By Cynthia B. Astle
Sometimes when it seems darkness is closing in, God’s Holy Spirit breaks forth in a beauteous light, as a historic hymn says. So it was for this “god scribe” this week when prominent British evangelical Rev. Steve Chalke announced his support for monogamous same-sex relationships.
His fellow evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic, including noted American author and speaker Tony Campolo, described Rev. Chalke’s announcement as a “game changer.” Coming as it did in the week following Darkwood Brew’s episode with Dr. James Forbes on Sodom and Gomorrah, I thought it worthwhile to use my space this week to examine the momentous decision.
Rev. Chalke’s announcement does indeed change the game between evangelical and progressive Christians on this topic – not merely because he now supports same-sex unions, but because he has done so by his own admission after extensively grappling with the Bible. Thanks to The Independent article linked above, I found Rev. Chalke’s lengthy exposition of his decision posted on the website of his global charity, Oasis, based in Waterloo, England. Consider his introduction:
“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 recognize 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.”
Even more stunning to me are his further explanations:
“Most Christians are properly wary of using the story of God’s judgment on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), which is now widely understood to be about the indulgence, indifference to others and social injustice of their inhabitants, rather than a proof text against homosexuality.
“Sometimes minority interpretations of scripture struggle for decades before eventually becoming accepted by the majority. … A key challenge the Church faces – which often goes unrecognized – is that the Bible does not provide the final answer to a whole number of issues to do with inclusion with which Christians have subsequently wrestled.”
I don’t know about you, but this is the first time I’ve heard any evangelical say that Sodom and Gomorrah aren’t about the sin of homosexuality. Furthermore, I consider it a significant breakthrough that Rev. Chalke acknowledges that the Bible can be culturally bound and anachronistic when it comes to contemporary social issues. Frankly, I couldn’t be more thunderstruck by this evangelical pastor’s turnaround on monogamous same-sex relationships than if the archangel Gabriel showed up in my living room.
Momentous as Rev. Chalke’s courageous decision on this issue is, we should also pay close attention to this statement: “A key challenge the Church faces – which often goes unrecognized – is that the Bible does not provide the final answer to a whole number of issues to do with inclusion with which Christians have subsequently wrestled.”
Here we come to the very heart of the disputes between Christians over a host of questions in human life. As Dr. Forbes said so eloquently in this week’s Darkwood Brew episode, “We bring our own language systems, our cultures, our own taboos and our own delights to the Bible.” The “lens” we use to read and interpret scripture determines how we use the Bible to support or refute the many knotty problems of 21stcentury human community. Our appeal to the authority of scripture more often raises a wall between us when we should be seeking to work together in the service of others.
Clearly, Rev. Chalke has punched a great big hole in this wall. As one who takes the authority of scripture seriously, he grappled with the Bible in light of his experience and church tradition, and guided by prayer, reasoned that it was time for him to change. The fact that others among us came to similar views sooner is nothing to gloat about. The Spirit moves as it will, and it is not by own our intellectual power that some of us are farther along the path of inclusion than Rev. Chalke; it is simply God’s grace.
Thus, our rejoicing at Rev. Chalke’s new stance in support of monogamous same-sex relationships should be tempered with humility and compassion – humility at his honesty in publicly changing his mind, and compassion against the backlash sure to come his way from fellow evangelicals who now will see him as a traitor. Few among us could publicly change our views on such a major issue with the grace he has exhibited. As our brother in Christ, who wrestled with his viewpoint as Jacob wrestled with an angel, Steve Chalke merits our congratulations, our gratitude, and our prayerful support.
Cynthia B. Astle, OSL, of Dallas, TX, is a certified spiritual director and veteran religion communicator. Her websites are United Methodist Insight, a forum for discerning God’s will for the future of The United Methodist Church, and Watermarked, a blog on Christian discipleship and spiritual direction.