Keith Sharpe, Changing Attitude trustee and convenor of CA Sussex, has interviewed Steve Chalke
The Rev’d Steve Chalke is a high profile evangelical Christian leader. From his extremely successful and well attended church in central London he manages the Oasis organisation, a multi million pound charitable foundation which amongst other things runs many primary and secondary schools up and down the land. In evangelical circles they do not come much more prominent than Steve Chalke.
At the start of 2013 Steve, who is a happily married heterosexual man, wrote an article entitled ‘A Matter of Integrity’ saying that he no longer believed the evangelical claim that homosexuality is sinful. In fact he no longer believed that the Bible has anything to say about homosexuality as we know it, except to make clear that inclusion is at the heart of the Christian gospel. And as a consequence he is now fully affirming of gay people and faithful gay relationships. In the article he admitted that he had already conducted a dedication and blessing service following the civil partnership of two gay men in his congregation.
All this of course is complete anathema to conventional conservative evangelicals, many of whom are outraged and appalled by Steve’s actions. Steve has had thousands of letters, emails texts, blogs and publications in response to his courageous stance.
This is truly a watershed development in evangelical Christian attitudes to gay people. I had the good fortune recently to interview Steve and ask him about this astonishing stand against many of his fellow evangelicals. As you will see from his responses below, the humane and moving testimony of this brave man represent a tectonic shift in evangelical thinking about gay people.
Why did you write this article?
I felt compelled to write this article. I have come to understand that the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion sit at the very heart of Jesus’ message. At Oasis we employ 3000 people and next year we’ll have 20 000 students in our schools and colleges. A percentage of those young people will be struggling with sexuality issues. I do not want any of these youngsters to grow up feeling that they are ‘less than God’s best’. I don’t want anybody to have to feel at the very heart and core of their being, of who they are, there is something ‘wrong’. That is such an important issue.
Many people will say now that you are no longer an evangelical. How do you answer them?
I have continued to grapple with the Bible, as I have done all my life. I believe the whole Bible, I believe the Old Testament is as important as the New Testament. I’ve reached these views through prayer, study and conversation with other Christians over many years. The Church extends a shield of care to heterosexual young people. My son, who is getting married next year, was automatically given books and resources, invited on pre-marriage counselling, and all sorts of things to support his future marriage. But if you are gay you are on your own. You have a guilty secret. And often, if you have the courage to go to your Church about it all you are told is ‘don’t take communion any more’, ‘don’t work with children any more’, ‘don’t talk about this because we don’t want to know about it’. Often gay people have been made to feel totally unwelcome in evangelical churches. Most people do not have the gift of celibacy and when it is enforced it leads to terrible isolation and guilt. Some evangelical leaders condemn the promiscuity of gay people and even say that AIDS is a judgement from God. Actually I think it is a judgement on us and the way we and I have been. The evangelical churches’ rejection of gay people is wrong. As an evangelical I believe that the heart of God is for faithfulness, for stability, for intimacy, for interdependence. We have a Christian responsibility to help nurture those virtues in every person, irrespective of sexual orientation.
But doesn’t the Bible condemn homosexuality?
The Bible has a lot to say about the role of women, none of it very positive. In Oasis churches we have women in a wide variety of roles and leadership positions. But the New Testament is very clear: women should keep silent. St Paul says women should not speak because Adam was created before Eve and Eve deceived him. Paul thought women should be subordinate to men because this is built into the order of creation. How come then that so many evangelical churches have now moved to a different view of women and yet still claim that this is biblical? Or how about slavery? In the Old Testament we are even told in Leviticus how to trade slaves. In the New Testament St Paul tells slaves to serve their masters well. Even the most conservative Christian is in a different place from the New Testament on slavery and yet we still claim that we are biblical! Of course we say that in the Bible the teaching on women or slavery, it’s just cultural. But that leads to a terrible slippery slope of relativism. Our ethics shouldn’t be anchored to what’s cultural but to what is Christ-like. Conformity to Him is what should underpin our attitudes relentlessly and unchangingly. The Bible does not claim to be the Word of God; it says Jesus is the Word of God. A Christian should read both the Old and New Testaments through the lens of Jesus. What is a Christ-like response to homosexuality? Jesus includes those who the religious leaders thought were excluded on the basis of their reading of the Old Testament. Jesus was perceived as a heretic because he would insist on including people who in the Old Testament were beyond the pale. It would be inconsistent not to see the issue of homosexuality through the same lens. God’s nature is love, is faithfulness, is other-centredness. Therefore promiscuity, whether it is homosexual or heterosexual, is always wrong because it is not like God And it is wrong for the Church to leave gay people in an isolated place and to refuse to admit them to the community place where they can be encouraged to have lifelong faithful loving relationships.
What about the specific biblical passages that evangelicals usually quote?
The question is how do we understand and interpret them properly? Take for example, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). Does this mean all sexual unions should be exclusively heterosexual? Or is it simply a normative illustration? Is it like the norm of being right-handed, which never implies any failing in those who are born left-handed? Similarly, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is now understood to be about God’s judgement on self-indulgence, inhospitality and social injustice, it is not about homosexuality. As for Leviticus, it also condemns physically disabled people and the wearing of mixed fabrics. Are we going to take that seriously? And the New Testament texts refer to wild exploitative extra-marital promiscuity which was common in Roman culture, not to loving and stable same-sex unions.
Can we just ignore these texts then?
The whole Bible matters – both Old and New Testaments – in its entirety. We all know that some minority interpretations of Scripture have struggled for decades before eventually becoming accepted by the majority. For 1500 years the Church believed the earth was flat. When Nicholas Copernicus discovered that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of the solar system Scripture was used to condemn him. Luther quoted Joshua 10:13 and called Copernicus a fool. Other protestants recommended that ‘severe measures be taken to silence’ all those who dared to agree with him. A hundred years later the Catholic Church found Galileo guilty of heresy for ‘following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture’. The Church was wrong for all those years. In the current day and age with the internet and social media the Church cannot treat the Bible as its private book. It can’t say that these Greek words in Romans or Corinthians mean that God condemns lifelong faithful same-sex relations when everyone knows that scholars have proved they don’t. You’re wrong, you’re just wrong. I am an evangelical, I take the Bible very seriously and I believe rather than focussing on the exegesis of handful of texts we have to wrestle constantly with what it means to recognise our neighbour and to love them as ourselves. The parable of the Good Samaritan was shocking to Jesus’ Jewish audience. Jesus’ point is that there is nobody who is not our neighbour. I’m challenged by the thought that today Jesus might have told the story in terms of evangelicals and gay people.
What should the churches now do?
We have created a situation in which if you are lesbian or gay you are much more likely to suffer from mental health issues, much more likely to feel alienated, much more likely to end up lying. Gay people feel they cannot say who they really are. We have stigmatised homosexuality and that is not like Christ. We need to welcome people in and find a role for them serving and leading in the church as they faithfully follow Christ. We need to find ways of acknowledging and endorsing faithful loving commitments.
Are you in favour now of gay marriage?
In the article and in statements I have made I am not talking about gay marriage either in support of it or against it. It’s an important issue and I am pleased that the debate is now happening. I want to be part of the discussion but I don’t want to pre-empt it. It’s complex around such issues as what is consummation, what is adultery, and the constitutional questions. What I was writing about was something much more important: inclusion. Some people have said my intervention on inclusion was badly timed because of the gay marriage debate. My response is that if only the Church had worked out its attitude towards homosexuality then at this juncture we could say we’re wonderfully inclusive of gay people and we could find ways of their having self-respect and belonging and their relationships celebrated and supported, but we’ve got some questions about gay marriage. It’s only because of our failure to address biblical issues that now this is all jumbled up together and whatever the Church says people will say ‘they are the ones who were always against homosexuals and against civil partnerships’. The pressing challenge for the church now is ‘how can we properly include people who are gay?’
Do you fear negative consequences for yourself now that you have spoken out?
I was scared of saying this to tell you the truth. I don’t want to lose friends or relationships. That’s why I have kept silent. But all church leaders keep silent for the same reason: we’re scared of losing our salaries, scared of losing our house, scared for our families of losing our livelihood. There has been a conspiracy of silence around this. I’m sorry for that. And all I ask is for an honest conversation and debate about this without demonising one another or anybody claiming that we have abandoned the Bible.
Many people have responded to me on blogs and in articles, some agreeing others disagreeing. Steve Holmes, theological advisor to the Evangelical Alliance, says our attitude to gays has been a scandal, and the track record of evangelical churches has been appalling, we have swept it under the carpet and people’s lives have been ruined. A huge number of people have said how pleased they are that we can talk about this openly now.
Why does this issue matter so much to you?
Negative definitions of Scripture have caused a great deal of unnecessary pain and, sometimes, terrible tragedy. Are people gay by nature or by nurture? I don’t know and I don’t trust the advice of other church leaders. But what I do know is that nobody chooses to be gay. When Hitler drove six million Jews into the death camps what we too often forget is that he also sent hundreds of thousands of gay people too. Why didn’t any of them put up their hand and say, ‘well it’s only a choice, I could live differently’. They faced death because they were gay in their very being. We have got to be far more biblical and thoroughly think through what the New Testament says about the acceptance of people who are gay. What being a Christian is about, what the Church is about, what the Bible is about, is life, embracing life, and living life well. We’re for wellbeing, for holistic living. The good News of the Kingdom of God is about life and wholeness right here right now, for every individual, for every single person.