By Richard Hawke
Paul spoke these words to the Corinthian believers:
“Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you have received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain.” 1 Cor 15:1-2
Again to the Galatians he writes this warning:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Gal 1:6-10
Down through the history of the Church, we understand that many new teachings have come and gone, many of which have diverted from the gospel message that we read of in the New Testament. My concern with the trends coming out of the emerging church movement is that here again we are faced with a similar challenge. Over the last month I have done my best to research (as objectively as I could) the background of Steve Chalke and the wider emerging church movement, of which he is a key leader. I will leave it to you, in your own reading of the scriptures and research, to judge whether my conclusions are correct or not.
During the last 10 to 12 years the emerging church model has become strongly associated with a movement that is sweeping across America, the UK and many other parts of the western world. Some have labelled it a “reinvented Christianity”. Which ever way we look at it, this movement is having a huge influence across a wide spectrum of the Church in the west.
DA Carson, author of the book “Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church” says “At the heart of the movement…… lies the conviction that changes in the culture signal that a new church is “emerging”. Christian leaders therefore are encouraged to adapt to this emerging church.” (Carson p12) The culture this movement has particularly focussed upon, is the “post modern generation”. One of the characteristics of this generation is the mindset that moves beyond the rational and the factual and is more focussed on the experiential. In other words, in the post modern era all things are relative. What may be right for you may be wrong for someone else. Absolute truth is therefore largely rejected by this culture. As the emerging church movement has sought to reach this generation, so the message and mindset of its leaders has altered in order to identify more ‘authentically’.
Todd Hunter, who was formerly the director of Vineyard USA, began to notice that the questions unchurched young people were asking had changed to reflect post modern thought. “How certain can we be sure about truth?” “Is there truth?” “Are there ways of knowing truth beside the absolutist, foundationalist ways we were taught? If so, what does this mean for apologetics, theology and church history?’ (Carson p21). Hunter left the Vineyard movement in 2000 to plant a new church for post moderns. Carson goes on “…….. For almost everyone within the movement, this works out in an emphasis on feelings and affections over against linear thought and rationality; on experience over against truth; on inclusion over against exclusion…” (p29)
Many of the emerging church leaders have come from conservative, traditional evangelical backgrounds and the reforms that the movement espouse, reflect a protest against former beliefs and practices within those backgrounds. Two of the most closely identified leaders with the movement are Brian McLaren (US) and Steve Chalke (UK). However there are many pastors who may not consider themselves to be part of the movement but who are none the less sympathetic to it. All of them have one thing in common that they began in one place and “emerged” into something else.
As an example, Spencer Burke, a former pastor of Mariner’s church in California, a large congregation with a significant budget and highly programmed, left the mega church environment in what he called “The Search for Authentic Expression”. In 1998 Burke started TheOoze.com, a chat room where people gather as “an oozy community that tolerates differences and treats people who hold opposite views with great dignity”. (Carson p19)
One of the consequences of such a philosophy, has been a devaluing of the Scriptures as God’s inherent Word. Concepts such as sin, hell and repentance, which are so strongly spoken about in the Bible are downplayed so as not to offend the unbeliever. It is interesting that, one of the most common characteristics of classic revival in the Church down through history, has been a return to strong preaching on these very subjects.
On the day of Pentecost, when 3,000 people were saved, Peter preached with fire: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” When the people heard this they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do? Peter replied “Repent, and be baptised every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ…….” (Acts 2: 36-38). Hardly a seeker friendly service!
In great contrast to this, Steve Chalke, in his book “The last message of Jesus”, shares his views on sin. “While we have spent centuries arguing over the doctrine of original sin, pouring over the Bible and huge theological tones to prove the inherent sinfulness of all humankind, we have missed a starting point: Jesus believed in original goodness.” (Carson p183) Chalke says that God declared that all creation, including humankind, was very good and it is this original goodness that God seeks out in us. What a contrast to the psalmist who writes:
“There is no one who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:3). Jeremiah says” The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9) Peter gives the only remedy to our fallenness: “He is patient with you, not willing that any should perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9)
On the subject of judgement and the Cross Chalke claims that any notion of penal substitution is both offensive and a massive contradiction of his understanding of the truth of God’s love. (Carson p185) Chalke says in “The Lost Message of Jesus” “I claim that penal substitution is tantamount to ‘cosmic child abuse-a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed”. Yet the scriptures spell this out clearly in Isaiah:
“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed”. (Isaiah 53:4-5)
For Chalke the Cross is merely a symbol of love, and an identification of our pain. (Carson p186). On the subject of repentance both McLaren and Chalke follow the same mindset. It is also redefined. It no longer has to do with renouncing sin. The call to repentance is” the call to fulfil our natural potential, to improve ourselves by acting like God”. (Carson p108)
Henry Blackerby says: “People today do not want to talk about sin, and often those who seem to discuss it least are God’s people. Somehow we have forgotten what sin cost our Saviour. But when we truly consider that utter desolation of soul and spirit, that blackness of homelessness that came over our Saviour because of our sin, it creates within us an intensity against sin. And when this intensity burns in our heart, the result is personal holiness. It is a holiness empowered by the full message of the cross…” (Taken from his book “Experiencing the Cross”)
In summary Carson states “I have to say, as kindly but as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel”. (p186)
My own response is that my first reading of “The Intelligent Church” left me thinking Chalke was passionate about mission , but I thought how could anyone seriously write a book on the Church without mentioning the place of prayer. To me it has to be a key foundation. I thought no more about it and put the book aside, ready to use this year. However, during these last few weeks, as I have done more research, I am convinced this emerging church theology is dangerous and has no place in the Church of Jesus Christ.
In closing, I am reminded of the word that was preached at our Bible College graduation by Rev Reg Piper from Holy Trinity Church. Paul’s closing words to Timothy while he remained in prison:
“Preach the Word: be prepared in season and out of season: correct, rebuke and encourage-with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth, and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” (2Timothy 4:2-5)
NB: DA Carson, from whom much of the material has been taken, is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School at Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of 45 books including the Gold Medallist Award Winning book “The Gagging of God” and is general editor of “Telling the Truth” and “Worship by the Book”. He has served as a pastor and is an active lecturer in church and academic settings around the world.