The story below represents a very bad sign.
Not the serious debate over the atonement—we have to do that in every generation to make sure that we’re communicating the essence of the gospel in a way that makes sense...and disciples.
Here’s the story:
Biggest Christian conference splits amid growing atonement debate.
Three of Great Britain’s most prominent Christian groups have ended their 14-year conference partnership, scuttling the annual Word Alive youth event. At issue was disagreement over a speaker, the Rev. Steve Chalke. But below the surface simmers a theological controversy that threatens to split the country’s evangelicals.
Chalke criticizes the penal substitutionary theology of 19th-century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, subscribing instead to a view of the atonement called Christus Victor, which focuses on how Christ delivered fallen humanity from Satan. In 2005, the Evangelical Alliance (EA), an umbrella organization for U.K. evangelicals, hosted a public debate on the atonement. Its revised doctrinal statement, which Chalke signed, appears to uphold penal substitution, the belief that Jesus endured God’s punishment for humanity’s sin while on the Cross.
Keswick and UCCF (the U.K.’s sister body to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) plan to launch a new Word Alive conference in 2008. World Alive has scheduled two strong proponents of substitution as speakers: Donald A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and John Piper, preaching pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today.
The bad sign is that these groups—effectively the last remaining cooperative evangelical effort in the UK—would rather separate from each other than live with the tension that comes from working together with differing views. These are not left-right, conservative-liberal debates, no matter how they’re characterized by the parties involved, but rather issues of power and control. We don't know, in the same way that we know other things, exactly how Christ's death on the Cross redeems us and the rest of Creation, and so it's ridiculous for otherwise faithful people to divide over precisely that. What's at stake is something different, it's who gets to speak on behalf of British evangelicals.
Congratulations, folks, you’ve managed to to mirror the same self-destructive patterns of your American evangelical brothers and sisters. And you were doing so well! Over the last century Americans have split over evolution, inerrancy and eschatology, among other things, and you managed to avoid the worst behaviors associated with the debates over those issues.
As Archie and Edith Bunker sang, ‘those were the days’.
Since WWII, evangelicals have managed to fritter away the best, the most golden opportunity for Christian revival since Roman lions spent their afternoons snacking on Christians. A world lay in ruins, crying out for hope, and apart from a few brave individuals and groups who set aside non-essential differences and worked together, most decided to separate and go it alone. They chose their personal empires over the gospel, and gave up the chance to share the gospel with a world in need.
Now the British evangelicals are doing the same thing.
The UK is as secular a country as you can imagine—it is the very definition of the trendy term, ‘post-Christian’. Economic injustice is rampant, kids are growing up alienated and disaffected, and droves of immigrants are calling into question what it means here to be ‘British’. And through it all about 2% of the population will admit to attending church. In short, the nation is ripe for a fresh retelling of the gospel in a way that reaches out to people who need its saving message.
So the bad sign is that at this crucial moment, the groups most likely to join forces and take an honest stab at sharing Christ with this nation, are instead separating from each other over a doctrine that has generated debate for centuries. Who loses? Did you catch that the cancelled event was directed to a youth audience? That 2% church participation number actually goes down if you measure the involvement of young people. What a shame.
My hope and prayer is that these good people will reconsider their reaction, repent of their pride, and keep their eyes on the damn ball.