Crossing the Chalke Line – A Sad Departure from Evangelicalism.
You have to admire Steve Chalke. He is pleasant, and comes across as intelligent, winsome and articulate. He makes a great spokesperson for Christianity. And his actions match his words – the work of Oasis trust is rightly admired throughout the UK and beyond. In the eyes of the media he is a leading figure in the UK Christian scene – especially the evangelical scene. But, like similar ‘leading evangelicals’ in the US such as Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, Chalke has been taking an ever more ‘progressive’ route. His latest foray has once again got the blogosphere and social media all a twitter. Heretic or Hero? Steve assures us that he is still an evangelical. Others declare him a heretic, and yet others say that he is just a mistaken brother who is still ‘sound in the main things’.
One friend of mine made a good summary of the position. “It is fair to say that each of us has what we consider A) truth/orthodoxy B) theological positions that we do not hold but we consider acceptable. And then C) positions that we consider false/dangerous/poisonous.” He regarded Steve’s position as being in position B. But lets ask the question – can Steve Chalke still be regarded as an evangelical?
The historian David Bebbington has identified four marks of evangelicalism, Biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism. Lets look at each of these.
Biblicism – The Bible is central to the Evangelical faith. Without the bible there is no evangel. Steve Chalke assures us he holds a high view of the bible. He argues that people who don’t care about the Bible don’t write about it. I’m not sure that argument quite works for Richard Dawkins! But Steve argues that the bible is not inerrant. It is not infallible. In fact it is wrong in many instances, reflecting the prejudices, culture and limited understanding of the time. So how do we know where it is wrong? This is where we fall into the me-centred trap of cultural relativism. Steve decides what God is like, and then determines that certain parts of Scripture cannot be true because they do not fit his understanding of who God is. The bible has not just ceased to be infallible and inerrant – it has also ceased to be authoritative. As Augustine pointed out – if you believe in the bible what you like, and leave out what you don’t like, it is not the bible you believe but yourself.
Another theological soundbite that sounds good but on reflection doesn’t make biblical sense is the oft-cited truism that Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible. This seems to honour Jesus, and be much more relational. But it falls at the first hurdle. How do we know who Jesus is? How does Jesus speak to us? Through the Bible. To divorce Christ from his Word is the most effective way for the church to commit suicide and to turn away from Christ. In Magnificent Obsession I wanted to show that the choice was not between Christ and the Bible but that the Bible gives us Christ. I did not know how best to express it until Erasmus came to the rescue – ‘The Bible will give Christ to you, in an intimacy so close that he would be less visible to you if he stood before your eyes’.
Crucicentrism, – The cross is at the centre of Christianity. Not as an example of a good/bad death. But because it is Gods way of dealing with our sin and reconciling the world to himself. The Cross is atonement, propitiation, expiation, sacrifice. Steve Chalke declared that to describe the cross like this is to speak of cosmic child abuse. That automatically puts him outwith evangelicalism. Go wrong at the cross and you will go wrong everywhere else.
Conversionsim, the belief that human beings need to be converted. Surely we are safe here. Does Steve Chalke not still believe in conversion? I would like to think so but I would really need to hear what he means. Conversion from what to what? As I read Chalke I seem to read a whole lot more about affirming people where they are, and not seeking the radical conversion of the rebirth. For example on the issue of same sex marriage and endorsing homosexual relationships, Chalke declares “Even my sternest evangelical critics said that. ‘pastorally you’re 100% right, theologically you’re wrong’”. That is just simply and practically untrue. I would be a critic of Steve precisely because I think his view is pastorally 100% wrong. God knows what is best for us. His Word is what everyone needs, and His will is what everyone needs to obey. To tell people, well this is theologically wrong but pastorally we think it is right is at best confused and at worst a pastoral disaster, condemning people to a self-made God and a culturally conditioned morality that ultimately leads them away from Jesus.
Activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort. On this one we surely have to give Steve top marks. He is an activist and the works of Oasis are admired throughout the UK and beyond. And yet I have a question here as well. A number of years ago one of our young people was planning to go and work with Oasis in India. It was whilst she was fundraising for that that the whole fuss about Steve’s remarks on the atonement came out. She was a bit disturbed and came to ask our advice. We suggested that she go to Oasis India and tell them that she would still come provided a) that she was not expected to endorse his heretical view and b) that Oasis India were not teaching it. To our astonishment she was told that she would be better not coming. Our beliefs do impact our actions.
I would like to add one other aspect which I think is crucial to evangelicalism, that is egalitarianism. What do I mean by this? Steve uses the example of William Tyndale who once said to a visiting priest ‘If God spares my life I will cause even a plowboy to know more of the scriptures than you do.’ Steve uses this story to justify his attitude to the bible and suggests that this has not yet happened and that he has come with the ‘lost message of Jesus’ to enlighten and free the masses. I would suggest that his position leads to exactly the opposite position. Let me explain. Steve declares, “It was staggering to me, I wrote this long article and sent it out to a whole number of scholars to review it and they were helpful in their input but the one thing they all said was, ‘Do you need to publish this? Everybody knows this.’ I made a little footnote because I was staggered between the understanding that the academic world thinks the average guy in the average church has of all this, and the reality.” Steve at one and the same time is condemning both the academic world and us ordinary plebes. He condemns the academic world for not understanding how ignorant the rest of us really are. Of course he has to go that route. If God was not capable of inspiring shepherds, fishermen, civil servants, politicians and prophets to write down his word without being corrupted and distorted by their own sin and cultures, then we are going to need the scholars, the elites and the spiritually special ones to tell the rest of us what God really meant under the mess of it all. It is the arrogance, pride and elitism of such attitudes that chill me to the bone. Imagine that the church of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Cranmer, McCheyne, Spurgeon, Lloyd Jones, Stott had lost the message of Jesus – until modern scholars came along, to free us from the shackles of our misunderstanding and into the brave new world of Steve Chalkes post-modern progressive Jesus.
I contrast this with the attitude of another writer whose new book I am loving. Donald Macleod has a wonderful new book out on the Cross – Christ Crucified, Understanding the Atonement^. It is intelligent, academically brilliant, well written and populist. Above all it is biblical, awe-inspiring and makes you fall to your knees in wonder, love and praise. Donald Macleod has read all the modern, pre-modern and classical scholars and could probably cite most of them back to you verbatim. Yet ask him where he got his great theology and learning from and he will tell you – from the crofters, weavers, fishermen and shopkeepers of Lewis – the godly men and women who used to meet in each others homes after services to discuss, pray and talk about the Christ of the Scriptures. That’s the evangelicalism I want – where I can learn as much from Tyndale’s ploughboy as I can from Chalkes academics.
Which is not to despise academia or intelligence. It’s just that we don’t necessarily and always equate the one with the other! In fact one of the most disturbing things about Steve’s recent pronouncements is how illogical, unintelligent and nonsensical some of them are. For example listen to part 2 of his four part debate with Andrew Wilson on Premier – http://premier.tv/media/t/1_rrnfhboc?utm_medium=email&utm_source=Premier+Christian+Media&utm_campaign=3820847_IGNITE%3A+18%2F3%2F14&utm_content=mishear&dm_i=16DQ%2C29W6N%2C619D6D%2C88SL2%2C1
I had to listen to it twice to make sure I was not mistaken. In the story of Ananias and Sapphira from Acts, Steve believes that they really did die, but it had nothing to do with God. The writer of the book of Acts, Dr Luke, just got it wrong. The Holy Spirit did not inspire that part. They just died and it was just coincidence that it was tied up with Peters prophecy and their lying. Maybe they had a dodgy heart! Is this really where ‘progressive evangelicalism is leading us? It certainly makes me want to fall on my knees, but in despair and laughter rather than awe and worship.
Likewise the amazing new discovery that Steve has made. Did you know that the bible was a library of books? That it is not just one book but many? Look how we have been misled because we did not translate the word ‘Bible’ as library. Except…and I hope this won’t come across as a boast but I knew that when I was five years old. That’s what we used to be taught in Sunday school – there are 66 books in the bible. I could recite the names of them all thanks to a ridiculous song ‘Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deut-er-on-omy…” By the time I was ten I knew there were different genres and styles, that there were difficult passages and that I would always be learning. But I also knew that it was the living and enduring word of God and not the cultural recollections of old encounters with God, which needed to be reinterpreted by very clever people who I had to trust. In other words Mr Chalke, if you teach people the bible as the word of God, they will know it is a library, they will know what it says. It will be a hammer and a sword, a fire and honey, meat and milk to them. It will feed, educate, encourage, stimulate, convert, rebirth, renew and energise them. Feed them the post-modern touchy feely make it up as you go along Jesus, and it will slowly but surely starve them.
But lets return to the question. Is Steve still an evangelical? Not by a long chalk! Meatloaf sang that 2 out of three aint bad. I think one out of five is. Chalks move away from the roots of evangelicalism (whilst seeking to hold on to the fruits) is incredibly sad. It is not progressive but regressive. He began by denying the foundation of the Gospel (Christ dying for our sins), then he moved on to denying the foundation of our society (marriage) and now he denies the foundation of our faith (the bible) – that is very dangerous – especially when he sugars it with the language of evangelicalism.
None of this is new. This is just 19th Century Protestant liberalism dressed up in 21st Century postmodern evangelical garb. In fact this goes back way before the 19th Century. I love reading Augustine and recently I have been reading his reply to Faustus the Manichean. Look how he helps us deal with Steve Chalkes errors –
Notice first of all how similar Faustus sounds to Chalke: like all heretics he too says that he serves Christ by rejecting the parts of the Bible he does not like – “In reading the Gospels, the clear intention of our heart perceives the errors, and, to avoid all injustice, we accept whatever is useful, in the way of building up our faith, and promoting the glory of the Lord Christ, and of the Almighty God, His Father, while we reject the rest as unbecoming the majesty of God and Christ, and inconsistent with our belief”.
And note how Augustine’s replies to Faustus’ errors are applicable today to Chalke’s. Plus ca change…!
“Our belief is determined not by Faustus’ suppositions, but by the declarations of Scripture, resting as they do on foundations of the strongest and surest evidence”
“You are always answering arguments which no one uses, instead of our real arguments, which you cannot answer”.
“Faustus most plausibly refers to what Jesus said of Himself. But how is this to be known except from the narratives of his disciples?”
“No-one, says Faustus, believes writings which contradict themselves. But if you think they do this, it is because you do not understand them; for your ignorance has been manifested in regard to the passages you have quoted in support of your own opinion, and the same will appear in regard to any quotations you may still make. So there is no reason for our not believing these writings, supported as they are by such weighty testimony; and this is itself the best reason for pronouncing accursed those whose preaching differs from what is there written”
Finally let me make a distinction between what I have said above about Steve Chalke as a teacher and Steve Chalke as a Christian. I don’t know his heart. I cannot judge where he stands before the Lord. But I do know his teaching and I have to judge that by the teaching of Christ. He is regressing away from the Word of God. I do pray for him. I pray that he will turn and repent and that he will not lead any more people astray. Steve says he is an evangelist. I don’t agree. I think he is a media man. A publicist and a good social leader. But not an evangelist. Someone who moves away from the bible as the word of God and from the cross as the atoning sacrifice of God does not have the evangel to proclaim.
I hope this is not an arrogant claim, but I would claim to be an evangelist. Not because I have great gifts. Not because of my superior media skills, stunning oratory or witty intellect. But simply because I have nothing – except Christ crucified. I am increasingly finding that is all I need. When people get that message it really is good news. I leave you with two examples – one non Christian lady at a ‘Quench’ café event in Borders a few years ago, asked me ‘you said God loves you, how can you possibly know that?’. As I explained about the cross, and the atonement, her mouth fell open and her eyes almost popped out of her head. “I’m not saying I believe that,’ she declared, “but if that’s true then it’s the most wonderful thing I have ever heard.” Last Sunday I asked a new couple who had just started coming to the church how they were. The woman started crying and I asked what was wrong. “No” she exclaimed. “You don’t understand. I am not sad, I am crying because I am so happy….I cannot believe what you just told us (it was about the cross). That God should love us so much. That God should give his son. Its unbelievable but its true”. Steve, let me make a plea to you. A gospel that is accommodated to what you or I perceive our culture demands; a gospel that is tailored to the zeitgeist of our age; is not the good news of Jesus Christ, which reaches a depth that no one and nothing else can go. Please return to that Gospel. Stop the games. Stop the politics. Stop the media campaigns. Stop the self-publicity. Stop undermining an already shaken church. Repent and do the deeds you did at first.
March 27th 2014
The following is an old article I wrote about an earlier Chalke campaign. It gives some further background.
Footnote – On the day that the first SSM marriages in the UK will take place, Steve Chalke has just signed the following – “We rejoice that from tomorrow same-sex couples will be able to marry in England and Wales,” they say.
A press conference and photo-call is being held at Friends House in central London this morning (28 March).
The statement continues: “As persons of faith, we welcome this further development in our marriage law, which has evolved over the centuries in response to changes in society and in scientific knowledge.
“We acknowledge that some (though not all) of the faith organisations to which we belong do not share our joy, and continue to express opposition in principle to such marriages. We look forward to the time, sooner rather than later, when all people of faith will feel able to welcome this development.”
Further Footnote: Today (31st March) Steve Chalke tweeted this ” For all who take offense at @vickybeeching comments & my articles on same sex equality, watch this West Wing clip http://youtu.be/DSXJzybEeJM ” This clip is a classic liberal (and ignorant) understanding of the Bible – reading it out of context, mocking it and making out that anyone who actually believes the bible is some of ignoramus. I fully understand and appreciate why an atheist or someone who wants to reject the Bible would post something like this. Why someone who professes to be an evangelical bible teacher would post this with approval is beyond me. Why Christianity magazine continue to give a platform to Steve, and why EA have not dealt with him, is beyond me. He is doing more harm to the Evangelical cause in the UK than anyone – and yet we still feed the hand that bites us!