Steve Chalke has been at it again! A few weeks ago Steve published an article in the March edition of Christianity magazine concerning how we view and interpret the Bible. In the article Steve points up what he considers to be shortcomings in traditional evangelical views of scripture and calls for a wider conversation about this whole topic.
For non-evangelical Christians reading this article, or the longer one on which it is based, there may seem to be nothing particularly new or controversial in what Steve writes. But for the conservative to middle-of-the-road evangelicals and charismatics who make up the primary audience for Christianity, this is quite a big deal. Steve courted controversy in these circles a few years ago when he questioned whether penal substitutionary atonement was a helpful model to present the work of Christ in the 21st century. This most recent statement goes to what many evangelicals consider to be the heart of their identity – the authority and status of the Bible.
Not surprisingly, a number of leading evangelicals have rushed to engage Steve in debate in one forum or another. Premier Christian Radio, an organisation owned by the same company that produces Christianity magazine, has brought Steve Chalke together with Andrew Wilson, a theology spokesperson for the New Frontiers group of churches. Videos of the first two of four encounters between them can be seen here and here. Steve Holmes has complained that the “global conversation” that Steve calls for is already happening and has been going on for some years now; while Ian Paul on his Psephizo blog gives an interesting summary of the story so far and a few comments of his own into the bargain.
Now I have no intention in this post of going into the specifics of what Steve wrote. That may be for another time. But I will agree with him that this is indeed a much-needed conversation. To those who have said that the conversation is already going, I would suggest that is true in academia, and evangelical scholars have made some siginificant contributions over the past few decades. It may also be true among (some) ministers and pastors. Steve Holmes suggests that at numerous gatherings there is frequently discussion about how to handle difficult texts
I rather think though that what Steve is calling for goes both wider and deeper than that. Steve, as others have pointed out, is not an academic. He is a pastor, a preacher, an evangelist and a skilled facilitator of work that addresses some of the ills of our society from education and youth work to anti-slavery and sex trafficking. It should come as little surprise therefore that at the sharp end where Steve works he becomes very aware of issues of communicating the good news to those who have either little connection to the churches or have had that connection in the past and voted with their feet.
Although I would not wish to speak for Steve or put words in his mouth, I do wonder whether the conversation needs to extend far beyond the academic world and meetings of pastors behind closed doors. It needs to be brought into the open in a civilised way so that people in our congregations can participate. And those of us who do hold ministerial responsibility must trust them to think things through themselves.
And it does need to be a conversation, conducted in a civilised manner that treats others as grown-ups. A couple of years ago I taught some modules on our diocesan Certificate course. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and think the group did too. However, after one module, one of the students, a longstanding member fo his church said, “Why haven’t we talked about this in our churches? This is all new to me.” Others agreed. It’s one thing for pastors themselves to wrestle with how one text is presented. How we get our congregations to think through our whole approach to the biblical texts is quite another matter.
In conclusion, I am not wholly convinced by some aspects of Steve’s own answers. But I do think the question he raises – and the whole conversation – needs to be brought out from behind the closed doors of the specialists.