In Defence of the EA image

In Defence of the EA

The EA took the decision to remove Steve Chalke's Oasis Trust from membership last week, after a long process of consultation. Christianity Today has a summary, the EA's statement and the response from Oasis here; based on the reports, I think they've made a painful, but right and very courageous decision. Unsurprisingly, though, lots of people have got very angry about it. Some have conflated "removing an organisation from the EA" with "declaring that nobody in the organisation is a Christian", which is clearly absurd, and miles away from what the EA have done. Some have got annoyed on the rather fatuous grounds that, since Steve Chalke self-identifies as evangelical, therefore he must be one, and nobody has the right to say otherwise. ("When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.") But others have expressed irritation or dismay for other reasons, charging the EA with being religious, exclusive, Pharisaical, divisive, inconsistent, and so on. So without knowing much of the background to the discussions behind the scenes, here's a quick response to the public discussion I've seen. (Readers interested in what the word "evangelical" properly refers to, and how it differs from progressivism and liberalism, would do well do read Roger Olson's blogs on the subject, and the multi-author Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism book, but that's not my subject for today). I'll take the accusations against the EA one at a time, and explain why I think they don't hold up.


“The only time Jesus drew a line, it was religious people who were on the other side.” Well: since pretty much everyone in the Mediterranean world in the first century was religious, including a certain circumcised, Torah-observant, festival-keeping Jewish Messiah, that’s not a particularly striking claim. Everyone in that scene (John 8:1-11) was religious. So what? The key issue in the scene when read thoughtfully is not religion, but hypocrisy: mask-wearing, play-acting, living as if something is true, when in fact it isn’t. And while there is nothing obviously hypocritical about what the EA has done - read the reports and see - there might well be something slightly hypocritical about claiming to “restore confidence in the Bible” while affirming that it contains all sorts of mistakes, contradictions and inaccuracies, claiming to read the texts on sexuality “thoughtfully” while ignoring most ancient and contemporary scholarship on the subject, and claiming to start a “conversation” while closing your ears to what virtually every Christian in history has said about something. Maybe.


This is the sort of charge that gets thrown at anyone who dares to suggest that, since X is true, not-X is false. Outrageous as it may seem, affirming that certain things are true of Christ involves affirming that certain other things (e.g. Arianism) are not true of Christ, and excluding people who teach them. Affirming that God wants sex to be used this way necessarily involves affirming that it should not be used that way. If the EA stands for anything, it must be capable of affirming certain beliefs and excluding others. We can argue about whether Oasis has acted in ways that damage relationships with other evangelicals, and whether their stance, or that of Steve Chalke, is outside the boundaries of evangelicalism - although imagining for a moment what (say) John Wesley would have thought of it will quickly point us in the right direction - but objecting to the very idea of excluding people in the first place is the most unthinking sort of soggy relativism. Of course the EA excludes people; all organisations do. If everybody is an evangelical, then nobody is.


Oh, please. This accusation simply shows that people either don’t know what the EA have said, or don’t know what the Pharisees were, or both. Not only that, but from the things Jesus said about sexual ethics (Matt 5:27-32; 15:16-20; 19:1-12; Mark 7:20-23; Rev 2:14, 20-23; 22:14-16), it is pretty clear that he’d have been just as horrified as the Pharisees, if not more so, if he’d heard someone encouraging sex to be used outside of the context of marriage between a man and a woman. (If you’re going to emphasise the red letters, you should make sure you’ve read them all, including the ones in Revelation). So, despite much popular practice, saying “you’re a Pharisee!” does not mean that the person you’re talking to actually is a Pharisee. More often than not, it means something closer to, “I don’t know who the Pharisees were, what they believed, or why Jesus rebuked them, but I know lots of people hate wearing that label, so I’ll throw it at you.” The EA committee really aren’t very much like the first century Pharisees. Scout’s honour.


This is a boomerang objection, with bells on. (There’s an image). If you read the Pastoral letters from beginning to end, you’ll notice that “divisiveness” is the practice of teaching things which conflict with the apostolic faith, not with identifying people who do and telling you not to listen to them. Was Augustine “divisive” for confronting Pelagius? Was Athanasius? Was Paul? Divisiveness is what you do when you separate yourself from what Christians have always believed and taught, not what you do when you point out that someone else has. As Sam Allberry put it the other day, there’s a difference between objecting to apple pie because it’s not like your mum makes it, and objecting to apple pie because it doesn’t have any apples in it. When you do the latter, you’re not being divisive, any more than the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes; you’re just pointing out that someone else has been divisive. Which is just what the EA are doing.


To my amazement, some people are comparing John Stott’s annihilationist view of hell, and the way the EA responded at the time, to Steve Chalke’s views on sexuality, the atonement, the scriptures, and so on. The fact that this comparison is even being made is somewhat discouraging when it comes to the levels of discernment in contemporary evangelicalism. There are all sorts of things I could say about John Stott’s view of the Bible, and the enormous distance between it and Steve Chalke’s view, and the way he would have responded if the EA had asked him to mention the traditional evangelical view on his website (!), but if we restrict ourselves to a comparison between the two key issues (hell and sexuality), we quickly see the problem. Stott’s view, at worst, would lead people to be confused about the nature of hell. Chalke’s would lead people to end up there.


The final objection, which I saw in an article by Justin Thacker, is that the EA have “begged the question” by saying that Steve Chalke’s views on sexuality are a cause for removal, whereas those of (say) John Stott were not. But they have not begged the question; they have asked a question - which is not quite the question many have assumed it is, if you read their statement carefully - and then answered it. And they have done so over a long period of time, after extended prayer and discussion, and in a way that coheres with what virtually every Christian in history said until about twenty years ago. I take my hat off to them.

Anyway: them’s me thoughts. If you wanted to write, email, tweet or otherwise encourage the EA guys for taking a difficult decision - or even join up as a personal member - I’m sure they’d appreciate it.

← Prev article
Next article →