(HT: Gary Johnson) When we last saw him he was comparing the catholic, evangelical, and Reformed doctrine of substitutionary atonement (the doctrine that Jesus died in the place of his people thereby turning away the wrath of God) to “cosmic child abuse.” Now Steve Chalke MBE, a popular English Baptist minister and a leader of the Evangelical Alliance, has announced publicly his support for homosexual marriage in the UK.
According to the Times, he recently conducted his first “gay blessing” service and has written a special liturgy for such unions. He’s calling fellow English evangelicals to an “open and honest” conversation about how we interpret Scripture with respect to homosexuality.
Here are some preliminary responses to some of his claims and arguments:
- Chalke says that he was brought up with “certain attitudes” toward homosexuals. He doesn’t say what they were but clearly implies that they were unduly negative toward homosexuals as persons. In contrast, he argues, the church (as in institution and organism) should be welcoming and inclusive toward homosexuals.
The church (as organization and organism) should be welcoming and inclusive toward sinners of all kinds but this doesn’t mean that we may call good what God calls sin. As we’ll see below this is what is at issue. Chalke makes some good points about how evangelicals have sometimes treated Scripture but we should reject his proposed solution.
- He claims that marriage “pre-dates the church, predates the state.”
This may or may not be true. How one answers this question depends upon the definition of the terms “state” and “marriage” and it depends upon biblical exegesis. Were our first parents “the church” and was there a state before the fall? Arguably the state as we know it may be traced to a later period (i.e., Noah) so that premise is uncertain but there can be little doubt for Christians whether marriage is grounded in creation.
Marriage doesn’t pre-date creation and, as Chalke goes on to acknowledge, Scripture does appeal to nature in such things. Our Lord Jesus, whom Chalke says he wants the church to emulate says, “It was not so in the beginning” (Matt 19) with respect to polygamy. By analogy we can certainly say that relative to homosexuality. Chalke simply ignores this obvious inference.
- He complains that young (college) people struggling with their (sexual) identity and are tempted to suicide and this is due in part to the church’s heretofore exclusion of homosexuals. Along the same lines, he also claims that research says that homosexuals are more likely to have mental health issues. How many “confirmed bachelors” were homosexual and couldn’t say so because they were stigmatized. They need to find a role in serving and leading in the church, in Christlikeness. We need to find ways to formally acknowledge and endorse monogamous homosexual relations. It’s a discussion about what we should have been discussing long ago. We need an honest, open conversation without being charged with abandoning the Bible.
This strikes me as a form of emotional blackmail: “Do what I say or the blood of homosexual suicides will be on your hands.” Blackmail is always wrong. Further, it assumes that there is only one way to be inclusive. This is because assumes that people are innately homosexual in a way that precludes repentance and change. This is a huge, unstated, and unverifiable assumption. Of course it’s now “orthodoxy” in many places such that the state of California has attempted to prohibit counselors from trying to dissuade clients from giving up the homosexual lifestyle.
There are those who have an inclination toward homosexual attraction but why must we assume that homosexuality is incorrigible? Do we really know that? Some people have a proclivity toward theft but we don’t assume that thieves cannot be changed by grace. There is some evidence that homosexuals are changed by grace. The relations between nature and nurture are truly complex. The scales of the discussion seem to have tipped entirely toward nature and we are forgetting that many homosexuals are the product of poor nurture, of broken homes, of sexual (or other forms of) abuse, the children of alcoholics (or other substance abuse) and the like. Chalke simply ignores the duty of the church to speak to a minister to that aspect of the question in favor of the appeal to nature and biology, an appeal the certainty of which is very much in doubt.
- Chalke complains that it is wrong to say that homosexuals are”in their very nature, wrong.”
Well, for those of us who are not Pelagians, who believe that Paul means to say that “in Adam’s fall, sinned we all” then we are all, by virtue of the fall, “in our “very nature” wrong in significant ways. Sometimes this corruption of nature manifests itself in homosexuality in a small percentage of the population—which percentage is vastly over-represented in popular media. Murderers are, in their very nature, wrong, insofar as there is a connection between their sinful nature and their sinful desires, choices, and acts.
It is one thing to say that the desires one experiences are sinful and quite another to say “you are irredeemable.” We should not say the latter. We don’t ordinarily know that. Our job is to speak God’s Law word to sinners and his Gospel word to sinners. By the law we come to know that such desires are sin, that God hates sin and therefore hates me insofar as I am under judgment. The gospel, however, declares free acceptance with God through Christ alone. Chalke’s account of things completely ignores this basic aspect of Christianity.
- He says he believes “the whole bible”
Perhaps but what is in question is whether he has understood it correctly. When one finds himself at odds with 2,000 years of Christian reflection on the ethical implications of God’s Word one might pause to reconsider but not so Chalke. He forges ahead.
- He complains that the church extends an “umbrella of care” to young heterosexual people but not to homosexual couples.
The umbrella he describes is the preparation the church offers to those heterosexual couples preparing to wed. This complaint, of course, begs the question. It assumes that homosexual couples and heterosexual couples should have equal standing in the church but he has not demonstrated that homosexuality and heterosexuality are morally equivalent.
- He claims that AIDS is a judgment on judgmental Christians because they have excluded homosexuals unjustly and kept them from guidance, nurture, and stable relationships. God is for faithfulness, intimacy, inter-dependence among heterosexual and homosexual behavior.
In Romans 1:26–27, Paul warns about the consequences of sexual sin. We do not know exactly what those consequences were, that he had in mind, but plainly there are consequences to sexual sin. At the same time there are those with HIV who are ill not because of sexual sin but for other reasons. We should proceed cautiously here.
We should also be cautious about interpreting providence. If it’s wrong when Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell do it on the Christian right, it’s wrong when Steve Chalke does so on the Christian left.
- He asks, “What about the Bible?” and says “My goal is not to dismiss the Bible” but he wants to ask questions about its use. He says that the Bible has a lot to say about women and much of it is not particularly positive about the role of women in the church but, he admits, we have women exercising ministry in the church. He concedes that such practice is flatly contrary to Paul’s teaching. He acknowledges that Paul’s argument in 1Tim 2 is grounded in the creational order. He argument seems to be this: How come we’ve moved so far from Paul’s teaching on women but we cannot do so on homosexuality?
We may be thankful for Chalke’s honesty about the discrepancy between contemporary evangelical (used in the sociological not theological sense) practice and biblical teaching. His resolution of the tension, however, should be utterly rejected. By “dismiss” Chalke must mean something other than what it usually means, “to send away.” Chalke seems to think that if he acknowledges the tension between current praxis and Scripture that he has accounted for Scripture.
If, however, one is openly admitting that praxis contradicts Scripture and that is righteous then one has literally dismissed Scripture. Our Lord Jesus says in Matthew 5:17–18:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished
Let us admit the ambiguity in the clause “all is fulfilled” but it is clear that heaven and earth has not passed away. These are parallel expressions. The moral law, which God the Son mediated in creation, to Adam and Eve, which he announced and interpreted in his earthly ministry, is still in force. The moral law forbids all sexual immorality. According to Scripture—a point which Chalke concedes—homosexual behavior is regarded as sexual immorality. The tension here is irresolvable.
The question here is not “what does Scripture say?” about homosexuality and homosexual behavior. The Bible is quite clear about what it says and intends. We should applaud Chalke’s honesty here but we cannot accept his argument that since we have already practically ignored Scripture on women in the church and slavery then we should also do so on homosexuality. Error at one point does not become license to repeat or magnify the error.
No, the answer to return to Scriptural teaching. Chalke’s account of the Bible on slavery is sloppy and misleading at best so we’ll set it aside since a discussion of it would lead us far astray from the topic at hand. He admits what opponents of the ordination of females have been saying right along: some of the arguments in favor of the ordination of females may also be used to support the ordination of homosexuals. Chalke’s arguments are a terrific illustration of the truth of this charge.
- He complains about the liberal argument from culture, that cultures change and that, therefore, we have a right to ignore Scripture on slavery and women in the church. Ironically and cleverly, he argues that when we say “it’s cultural” we place ourselves in charge of Scripture and place ourselves on a slippery slope to relativism. Our standard should be “what’s Christlike?” The Bible doesn’t claim to be the Word of God. It claims that Jesus is the Word of God. It’s a book that guides us to Jesus. A Christian’s way of understanding the Bible is to read the OT/NT through the lens of Jesus. What would Jesus do? How would Christ respond? Christ was king of inclusion and compassion. He was unorthodox as far as the Pharisees were concerned.
Of course we cannot say “culture changes” and on that ground set aside Scripture. That is naked rationalism. Chalke’s argument, however, has the form of affirming Scripture against moral relativism but in substance merely replaces one old liberal argument for another. “What would Jesus do?” was a liberal program. It’s inherently subjectivist. We might guess what Jesus would do or we could pay attention to what he actually said and do that. This is, of course, never really considered.
- Chalke says that the church’s attitude toward women and slavery should be driven by conformity to Jesus and we should do the same with respect to homosexuality. He admits that it’s clear that there’s no verse in Scripture endorsing long-term faithful homosexual unions. Nevertheless, God’s nature is love, faithfulness, and other-centeredness. Promiscuity is always wrong. Homosexual unions alleviate promiscuity. If we exclude them from the church, then they are excluded from long-term monogamous relationships.
Having replaced one form of subjectivism with another now Chalke gets to determine what constitutes “conformity to Jesus” and “inclusion.” Well, it’s clear that Jesus was socially inclusive but that’s not really what is at issue here is it? Is any reasonable party in this discussion saying that Christians ought not associate socially with homosexuals? Is any reasonable person saying that homosexuals are not welcome in Christian congregations?
Jesus did associate with sinners but Jesus didn’t say, “What you’re doing with your life is okay and I affirm your choice.” He didn’t. He did say, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matt 5:30). Unlike Chalke, Jesus wasn’t latitudinarian about sin nor was he a Pharisee. He truly loved sinners. He laid down his life for us and he told us to stop. Chalke has produced a false dichotomy. It’s not “either/or” but both and: Association with sinners AND rejection of sin. The latter is about righteousness and the former is about grace. Scripture teaches both grace and law.
This isn’t really a discussion about whether to include sinners in the church. If we excluded sinners in the church then they would be empty. Jesus came for sinners. He loved (and loves) sinners, obeyed for them, died for them as their substitute, was raised for their justification. The church must be inclusive. We should be a haven for alcoholics, thieves, and all manner of sinners.
What Chalke ignores and what we must remember is that there is law as well as grace and the latter is not well understood and until the former has done its work. There are three things that Christians need to know in this life and the first of them is the greatness of our sin and misery outside of Christ. The law shows us that. By effectively withdrawing the law from this question (and others), where the culture pushes back, Chalke is not loving people but harming them. Sinners need to know that they are sinners and they need to know that there is grace (free acceptance) with God through faith (resting and receiving) in Christ alone. There is hope for a new life in Christ. The same Spirit who raised our Lord from the dead also raises sinners to new life and having united them to the risen Christ by faith, works in them. It’s long, slow, imperfect process in this life but it a process from which we must not turn back.
Would that Chalke would embrace the whole of the biblical message of sin and salvation and return to the teaching of Scripture even if it places him outside the cultural mainstream.
UPDATE 25 January 2013
CT chronicles the reaction from British evangelicals.
UPDATE 6 May 2014
According to Christianity Today Chalke’s organization has been kicked out of the Evangelical Alliance in the UK.