What the Emergent Church Believes About the Gospel: Part Two - Brian McLaren

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

What the Emergent Church
Believes About the Gospel
Part Two

In Part One of this series, I listed some key statements by ECM leaders regarding their view of the gospel. Many of these were positive, biblical statements that can be affirmed by 'modernistic' evangelicals and Protestants. I got enough feedback by way of comments and email that let me know how helpful it was. Thanks to all who gave me the feedback.

Over the last several weeks as I have continued to delve into the writings and ideas of ECM leaders, thinkers, and writers much has come to my attention to better inform me of where they are coming from, what their theological presuppositions are, and who or what is informing them. In that 'research', if I would even call it that, I've come across much more that helps to better define and understand what the ECM thinks about the gospel and more importantly why they think this way.

The posts which continue along this same title will contain excerpts from various sources with, what I hope, are helpful annotations or reflective comments. My findings are so lengthy that I will no doubt have to post a Part Three, and Four, and others perhaps .

Again, the aim in my efforts is to understand them first, and then analyze and critique them afterwards. And wherever there are praiseworthy, excellent, true, honorable, and pure things that are worthy of good report, I intend to point them out (realizing that those who are so disgusted with the ECM in its entirety will start some 'smack' with me because they think I'm going soft on the gospel). But the bottom line is that Philippians 4:8 gives us a propositional model on which to base our thinking. And where there are things in the ECM that meet those criteria there, I'll praise God for it and comment to such an effect. And where there are statements that do not meet this criteria, I am equally unashamed to point out the errors, make biblical analyses, and hopefully suggest some helpful criticisms.

Part Two of this series will focus on Brian McLaren based solely on his recent interview with Kim Lawton, as part of PBS's Religion and Ethics presentation, "The Emerging Church" Part One, and Part Two.

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"...for a very long time we have been very preoccupied with the question, as if the reason for Jesus coming can be summed up in 'Jesus is trying to help get more souls into heaven, as opposed to hell, after they die.' I just think a fair reading of the gospels blows that out of the water. I don't think that the entire message and life of Jesus can be boiled down to that bottom line."

My thoughts? Amen Brian! I agree bro!

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LAWTON (To Pastor McLaren): Are there truths related to the faith out there that we can know, that we can be certain about?

Pastor MCLAREN: First of all, when we talk about faith, the word "faith" and the word "certainty," we've got a whole lot of problems there. What do we mean by "certainty"? If I could substitute the word 'confidence,' I'd say, yes, I think there are things we can be confident about, and those are the things we have to really work with...[C]ertainty can be dangerous. What we need is a proper confidence that's always seeking the truth and that's seeking to live in the way God wants us to live, but that also has the proper degree of self-critical and self-questioning passion. And that's not a passion for being wishy-washy or, what was the word in the last election, to be a 'flip-flopper.' It is a passion to say, "We might be wrong, and we are always going to stay humble enough that we'll be willing to admit that." I don't see that as a lack of fidelity to the teaching of the Bible. I see that as trying to follow the teaching of the Bible. It has a lot of positive things to say about humility."

My thoughts? See my post on "Humility as the Bridge Between Postmodernism and the Gospel" where I speak to this same issue. Along with humility, however, must come a degree of certainty that some of the things the church has wrestled with for the last 200o years [especially with respect to the trinity, person and work of Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, etc. - see Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, Chalcedon Creed, et. al.] are in fact eternally true and therefore not to be altered or 'dialogued' about in such a way that might alter them.

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LAWTON (To Pastor McLaren): In GENEROUS ORTHODOXY you're pretty critical especially of the evangelical focus on personal salvation. Why does that trouble you?

Pastor MCLAREN: That is one of the basic concepts in many people's theology in the evangelical church.Well, first of all, I'm not at all against the idea of a personal relationship with God. I think that's where it all begins. I think this is part of the beauty of the message of Jesus. Every individual is invited into a personal relationship with God. But personal is not private, so personal doesn't just mean it's me and God, or me and Jesus, but personal means that my connection to God also connects me to other people and connects me to what God is doing, the mission of God in our world.When we end up in some ways commodifying and privatizing faith, it in many ways marginalizes faith and makes faith be either like a consumer product or like a personal preference. Or it makes us just be a demographic group that gets marketed to or manipulated by political parties or whatever else. But if people believe, as I do, that our Christian identity actually thrusts us into the world with a sense of mission, and it gives us a concern for the poor, it gives us concern for justice, all these very, very important things in our world today, the reconciliation with our neighbors and our enemies -- if we believe we're thrust into the world in this way, then our faith doesn't just stay personal and private. It then engages us in the world.You know, you could look at it like this: if becoming a Christian makes a person withdraw and isolate so that their focus is on what will happen to [them] after death, and makes them less involved in the problems and needs of this world here, today, every person who becomes a Christian in some ways is taken out of the game. But if being a Christian means converting from being part of the problem to being part of the solution, then every person who is a dynamic, growing Christian is engaged in the world as an activist on the cause of justice and peace.

My thoughts? Amen again bro! Many reflections of the church today resemble more a shopping center where consumers often play ecclesiastical leapfrog in the hustle and bustle of individualism. That in turn separates the from each other within the church and isolates them from others outside. Thus, if the salt loses its saltiness, what good is it anymore?

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"We think that the church has, in many ways, already accommodated to modernity. And so the Christian message has become a product almost, and it and the methods of spreading it are like sales pitches. We feel that it has been individualized. It's almost like we have personal computers, and now we have personal salvation. And there's not so much attention to what's going on in our world. What about the social dimensions of our faith, that sort of thing? What we're trying to do is say, 'We've already overaccommodated to modern culture. We've commodified our message; we've turned our churches into purveyors of religious goods and services.' And we're saying, 'No, how can faith in some ways break free from that to engage the issues that we believe the Christian gospel challenges us to?' And those are issues of loving God with our whole heart, mind, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves, which has profound implications on everything from ecology to racial reconciliation to how we spend money in our personal budgets and the national budget and that sort of thing."

My thoughts? I'm in the 'Amen' corner right now, it appears!

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"...people feel a huge disconnect between the image of Jesus that they get from reading the Bible and the image of Christianity they get from the media, whether it's in its more institutional forms or in its more grassroots forms. They just feel that those two don't match. What I think many of us are concerned about is, how can we go back and get reconnected to Jesus with all of his radical, profound, far-reaching message of the kingdom of God? I think it would be safe to say that everything we're doing with the emerging conversation is summed up in saying, 'What is the message of Jesus, and what is the message of the kingdom of God? What does that mean?'"

McLaren is raising the point that so many are fascinated by the Jesus of the Da Vinci Code more than they are the reflection of Jesus as given in the church. The last sentence is of particular importance since it reveals that, at least for McLaren who is now the chief spokesperson for the ECM, their understanding of the gospel greatly differs from the current, mainstream view. The statement itself reveals just how much the Third Quest [See here and here.] and the New Perspective on Paul movements have very deeply influenced the ECM's understanding of the gospel.

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"We're already the richest, most powerful nation in the world, and we're just saying, 'God bless us more'.... Well, if we believe in a God of justice, at some point we've got to think, 'If we're so blessed, maybe we ought to be caring about the people in Darfur, the people in Eastern Congo, the people in the Middle East who are suffering this ongoing trouble.' And we ought to say, 'How can we be agents of peace and reconciliation and rescue and help and service to other people, instead of just being preoccupied with our own blessing?'"

My thoughts? Pure and undefiled religion is clearly defined in James 1:27. And Christian righteousness is clearly defined in the Psalms, namely in defending the oppressed, helping the hurting, and serving the poor.

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"One good way to think about the Bible, for me, is to think of it as the scrapbook or the memorabilia, the essential documents that tell us the story of people who believed in one true, living, just, holy, loving, merciful God. It's not like there are 25 traditions about it. There's one, it's the tradition that begins with Abraham, goes through Moses and David and comes to Jesus, and continues to us today. What those documents do is they give us, in my view, a kind of trajectory, a sense of development, a path of the way that God wants things to go. When you real all the details of the Bible, you see things go up and down and all the rest. But there seems to be a trajectory and a path. What that does for me is it helps me -- let's say the last of the New Testament documents ends about 100, somewhere in that range. Well, that sets this trajectory. And maybe I'm out here, but now I know if the trajectory's going like this, I want to position myself here ... and it helps me aim for a continuing trajectory so that we can live in our day in ways that are pleasing to God and are good for God's dreams for the world."

My thoughts? I just stepped out of the 'Amen' corner, and into the corner of a boxing ring, I'm afraid! This is probably one of the most revealing statements about the ECM's view of the gospel. The gospel of the Scriptures, in McLaren's view, provides simply a 'trajectory' for our lives today, and we can only try hard and hope that we fall into that trajectory somewhere, along with all the others (Catholics, Greek Orthodoxers, Protestants, heretics, et. al) who may find themselves there (leading to a dangerous ecumenism). Again, this view, this explanation by McLaren, cannot be neglected or underestimated when it comes to discussing ECM with others. The Bible does not provide any authoritative teachings which can apply to all cultures of all times, and because it does not, according to this view, neither does the gospel contain such. Study this statement by McLaren more, reflect carefully on it, for it is crucial. To read more on the 'trajectory' of this kind of thinking, read carefully and fairly the article, "Strange But True: The Irrelevance of Scripture for the Church Today" by Andrew Perriman, one in a series of studies by the Christian Associates Study Group on Open Source Theology.

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"One of the things I really value in very traditional worship is the confession of sin. Now for some people that's morbid, and they say it's all about guilt. I don't see it that way. I see the confession of sin as something we do as a community, as a constant reminder that we're just all a bunch of losers, that none of us are all that great, none of us can - should -- consider ourselves better then anybody else. There's a kind of communal humbling in a confession of sin and a realization that we all need mercy from God and we should give mercy to each other. Well, if a group of people say, 'Oh we don't like to think about sin, that's negative, let's just forget about it," I think that's a mistake, and we need gifted liturgists who will guide people in that, back into those things that, over time, they've proven themselves nourishing to the soul."

My thoughts? Okay, I'm back in the 'Amen' corner again. Here is something good, something praiseworthy, especially in our day and age when there is so little emphasis on sin in the megachurch growth culture. In a culture where pastors want to only give that which is positive, that which gives us hope (e.g. as Joel Osteen was recently noted for saying in a Larry King Live Interview), this culture fails to realize that if you don't give a reason to have hope, then what's the point of hope? It is defined as hoping for something over against something else. Thus, I don't really need it. But McLaren, without putting words in his mouth, seems to get this vital point. Hope is predicated upon the forgiveness of sin, which is itself predicated upon the fact and presence of sin. Therefore, confession of sin is imporant for precisely the reason McLaren stated. What he says is biblical on this point, especially the "realization that we all need mercy from God and we should give mercy to each other." In this light, McLaren seems to be seeking to swim against the current of culture, to bring a more biblical definition to culture, rather than just go along with it, in all its postmodern muck, (as he unfortunately seems to do in other areas). But the fact that he does not do it in this area is helpful and noteworthy.

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"How do we integrate a real concern for evangelism and making authentic disciples of Jesus Christ? How do we integrate that with real concern for social justice and real concern for peace and reconciliation in our world? [That's a] huge issue. How do we help Christians maintain an authentic, deeply rooted, Christ-centered Christian identity and engage in meaningful dialogue with members of other world religions and with people with no religion? How do we engage in dialogue? We don't have a great history of that. We need that, and we need to practice that."

My thoughts? I'm stepping back into the boxing ring corner, once more. These questions and comments were made by McLaren in the context of discussing the biggest challenges facing the ECM 'conversation.' The questions, again, reveal just how vital McLaren considers action, good works, justice, letting our light shine, etc. to be, and how inseparable they are from the gospel message itself. The only caveat I have, personally, is that these things he advocates, these things that I advocate as well, are themselves inseparable from their foundation upon eternal 'propositional' truth about Jesus Christ, His nature, His work, and His ministry. We do not engage in these simply simply and/or only because Jesus did, nor do we because it is simply 'the right thing to do.' There is a reason it is the right thing to do, and that reason is sound doctrine, and it is just as important, holding as much weight and necessity, as the fruits which grow out of them. What will happen, unfortunately, is that as good works, social justice, engaging with other world cultures, etc. becomes the focus, and as it becomes the focus apart from the doctrines of the gospel, it will mutate and become nothing more than moralism. In other words, it cannot help but find itself in the same place where the liberal movement for a social gospel landed. The bottom line is that when these things McLaren seeks to engage in - the fruits of our salvation - are separated from their foundation - the Person of Christ, that is the tree or vine of our salvation - those fruits no longer reflect their source. And McLaren would agree with me on this point, undoubtedly. But the fact is that the sap flowing between the vine and its fruit is not primarily mystical but theological, not merely dialogue or conversation, but truths which must be affirmed, guarded, and preached.

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I trust these statements and comments have been helpful. Please leave feedback! Let's discuss his stuff and by all means correct me if my analyses are off base or if I have misunderstood something. I look forward to the comments! And stay tuned for Part Three!

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