Update (Feb. 5): The British parliament voted today to "[authorize] same-sex marriages but also exempts religious organizations from having to perform them," reports the Los Angeles Times. The bill, which passed by a 400-175 vote, has several more hurdles to clear before becoming law.
Update (Jan. 25): Associated Baptist Press reports how British Baptists are debating Chalke's position on homosexuality and how the Baptist Union of Great Britain should respond.
Steve Chalke, one of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the United Kingdom, has publicly announced his change of belief that monogamous same-sex relationships are not sinful, and makes an argument for why churches should support such relationships in the latest issue of Christianity magazine.
Released yesterday, the magazine's February issue focuses on "The Bible and Homosexuality." It follows columnist Chalke's article "calling for a new Christian understanding of homosexual relationships" with ones by theologian in residence Greg Downes "unpack[ing] the traditional evangelical understanding of homosexuality" and editor Ruth Dickinson "tak[ing] the temperature of evangelical opinion on the subject."
Chalke, whose strong views on atonement theology broke up one of Britain's biggest Christian conferences, writes:
I feel both compelled and afraid to write this article. Compelled because, in my understanding, the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion sit at the very heart of Jesus' message. Afraid because I recognise the Bible is understood by many to teach that the practice of homosexuality, in any circumstance, is a sin or ‘less than God's best'.
Some will think that I have strayed from scripture – that I am no longer an evangelical. I have formed my view, however, 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.
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?
Tolerance is not the same as Christ-like love. Christ-like love calls us to go beyond tolerance to want for the other the same respect, freedom and equality one wants for oneself. We should find ways to formally support and encourage those who are in, or wish to enter into, faithful same-sex partnerships, as well as in their wider role as members of Christ's body.
Chalke offered a fuller explanation of his shift in thinking on his charity's website.
In an editorial, Christianity magazine explained why it "felt now was the right time to tackle the issue" and why it gave Chalke a platform to make such a controversial argument.
"Firstly, Steve has been a contributor for a long time, as well as a prominent evangelical. He spoke at Spring Harvest for many years and appeared with Billy Graham at Mission England. We wanted to let him have his say, rather than for rumour and hearsay to dictate the conversation," wrote Dickinson. "Secondly, opening up the issues is what this magazine does. We're evangelical in conviction, but our approach has never been to suppress what others think, whether within or outside of evangelicalism. Steve's is not the only voice."
In his follow-up essay, Downes writes "Those who say the Bible does not teach homosexual practice is wrong are simply engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics," and notes, "my fear is that any shift to embrace this new interpretation is nothing short of a denial of the authority of the Bible itself."
Dickinson expects Chalke's reversal to reverberate for years. "Chalke is going against the majority of U.K. evangelical opinion. Furthermore, many see this as a primary issue, not a secondary one and one for which liberals will suffer grave consequences," she toldChristian Today. "Others, of course, will welcome his announcement, seeing it as an opportunity to make the Church more open and welcoming to homosexual people."
Reaction by the British media and Christian bloggers was swift.
"[Chalke] 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," notes Tony Campolo, who received a phone call from Chalke prior to the news breaking in the British media. "For somebody with Steve's high profile to stand up in favor of lesbian and gay partnerships is indeed shocking news."
Campolo, who "remain[s] conservative on the issue," claims that Chalke's essay "represents the first time that a major evangelist and leader in the Evangelical community has come out in support of same-sex relationships. ... 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."
Steve Clifford, general director of the U.K.'s Evangelical Alliance, noted in an open letter (full text at bottom) that Chalke is a friend and believes "when the history of the Church in the U.K. is written, Steve's contribution over the last 25 years will be recognised as profoundly significant," but said, "While I understand and respect Steve's pastoral motivations, I believe the conclusions he has come to on same-sex relationships are wrong."
"Generations of Christians have faced the challenge of making the gospel relevant within their cultural settings," writes Clifford. "The danger we all face, and I fear Steve has succumbed to, is that we produce 'a god' in our own likeness or in the likeness of the culture in which we find ourselves."
By contrast, he promotes the EAUK's recent "Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality," a resource which "expresse[s] regret for the Church's past and present failure in relation to the lesbian and gay community" while upholding what the EAUK believes to be biblical teaching.
CT reported when Britian's biggest Christian conference broke up in 2007 over the atonement debate and whether or not Chalke should speak. Chalke has been an outspoken critic of the penal substitution theory of atonement; his 2004 book The Lost Message of Jesusprompted rebuke from the U.K.'s Evangelical Alliance, which in turn prompted more controversy. He supports the Christus Victor model instead.
Full statement from Evangelical Alliance general director Steve Clifford:
Steve Chalke is a friend of mine. We go back many years. I am convinced that when the history of the Church in the UK is written, Steve's contribution over the last 25 years will be recognised as profoundly significant. So with this as a backdrop I am writing my response to Steve's article in Christianity magazine. While I understand and respect Steve's pastoral motivations, I believe the conclusions he has come to on same-sex relationships are wrong.
It is with both sadness and disappointment that I reflect on how Steve has not only distanced himself from the vast majority of the evangelical community here in the UK, but indeed from the Church across the world and 2,000 years of biblical interpretation.
Steve has raised issues which touch on deep areas of human identity. At a Soul Survivor seminar last summer, a Baptist minister who lives with same-sex attraction introduced his talk to a marquee full of young people by indicating that he would love to find a theology in the Bible which would support a sexually-active gay life. But, he said: "I've come to the conclusion that it is not there and I don't want to live in rebellion to the one that I love."
This pastor is just one of tens of thousands of Christians who have come to the conclusion that sex was designed by God to be expressed within a committed relationship for life between a man and a woman - we call this marriage - and have chosen to live a celibate life.
Steve Chalke's challenge to historic biblical interpretation is in danger of undermining such courageous lifestyle decisions. Last year, the Evangelical Alliance produced a resource for leaders entitled Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality - put together by a commission of eight and peer reviewed by 40. I trust this resource reflects a considered, gracious and mature response. It follows on from the highly respected Faith, Hope and Homosexuality book produced some 14 years ago, combining a clear and succinct statement of biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. It expressed regret for the Church's past and present failure in relation to the lesbian and gay community. Realistically and honestly, it engages with real-life scenarios to help Christians, and especially pastors and others in Christian ministry, discern how we can speak and live the truth in love. It can be downloaded online www.eauk.org/current-affairs/publications/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=25152 and hard copies can be purchased for £7 via our website.
Generations of Christians have faced the challenge of making the gospel relevant within their cultural settings. The danger we all face, and I fear Steve has succumbed to, is that we produce 'a god' in our own likeness or in the likeness of the culture in which we find ourselves.
Steve's approach to biblical interpretation allows for a god in the likeness of 21st century Western-European mindsets. His call for "Christ-like inclusion" is not radical enough in its inclusiveness. We all come to the gospel in our brokenness, with an attachment to things, self-centeredness, addictions, fears and pride. We all need a saviour in every area of our lives, including our sexuality. We all live with pain. The radical inclusiveness of the gospel means we are all welcomed. In a wonderful grace-filled process we find repentance and forgiveness and Christ commits himself through the work of the Holy Spirit to bring transformation to our lives - a life-long process.
This is the radical inclusiveness I believe the gospel offers to all of us. God doesn't leave us on our own, He promises to work in us, to bring us into our ultimate goal which is His likeness.
Inevitably Steve's article will open again the conversation on human sexuality. But as we have this discussion let's remember that Jesus requires us to disagree without being disagreeable. We must listen honestly and carefully to one another, being courteous and generous. In 1846, our Evangelical Relationships Commitment was created to guide us in our relationships with other Christians - especially those we disagree with.