David Robertson (who tweets as @theweeflea and is a minister in Dundee), has taken exception to the approach Steve Chalke (a Baptist minister and founder of the Oasis Charitable Trust) takes to the Bible. Robertson even compares Chalke to the devil, pretending to be ‘a smiling shining angel of light’; Chalke is a man who would have us follow him rather than Jesus, a man who makes up the Gospel to suit himself; a man who is a ‘false teacher’; a man whose message is ‘anti-Christ’.
I don’t mind a good argument about the Bible and how we use and interpret it. The Bible, like all of Christian doctrine, belief and practice, is an ‘essentially contested concept’ (as Stephen Sykes once put it). There has never been a time when all Christians in all places have agreed about any of it. To disagree – about the Bible, atonement, Mary, sin, grace, St Paul, icons, or even Jesus – is not to be ‘anti-Christ’; it is simply to be one fallible human being discussing important things with another fallible human being. There simply isn’t one right interpretation or understanding against which all others are wrong: there is no divine magisterium to which some people have access and others don’t, and have only, therefore, to obey.
But it’s more than that too. Disagreement about these things, however fundamental we think they are, even if we are looking for ‘good disagreement’ – which means we may never agree – does not turn the person you disagree with into the anti-Christ. David Robertson isn’t alone in doing this: the internet, especially Twitter, is full of people who appear to think that denigrating other people is the only way to get your point across – just look at some of the, frankly odious, responses to the appointment of Bishop Sarah Mullaly to London, let alone the ways in which our political debate has been so debased.
If I may use the Bible in this discussion, I would like to point to the way in which Jesus castigates those whose faith is based on self-righteousness rather than on love. I would also say that a faith that is completely dependent on being right is actually a form of fear, as if the whole house of cards will come crashing down if certainty about any of it is removed. It seems to me that the Christian faith is first and foremost a way of life, and not a house of any kind. I have argued before that I think it is also to forget that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Paul is a living God who has never stopped leading God’s people from where they think they would like to stop to where God would like them to be. And we haven’t got there yet. And the scary thing about stopping where you would like to be is that we tend to build a calf to worship and call it God.
The rush to judgement, the labelling of others as ‘anti-Christ’ or ‘heretic’ or ‘false teacher’ or ‘the least in the kingdom of heaven’, needs have no part in all our discussion and disagreement. Jesus (again, if I am allowed to bring him in to the discussion) seems to think that it is the fruit of a righteous life that matters, where even those who do not profess the faith we hold might be on the same side. Love not only defines the fundamental reality of the universe (God), and the fundamental kind of relationship we are to have with other people, it is the only thing that matters.
Jonathan Draper, General Secretary of Modern Church