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15 January 2013

Not radical enough

by Steve Clifford, general director, Evangelical Alliance

This should be read alongside our introductory statement published earlier today.

The philosopher Dallas Willard writes that: "The aim of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with Himself included in that community as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant."

The vision that Willard sets out is compelling and speaks into the crux of Steve Chalke's recent article in Christianity magazine. Steve is someone whom I respect enormously, but I think he is wrong. This is due, in part, to an insufficiently radical view of inclusion. The two big questions we must consider are these: what did Jesus's vision of inclusion look like in the first century? And what does Jesus's vision of inclusion look like in 2013? In answering these questions, we need to deploy the tools of exegesis (what did it mean?) and hermeneutics (what does it mean?). In other words, our task is to consider what the teaching and praxis of Jesus looked like to his contemporaries and to the earliest recipients of the gospels, and how to apply Jesus's teaching and praxis to the challenges of our contemporary world.

The kingdom of God: the invitation, the life, the central claim

In the first century, Jesus declared that: "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:14) In proclaiming this good news, Jesus was announcing that God was doing something radically new and He was inviting people to be part of it.

In essence, Jesus was inviting people to embrace what Tom Wright describes as an "utterly risky way" of being human. It was the way of turning the other cheek and going the second mile, the way of losing your life to gain it. Crucially, this life was not to be lived in isolation but in community - a community of celebration which brings jubilee or freedom, a community of love of God and love of neighbour within which all, including the most disreputable, are welcome. A community into which no one is forced and from which anyone can walk away (as the rich young man did). A community of infinite mutual forgiveness in which right living comes from repentance and faith in God and His power as seen in Jesus's ministry, and a community which is led, and lives, by the Spirit of God, not by violence, coercion or persecution. The earliest members of this community, disciples of Jesus, were characterised by their exclusive profession that "Jesus the Messiah is Lord" (Romans 10:9).

The radically inclusive nature of Jesus's invitation

In response to Jesus's kingdom invitation, the gospel writers note how all sorts of people, especially those on the margins of society, responded positively: tax collectors, soldiers, zealots, prostitutes, the poor and the wealthy. This is vividly described in the parable of the banquet (Luke 14:15-24). Where religious leaders drew lines around people to say whether they were in or out, Jesus destroyed them. Indeed, Jesus's appeal was widely commented on by those in positions of power and authority. In his gospel, Luke notes how the Pharisees and teachers of the law complained: "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them" (15:2).

The transforming power of the kingdom

Inclusion into Jesus's community resulted in the transformation of people's lives. Tax collectors were to stop collecting any more than they were required to, soldiers were to stop extorting money and accusing people falsely, zealots were to stop using violence, prostitutes were to stop providing sexual services to others in return for payment and attitudes to money were to change. Anyone with two shirts was to share with those with none, and anyone with food was to do the same. It really was that radical. Inclusion into Jesus's community without an experience of, and response to, God's transformative power was simply not an option. Of course, not everyone was able to accept this sort of inclusion. It was too difficult for some. In response to Jesus telling a rich young man to "go, sell everything you have and give to the poor…Then come, follow me", Mark describes how "the man's face fell" and "he went away sad, because he had great wealth" (Mark 10:21-22).

The challenge of Jesus – everybody welcome

So the community grounded in the exclusive claims of Jesus is both radically inclusive and radically transformative. And this takes us to our contemporary context. So how can the contemporary Church embody the Christ-like, inclusive and transformative community described in the New Testament and offer meaning to our complex, hurting and misunderstood world?

First, we are called as Jesus's disciples to invite and welcome everyone into his community, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and class. The categories that divided people in previous generations and cultures are blown apart by Jesus. In the words of the apostle Paul: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

Subject to God's transforming power

Second, the community of Jesus is called to embrace a radically "risky way" of being human. We can't be part of God's inclusive community without subjecting ourselves to the transforming power of His Spirit. We can't be residents of the kingdom without being subjects of the king. Inclusion into Jesus's community will affect every aspect of our human existence - our self-understanding, relationships, work, and approaches to sex, money and power. In all of these areas and plenty of others too, we are to take Jesus into the whole of our lives. Willard states that: "The greatest challenge the Church faces today is to be authentic disciples of Jesus. And by that I mean they're learning from Him how to live their life, as He would live their life if He were they." This is massively challenging but we should not be discouraged. John Newton, the hymn writer and former slave trader, once said: "I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am."

So, how are we to apply this thinking in the evangelical community and to the challenge that Steve Chalke presents us with?

Centred on Jesus

In the first place, our principal focus needs to be on Jesus and living our lives as he would live it if he were us. We need to resist the temptation of making God in our own image, and allow Him to remake us in His. The Evangelical Alliance invites prospective members to sign a statement of faith that centres on Jesus as the source of our identity. It is precisely on the basis of our understanding of Jesus's uniqueness and our commitment to everything he is that we seek to be radically Christ-like.

Supporting each other

Within the context of our movement, we are working to support one another in working out how to apply Jesus's teaching to the challenges of the 21st century. We don't pretend that this is easy, but we won't duck the difficult issues either, including questions about gay relationships. We recently produced a resource for church leaders looking at biblical and pastoral responses to homosexuality which we believe reflects an authentic, mainstream New Testament response to homosexuality in general and sexually-active same-sex partnerships in particular (Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality can be purchased for £7 via our website).

Creating space for grace

We don't confuse our statement of faith with our work on contemporary issues. Our commitment to applying Jesus's teaching in our 21st century context means we won't avoid difficult issues and we will respect those who take a different view. We believe we can – in fact Jesus commands us to - disagree without being disagreeable. So, we must listen carefully to one another, being courteous and generous, seeking in all things to acquire the mind of Christ. The Evangelical Relationships Commitment stand alongside the Basis of Faith as a commitment we make to each other.

Going forward

Try as I might (and believe me I have tried) I can only see that scripture places sexual union in one unique context: a committed relationship for life between a man and a woman – that which we call marriage. Steve's interpretation and application of scripture is, I think, wrong, as he fails to recognise the radical call to discipleship within our sexuality, whether married or unmarried or gay. Like the rich young ruler of Mark 10, some will regard this as a hard teaching and will walk away sad. The challenge for the Christian community is to support one another as we seek to follow Jesus in contemporary culture – with all the challenges, conflicts and pain that can involve. That is, after all, what it means to be a radically inclusive and transformative community. That is what it means to be the body of Christ.