How does the church all fit together?
Church leader Steve Chalke has begun a series of videos re-framing the Bible. Revd David Robertson responds with this opinion piece.
Steve Chalke is a man on a mission. In the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation he has decided to emulate Martin Luther – but instead of 95 theses nailed to a cathedral door, he is posting 95 videos in an attempt to create a new Reformation and bring the church up to date.
Steve and I actually have a lot in common. We want to teach the Bible to the society we live in. We want to see that society influenced by Christ and we want people to come to know Christ. But watching the ten videos that have been put out so far has been a disturbing experience – especially the last three.
If the Church or any Christian listens to and accepts Steve’s teaching then I fear that, instead of advancing into the 21st Century boldly proclaiming the Gospel and seeing the world turned upside down, we will revert to the 19th Century Protestant liberalism that has almost killed off the church in so many countries.
In three major areas I believe that Steve has got it wrong:
1) Steve is wrong about the Church.
Steve thinks that The Anglican church is dying because it teaches the Bible too strictly and too literally. He argues that, rather than ignorance of the Bible, it is because people have read the Bible (at least enough to know that they don’t like it) that they are staying away. He says that people have lost faith in the Bible because large sections of the Church just haven’t understood it. ‘Smooth talking preachers’ are just not doing the job (says the smooth talking preacher!). Steve has discovered the ‘lost message of Jesus’ and the rest of us need to catch up pretty soon.
What he neglects to mention is that it is the Bible-believing-and-teaching Anglican churches that are actually growing and developing. And it is those who have turned away from the Bible who are declining. In effect Steve is saying you are not liberal enough, when in fact it is liberalism that is killing off the church. That's like saying you are dying because you are not drinking enough poison!
2) Steve is wrong about the Bible.
Steve thinks we have all got the Bible wrong. “The Bible is a library and not a book – that’s what the Bible literally means… the church over time has come to regard as sacred. It reflects the moral values and consciousness of each author”. It’s not the Word of God. It's part of a 'dialogue' that God has with humanity. It's not God's revelation to us. That is until we come to the bits about Jesus – who corrects and throws out all the bad bits of the Old Testament.
Apparently Genesis is not the story of God making the heavens and the earth but a parody “written to subvert the claims made by the extremely violent, hierarchical, sexist, nationalist and dehumanising creation story of the Babylonians – the superpower of the day”. Who knew? All that time ago God was writing his Word so that eventually three thousand years later, all the values of our Western liberal culture would be proven to be the right ones after all!
He cites the example of Moses in Numbers 15 and the man being stoned to death on the Sabbath for breaking the commandments and says about Moses that he ’misheard’ because he was a Bronze Age man living in a Bronze Age culture! Leaving aside the fact that Moses would not have been any more enlightened if he lived in West London today, this is a gross caricature of what the Bible is. It’s not a collection of different peoples opinions and morality, it is the God-breathed, Holy Spirit-inspired Word of God. That’s what Peter and Paul and the early church believed (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
This afternoon I was preparing a sermon on a man who is, according to Paul, our example of faith, Abraham - another unenlightened Bronze Age mis-hearer of God!
In Romans 4 Paul tells the sophisticated and metropolitan citizens of Rome that it is what ‘Scripture’ (singular) says that matters. For the early Church the whole of the Bible was the Word of God. If Steve knew his church history and theology he would know that. His teaching that the Bible is just a mishmash of different opinions and views is not the teaching of the Bible. Nor is it the teaching of the Church. Nor is it the teaching of Jesus. Which leads us on to the third and biggest error.
3) Steve is wrong about Jesus.
This is the really big one. Steve thinks that he knows Jesus and that the Jesus he knows would have nothing to do with much of the Bible. There are only a couple of problems with that.
Firstly how does he know Jesus? Through the Bible. Ah... but if the Bible is not the Word of God then how does he know which bits of the Bible to accept? Is it just the bits he likes? The bits that fit his image of Jesus?
Even if we just stick with the Gospels we find that the Jesus who is spoken of in this has a very different view from Steve Chalke. For example Jesus has a somewhat different view of the Old Testament than Chalke. Rather than being the mistaken rantings of a Bronze Age man who misheard God, Jesus had a very high view of Moses and the prophets.
For him the Old Testament, from the smallest letter and the least stroke of a pen, is the Word of God, which he came to fulfill, not abolish. He even warns us that those who set aside the least of these commands and teach others to do the same will be the least in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-19) a warning Steve would do well to heed!
Steve gives us a rule of thumb - “You don’t have to be a scholar to know that the Bible is clear; ‘God is love’. Put differently, any belief, policy or doctrine that excludes, rejects or destroys, just can’t be from God.” He cites Jesus contradicting ‘an eye for an eye’ in the Sermon on the Mount as proof that the Old Testament philosophy of retaliation has been binned.
Unfortunately for Steve that very same sermon gives us a far harder teaching than anything Moses or the Old Testament taught – Jesus warns several times about Hell. He talks about those who are ‘thrown out and trampled underfoot’ – which sounds a lot like ‘exclusion, rejection and destruction’ to me! Never mind Jesus’s strong warning against false teachers, (the ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’) or where Jesus says to professing (false) Christians "Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me. You evildoers!” (Matthew 7:23). It sounds like Jesus is not obeying Steve’s rule.
The trouble is by Steve’s own rule of thumb, Christ wasn’t very Christlike. He was wrong on marriage, the Bible and Hell and that’s just in the Sermon on the Mount! That’s what I mean when I say that Steve’s message is anti-Christ, because it is directly anti what Christ taught.
a) Do you agree with Steve? We are asked at the end of each video – do you agree with Steve? No I don’t. But that’s not really the question is it? The real question is do Steve or I agree with Jesus? And I only know what Jesus says through the Bible that Steve disses.
It is the oldest trick of the devil, who often comes as a smiling shining angel of light as well as a serpent; to ask "did God really say?” and cause us to doubt his Word. We don’t save the faith of young people if we get them to write their own creation poems, their own Genesis, their own version of the Bible. That destroys any meaningful faith. It is by the hearing of the Word of God that people are saved – not the fantasies and delusions of their own minds.
b) Why don’t you take the Bible seriously enough to teach it well? I do. As do many other Christians throughout the world. We take it as the Word of God. We don’t believe that Moses put words into God's mouth….it was the other way round. And we don’t accept that any preacher today has the right to take their opinions, agendas and views and say that this is what Jesus would really say!
c) Steve asks what issues we need to rethink in the light of Jesus. My concern is that he is encouraging people to rethink (and remake) Jesus in the light of our contemporary culture. If our culture thinks it's good... then Jesus must have thought it was good. This is Jesus 2.0, this is the Bible 2.0, This is Church 2.018. The bits we don’t like we can just leave out or ‘reinterpret in the light of modern scholarship’ (which is the same thing). As Augustine pointed out – “if you believe in the Bible what you like, and leave out what you don’t like, it's not the Bible you believe, but yourself”.
Steve is in effect not asking us to follow Jesus, he is asking us to follow Steve Chalke.
Why This Matters
Let me finish with some agreement. I agree with Steve that if it doesn’t look or sound like Jesus, then it's not God. Sadly Steve’s message does not sound nor look like Christ at all.
Secondly I agree with Steve that bad theology costs credibility and lives. The non-exclusionary, non-rejecting Jesus rejected the Pharisees who went to great expense to get their message across and only ended up making people twice as much sons of hell as they were. Bad theology costs eternal life. It is only by knowing the truth (Christ) that we are set free. We can’t just make up the Gospel to suit us.
What does it matter? The Reformer Erasmus wrote - “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”. What Steve is doing is taking away the Bible as the sure and certain word of God, and thus taking away Christ. Hence my passion. Hence my reason for writing so strongly - not because I want a theological argument in public, or to attack a Christian brother. I actually hate conflict. But I love Christ too much to let this kind of anti-Christ teaching be proclaimed in the name of the one I know, love and follow.
Finally a challenge to Steve Chalke. You said that you had never heard a sermon on Numbers 15. Let me help you. I would be willing to come and preach a sermon in Oasis Church on that passage. I wonder if your church is inclusive enough for that? And a challenge to those who read this. Who I am is irrelevant. Who Steve Chalke is, is irrelevant. Our words will fade away. Probably by next year! But the words of Christ will never pass away. Read them if you want to know the truth.
Steve Chalke has been invited to respond to this opinion piece.
Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.