Justin Thacker

Evangelical Alliance decision regarding Oasis Trust

The following blog post is written in response to the announcement that the Evangelical Alliance has removed from membership the Oasis Trust because the Trust refused to “equally profile the traditional Christian view” regarding human sexuality.

 

A few years ago, the Evangelical Alliance faced a serious controversy. An extremely popular and well respected Christian leader had questioned a particular tenet of evangelical orthodoxy. Since the 4th Century, there had essentially been only one view on the matter, and certainly all evangelicals knew what they should believe. But one brave soul had begun to question that orthodoxy. His name was John Stott, the issue was the doctrine of hell, and all of this took place about 25 years ago. Stott wrote in 1988 that “we need to survey the biblical material afresh and to open our minds…to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilation, and that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture.”

In response to Stott, and others who espoused similar positions, the Alliance put together a commission that represented a range of views and explored the issue with deep biblical and theological insight. Their conclusions were published in the brilliant ACUTE report of 2000: The Nature of Hell. One of its conclusions reads as follows:

“We recognise that the interpretation of hell as eternal conscious punishment is the one most widely attested by the Church in its historic formulation of doctrine and in its understanding of Scripture. We also recognise that it represents the classic, mainstream evangelical position….We recognise that the interpretation of hell in terms of conditional immortality is a significant minority evangelical view. Furthermore, we believe that the traditionalist-conditionalist debate on hell should be regarded as a secondary rather than a primary issue for evangelical theology. Although hell is a profoundly serious matter, we view the holding of either one of these two views of it over against the other to be neither essential in respect of Christian doctrine, nor finally definitive of what it means to be an evangelical Christian.”

I mention all this because it strikes me that a certain parallel can be drawn with today’s debates around human sexuality. Once again we have a popular evangelical leader (Steve Chalke) questioning, what is undoubtedly, traditional evangelical orthodoxy. Once again, the Alliance has been forced to take some kind of stand, to make it clear where evangelical orthodoxy should lie. Yet, on this occasion, the breadth and tolerance that was so ably demonstrated in The Nature of Hell seems to be absent. Why is this the case?

Well of course those who have contributed to today’s decision regarding the Oasis Trust will say that in respect of hell the biblical evidence was not that clear, whereas in respect of homosexuality it is. But of course, that is to beg the question that is being addressed. For those, like Chalke, who have come to revise their views regarding homosexuality have done so while still upholding the authority of Scripture. They do not believe that the scriptural witness is that clear.

My fear is that what really distinguishes the hell debates of the late 20th Century and the homosexuality debates today is that while the former was essentially an in-house debate, the latter very clearly is not. The secular world simply didn’t care what conclusions we reached on hell, but they care very deeply what we say about homosexuality.

The caricature of an evangelical fundamentalist is that they’re defined by what they’re against. So is it possible, in a context of ongoing church decline, that there is a certain branch of evangelicalism that believes the safest tactic is to retreat behind the walls of orthodoxy and to shore them up so that they’re even more impenetrable?

The problem with this approach is that it seems not to have been the approach of either Jesus or Paul. Their greatest condemnations were not for the world, but for those within the bounds of religious orthodoxy, especially those who passed judgement on others and made entry  to the faith difficult (consider Jesus to the Pharisees and Paul on circumcision). In regard to those outside, their message was almost always one of grace: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? “ says Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:12

Now of course Paul follows this immediately with an instruction to judge those on the inside, and no doubt this is precisely what the Alliance feel that they are doing in respect of Oasis Trust. And maybe they are. For I’m confident that much thought and prayer will have gone into their decision.

However, my concern is that this looks like a decision, not born of confidence in the gospel or trust in the power of the Scriptures to transform, but rather one born of fear – fear that the church is becoming inevitably compromised by the world and that its time to pull up the drawbridges. In the late 19th Century, when a number of prominent British evangelicals – including one general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance – began to question the traditional doctrine of hell, they were put under pressure or sometimes forced to relinquish their positions. It took about 100 years for evangelicals to realise that maybe they had been a bit premature in their judgement on that occasion, and that a greater degree of accommodation should be allowed on these matters. I hope that we are not making the same mistake again.

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03/05/2014 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

11 Comments

  1. Thanks for the post Justin. I think the difficulty I have with the whole issue is that human sexuality seems to be becoming the touchstone of orthodox evangelicalism, you are either ‘in’ or ‘out’ depending on your views. The issue is really about scripture and the authority we believe it holds over us in relation to the culture we live in.

    I’m not sure about the argument re John Stott and ECT because he was very open to asking questions and discovering the truth. I feel the problem with the HS debate is that many people have made up their minds and simply use scripture to bolster their opinions 😦

    Evangelical fundamentals being defined by what they are against? May be so in certain instances but I think they may argue they are not ‘against’ in this debate but pro marriage, pro relationships, pro love but not as defined by our culture.

    As for Oasis Trust being removed from the EA? I think it will have massive repercussions on the EA but I also ask the question, will Oasis want to be a part of an organisation that, lets face it, is significantly different theologically from where Oasis stand?

    Great post. May the debate continue ……

    Comment by cybarev ;) | 03/05/2014

  2. Part of the problem is that Evangelicalism lacks a magisterium to rule on matters of faith and morals.

    Comment by Paul Williams | 03/05/2014

    • Yes, but does it need or want one? I’m not sure.

      Comment by Justin Thacker | 04/05/2014

  3. A very helpful post. Thank you.

    Comment by Alan Molineaux | 04/05/2014

  4. I don’t think the secular world “didn’t care what conclusions we reached on hell”. You probably mean to say it didn’t matter a lot in politics. It did matter in conversations of all kinds, because when someone is being depicted as condemned to hell it was always seen as a very inhumane point of view to many people around, so the “religious attitude” must have been at stake all the time, and it may have contributed to the loss of popularity of Christianity in general.

    Having said that, this was a good analysis – the connection between John Stott and Steve Chalke may be an eye opener for many. But there is a long way to go. Steve Chalke, like Rob Bell and others, are still almost like “kiddos” compared to Christians like John Shelby Spong, Gretta Vosper and those Christians who contributed to the Jesus Seminar for instance – that’s still a huge leap for many Christians. But somehow they may get there.

    Also the connection & dialog between atheists / agnostics and theists / believers is another exciting possibility. Another “leap of faith” towards the future.

    Comment by Jcm Manuel | 04/05/2014

    • Good point re. Hell but I was really just saying they didn’t care as much as they do about the sexuality issue. Thanks though

      Comment by Justin Thacker | 04/05/2014

  5. You write: “those, like Chalke, who have come to revise their views regarding homosexuality have done so while still upholding the authority of Scripture”. But isn’t it the foundational issue that Chalke is actually seeking to redefine the authority of scripture in ways which are not ‘evangelical’ in ways which the EA (let alone Stott) would recognise?

    Comment by Gavin | 07/05/2014

    • Hi Gavin, it may or may not be the case that chalke is adopting a new position on scripture but that is not why oasis was removed from the ea

      Comment by Justin Thacker | 09/05/2014

  6. Great blog! Thanks for posting!

    Comment by Stuart | 08/05/2014

  7. My views on sexuality would be considered “traditional”, but I find the EA’s behaviour reprehensible. In previous ages, reformers were burnt at the stake by the religious establishment, and the only difference today is that the burning is relational rather than literal. It seems highly vindictive to take it out on Oasis because of Steve Chalke’s views. As others have said, I am reminded that, for 1800 years or so there was a strong consensus amongst christians that God was happy with slavery and the Bible was clear on this subject. I do wonder if there will be a similar about-turn on homosexuality in the future. I’m not sure how the fixation on sexuality by the church is helping take the gospel to the homosexual community. They must feel like the lepers in the Bible.

    Comment by Peter J | 13/05/2014


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