Evangelical Unity and Diversity
Revd David Newman offers a reflection on the current tensions within Evangelical Christianity over different views on human sexuality.
This article was first published on Inclusive Evangelicals, a new website giving a range of articles, theological and practical resources that seeks to inform, encourage and support folk who: hold, or simply wish to understand further, the biblical basis for including approaches to same-sex relationships and marriage or who are seeking resources and guidance for leading churches towards inclusion and/or managing strongly different viewpoints within their fellowships
It used to be said about “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland that the problem was one of two minorities. The Catholic community was a minority within the north, while the Protestants were a minority within the whole of Ireland. As such each could take on the embattled characteristics of the small group in the face of something bigger and more powerful: a sense of fighting to preserve identity and rights, to counter oppression or injustice, to ensure survival. Sometimes the minority has to shout louder to be heard but if everyone feels to be in a minority then there is a lot of shouting. Because minorities can feel threatened and powerless it easily spills over into more subversive and disruptive tactics. They are more likely to concentrate on getting their own way than finding overall solutions.
It feels that there is something of that happening within the evangelical constituency of the Church of England at the moment even if the minorities are less clearly defined. As a result of the debates around same sex marriage and blessing, there is undoubtedly a sense of some evangelicals displaying minority behaviour as they fight the wider Church of England over the latest decisions. There are synodical tactics to subvert the result of the February vote - although both ‘sides’ might accuse the other of undemocratic practices. There is schismatic behaviour – withholding money, ostracising bishops, and undermining the common structures. Interestingly though there is talk of “the Church of England leaving us” rather than “we are leaving the Church”. Such language suggests a real level of hurt underneath the outward protesting actions. It is a reminder to tread softly in the midst of these debates. Yet pushed to an extreme such an argument makes any change have the potential of victimising anyone who disagrees with it, framing it in the relational terms of being deserted, abandoned, betrayed. There is all the sense of a hurt minority being ‘done to’ and putting all the responsibility onto the majority.
However there is also another dynamic at play within the evangelical community. Clearly there is a significant number of evangelicals who are supportive of the current direction of the church – probably a minority within that constituency but real enough. Here the more conservative majority can become persecutors rather than victims questioning the credentials of such people to bear the evangelical identity. An example was a letter in the Church Times pushing back at some archdeacons and others who had been supportive of same sex relationships and identifying as evangelicals (Letters – Church Times 6th April 2023). To be evangelical is to be biblical, the letter asserted. It complained that the group’s handling of scripture was questionable because they applied John 16:13 – When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth – as potentially applying to the church today as well as the first apostles. To be guided into the truth in the post apostolic age is “to believe and remain loyal to this inheritance of faith, uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures.”
There are a number of difficulties with such an argument. First the disagreement over John 16:13 was not a disagreement over the importance of scripture, but over the interpretation of scripture. There’s a real danger in saying that unless you agree with my interpretation of scripture you cannot be biblical. Saying that the faith is “uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures” is not the same as saying that my interpretation is unique or that there are other sources of truth that have to interact with scripture. Because secondly there are any number of issues in which scripture is silent or at least requiring of careful and complex application. Most evangelicals would not now believe that women had to be silent in church or have their heads covered. At best these might be seen as illustrations from the time of modesty, respect and good order which had to find new forms of expression now in a different culture. There is plenty of evidence within scripture itself of a development of thought and practice, especially in the area of relationships and marriage. At the heart of the current debate is the question of what some biblical texts relating to same sex relationships are actually referring to, and whether they are applicable to faithful same sex partnerships today. The point is that people are grappling seriously with scripture and coming to different conclusions. It is not enough to say evangelicalism is biblical and biblical yields one standard interpretation.
So is there biblical guidance about handling diversities which can help transcend the dynamic of this behaviour? I think the apostle Paul gives us several important insights. First there is the important discussion in passages like Romans 14 which encourages respect and sensitivity for other’s opinions and practices while urging a mutual lack of judgment over different behaviours. It is not referring specifically to majority/minority dynamics, but the reference to the ‘weaker brother’ implies a sensitivity to the power issues in the situation. Of course there is a prior judgement as to what constitutes first and second order issues but the principle that “each of us will be accountable to God” suggests that where there is evidence of principled and biblically guided behaviour, there should be tolerance and acceptance of difference.
Secondly the Corinthian church reveals the danger of the Christ-plus gospel. The apostle Paul is critical of the divisions and quarrels among them when they start focusing on human personalities and positions rather than simply Christ. Certainly how we live out our discipleship in Christ is important but we should always be on guard against a factionalism that makes something additional to Christ pre-eminent in our criteria of fellowship and belonging within the church.
Because finally such behaviour is described as infantile by Paul (1 Cor. 3:1-4). Here perhaps is the heart of the challenge facing evangelicals at this time. Can we grow up and accept genuine diversity within the evangelical community (as well as in the wider church) for the sake of Christ and the gospel, revealing perhaps even more the power of Christ by such mature acceptance of each other rather than dividing or withdrawing from mutual fellowship? A grown up discipleship will transcend ‘minority’ dynamics and be keen to accept and include even while disagreeing, and that may prove to be greatest gospel witness to a generation that struggles to understand the church’s teaching on love and commitment, especially when such values are so absent from its internal relationships.
David is part of the ministry team at All Saints. You can read more about him here.