Evangelical and Inclusive
Tim Chesterton is rector of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, Edmonton, Alberta in western Canada and Warden of Lay Evangelists for the Diocese of Edmonton (note that the Diocese of Edmonton has identified itself as an affirming diocese, has given permission for its clergy to conduct same-sex marriages, and has clergy who are in same-sex marriages).
Before this website went live, we had a conversation about what we should call it. Several alternatives were proposed and discussed; words like ‘affirming’ and ‘generous’ and ‘blessing’ were floating around for a while, but eventually ‘Inclusive Evangelicals’ got the most support, so it was the one we adopted. I like both parts of this name.
‘Inclusive’; that seems straightforward enough. I believe that LGBTQI+ people should be fully included in every level of the life of the church, including marriage and ordination. And I believe a coherent biblical and theological case can be (and has been) made for these proposals.
But what about ‘evangelical’? I’m not surprised that some are disputing our claim to that name (it was already being disputed long before this website went live!). How can anyone claim to be a truly Bible-based evangelical and support same-sex relationships, still less marriage?
"Let’s acknowledge from the start that in evangelicalism, disagreement is not a new thing."
Let’s acknowledge from the start that in evangelicalism, disagreement is not a new thing. Consider the controversies over dispensationalism, complementarian and egalitarian views of marriage, slavery, seven-day creation and the theory of evolution, the detailed schedule for the return of Christ, infant baptism, pacifism and just war theory, the remarriage of divorced people, the ordination of women, and many other disputed topics. Evangelicals have disagreed vigorously over these subjects, and they continue to do so.
Is there a checklist of evangelical essentials? Back in the 1990s, historian David Bebbington identified four characteristics of evangelicalism. They are (and I paraphrase):
· An experience of conversion (‘conversionism’).
· The Bible as the basis for our beliefs (‘biblicism’).
· Focus on the death of Jesus on the Cross (‘crucicentrism’).
· Working to advance the cause of Christ, primarily through verbal witness and evangelism (‘activism’).
I find this list interesting, for a number of reasons.
· Yes, evangelicals believe in conversion, but we haven’t all had darkness to light, crisis conversion experiences. Some of us have, but many of us haven’t (and have therefore struggled to articulate our ‘testimony’ in a way others would recognize as valid).
· Yes, evangelicals believe the Bible is the basis for our beliefs (the traditional Anglican statement is that ‘the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God containing all things necessary for salvation’), but we’ve been unable to agree on its interpretation. Witness the vast number of possible evangelical hyphenations, including (in no particular order) Calvinist, Wesleyan/Arminian, conservative, liberal, charismatic, Pentecostal, dispensational, open, affirming, inclusive, reformed, radical, fundamentalist, mainstream, neo-, post-, mainline, etc.
"evangelicals believe the Bible is the basis for our beliefs ... but we’ve been unable to agree on its interpretation. Witness the vast number of possible evangelical hyphenations, including - Calvinist, conservative, liberal, charismatic, Pentecostal, dispensational, open, affirming,
inclusive, reformed, radical, fundamentalist, mainstream, neo-, post-, etc."
· Yes, evangelicals see the death of Jesus on the cross as the ground of our salvation, but there is growing dissatisfaction with the dominance of one particular theory (penal substitution) as the way of understanding what Christ’s death accomplished for us.
· Yes, evangelicals believe in working to advance the cause of Christ, especially through evangelism, but there’s also a growing awareness that our activism needs a solid grounding in spirituality, and a faithful balance between words and actions.
So when I say, “I’m an evangelical Christian,” what do I mean by that? Here’s how I personally would answer that question.
First, I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about Jesus. To me, he really is the light of the world; his life and teaching shine a brilliant light on what God is like and what human life is meant to be like. ‘Like father, like son’; I feel in my gut that if there is a God, God has to be like Jesus. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey said, ‘God is Christlike and in him there is no unChristlikeness at all.’
I also believe Jesus is the Saviour of the world. By his life and death and resurrection he has reconciled us to God, won the great victory over evil, and established the way of salvation for all people. What we cannot do for ourselves because of our human weaknesses and sins, God has done for us in Jesus. This is the good news we proclaim.
Second, I’m an evangelical Christian because I love the story of the Cross. The Cross shows us how God treats his enemies - with love and forgiveness - and so it becomes the way of reconciliation with God for all people. I also love the story of the resurrection, which tells me that love is stronger than death (love wins!), and that God has made Jesus Christ Lord of all.
Third, I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about grace - God’s unconditional love poured out on all people, the good, the bad, and the ugly, not because we deserve it but because God is love. Grace is the hope of the world; if there’s no grace, we have no hope. For me, this is bedrock. Because God is graceful, I don’t need to be afraid. Whether I’m the older brother or the younger brother in Jesus’ story of the prodigal father (Luke 15.11-32), I’m invited to come home to the father’s house and join the party, not because I’ve earned it, but because God’s door is open to all who are willing to enter in. Indeed, the father takes the initiative to go out and meet each brother separately and invite them to come home.
Fourth, I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about the Bible, in all its mystery and wonder. Evangelical Christianity wants to get as close as possible to the original story of God’s grace in the story of Israel and the life of Jesus and the early church, and we believe that the books of the biblical library are the best window we have on that exciting and foundational time. I love the Bible - even though I often don’t understand it and it regularly infuriates me - because when I take it as a whole and understand it through the lens of the story of Jesus, it is indeed ‘a lamp for my feet and a light to my path’. Reading and meditating on it daily is right at the heart of my spirituality.
Fifth, I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about evangelism. Jesus continues to make a huge difference in my life, and as I talk to people who are spiritually curious, I love helping them come closer to the light of God in Jesus. And I love the fact that I can relax and enjoy this process, because at the most fundamental level it’s God’s work, not mine.
Sixth, I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about conversion. I have a conversion story of my own - the time when the light of Jesus first flooded into my life - and I’ve seen other people get converted too. To me, it’s a beautiful miracle, and there’s no thrill like being a part of it in the lives of others.
Seventh, I’m an evangelical Christian because I love the vibrant community of people who know Christ and want to know him better, who meet to learn more about him, and who share his love with each other and the world around them. Small group learning and larger gatherings for worship with these folks are awesome experiences for me!
Eighth, I’m an evangelical Christian because I love a simple approach to worship. I’m not against a written liturgy (I’m an Anglican, after all!). I love the way a written liturgy can gather all the different elements of worship together in a way that makes it easy for all to participate. But I don’t like it when it’s too wordy and too full of rituals. I don’t like crowded worship services; I love worship services that leave me lots of room to sense the touch of the living God.
Ninth, I’m an evangelical Christian because I believe (to quote the Puritan father John Robinson) that ‘God hath yet more truth and light to break forth out of his holy Word.’ In other words, it’s a fundamental characteristic of evangelicalism to hold our beliefs provisionally. The Bible is always free to challenge our beliefs, and we may not currently be understanding the Bible properly. The sixteenth-century reformers believed that the Catholic Church was misunderstanding the Bible on the subject of faith and works. The eighteenth-century evangelical revivalists believed that mainline religion in their day was misunderstanding the Bible by neglecting the importance of genuine conversion and what they called ‘the religion of the heart.’ Abolitionist evangelicals like William Wilberforce believed that mainstream Christianity was misunderstanding the Bible on the subject of slavery. Most twentieth-century evangelicals have come to believe that evangelical appeals to the Bible in support of racism are seriously in error, and egalitarian evangelicals believe strongly that historic evangelicalism has misunderstood the Bible on the subject of the status of men and women in the church and home.
"And now we inclusive evangelicals, in our turn, believe we need to be open to fresh readings of the texts which have traditionally been understood to rule out same-sex relationships."
And now we inclusive evangelicals, in our turn, believe we need to be open to fresh readings of the texts which have traditionally been understood to rule out same-sex relationships. Responsible scholars are proposing different ways of understanding those texts, and we need to pay attention to them. This is not an act of disloyalty to our evangelical tradition. In fact, in raising these issues we are standing right at the centre of our evangelical tradition, which has always been willing to dig deeper into the scriptures and question accepted ways of understanding them.
"To be truly evangelical is to be open to the possibility that my understanding of the Bible may be wrong - or at least, incomplete."
To be truly evangelical is to be open to the possibility that my understanding of the Bible may be wrong - or at least, incomplete. I may not fully comprehend what a particular biblical text meant in its original setting. There may be new learnings in biblical scholarship that throw fresh light on controversial subjects. Also, my cultural and social background may make it harder for me to see certain blind spots in my understanding. For these and many other reasons, I need to hold my opinions tentatively, and pay special attention to those who disagree with me.
"at the end of the day, this tradition is my spiritual home, not because of what it’s against, but because of what it’s for. I’ve been blessed to be part of it ..."
Here, then, are nine reasons why I continue to be happy to be an evangelical Christian. It goes without saying that I don’t think evangelical Christianity has everything right, and I don’t think there’s nothing we can learn from other Christian traditions. But at the end of the day, this tradition is my spiritual home, not because of what it’s against, but because of what it’s for. I’ve been blessed to be part of it, and it continues to bring great blessing into my life, and for that I’m very grateful.
 See for example Karen R. Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), Jonathan Tallon, Affirmative: Why You Can Say Yes to the Bible and Yes to People Who Are LGBTQI+ (Richardson Jones Press, 2023), David Runcorn, Love Means Love: Same-Sex Relationships and the Bible (London, SPCK, 2020), Marcus Green, The Possibility of Difference(High Town Green, Suffolk, Kevin Mayhew, 2018), James V Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2013).  David W. Bebbington, ‘Towards an Evangelical Identity’, in S. Brady, and H. Rowdon (eds), ‘For Such a Time as This’: Perspectives on Evangelicalism, Past, Present, and Future, (Queensway, England: Scripture Union, 1996), 37, and David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2003)  See, for instance, The Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada, Toronto, Anglican Book Centre, 1985, 645 and parallel passages.  A.M. Ramsey, God, Christ., and the World, London, SCM Press, 1969.  Spoken in 1620 to a congregation of English pilgrims about to leave Leiden, Netherlands for England; the following year, 35 of them left Plymouth on the Mayflower for New England.