The Emergent Church Movement and the Gospel: A Response to Andrew Perriman

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Emergent Church Movement and the Gospel:
A Response to Andrew Perriman

Yesterday, I posted again on The Emergent Church Movement and the Gospel. Andrew Perriman, who heads up the Open Source Theology site responded to my post with some very helpful feedback. Scroll to the bottom of my post and read his comments there. I wanted to respond to his comments, but my response to his response was so lengthy that it wouldn't do to put it in the comments section. So I've decided to make my response to Andrew a post in and of itself.

First off, let me say I’m honored and privileged to have you interact with me, Andrew. Just when you think no one reads your posts…just when you think you can allow a little crucified sarcasm to hold sway over argumentation…just when you think you can get away with critiquing an important theological system such as OST and EC while you’re doped up on meds with a nasty case of hay fever…someone important responds! I was humbled, and still am.

I confess my sin of sarcasm to you, publicly. It used to be one of my worst enemies years ago. God has given much grace in killing it over the last couple of years. I felt it trying to break out yesterday on the post, and in my weakness I said ‘yes.’ A little dose is healthy every now and then, but only among the best of friends, and especially only when talking about your own spirituality. Because then it creates a healthy sense of much needed humility. That said, I’d like to respond to your six points…and thank you again for caring enough to respond.

1. I understand what you mean by the metaphor now and agree exactly with every word of your sentence: “The argument is that too much theologizing has been a response to internal issues, too little has been done in response to the actual challenges that believers face as people who, like it or not, are immersed in a thoroughly non-Christian and anti-theistic culture.” A legitimate fear, however, is that now too much theologizing is coming in response to external issues, i.e., “the actual challenges that believers face...” I see the pendulum swinging from the dry, crusty, dead-orthodoxy of so much of modern, contemporary evangelicalism to a postmodern, question the beliefs of our parents and grandparents, neo-neo-orthodoxy version of evangelicalism. In other words, it appears that the EC movement will end up swinging the pendulum in the extreme opposite direction rather than bringing balance to a Christianity that is more filled with lipservice than lifestyle. It is based on this fear that, even given your horizontal metaphor, the overall analogy still stands that believers will be essentially wandering in that space between God and the world, and never actually settling.

I further agree with you that there is in fact a gulf that does in fact exist “between the committed, God-centered community and the rest of the world.” And I also agree that we as a church have definitely reflected a “manifest failure to communicate across that gulf.” On the human side, we have failed because have become much like post-exilic Israel – so self-centered that we have failed to see the very life purpose for which God has saved us and put us on this earth. Israel was made to be a light to the nations, and instead she squandered the precious treasure of God’s Words and laws on herself seemingly for the express purpose of maintaining and even widening that gulf. Theologically and biblically, the church is Jesus Christ’s answer to that problem, thus we are the new Israel. And yet, here we are doing what seems to be the same thing.

However, if we put that gulf of which you speak up against Scripture we find two truths. First, God has not failed His church throughout all of the era modernistic, contemporary evangelicalism. Jesus promised to build His kingdom and even the gates of hell – which may have been involved in modernistic, contemporary evangelicalism – would not be able to stand against it. So it seems that the EC movement might benefit from believing that everything the modernistic era of church history stood for does not count for loss. One can quickly get that sense when reading EC and OST materials.

Second, the gulf that exists between the ‘committed, God-centered community and the rest of the world’ is due to the offensive nature of the cross. Paul told us that the preaching of the cross would be foolishness to those who are perishing. 1 Corinthians 1:18, I’m sure, is a text you’ve had to answer on more than one occasion. And if not, it is a worthy text, filled with much theological import, to consider as it relates to the EC movement. That gulf exists because of man’s inherent disdain for the message of the cross.

Now, here’s my beef with modern, contemporary evangelicalism. It has added to the glorious message of the cross its own version of Christianity so that the messenger has become more offensive than the message, if you get my drift. How many preachers have you heard ruin an good opportunity to reach the lost because the way they presented the truth turned others off, whereas if they had simply presented the truth as it is in Scripture, enveloped and enrapture in love for others in manifest practical, tangible, concrete ways, they might have been more successful reaching them. (But even in our fallen ways of fouling up the communication of the cross to the lost, God is still sovereign enough to utilize our failures for His ultimate plan of salvation…praise Him for that!).

Here’s my beef, then, with the response to modern, contemporary evangelicalism. It has looked back on the failure of the modern, contemporaries and has assumed that the problem must be with the message. Therefore, it believes that the correct alternative is to grow a church, to make it bigger, and that in order to do so it must ‘pretty up’ the message of the cross. But in order to do so, it removes the inherent offensiveness which it will naturally have. Calling sin by other names, refusing to talk about sin altogether, and other such techniques immediately kill the effectiveness the gospel is supposed to have. The gospel’s effectiveness is found in the acknowledgement and admission that I am a sinner and I stand in need of God’s forgiveness. I stand in need of a declaration from God of ‘not guilty’ which can only come if I am fully and intimately aware of that guiltiness. This is at the heart of my critique of church-growth and seeker-sensitive movements. In essence, they unwittingly recreate the gospel to their suiting. Why? Because their goal from the very beginning was to ‘grow’ a church by reaching out to lost people to bring them to Jesus. What has happened is that lost people do in fact begin coming to church through such methods, and perhaps find that it is ‘safe,’ and even grow comfortable there. But the problem is that they do not find the Jesus of the Scriptures at the end of that road. Instead, they are introduced into an endless journey of various groups whose identity is founding trying to overcome this or that problem rather than in the person and work and mission of Jesus Christ.

That leads to my concern with the EC movement and OST. It responds to both the modernism and the postmodernism tendencies of the church-growth movement by making the same mistake the church-growther’s made in dealing with the era of modernism. They react instead of respond. They swing the pendulum in the other direction rather than push it in the other direction (by pointing out the problems) and stand at the bottom braced with all their might (by correcting the problems) to stop it at a point of balance.

EC and OST seem to be coming across with the mindset, “Question the answers.” If we enter into the realm of discussion and questioning then will we ever actually ‘arrive’ at enough conclusions to get to work? If the EC is truly rooted in hermeneutical missiology, but if that hermeneutic says we can’t really be sure about the meaning of this or that text, then how can EC ever hope to gain any ground and get anything done? And if it does get somewhere and get something done, what objective truths in Scripture can it point to with authority and clarity, so that it doesn’t come across creating an environment which ends up saying, “Now I’ve told you this or I’ve done this because I think, or at least I’m pretty sure the Bible’s teaching on this matter is this or that.” Hermeneutics of this sort cannot hope to escape the endless, “I think it means this to me” mentality.

2. I’ll skip the comment on sarcasm, having dealt with that in my opening.

3. You state: “The issue is not whether there are absolutes or not, but whether we are allowed to bring into question culturally and historically determined presuppositions about what scripture is actually saying, how themes are to be prioritized, and so on.” As I see it, this may be a blindspot for the EC movement. It seems to me that the very reason you question what you are allowed to bring into question is because a relativistic postmodern hermeneutic has already left its mark. In other words, I don’t think you’d feel the need to question culturally and historically determined presuppositions if postmodernism had not already left its indelible mark. To say it another way, if one questions whether or not to question determined presuppositions, one shows just how much postmodernism has affected his/her thinking.

You also stated: “Emerging theology is not stuck in an ‘endless state of limbo’: it is going through a process of re-examining the grounds of faith in order to arrive at something that (we believe) will be more not less compelling than what we had before.” This is basically ‘empiricism,’ the view that one’s own experience is the only source of knowledge. Empiricism questions what one learned before as being truthful or valuable, and from that questioning commences to rediscover it for oneself. If my remembrance of history serves me correctly, this is what prompted the Age of Enlightenment. By questioning and eventually rejecting the truth which had come before, a new age dawned in which man could break free of determined presuppositions to discover for himself. Proverbs is clear enough on that matter for anyone, I would think. The goal of the book is to teach children (and believers) wisdom. And wisdom says, “you don’t have to experience sin to know how wrong it is, nor do you have to discover it in order to learn to stay away from it.” The counsel of Proverbs is, “listen to your mom and dad and they’ll tell you what God says, and that way you can keep yourself out of trouble and sin.” But empiricism says, “no, those things your parents believed might have worked for them, but how can you really know whether or not they are true unless you start over and discover them for yourself.”

That’s sort of how the EC movement and especially OST comes across, at least to me. It seems that the only reason for ‘going through a process of re-examining the grounds of faith’ is because one doesn’t believe that those grounds of faith are sufficient or efficient. I would have to ask why? Is it because of the way it was presented? I think that’s probably it, in my opinion. We become so dissatisfied with the way in which those before us presented the truth that we toss out their way and their truth along with it – the baby goes out with the bathwater. But there’s really no need to do that. It bespeaks of arrogance. I have come to think that this is more likely the real reason why, “A lot of people have simply become so uncomfortable with the mind-set of contemporary evangelicalism that they have had no choice but to pursue this course and trust that it will lead them to solid ground.” There may be another more likely reason, but I don’t think that it is related to the truth, the message, or the theology itself that was presented or preached or taught to us.

4. You stated: “I’m sure you won’t like the suggestion that the emerging church has a prophetic edge to it, but surely we must allow that the church, even the evangelical church, needs to be disturbed out of its complacency by the voice of God at times?” I don’t mind the suggestion at all. But I would suggest in return that a word like ‘prophetic’ be used in its proper way…with perhaps a more biblical tone to it. Prophetic has not so much to do with the attitude as it does with the message or truth one speaks. Too often the word ‘prophetic’ has come to refer to the way in which a person speaks truth, or to a particular personality that can sort of ‘tell it like it is.’ But that’s not ‘prophetic.’ Being prophetic seems in Scripture to be speaking God’s words at the right time to the right person in the right place and in the right way. So I would just respond by saying that just because EC disturbs the church out of its complacency doesn’t mean it is prophetic. It could mean that it is arrogant, guilty of the same thing that modernism and contemporary-evangelicalism and even reformed people are guilty of – preaching the truth in a way that does not adorn it.

5. Finally, you stated: “If the emerging church is seriously asking itself, ‘What exactly is this “gospel” that we are proclaiming to the world?’, the likelihood is that there will be some loss of clarity and conviction.” This is the zinger for me, personally. No doubt, Andrew, you have to see the huge, significant, and eternally massive implications for losing clarity and conviction with regards to the gospel of Jesus Christ. To lose that clarity and conviction in that most important message means that those to whom you try to minister won’t get it at all, and will end up discussing and theologizing with you all the way until they reach hell, all while they thought they were on a journey towards God.

What could be more clear than, “The God of the universe who made you and loves you, says you are a sinner, an enemy against Him. But in love He stepped out of heaven, became a human being, and solved that problem for you because you couldn’t. He did that by suffering what would have been and should have been your own punishment. And now He offers it to you and commands you to put your trust in Him, in what He has done for you, instead of continuing to put your trust in what you think.” That’s an example of the truth of the gospel presented with clarity and conviction.

If the gospel is not clear then how are you going to explain it to the lost you so desperately want to reach? If it is not clear to you, then you cannot preach it with conviction. Worse yet, if it is not clear to you or for you, you personally are not warranted in holding it to be a conviction. If that’s the case, why ‘hang out’ with the gospel and ‘talk’ theology at all? Essentially, the gospel and the truths of God’s Word become ‘talking points,’ as I said yesterday. They become points of discussion which we can bat around and theologize about. And the gospel is then relegated to hold the same place in our discussion as the Atlanta Braves do among the old men I have breakfast with on Thursday mornings. "Hey now! The difference is that this is church, Scripture, lost people, and gospel at stake here!" as I would expect some to respond. But is that a real difference? I mean the only real difference between myself and the old men at breakfast, in this line of thought, is that the gospel just so happens to be my favorite subject, like the Braves are for them. No, the real difference must be in the clarity and conviction of the truth we are talking about. So if those two things are missing, then what I’m talking about is really no different from what they are talking about.

In your view, “this uncertainty has to be gone through. The hope is that we are working towards a renewal of clarity and conviction.” My view is that it is foolish and severely unwise to feel like you have to go through uncertainty at all. The road has been paved for us. We are standing on the shoulders of giants. Why go back to square one? Why climb down and say we don’t need those giants anymore because we question if they have been really useful to the church. The arrogance that is inherent in such a position is extremely subtle and very dangerous. There is one thing that history has proven again and again: those who purposefully and willfully walk through the valley of uncertainty usually die there. There is rarely one who comes out of that valley with a renewal of clarity and conviction. How can you if you purposefully walk away from clarity and conviction to enter the valley of uncertainty?

6. Finally, I do hold the creeds as valuable, though I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘credo’ Christian. I value them for one reason: men much greater than the two of us, guided by God’s providence and sovereignty, forged the church universal’s biblical view of our Savior. Without them, you and I would be in a much greater mess theologically than we already are. Without them, there would not even be a hint of truth about our Savior to even discuss and theologize about. Those creeds, which represent an orthodox view and interpretation of the ‘basics’ of our belief system, are the bedrock of the church in history. My legitimate fear is that if the EC movement and OST launch the church back into the fire of those decades of discussion, theologizing, questioning, etc. (I call it controversy) before we had the creeds, then it becomes essentially a ‘rebooting’ of church history all over again. I’m not saying this is what you’re suggesting, though you may well be. All I’m suggesting is that this is where the philosophy behind EC movement and OST seems to lead. But there’s no need to ‘reboot’ church history and go back to the drawing board of theology. What they forged there has been assumed by trillions of Christians to be orthodox truth which can use to understand the Scriptures and, more than anything else, which can use to understand our Savior and the glorious plan of redemption. Question anything else…but don’t question that because it has been the heartbeat of the church since they were written.

Let’s continue the discussion, Andrew. Again, I am truly humbled that you would take the time to respond to my meager attempts at blogging. I’d love to actually meet you and spend a few hours with you, if only just to eat and pray together, and talk about how silly our kids can be or how our wives put up with us! Bless you dear brother.

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