers of the Cross-Bearer.
Rev Malcolm Duncan