Steve Chalke, probably Britain’s most high-profile Baptist, and one of its most high-profile evangelical Christians, has ‘come out’ as an evangelical supporter of a moderately pro-gay position (that gays in monogamous, committed relationships should be affirmed). He has done this in the wake of his decision in 2012 to perform a service of blessing for a Christian same-sex couple following their entering into a civil partnership. The full text of his paper on the subject can be found here. Now as followers of Chalke’s work may be unsurprised to learn, this paper breaks no new theological ground, but accurately presents arguments and approaches that have been made by many others for some time. Chalke is a gifted communicator of theology at a popular level, not a theological innovator himself. What is significant here is not so much what he says, but who he is. Steve Chalke has considerable support and influence within British evangelicalism. Where he leads, others will follow. And he is no stranger to such controversy. His book The Lost Message of Jesus (with Alan Mann) created a split between Spring Harvest (who defended his right to explore different approaches to the atonement) and UCCF (who refused to share a venue with anyone not teaching an orthodox position). This history is important.
There is a debate going on within British evangelicalism. It’s not really about homosexuality or atonement theology or Christianity in the public sphere, but these seem to be the areas where it bubbles to the surface most clearly. It’s a debate about what it means to be an evangelical in modern Britain. On one side of the debate are those who feel that being an evangelical means proclaiming timeless truths in an age slipping away from the gospel and its Christian heritage. On the other side are those who feel that being an evangelical means reinventing the faith in a creative engagement with scripture and culture. It’s important to stress that both sides of the debate are committed to the authority of scripture, a Christ-shaped discipleship, a missionary outlook and the need for conversion (Bebbington’s quadrilateral of key evangelical beliefs). Despite the rhetoric, the first group are not simply dogmatic literalists clinging to the past and the second group are not simply liberal pseudo-evangelicals selling out to the influences of culture around them (though there may be individuals within both camps who conform to these stereotypes). Although homosexuality is not what this debate is about, it is perhaps the key to it, because it touches a raw nerve in wider society. Here the first group can reliably get decried when they state their position and the second group applauded. This neatly reinforces both stereotypes – confirming the first group’s calling to be martyrs and the second group’s calling to discern the wind of the Spirit in the church and world. It’s also helpful to those in both groups feeling the need to clearly distinguish themselves from ‘those other evangelicals’ in the other group. Here is an issue where it is extraordinarily difficult to give anything but a clear yes or no. Just what you need to sort the sheep from the goats.
This is why Steve Chalke’s paper is significant. Because the boundaries have been quietly shifting in this debate for some time. Despite their reputation, most evangelicals have a healthy aversion to sticking their head above the parapet when controversial issues come along. So it’s not always easy to figure out how many evangelicals are in each group. However, when someone of the stature of Steve Chalke makes a public stand on it, it suggests that the first group may not speak for the overwhelming majority they tend to paint themselves as representing. This may one day be looked back on as the moment when things started to change.