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'.
The historian David Bebbington has identified four marks of evangelicalism, Biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism. Let's look at where Steve sits with 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? 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 the Word from his Word is the most effective way for the church to commit suicide. Erasmus declared: '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 God's 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.
Conversionism, 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.
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 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 plebs. He condemns the academic world for not understanding how ignorant the rest of us really are. 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 of course 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. Ironically Steve's position takes the Bible away from the people and leaves it in the hands of the 'experts'.
Steve's move away from the roots of evangelicalism (whilst seeking to hold on to the fruits) 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.
A Gospel that is accommodated to what we perceive our culture demands; a Gospel that is tailored to the zeitgeist of our age; that 'Gospel' is not the good news of Jesus Christ. It cannot reach the depths which the real Gospel does. I want to make a plea to Steve – whom I regard as an errant brother. Please return to that Gospel. Stop the games. Stop the politics. Stop the media campaigns. Stop undermining an already shaken church. Repent and do the deeds you did at first as indeed we all must do.
This is an edited version of a longer article which can be found at: http://theweeflea.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/crossing-the-chalke-line-steve-chalkes-sad-departure-from-evangelicalism/