A bigger embrace
Steve Chalke talks to Stephen Tomkins about faith and works
As a young Christian, Steve Chalke was turned down twice for Bible college. Today, his church and its local projects employ 82 people, while the charity he founded, Oasis – which employs 5,000 people in England – leads development work in 10 countries, runs hostels for homeless people and 40 schools in the UK, and has launched initiatives Such as Stop the Traffik and FaithWorks.
Despite this celebrated work, his faith has repeatedly been the centre of heated controversy among fellow evangelicals. In 2003, his book The Lost Message of Jesus rejected the doctrine of penal substitution as “cosmic child abuse”. In May this year, Oasis was expelled from the Evangelical Alliance as a result of his support for gay relationships. His latest book Restoring Confidence in the Bible questions the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Reform met him at the Oasis office in Waterloo to find out what lies behind the campaigning and controversy.
You’ve made waves by moving from traditional evangelical positions on atonement, sexuality and the Bible. Is evangelicalism changing? Or just you?
Evangelicalism needs to constantly change. Those of us who bring this revelation of God’s love have to keep thinking through how we apply that timeless message to changing situations. “Evangel” means good news, so true evangelicals, in every form of churchmanship, are the ones who bring an infectious love of God. Evangelicalism should be a habit the whole Church possesses, not the domain of some with particular theological views.
How do you know the difference between the Good News and the news that makes us feel good?
When we imagine the God of the universe as a projection of our own prejudices then we’ve seriously gone wrong – a God who accepts those I accept and rejects those I reject. I was thinking recently of the story of the Good Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans were similar: They both held the Torah and a shared history and culture, but they had grown apart and hated one another. I think Jesus was saying: When I cross the road and embrace the person that I’ve demonised, that’s when I’ve truly learned to love my neighbour as myself. He extends the definition of neighbour to include enemy.
I’ve slowly learnt that when I love my enemy, the one that I rejected, it’s not some gracious act that benefits them, it changes me. In greeting the one that I’ve been opposed to – the gay man for instance, because I grew up in evangelicalism – I deal with those dark areas of my life that I’ve been unwilling to confront. To embrace others is the most biblical thing I can do, because this is what Jesus did. He talked about the best way to be human and whole, not about religious rules.
You talk about overcoming divisions and embracing the other. I wonder, is there now a division between you and other evangelicals who aren’t able to go along with you?
I’ve got lots of warm friendships within evangelicalism, and from others there’s a questioning – and that questioning is what I was trying to set up. It’s incumbent on evangelicalism – and other sections of the Church – to take the Bible more seriously.
Ten years ago, I said the atonement cannot be about an angry God who gets over his vengeful spirit by the murder of his own son: “I’ve got some blood, I feel a lot better now.” Two years ago, I wrote about sexuality. In both cases I kept quoting the Bible. This wasn’t about – as you put it – what made me feel good, it felt very uncomfortable. What I wanted was not to upset anyone; I lead an organisation that’s dependent on the goodwill of evangelical Christians, and what I said led churches to stop supporting us; conferences didn’t invite me anymore. Just when we were coming over that – it took about a decade and I was getting invited back to things – I wrote about sexuality, which led to new exclusion. So this is not a projection of my own desires; this is the challenge of a consistent and authentic reading of the Bible rather than pick ’n’ mix. So evangelicals will remind you of verses which they say outlaw committed homosexual relationships, but in large evangelical churches of London filled with bankers and lawyers I don’t think you’ll ever hear a sermon preached about what the Old Testament says about land ownership or not charging interest to one another…
This is an extract from the November 2014 edition of Reform.