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01 November 2007

Black and white in a grey world

Black and white in a grey world

For many people, the concept of a tolerant evangelical is an oxymoron. General Director Joel Edwards begs to differ...

I wrote a piece for The Times last summer. You may have seen it. I argued that the word "evangelical" has been sullied by associations with some pretty intolerant people and their less than Christ-like utterances. I outlined the fact that I am making it my mission to reclaim the word as Good News.

The online edition allowed readers to post comments, and as I browsed through them the other day I was struck by a sobering truth: when evangelicals try to communicate grace, a lot of people simply don't believe us.

Here's a reader from Newport: "As Jesus' primary message is 'God is Love', it was good to see Joel Edwards acknowledge that. And then I had a look at the Evangelical Alliance website. It is still preaching lies and hatred about transsexual people... However reasonable Joel Edwards might wish to appear in The Times, it takes little work to find the falsehoods and nastiness of his organisation."

Another reader said that I spoke with a "forked tongue" - that what I said and what evangelicals often stand for are not one and the same.

We have a massive image problem on our hands and nowhere will this cause us more trouble than as we begin our new Values campaign on tolerance. In much of the public imagination a tolerant evangelical is about as oxymoronic as you can get.

A collision course

How have we got this reputation? A number of factors have contributed. To start with we are conviction people (and it is right that we should be). We hold tenaciously to the idea of absolute truth, which puts us on a collision course with an increasingly relativistic society that says, "We don't mind what you believe as long as you don't believe it too much."

Classical evangelical attitudes are steeped in modernity, the philosophy of proven truth and packaged certainty. There is little space for ambiguity or a range of opinion. It is an either/or paradigm where there is black and there is white, and white is proclaimed vociferously. As a result, we evangelicals are not too good with change or rolling with cultural punches.

We are into bold statements of "what is" rather than vague dialogue about what "may be". Conversations about the "journey through mystery" are likely to have us choking on our quiche.

As evangelicals, we have a massive image problem on our hands

Added into this mindset is the false impression that we are still able to exert some control on society. The memory of 1,500 years of Christendom is hard to abandon. We still think we can run the show and that we deserve positions of privilege in the institutions of state. We can have an almost parental attitude to society, implying that we know best because God told us so.

So you can see why our heritage places us in a difficult position to meaningfully engage with new themes of tolerance, inclusivity and the celebration of diversity.

The language of tolerance

The great paradox is that, more than anyone else, we believe in grace - the give and take of God. He has set the bar on tolerance; since the post-flood covenant, He has tolerated humanity. We sit at the feet of the greatest linguist of tolerance that there is, and yet all too often we seem barely able to utter a few words of the language ourselves.

So it is hardly surprising that when I mention to people that tolerance is our latest Values campaign I get a few raised eyebrows. That reader from Newport is not alone in wondering what place evangelicals can possibly have talking about the subject. Wouldn't it be easier if we just quietly stayed out of the debate?

Well, yes it would be easier. But it would be the wrong thing to do because, firstly, tolerance is a key component of the current political and community discourse. Everyone else is wrestling with it. You only overcome the dark by engaging with it.

Secondly, if we are focussed on mission, then we have to work within the landscape around us. And whether we like it or not, this landscape is at ease with tolerance. So we need to find some level of ease - even if we are aware that, as a model of human relationship, tolerance is inadequate in the light of the reality of revealed truth.

Thirdly, this could be good for us. Engagement will promote some much-needed self-examination of evangelical attitudes and behaviour in the public square where our intolerance disqualifies us from the discourse.

Finally, it is only as we get into debates on tolerance that we can fully see when it is legitimate and when it is not. We will then be better able to discern when our absolute values - God, Christ and mission - should and will make us graciously intolerant. But these will be based not on our subcultures or denominational ticks, but on what God truly requires of us.

So while we may applaud the commitment to celibacy of the young girl banned by her school from wearing a "purity ring", we need to accept that it had nothing to do with Christian rights. To insist that it does is to project our subculture onto the public square, reinforcing the idea that Christians are known for their intolerance.

In the Old Testament we see Daniel as a Jewish captive in Babylon. He had to understand tolerance, because for every story of defiance we read there were surely many more stories of legitimate political compromise. We will only understand biblically inspired obstinacy when we have thoroughly explored what it means to be tolerant in a diverse culture.

So let's roll up our sleeves and enter the debate with truth in our hearts but grace on our lips. The days of speaking with forked tongue have to come to an end.

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