Exclusion in the name of inclusion
Evangelicals may be approaching a time when we are ostracised and where we need to have confidence in what we believe and what the Bible teaches because we will not receive endorsement for those beliefs from the world around us.
12 APRIL 2021 · 12:07 CET
Every few years something at the intersection of faith and politics marks a new stage of engagement and interaction. This Easter weekend saw one of those moments.
“We don’t do God” as Alistair Campbell put it was for several years the go-to reference point for any such discussion. Then Tim Farron resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats because he felt unable to reconcile his faith with leading the party. And now, Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, after praising a church on Good Friday for its work on the vaccination rollout and food poverty alleviation, three days later, with the accompanying unholy imagery, denounced the church, apologised for his visit, and took down the video.
The church’s supposed crime? To hold an orthodox biblical view of sexual ethics. Jesus House, in Brent Cross, the flagship church of the Redeemed Christian Church of God network in the UK, has in recent weeks hosted visits from the prime minister and Prince Charles. Vaccine uptake amongst the black community has been slow and so the church agreed to host an NHS pop-up vaccine clinic. Starmer asked if he could visit; Jesus House welcomed him in.
Jesus House has been public in its beliefs. The church’s senior pastor, Agu Irukwu, wrote an open letter opposing the Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2006 and opposed same-sex marriage in 2012. In 2011, when he was shortlisted as an inspirational black person by the Evening Standard, unfounded slurs were used to discredit him. Politicians have previously been lambasted for visiting the church or its events: ahead of the 2017 election then-prime minister Theresa May endured criticism for her attendance at a prayer event; in 2009 Boris Johnson, London mayor at the time, came under fire for attending a carol service.
Jesus House has received just about every insult imaginable in recent days. Talking to Premier Christianity Pastor Agu said: “Some of the language that has been directed at us can only be described as vile, abusive, hateful and possibly criminal. It is tantamount to cyberbullying, and the timing of this attack, during Easter, one of the most important events in the Christian calendar, was particularly upsetting for us as a congregation. But Easter is also a time of forgiveness, hope and reconciliation, so we are really keen that despite all that has happened, this can still be a gospel moment.”
The issue of race also cannot be ignored. Politicians have feted black-majority churches over recent years because they are seen as a crucial entry point to significant community groups. Churches and Christian organisations have not been entirely innocent in this regard; there has been a view that while a politician might not attend a white-majority evangelical church context, they would go to a predominantly black church which holds similar beliefs.
If holding to a traditional view of sexuality is viewed as anathema by politicians, then churches will live without their visits. Once critics have stripped you of their stamp of approval it is perhaps easier to concentrate on faithfulness to Christ and not seeking the adulation of the crowds.
Churches should be welcoming to all people regardless of their sexuality or beliefs, but that isn’t the same as trying to force churches to change what they believe in order to meet with secular acceptance. Being welcoming isn’t enough; only conformity with the new orthodoxy will do, and if you don’t conform then you’re not welcome.
This is a significant marker in the trajectory of Christian engagement with politics because it suggests that a major party leader will not stand alongside someone who holds to a traditional Christian view of sexuality – or that shared by many other faiths worldwide. They might do so accidently, or privately if they think they can get away with it, but they will be ready to denounce their decision if called upon by the mob. Our public discourse has descended to such depths that some cannot countenance a plural public space where we civilly engage despite deep differences. If we only meet those we agree with, we end up in a very small world.
As we speak hope and grace into an aching world, as we are formed by the goodness of God and the kindness of Christ, we do not depend on the world’s conditions and criteria for credibility.
A church that teaches biblical truth about human sexuality is not bigoted, nor homophobic; it is committed to God’s truth. Christian ethics are not anti-LGBT; and regardless of what others may say, neither we, nor those associated with us are hate groups because of what we believe.
Our commitment to truth should shine a light on those who seek to discredit or abuse. In a world where language is distorted and meaning is mangled, we must not allow that to diminish our commitment to seeking after truth. As we speak hope and grace into an aching world, as we are formed by the goodness of God and the kindness of Christ, we do not depend on the world’s conditions and criteria for credibility.
To categorise evangelical Christians in the UK as persecuted diminishes the suffering endured by our brothers and sisters in places across the world. However, we may be approaching a time when we are ostracised, where opportunities are no longer open, and where we need to have confidence in what we believe and what the Bible teaches because we will not receive endorsement for those beliefs from the world around us. To put it bluntly, we may need to keep a soft heart but grow a thicker skin.
In the same vein, it has never been as important for Christians to engage in politics. Labour MP Stephen Timms does not need my words of support, and they may not even be appreciated, but amid the torrid abuse of Jesus House and Pastor Agu Irukwu, he stood up in support of the church. In return he received volley after volley of abuse. He is not alone, but as we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we follow His call to be His hands and feet, to work in the places where God’s kingdom must break through and for eyes to be opened. The work of equipping those who follow that call may have got harder, but it is more urgent than ever.
Danny Webster is the head of advocacy of the UK Evangelical Alliance (EAUK). This article was first published on the website of the EAUK and re-published with permission.