Why I am still an evangelical Christian
This is not a Bible exposition. It is not a sermon. This is a testimony. Hence the first person pronoun in the title: Why I am still an evangelical Christian.
In many ways I would feel more comfortable if it were a Bible exposition or a sermon. It has always been a matter of principle for me that the pronoun "I" should be spoken as little as possible in the pulpit. But then - this is not a pulpit – what I say this evening carries no claim to authority at all. I’ve simply been asked to share with you my own experience, so if you disagree with anything I say, there no need to get hot under the collar about it. Christians can agree to differ, can’t they?
Oh? On reflection, one of the things I have to say is that, in my experience, some Christians can’t agree to differ. If they could the church would be in a much happier state today.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start on a positive note.
The main reason I agreed to give this talk when Jeremy asked me is that nothing, absolutely nothing in my life compares in importance to the discovery I made well over 40 years ago that God is not (as I had supposed until that time) a superstitious hangover from mankind’s intellectual infancy, but that he is real, he is a personal, and most extraordinary of all, he is interested in me.
Nothing would delight me more than to think that somebody who has not yet made that discovery or who is still beset with uncertainty about it might be helped a few more steps along the road toward a secure faith by my testimony.
In that connection it is worth perhaps pointing out that my title can be interpreted in several ways, depending on where you put the sentence stress.
For instance, I was tempted to put the stress on the third word: "Why I am still an evangelical Christian?": the point being that there are many today who insist that I cannot possibly be one. I am a gay man, in a sexually-active relationship with a partner. Such a person, in the minds of many, is by definition an apostate and cannot possible be a Christian, evangelical or otherwise. Well, as I say, we must agree to differ on that. Tempting as it is to use this opportunity to get a few chips off my shoulder regarding the things that have been said about me over the last 12 years, I have decided that would be inappropriate.
Having decided to avoid that interpretation of my title, it occurred to me that, alternatively, I could focus even more heavily on that reluctant first-person pronoun: "Why I am still an evangelical Christian": the point being this time that many of my gay friends who were evangelical Christians are so no longer. Some have drifted towards being Catholic Christians; some towards being liberal Christians. A few now dignify themselves with the rather bizarre adjective "post-evangelical Christians". And Jeremy tells me that in the US a new group has just sprung up wishing to be known as "red-letter" Christians. Saddest of all, I have seen a number of young and enthusiastic Christians abandon their faith altogether.
I am not without sympathy for the disillusionment that underlies that mass defection from the ranks of evangelicalism by so many honest men and women. In many respects, I share their exasperation. The evangelical wing of the church has been guilty of the most appalling blunders in the last 20 years. Theologically they have veered towards precisely the kind of barren legalism that Jesus rebuked in the Pharisees and Paul in the Galatians. Strategically, they have positioned themselves so ineptly that it is now almost impossible for them to evangelise Western culture successfully. Ask the man in the street today what he associates with the word "evangelical" and, if he can make any sense of it at all, you will hear synonyms like intolerant, old-fashioned, narrow-minded, killjoy … and most common of all "homophobic".
Having spent many years of my life endeavouring to enhance the reputation of evangelical Christianity among intelligent young students in Cambridge, I cannot find words to express the vexation of spirit I feel at this totally unnecessary loss of credibility – for it is entirely self-inflicted.
Nevertheless, call me a blinkered stick-in-the-mud if you must, I am still an evangelical Christian. In fact, my testimony is that the essential content and basis of my faith has not significantly changed since I first formulated it in my early twenties. If I am now disowned by the evangelical establishment, it is because the goalposts have been moved – the term evangelical Christian has been hijacked and redefined.
I hope to say a few things towards the end of my talk tonight in response to those Christians who are now understandably embarrassed by the title "evangelical" and wish to distance themselves from it. But on reflection I’ve decided that I don’t want this talk to degenerate into a defensive polemic about theology or ethics. Courage has quite enough talks on its files on that score – some by me. The thing that has been largely missing from pro-gay ministries in this country is not theology or ethics but evangelism. As I say, my main concern tonight, therefore, is for those who have no Christian faith at all, or are in serious danger of abandoning it.
So let me return to that positive note and tell you why I became an evangelical Christian in the first place, for as I say, as far as I am concerned absolutely nothing has changed on that score.
I want to begin with a couple of disclaimers.
First, I am not a Christian because it makes life easier for me. I entertained the opinion in my unconverted days that Christians were a lot of pathetic psychological cripples who were incapable of staggering through life without the crutch of faith to support them. There was a small company of well-meaning Christians among my student friends – we called them "the God-squad" – and frankly, the things they said to me did nothing to disarm my thinly-disguised contempt for their lack of mental robustness.
"Oh Roy," they would say, "You’re not very happy are you?"
"No," I would say, "I’m feeling a bit depressed this week."
"Well, you should be a Christian. Christians have joy!"
"Roy, you're looking worried."
"Yes, I am a bit anxious."
"You should become a Christian. Christians have peace!"
"Roy, you don't know where you're going in your life, do you?"
"Well, I am a bit confused, that’s true."
"You should become a Christian. Christians have purpose!"
And so it went on. They made faith sound like some kind of psychotherapeutic panacea. Whatever your emotional problem was, come to Jesus and he would dispel it for you. I told them flat out I wasn’t interested in that.
I wasn’t going to become a Christian just to be happy – maybe the world is an unhappy place.
I wasn’t going to become a Christian just to find peace – maybe the world is a disturbing place.
I wasn’t going to become a Christian just to find purpose – maybe the world is a meaningless place.
"Natural scientists," I said with a superior air, for that’s what I was in those days, "are committed to the pursuit of truth. We don’t believe in things just because they are convenient. We believe in things because they’re true."
Those of you who have read anything about the philosophy of science will immediately detect that I was very naive student and at least twenty years behind the time. But, my intellectual arrogance did at least preserve me from turning to religion simply as a relief from my adolescent insecurities. I didn’t become a Christian then, and I don’t continue to be one now, because it makes life easier for me. Quite the contrary; I can assure you that, while my life has been immeasurably richer for having welcomed Christ into it, it has also been considerably more difficult than it would have been without him.
Having said that, let me immediately voice another disclaimer lest you run away with the wrong idea as a result of this vaunted scientific integrity I used to boast about so childishly. I am not a Christian because I think that I can prove scientifically that God exists or that the Christian message is true. In my unconverted days that kind of conclusive demonstration was what I often said I was looking for.
"You want me to believe? Prove it to me. Let's see the logical argument laid out on paper. You tell me there’s an invisible God, and I tell you there are invisible fairies at the bottom of the garden. Now show me how your assertion about God has any more claim to be true than my assertion about fairies." And the God- squad couldn’t do so.
I began life then as a precocious atheist. I gave up believing in Father Christmas, fairies at the bottom of the garden and God all at the same time, when I was 8 years old and remained in that state of adamant unbelief until my late teens.
Why did things change? It’s simple – I read the Bible. Someone put it to me that if I read the Bible I’d be in a much better position to critique the Christian superstition. I would find all the errors and contradictions in it and be able to even more effectively pull the rug from under the feet of the God squad. It sounded such a good strategy, but you see, I had no idea then what subversive dynamite the Bible is.
C.S Lewis comments of his own spiritual journey:
"A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading."
Too true; I began reading the Gospel of John, and within a few pages I was totally hooked. It blew my mind. There was I thinking I was going to take the Bible to pieces, and instead I found I was the one under ruthless interrogation. This man Jesus that John was presenting just mesmerised me. Even when I was bewildered by what he was saying and doing, he captured my attention. Some deep intuition within me reverberated uncannily whenever I engaged with him.
It felt rather like a scene from a horror movie. I had entered the darkened room convinced that all this talk about it being haunted was nonsense and determined to shine my flash-lamp into every corner to prove it so, only to be halted in my tracks by the sound of heavy breathing beside me and touch of an icy hand on my shoulder.
Jesus intrigued me. He just wasn’t what I was expecting. In fact, as I read on in John's Gospel I discovered that the inner questionings of my heart were being addressed in a way I had never experienced before.
You remember my riposte to the God squad: "we natural scientists are committed to the pursuit of truth. We don’t believe in things just because they are convenient. We believe in things because they’re true.
Imagine my surprise then when I discovered this word "truth" kept on appearing on Jesus’ lips.
I’ve printed out three of the most important of these occasions. They are in the reverse order from that in which they occur in the Gospel of John, but it is easier for me to explain their impact on me if we look at them this way round.
John 18: 37-38
Jesus is here standing before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, on trial for his life. Pilate tries to interrogate him in order to identify some evidence of seditious purpose.
Jesus answered, "For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
"What is truth?" Pilate asked.
I cannot tell you how disgusted I was by that response from Pilate. I hated it – for it smacked of the cynicism I saw in so many of my non-Christian friends and which sometimes, to my shame, I saw seeping into my own attitudes – the cynicism that had "given up" on finding anything really worth living for. The cynicism that had searched for truth, returned empty-handed and so had decided it was going to shrug its shoulders and forget about the quest.
"It’s meaningless that we live, it’s meaningless that we die" (Jean Paul Sartre had written). So just do your own thing, enjoy yourself while you can, that’s all there is to do. There’s no absolute purpose to pursue; there’s no absolute truth to discover. Science has shown that the world is just a vast colliding mass of random particles pursuing their own pointless and intrinsically unpredictable course. We human beings with our self-conscious questions about the meaning of life are just a sick joke in an absurd universe. Don’t look for meaning in it all. You'll just be disillusioned. Just eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.
That I suspect was what lay behind this ironic rhetorical question of Pilate. He had heard the waffle of the Greek and Latin philosophers and was unimpressed – political pragmatism was his philosophy - "What is truth?!"
Something very deep inside of me was repulsed by that kind of indifference to a word that mattered so much to me. Everything inside me yearned for there to be a meaning to human existence. To say "What is truth?" in the kind of dismissive way that Pilate did was to relegate all human achievement and progress to an exercise in futility. In spite of myself, I couldn’t repress the gut feeling that there had to be truth. To abandon the quest for truth was to retreat back to the level of brute beasts and mindless plants. I wasn’t content merely to survive. I demanded to understand why I was alive.
There had to be truth I said to myself, and I couldn’t escape a thrill of excitement when I realised that this enigmatic man Jesus agreed with me about that.
More than that, he regarded it as his mission to bring that truth to mankind. "For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth".
It was astonishing claim, and one of course that I did not immediately accept, but it was important nevertheless because it demolished an unacknowledged barrier to faith in my heart. Perhaps my deepest fear about becoming a Christian was that it would involve some kind of intellectual suicide on my part. Faith, I was sure, was a blind leap in the dark. It could not possibly be an act of reason. It was more like an act of desperation. As the schoolboy said in his religious education essay, "Faith is believing what you know ain’t true."
People believe because they need a psychological prop – they’re scared of dying or maybe of living – so they surround themselves with those emotionally comforting religious buzz words that the God-squad were always throwing at me – peace, joy, purpose.
It was an immense relief to me to discover that Jesus didn’t see it that way. He wasn’t asking me to give up the quest for truth and receive him instead. It was as the Truth that he wanted to be accepted.
If you are haunted by the suspicion that you can only become a Christian by unscrewing your brain and putting under your seat, let me reassure you. Jesus is far more concerned about your intellectual integrity than you are yourself, because he came to testify to the truth.
That leads me to the second statement on this key issue that I found in John’s Gospel:
John 14: 5-6
If you look it up you’ll find that as Jesus speaks these words, the bottom is just about to fall out of his disciples’ world. For three years they had followed him looking for the kingdom he’d often spoken about. All their hopes focussed around this climactic victory toward which he seemed to be moving. But now, within a matter of hours he was going to be crucified. In this passage in John 14 Jesus is trying to prepare them for this. There is a dark sense of foreboding. "I’m going away," he says, "Don’t be afraid about it. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. I’m going to prepare a place for you."
And at this point, Thomas speaks up – you may remember that Thomas is the disciple that we famously meet later complaining that he cannot believe that Jesus has risen from the dead – this is the original "doubting Thomas" - and in John 14 he confesses himself to be in a typically hopeless state of bewilderment.
Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?"
I have to say find something just a trifle amusing about Thomas’ gloominess. He reminds me distinctly of A. A. Milne's donkey, Eeyore. Thomas is so pessimistic about the possibilities of unravelling the mysteries of which Jesus speaks, he shrugs his shoulders in melancholic resignation. His enquiry is not so much a question as an affirmation that all questioning is pointless. ‘We don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Far from seeking spiritual illumination, Thomas is in a mood only to exaggerate the hopelessness of the darkness.
In short he is an archetypal agnostic. He gains perhaps some perverse satisfaction from what he takes to be his irremediable ignorance. We cannot know, so what is the point of talking about it?
At least we must compliment Thomas on his honesty. There are some people who never admit to perplexity about anything. They always insist they understand. It would have been very easy for Thomas to have donned such a mask of super-spirituality and made fawning noises of agreement in this situation. ‘Oh, quite so, Jesus. Of course we know the way you’re going’.
The church has more than its share of such spiritual yes-men, with their plastic piety and boring orthodoxy. I can tell you from personal experience, they make life very dull for a pastor. At least Thomas is candid enough to admit that he has got a problem. There is no stereo-typed testimony of faith to which he feels he has to conform. If he does not know he will say so, with unrepressed candour. And we must conclude from Jesus’ sympathetic response to his remarks that he entertained a good deal of respect for that kind of integrity. Maybe there is, as the poet says, ‘more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds’. Certainly Jesus does not rebuke him as an unbeliever because he says he does not know. And, once again, that came as a great encouragement to me; for, frankly, I had a lot of sympathy with Thomas’s scepticism.
This Christian idea of going to heaven and meeting God had always been problematic for me. I was a scientist. Things had to be to be made of energy and elementary particles for me – that’s all the universe contained. Floating around on spiritual clouds in some numinous, "heavenly" world just wasn’t real somehow. I couldn’t help conjecturing that maybe Thomas’s thinking was a little like mine in this respect.
Perhaps he was a hard-headed rationalist too. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t believe in the resurrection at first. He wanted concrete realities, not mystical abstractions and abstruse metaphors.
"Where is this Father’s house you’re talking about, Jesus? How on earth can we know the way to it," he asked? You might as well be Peter Pan inviting Wendy to go to Never Never Land, or Judy Garland singing about how wonderful it will be to visit the Wizard of Oz.
Jesus’ answer is to redirect the conversation in a startlingly thought-provoking manner.
Jesus answered, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
Once again, this wasn’t what I was expecting.
I was anticipating Jesus would say, "It’s all right, Thomas. If you don’t know the way, I’ll show you." But he doesn’t say that. He says, "I am the way."
I was expecting he’d say, "I’ll point you in the direction of eternal life." No, he says, "I am the life."
In short, I was expecting he’d set up a signpost to the truth. "But no, he says, "I am the truth."
Do you see what he is doing? He is substituting a person for a place. Instead of speaking of going to the Father’s house, he speaks to Thomas of going to the Father. Instead of talking about himself as the guide on that journey, he speaks of himself as the pathway itself. It’s as if he’s saying to Thomas, "Look, you’re taking my metaphors too literally. Don’t think of the road to heaven as some kind of mystical path you must discover; think of it as a personal relationship. I am the way.
Someone in love might say "I wasn’t even existing before I met him. I didn’t know what it was like to feel really alive." In some much more profound and permanent way, Jesus here seems to be claiming something similar. A relationship with him puts us in touch with our true humanity, our destiny. Life can have direction and meaning and vitality because we know him.
Thomas, you are like a man who complains he cannot get into the car when all the time the car keys are jangling in his pocket. Do you not realize that the answer to your agnostic uncertainty is staring you in the face? You do know the way, for you know me. Eternal life is not a location to which you must journey, Thomas, it is a relationship with me which you have already begun.
This, as I say, was an enormously influential discovery for me.
It made me realise why mere intellectualism was so unsatisfying. I had been thinking of the truth as some kind of idea that I had to objectively conceptualise. But Jesus said I was on the wrong tack – the truth is actually a person to whom I must subjectively relate.
Many cosmologists dream that they will be the one to solve the mystery of the Big Bang. But suppose we did? Supposing our mathematics outdid even Stephen Hawking’s. Suppose we solved the fundamental problem of physics and formulated a grand Unified Theory of Everything. Would we really know the truth? Would the formulae we discovered really satisfy our hearts as human beings?
Of course it would not. For properly understood, science is not an exercise in explanation but of description. Jesus is saying that the ultimate truth behind this universe is not an equation but a person. That’s why people are significant. The only way we are going to make sense of our human existence is by recognising the ultimate person that stands behind our world.
This is why ordinary non-intellectual people who can barely recall their two times-table are often incomparably closer to "the truth" than Richard Dawkins. It is because they have such a relationship.
I don’t know if we have any doubting Thomas’ here this evening, but in case we do, let me just digress a moment to stress the immense significance of these words: I am the truth. For they mean that we have to take Jesus seriously. He insists upon it. Many people make the multiplicity of world religions an excuse for an agnostic lack of commitment to anything. There are so many different faiths. How can I be expected to know which is the truth?
Jesus will not permit that kind of evasiveness. ‘I am the truth,’ he says.
He refuses to be damned with faint praise. He will not be relegated to the ranks of a mere prophet or philosopher. His claim is too momentous for that.
Of course there are unanswered questions on your mind, as there were on Thomas. If you insist that every one of those questions receives a satisfactory answer before you are prepared to call yourself a Christian, you will never find faith. You will remain a permanent ‘don’t know’. For Jesus does not offer answers to all our scientific and philosophical queries; he offers himself. According to him, the ultimate truth which we need to make sense of our lives is not a system of propositions or a mathematical formula to be proven by logic and apprehended by intelligence. It is not something for intellectuals only. The ultimate truth behind this universe is personal: it is him.
It is to be apprehended, therefore, in the only way a person can be apprehended, by trust, by love. You may call this a gamble. All personal relationships are gambles, yet without them we beggar ourselves as human beings. Jesus invites us to take a gamble on him. He does not demand that we switch off our brains. He does not insist that we should immediately believe everything that Christians are supposed to believe. He doesn’t demand that you call yourself an evangelical or join the ranks of the God-squad. He asks only that you believe in him, that you identify him personally as the source of those answers you seek, irrespective of whether you have clearly formulated those answers yet. He says that without him we have no chance of finding answers at all, but with him we are on the right road – ‘I am the way, the truth, the life.’
That brings me to the third statement about truth that I discovered in the Gospel of John. I’ve left it to last because for me it was the most influential.
John 8:31 – 36
To the Jews who believed in him, Jesus said, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
They answered him, "We … have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?"
Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."
I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, the impact these particular verses had on me when I first read them. I'm not saying I was converted on the spot. There was a lot more I had to learn, but it was certainly a very important stage on the journey for me. It opened my eyes in a most dramatic way. You see, I had always thought – rather arrogantly – that it was the Christians who needed liberating. They were the ones who were in bondage to all those do’s and don’ts. They were the ones who were tied up in all that church-going ritual. I was immeasurably freer than any of them.
Yet here was Jesus insisting it wasn’t the case. Like the Jews he was addressing, I felt like saying, "Who are you kidding, Jesus? I’m nobody’s slave. What do you mean, I shall be set free?" Jesus’ reply hit home, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin."
I knew what he meant by that and that he was right about it. My freedom was freedom in a meaningless universe: the freedom of a random particle without significance and purpose. Oh, sure, my actions were free but they were free because all choices were equally arbitrary as far as I was concerned. I could live as I please, but that was cold comfort in a world where there was nothing to live for.
I could see what Jesus was getting at. Real freedom isn’t a licence to do as you want. That’s the most miserable bondage of all. Real freedom is the knowledge that enables you to live a meaningful existence constrained by the truth.
Peter Berger in his book Rumour of Angels pictures a child waking up after a nightmare in the middle of the night finding himself surrounded by darkness and crying out in terror. The child's mother rushes to him, comforts him and reassures the child that everything's okay. He doesn't need to be afraid, everything is in order. Berger asks if we are justified in communicating such assurances to children. Is the world really as beneficent and ordered as we instinctively assume it is? My atheism could give me no such hope. Rather, the world was a dark and menacing place with no ultimate goodness, no ultimate love, no ultimate meaning at all and, like a frightened child, deep down I was crying out, longing for a voice to tell me that everything was under control and that I was safe.
And here now was Jesus, offering me exactly the reassurance I sought:
"If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free."
It is a remarkable promise. Jesus is saying that without reading vast tomes of philosophy or mastering mysterious algebra, without any intellectual achievement on our part at all, he can put us in touch with the ultimate reality behind the universe. He can make our lives meaningful and deliver us from the bondage of our sinful so-called freedom.
Somehow in the daily routine of living with Jesus we will find our lives integrated around the truth. Instead of feeling we are going nowhere, we'll find that we are going somewhere. Instead of feeling alienated and alone, we’ll feel we belong. We will begin to understand what we’re in the world for. "We will know the truth and the truth will set us free."
What a fool I had been with all that talk of mine about "proving it true." It can’t be done, can it? To say, "I’ll follow you, Jesus, if you prove to me that it’s true," is putting the cart before the horse. Christianity can’t be proved first and practised afterward. According to Jesus, the proof is dependent on the practice. Notice the conditional clause: "If you continue in my word, you will know the truth."
It was a gripping invitation – and I was tempted to give Jesus a chance to make his offer good.
However it has to be said, that one major problem remained – my pride.
I found the pejorative overtones in that phrase "a slave of sin" a decidedly unwelcome assault on my self-esteem. It had never occurred to me before that my atheistic self-determination could be regarded as reprehensible. I’d always defended it rather proudly, as evidence of my peerless, intellectual integrity.
As my reading in John continued, however, and the excuses for my unbelief began to unravel, it became more and more clear to me that Jesus was right here when he suggested that my real problem was not intellectual but moral. My unbelief derived not from my logical mind but my sinful nature.
I’d always said belief in God was unscientific. I was fond of quoting the famous example of the professors of Padua who refused to look down Galileo’s telescope at the moons of Jupiter for fear that their geocentric prejudices would be disproved. But now it was I who was clinging to my prejudices and fearful of doing the decisive experiment.
To my shame, I discovered the real reason I was an atheist was not because the evidence for faith was inadequate, or that Christianity was intellectually incoherent; No, the real reason I was an atheist was because I didn’t want God to exist. God was an undesired hindrance to my proud self-determination.
Some years later I found a passage in Aldous Huxley's Ways and Means that spelled out this perversity with frightening honesty.
Huxley wrote, "I had a motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning and consequently assumed it had none and was able without difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The atheistic philosopher is not concerned exclusively with a problem in metaphysics: he’s also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he should not do as he wants to do. For myself, philosophy was simply an instrument for liberation. The liberation I desired was from a certain system of morality. I objected to the morality because it interfered with my sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed it embodied the Christian meaning of the world. It was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying myself in my erotic revolt. I would deny the world had any meaning whatsoever."
Like Huxley, my boasted scientific objectivity was in fact a fake. I began to see it in all its despicable sham. My rationalism was an idol I had erected to defend me against the obligations which an encounter with the true and living God would inevitably place upon me.
So an inner struggle began – ironically, I who was so concerned about "truth" was now desperate for this not to be true.
For 18 months I lived in a state of denial, if anything more strident in my atheistic pronouncements than ever. But it could not go on forever. Eventually the relentless hound of heaven caught his prey.
There is a wonderful paragraph once again in C S Lewis’ autobiography in which he describes his moment of conversion in terms that resonate with my own experience perfectly:
"You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?" (Surprised by Joy)
That experience of the irresistible grace of God was much the same for me – it was not a decision, it was surrender. In fact, it felt a bit like coming out as gay – fearful / reluctant – but boy, after all those months of inner denial, what a relief!
And today, nearly half a century later, nothing has changed.
I am still an evangelical Christian.
"Evangelical"? you ask – why insert that adjective. Isn’t it enough to say you are a Christian?
Yes, in many contexts it would be enough. But maybe I should end this testimony by saying that within a couple of years of that initial surrender to Christ I had discovered I often needed to insert the word evangelical in my description of my faith, because the word Christian meant so many different things to different people.
Jesus had told me to "continue in his word" if I would know "the truth".
"What did that mean in practice?" I asked myself. Jesus had never written a book, so where was I to find "his word"? The answer for me was self-evident – had he not been speaking to me all along … through John’s gospel. The vehicle of Jesus’ word was the Bible. For me this was not a theological proposition, it was a testimony. It was experience.
And to "continue in his word" surely meant to go on reading the book that had changed my world, to go on listening to his voice through its pages, and to live in the light of the truth he showed me there.
To my surprise, and considerable shock, however, I soon discovered there were any number of people who wanted to call themselves Christians but who had little real interest in the Bible, even if they paid lip service to it.
Some found fault with the Bible, insisting it contained all kinds of errors which they felt qualified to identify and reject. But that kind of liberal critique did not wash with me at all, for it didn’t fit with the attitude I found Jesus adopted toward the Bible. Scripture for him could not, as he put it, "be broken". When faced with demonic temptation, the phrase "It is written …" carried all the authority necessary to silence inner doubt.
There are undoubtedly parts of the Bible which are difficult to interpret – it wasn’t long before I was banging my head against of few of them. But I found the answer to those difficult bits is never to take out a censor’s blue pencil and start deleting them as "mistakes". Rather one needs to struggle with the text – sometimes for many years – eventually a harmonisation between and text and reason is always found.
Nowhere was this more true in my experience than the so-called clobber passages on homosexuality. As I say plenty has been written about those notorious texts, and I don’t believe this is the time or place to rehearse the arguments again. Suffice it to say, I am completely clear in my mind and my conscience that it is no part of the intention of God in Scripture to forbid loving committed co-habiting same sex relationships. And I believe anyone who come to the study of the Bible with an open mind and a balanced understanding of the homosexual condition, will come to the same conclusion … eventually.
I say "eventually" because there is something that can obstruct the progress of Christians when they seek to interpret the Bible correctly. And I discovered that soon after my conversion too.
If some have censored the Bible according to their own rationalistic ideas, others have replaced it by church tradition. This is the approach to Christianity which is broadly called "catholic". I have to say, once again, it did not cut any ice with me because Jesus himself warned me about the dangers of religious tradition – as he puts it to the Jews of his day "you have made the word of God void by your traditions".
The trouble with tradition is that it obstructs change and sometimes change is necessary. Jesus himself brought change – and resistance to that change was one of the reasons he was crucified.
On many occasions, the church too has resisted change. It has made many mistakes in its history. Sometimes it has used texts from the Bible to endorse serious theological error, to justify crazy military crusades and to retain unjust cultural prejudices against the Jews, against Muslims, against Negroes, against women, and against gays.
The only way to correct those mistakes is by patiently attending to the word of Christ as it comes to us, not through the distorting lens of church tradition, but afresh through contemporary Bible study. That I believe is why Jesus told these new believers to "continue in his word" – for discipleship is a continual process – when it comes to understanding the truth as it is in Jesus we have never arrived. Our understanding of the Bible advances by an iterative procedure of constantly improving approximations to the truth. We understand the Bible better today than we did 500 years ago because this is how the Holy Spirit chooses to work.
One group who understood this were the Pilgrim Fathers. When they were about to set sail for America, their pastor John Robinson preached a sermon in which he bewailed the way that the reformed churches, just like Catholicism, had become stuck in the mire of their own traditions. To be a Christian is always to be constantly open to further light upon the truth as it is in Jesus, insisted Robinson. The church must never rest on the laurels of its earlier history, but always be open, not to new truth, but to a better understanding the truth that has been once and for all been given to us in the Bible.
Part of Robinson’s Farewell speech reads as follows:
"I charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.
The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. Whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, they (Lutherans) will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented.
For though they were precious shining lights in their time, yet God has not revealed his whole will to them. And were they now living, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as they had received."
His words later became the inspiration for a great non-conformist hymn.
We limit not the truth of God
To our poor reach of mind,
By notions of our day and sect,
Crude, partial, and confined.
No, let a new and better hope
Within our hearts be stirred:
The Lord hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from His Word.
Do evangelicals still affirm that openness to new light from the Word?
I fear the words of that hymn would stick in the throats of many of them today. As a result, like the Pilgrim Fathers, some of us have felt compelled to "jump ship" and board the Mayflower, putting distance between ourselves and their stick-in-the-mud version of Christian spirituality. It is sad – and it may indeed mean that that adjective "evangelical" will eventually lose its usefulness – some say it already has.
But this is my testimony – I am still an evangelical Christian.
I choose to retain that word "evangelical" in the sense it has had all my Christian life, which is nothing to do with homosexuality. Those who have tried to make the gay issue a defining criterion of what it means to be an evangelical have moved the goalposts in a most grievous and illicit fashion. To be an evangelical is simply to be a Christian who finds the truth as it is Jesus, located not in tradition but in the Bible.
Evangelicals disagree about many things – they always have – they disagree about war, abortion, divorce, the role of women, charismatic gifts, the second coming of Christ, and a hundred other issues (some even vote Conservative!). We work toward the resolution of those disagreements by studying the Bible together – this is what it means for us to "continue in Christ’s word" – our experience is that as we do this, according to his promise, the truth becomes clearer and previous mistakes are overcome – the Lord always has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.
There are absolutely no grounds for treating the controversy about homosexuality in a different way. On the contrary, excluding gay Christians risks incurring a frighteningly serious rebuke from the Master:
It would be better, Jesus said, to be drowned in the depths of the sea than to be a stumbling block to one who believes in him.
But a stumbling block is precisely what many so-called evangelicals have become to those in the gay community that Christ is calling to faith in himself. Do not doubt it, there are many of God’s elect who are gay. What use is an "evangelical" who cannot evangelise and thus be instrumental in drawing God’s people to the full assurance of faith?
Personally, I refuse to dignify those who have become so spiritually effete and socially irrelevant with the honoured title of "evangelical". They have forfeited their right to that term.
I may be a gay man – but I am also still an evangelical Christian.
You’d better believe it – it’s the truth!
Roy Clements June 2012