What do recent controversies over the views of Jeffrey John and Steve Chalke have to teach us about the state of Evangelicalism in the UK? I offer here a plea for care.
It was the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes who once opined that, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”
The same point is made in rather less melodramatic terms by the writer of Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season ... a time to keep silence and a time to speak.”
Right now, the evangelical movement in England would do well to take this maxim to heart, for it is truly astonishing to see the extent to which evangelicals are at one another’s throats. Intemperate language, sweeping statements, public accusations, name-calling and disparagements seem to have become our stock in trade.
Partly this is because private opinion seems to be the only authority recognized by many who class themselves as evangelicals. Most of us are not qualified biblical scholars, competent in Greek and Hebrew, widely read in a variety of fields and tested by competent examiners. Nor have we had to refine our theological views in the context of being pastorally responsible for a church, preventing the sheep from wandering, counselling and encouraging the uncertain or sitting with the sick and dying. Our right to preach and teach has not been affirmed by the wider Church. All this does not prevent us, however, from venturing to pronounce without a hint of humility on the acceptability of this or that viewpoint or on the folly of those with whom we beg to differ.
The situation is exacerbated, however, by those who are indeed evangelical leaders, yet who behave precisely like the man who cries “fire” in a theatre, hardly seeming to be aware that their constituency contains many who will immediately rush hither and thither in response, affirming that they are for their modern-day equivalent of Paul, Apollos or Cephas.
When divisions amongst evangelicals run as deep as they currently do, a pronouncement against one or other strongly-held conviction cannot be regarded as if it were a merely neutral or innocent action. Similarly, to speak in negative terms about individuals or organizations is inevitably to stoke partisan feelings.
No doubt our current difficulties arise partly because the ongoing and unresolved controversy about sexuality has heightened our awareness of internal divisions. We are sensitized as never before to disagreements with fellow-Christians. Indeed, it has got to the point where one is more likely to be suspicious of another Christian with whom one is unfamiliar (and even more so with another member of the clergy) than one would be of an atheist!
Our problems are also not helped by forms of information and communication which encourage speed but not sensitivity. E-mailing and blogging often produce comments which are as careless as they are quick.
Perhaps above all our current problem is that we have no commonly recognized leaders. It is not merely that many of our great leaders are elderly. We have become unruly. There is no ‘king in Israel’, and every man or woman does what is right in their own eyes. Scripture is held up as our authority, but we will not bow to any interpretation except our own.
Sometimes, as at first-century Corinth, there are those who claim to be above all these divisions, following only Christ. But in fact it is their own Christ whom they follow — a Christ whose teachings, practices and significance match curiously well with their desire to stand aloof from their fellow-evangelicals whilst simultaneously managing to sit light to doctrines shown to be fundamental to evangelicalism in the past.
It is time for evangelicals to heed the warning of Galatians 5:15: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” This is neither a joke nor a matter of simplistic pietism. Evangelicalism in England is dangerously close to melt-down.
On the contrary, we should apply to ourselves the words of James: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Let us think about the person to whom we are referring before we pass comment. But let us think also about those who will be listening: “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” And it is not just the tongue which is a fire. It is also the pen and the keyboard.Revd John P Richardson
26 April 2007