The wounds of a friend are faithful. I regard Martin Saunders as a 'friend' and therefore his article as faithful.
It wounded. And then some. According to Martin my article on Steve Chalke's latest attack on Evangelical Christianity was rude, discourteous, ungracious, unloving and not nice. Ouch! I accept of course that that sometimes happens at the more 'conservative' end. And it's something I abhor. Time for sackcloth and ashes?
Leaving aside the personal, Martin's article also made me think about a key issue in the Church in the UK today. What is our future? Martin's view is one that many Christians share; 'conservative' Christians are losing the argument because we are just not very nice people. We are the UKIP of Christianity, if not the BNP; backward, bitter and on the wrong side of history. Which is a shame, because according to Martin, we still have a lot to contribute to the diversity of the church, if only we were nicer. I believe that Martin means well and yet I also believe he is profoundly wrong and does not need to be so pessimistic about those us he calls conservatives, and dare I say it, nasty about those of us who are not nice. The trouble is that he gets the wrong picture because he frames the question wrongly.
We are radicals, not conservatives. I am not a conservative Christian. The terminology is all wrong. We are biblical Christians and therefore the far more appropriate term to use is radical. I don't want to 'conserve' our corrupt society – I want to turn it upside down (Acts 17:6)! The irony is that it is those who call themselves 'progressives' who are in fact the conservatives. They go along with the culture and shibboleths of our day. Why do you think the secular media love and laud Steve Chalke, Vicky Beeching, Richard Coles and Richard Holloway? Because they are basically of the same mind. "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you" (John 15:18-19).
We are not interested in winning arguments – we want to win the war. Martin is concerned that the 'conservative' voice is losing the argument because we are marginalised in the house of bishops or shouted down online. I don't care. The House of Bishops allows people within it who are scarcely theists, never mind biblical Christians. Being marginalised by such would be an honour. In addition, even though I confess I am a very argumentative person I am not really interested in winning arguments. My concern is to fight a spiritual battle. I want to win the people and rescue them from the prince of this world, from the forces of darkness, from the deadness of their sins. And I know I can't. Only the Gospel proclaimed in the power of the Spirit and the love of Christ can. That's what I care about. I share Paul's passion "For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth". (2 Corinthians 13:8). It is about time that the Church in the UK realised we are in the midst of a spiritual battle. (Ephesians 6:12).
We don't want to be 'nice'. And that is why being nice is not really a priority. I am looking at my concordance just now and amazingly, for something so apparently essential to the Christian faith, I just can't find the word 'nice' in it. It does seem to me to be tied up with that 'conservative' image. Nothing to do with the real world and the real battle we are supposed to be fighting.
Speaking of that real world, it may be true that "people have access to far more information and a greater array of voices than any other generation in history and therefore they are now broader and shallower and more susceptible to the compelling voice and the soundbite". But this fails to recognise that the greater array of voices is not providing more information, but is actually only creating more confusion. The Church needs to speak not with the myriad tongues of Babylon, but rather with the clear and certain voice of Christ speaking through his Word. And we must not become broad and shallow in order to appeal to a broad and shallow world! People need depth. I'm not prepared to encourage people to walk on the broad road just to be popular and win an argument. (Matthew 7:13-14).
Martin however gives us a much better definition of 'nice'. Nice means kind and compassionate, coming from a place of love. But the problem here is that he seems only concerned with the tone (which apparently does not appeal to our superficial, shallow, soundbite culture). Likewise complaining that division in the Church causes unbelief and then setting up such a division, based on perceived tone, is not helpful. In the blue corner we have the nice if somewhat mistaken Chalke, and in the red, the nasty Piper/Robertson serious, grumpy, unlistening, joyless old men. I accept that being unpleasant, rude, unloving etc is a horrendous way to behave, and not the way of Christ. But the trouble with 'niceness' is that it is not about fact. It is about perception.
Martin thinks that liberals are so much better at doing 'nice'. I agree. Some have the smooth voice, the silky tones, the fine words. So what? The devil is also brilliant at doing nice. He comes as the angel of light, not the nasty horned demon. If someone stabs me in the back it doesn't make any difference if they do it with a kiss, a smiling face, a prayer and a gentle voice!
The major issue though is that niceness seems to be defining what love, kindness and compassion are, rather than the other way round. I believe it was love, kindness and compassion that compelled Jesus to drive the money changers out of the temple, to tell the Pharisees that they were liars like their father the devil, and to move Paul to write the Galatians that he wished the circumcising false teachers would go the whole way and castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12)!
It was because Jesus, and his apostles, were so compassionate, so loving and so kind that they could not bear that people would be deceived by false teaching. That was my motivation in writing about Steve Chalke's teaching. It was not about him. I don't know him personally. I have nothing against him personally. It was about his teaching that is so harmful to the good news of Jesus and therefore harmful to all who are taken in by it. The trouble is that Martin's article turns the narrative into a personal one – Chalke is nice, Robertson is nasty. That may be true but it's an irrelevant smokescreen. To me nicely beating about the bush is about as useful as inserting emoticons into a Facebook message in order to try and convey tone. Steve Chalke may rarely lash out at his detractors in public – (although accusing us of denying the very nature of God is far fiercer than anything I had said!) but I wish he would actually engage in dialogue with us, (my offer of speaking at his 'dialogue' conference still stands – unanswered!).
And this is where Martin makes his biggest mistake. "While division in the church is unhelpful, diversity within it is wonderful. Different views, voices and perspectives are like the many component parts of an orchestra, strengthening and complementing one another." To which I would cry a hearty amen. Except for the one major flaw. The argument with Steve Chalke is not about 'diversity' within the Church – it is about what the Church actually is. This is where the language of 'conservative' and 'liberal' is so unhelpful. Let's call it what it is – biblical and unbiblical. When the conservative Christian says that Jesus is the Son of God who literally rose from the dead, and the 'liberal' Christian says 'no that is not literally true' then it is a madness from the pit of hell to say that they are just component parts of the same orchestra. They are from completely different bands, playing different tunes and putting them together creates a discordant clash.
Diversity is what I experience in the Church all the time. People of different age, background, race, social class, gifts, experience, temperaments and personalities working and worshipping together in the church. The only thing that unites them together is Christ and his Word. Once people start undermining the Bible they start teaching different Christs. Nothing causes greater division and disharmony. That is why I speak out against a teaching which makes a mockery of the atonement, calls Christ uncompassionate because he does not accept our society's redefinition of marriage and announces that the Church has got it all wrong until Steve came along and discovered the 'lost message of Jesus'. Ironically Martin chastises me for the tone of what I am playing, while neglecting to point out that Steve Chalke is the discordant one refusing to go along with The Conductor, and ignoring His score!
Biblical Christianity is winning the war because as Jesus says "heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Matthew 24:35). That is why all over the UK there are churches that are growing and developing as the Word of God is proclaimed in the love, joy, power and assurance of the Spirit. Not 'conservative' churches. But radical, Bible-believing, contemporary, Spirit-filled churches of whatever denomination. The battle belongs to the Lord and so victory is his. My call is not to compromise with Christ's enemies, but to win them for Him.
I believe by far the biggest danger we face today in the Church in the West, is not the militant secularists, Islamic jihadists or antagonistic atheists. The greatest danger is the enemy within. Hence my 'not nice' passion. There is nothing I am more passionate about than Jesus. He is my 'Magnificent Obsession'. Paul warned with tears the Ephesian elders for three years "I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:31). It wasn't nice. But it was Christlike compassionate passion!
The war is on. We will lose some battles (and arguments). But the victory is already assured. D-Day happened at calvary. The rest of time is a mopping up operation as Christ gathers his bride, and beautifies her for eternity. I have no worries about defeat at all. I just want to love and serve him. He doesn't need me. I need him. If we are serious about reaching our broad, shallow, superficial world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then let's not mimic that world, but rather let us follow the teaching of Paul to the Romans who themselves were seeking to reach their great and sinful society: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will." (Romans 12:2).
This article is an edited version of a longer response.
David Robertson is Moderator Designate of the Free Church of Scotland, and director of Solas CPC.