If you haven’t already picked up the news via the internet, let me tell you that Steve Chalke, one of the most prominent preachers in the United Kingdom, and an icon among Evangelicals, has published a definitive statement in support of committed, faithful, same-sex relationships. It is published in the United Kingdom in next month’s edition of the magazine, Christianity. The British version of the U.S. magazine, Christianity Today, Christianity is a conservative, Evangelical publication. Steve’s statement has also received significant attention from the UK’s mainstream press and media.
Steve called close to midnight, his time, to tell me of his decision to stand up publicly in favor of faithful, same-sex relationships. He wanted me to know what he was doing prior to the news breaking in the popular media. Steve and I are old friends and he didn’t want me to be blindsided by the news. He was well aware that his announcement would be a bombshell, not only on the British scene, but would have ramifications for Evangelicals around the world. For somebody with Steve’s high profile to stand up in favor of lesbian and gay partnerships is indeed shocking news. While it will be welcomed by a significant proportion of the Evangelical community, there will be extensive negative repercussions from others who are adamantly opposed to Civil Partnerships or the idea of gay marriage.
The significance of what Steve – a Baptist Minister – has done cannot be overstated. Last fall he conducted a dedication and blessing service following the Civil Partnership of two gay members of his church. (Under present UK law gay marriage is not possible, although the UK Government is currently exploring the possibility of new legislation to change that. Therefore, at the moment, same-sex couples seek a ‘Civil Partnership’, which until now no churches have recognized).
“I did this” Steve explains, “to extend to these people what I would do to others – the love and support of our local church. Too often, those who seek to enter an exclusive, same-sex relationship have found themselves stigmatised and excluded by the Church. I have come to believe this is an injustice and out of step with God’s character as seen through Christ.”
Steve’s public declaration in support of Civil Partnerships will cause reverberations far and wide. His statement represents the first time that a major evangelist and leader in the Evangelical community has come out in support of same-sex relationships. Discussions about what he has done will reverberate from churches, youth groups, seminaries, Bible schools and denominations. Both those who support same-sex partnerships and gay marriage as well as those who oppose such developments will look upon Steve’s declaration as a watershed. It is one more evidence that a major shift is taking place on this controversial subject, not only within mainline Christianity, but among Evangelicals.
When Steve talked to me on the phone, he told me that he felt both compelled and afraid to make his stand. Compelled because, in his understanding, the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion sit at the very heart of Jesus’ message. Afraid because he recognises the Bible is understood by many to teach that the practice of homosexuality, in any circumstance, is ‘a grotesque and sinful subversion.’
He knows that some will think that he has strayed from Scripture. However, he says, he has formed his view, not out of any disregard for the Bible’s authority, but by way of grappling with it and, through prayerful reflection, seeking to take it seriously.
He claims that “one tragic outworking of the Church’s historical rejection of faithful gay relationships is our failure to provide homosexual people with any model of how to cope with their sexuality, except for those who have the gift of, or capacity for, celibacy. In this way we have left people vulnerable and isolated. When we refuse to make room for gay people to live in loving, stable relationships, we consign them to lives of loneliness, secrecy, fear and even of deceit. It’s one thing to be critical of a promiscuous lifestyle – but shouldn’t the Church consider nurturing positive models for permanent and monogamous homosexual relationships?”
“Promiscuity”, he says, “is always damaging and dehumanising. Casual and self-centered expressions of sexuality – homosexual or heterosexual – never reflect God’s faithfulness, grace and self-giving love. Only a permanent and stable relationship, in which respect and faithfulness are given and received, can offer the security in which well-being and love can thrive.”
Steve’s paper “A MATTER OF INTEGRITY: The Church, sexuality, inclusion and an open conversation” (which is available on-line at www.oasisuk.org/inclusionresources as well as in the form of a Kindle book from Amazon) also explores thoroughly the theology of both the Old and New Testament passages which are traditionally held to teach that anything other than celibacy for homosexual people is unacceptable. He claims that it is the task of all those worldwide who take the Bible’s text seriously and authoritatively to grapple constantly with its interpretation. He claims that the huge advances in the field of biblical studies over the last decades – as the result of significant archaeological finds and advances in historical, cultural and linguistic understanding – have brought with them new insights and perspectives into the meaning of the scriptural text.
Steve, whose organization Oasis runs many schools in the UK, says he is also passionate about this issue because young people’s health and safety as well as their lives are at stake. Numerous studies both in the UK and the USA show that suicide rates among gay people, especially young people, are comparatively high. He claims that although Church leaders sometimes use this data to argue that homosexuality is unhealthy, tragically it’s anti-gay stigma, propped up by Church attitudes, which, all too often, drives these statistics.
“I believe that when we treat homosexual people as pariahs and push them outside our communities and churches; when we blame them for who they are; when we deny them our blessing on their commitment to lifelong, faithful relationships, we make them doubt whether they are children of God, made in his image.”
Here in the United States, the growing movement of Red Letter Christians seeks to concentrate on the values and justice principles that Jesus did articulate. In many Bibles these words of Jesus are highlighted in red letters. For example, Red Letter Christians believe that Jesus clearly communicates that those who would follow Him must be committed to nonviolent resistance, raising questions about the ways in which mainline churches, and especially Evangelicals, embrace war, then try to defend their support of war with rationalizations that come close to intellectual gymnastics. The ways in which Evangelicals in the United States support capital punishment also must be called into question in light of the teachings of Jesus, who taught us in the Beatitudes to be merciful, and that even those who commit capital crimes should not receive capital punishment. Jesus clearly rejects the old justice that demanded “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” To a Church that far too often offers a prosperity theology promising financial success and the benefits of a consumeristic culture, we find Jesus saying that it is not possible to serve God and mammon at the same time.
Young people increasingly are calling the Church to be faithful to Jesus. Strange as it may seem, there is little doubt that when you read the radical things that Jesus asks us to do and the countercultural persons that Jesus calls us to be, we have strayed far from the teachings of Jesus. Steve Chalke’s declaration should remind us that we have attempted to be prophetic by making clear our condemnation of same-sex partnerships even as we have, as Jesus once said, “omitted the weightier matters of the law.”
Whenever the discussion concerning same-sex partnerships takes place in the university classrooms where I teach, there always seems to be a student who reminds me that while Jesus speaks specifically against the remarriage of divorced persons, the Church has learned to accept divorced and remarried people into its membership, and has even willingly allowed people who are divorced and remarried to occupy its pulpits. Young people are asking how the Church can be accepting of couples who are in relationships that Jesus specifically condemns, and yet be so harsh toward couples who are in relationships that Jesus never even mentions. I always remind students that we can’t just take the teachings of Jesus and let them stand as the totality of divine revelation. The Epistles of Paul are also part of Scripture and in Romans 1, Paul speaks directly to the matter of same-gender erotic behavior. In Steve Chalke’s recent declaration, he endeavors to address the interpretation of what Paul writes about this matter, giving an interpretation of Scripture that he contends justifies a faithful, loving, monogamous relationship between same gender persons who are willing to make a lifetime loving commitment to each other.
Those of us who will have to deal with what Steve Chalke has said need not necessarily agree with his theology or biblical hermeneutic to affirm the truth that he boldly declares, which is that the Church cannot afford to go on alienating the youth of the nation by the way it treats gay people.
For my own part, I remain conservative on the issue, but I agree with Steve that the attitudes of many churches are homophobic and cruel. Whether or not we change our positions on accepting same-sex relationships or even gay marriage, we Evangelicals have to face the reality that the time has come for many of us to change our attitudes towards gay people, and show something of the love and grace of God in the name of His Son Jesus.
Tony Campolo is the Founder and President of EAPE and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University. Most recently he co-authored Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said with Shane Claiborne. Look for Tony in your area and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
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