Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Emergent Church (Part One)

              Author's Note: This is the first section of a four section series on the Emergent Church. Emergent thought is still prevalent in many churches across the U.S. and is quite popular among people my age. Though the popularity of the Emergent Church has seemed to wane, it is still necessary to write and respond to problems we see in these movements, as they continue to thrive in many places in our nation.
            In his book The Post-Evangelical, Dave Tomlinson writes a fictional story of Jesus telling a parable to a gathering of evangelicals in the present day:

I thought this was funny.
            “An evangelical speaker and a liberal bishop each sat down to read the Bible. The evangelical speaker thanked God for the precious gift of the Holy Scriptures and pledged himself once again to proclaim them faithfully. ‘Thank you God,’ he prayed, ‘that I am not like this poor bishop who doesn’t believe your word and seems unable to make his mind up whether or not Christ rose from the dead.’ The bishop looked puzzled as he flicked through the pages of the Bible and said, ‘Virgin birth, water into wine, physical resurrection. These things are hard to believe in, Lord. In fact, I’m not even sure I’m in touch with you in a personal way. But I’m going to keep on searching.’ I tell you” said Jesus, “that this liberal bishop, rather than the other man, went home justified before God” (Tomlinson 69-70).

            This story provides an excellent example of how many leaders in the Emergent church think. They value the journey rather than the destination. They want to leave no proverbial rock unturned, but they do not want to find what treasures lay under the rock. They think that asserting what one must believe to be a Christian is always an exceedingly prideful thing—even pharisaical.

            The confusing thing about this fictional parable is that the bishop says he will keep searching. Searching for what? He apparently found the virgin birth, miracles, and physical resurrection in the Bible. The answers as to why Jesus did these things are found in the Bible as well. What is there left to search for? Why was the bishop justified when he would not affirm anything other than a search? This seems in complete contradiction to what Paul says in Romans 10:9: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

            Tomlinson’s book was written in 2003 but signals major shifts in the way that waves of people have begun to think about Christianity and the Church. Some of the shifts include trading in propositional expressions of Christian faith for stories that involve the personal journeys people are going through, from a desire for dogmatic truth to searching out spiritual experiences, and from defending the faith to using alternate words like dance, song, and evolving faith. 

            The problem with talking about the emergent church is that it’s elusive. There are both conservative and more progressive voices in the movement. Dan Kimball, for example, believes that the Bible is inspired and we can be bold about what Scripture is clear about (Kimball 99). Others are not sold on the idea of the Bible’s inspiration, and a major portion of the emerging church has adopted Tomlinson’s flexible view of the Christianity that disdains the strict borders of evangelicalism.

            Most in the Emerging conversation (conversation being used interchangeably with church) do not share Kimball’s desire for a theology that arises directly from Scripture. In fact, most major voices in the movement are very skeptical of it, being in favor of a process theology. Theology must always be emerging, because it arises out of an emerging culture (Pagitt 124). “We consult our big [theological] cookbooks as needed, yet most of our theology is made fresh daily, around our community values and spiritual practices” (Ward 178). Many in the Emergent church crave a theology that is in en route, with no destination on the horizon. “Christians have never been intended to be a people only of a book, but a people who are led by the ever present God, active in our lives, communities, and world” (Pagitt 126). The implication, of course, is that people who desire to have a theology that proceeds from the Scriptures (i.e. unchanging) do not believe that God is active in their lives. Those who look for the foundations of truth laid down in Scripture do not believe that God is ever present. Instead of worshipping the true God, Tomlinson writes that evangelicals “…tend to make an idol out of the Bible” (74).

            When theology is taken to be ever-developing, many other beliefs that evangelicals have taken for granted are placed on a shaky foundation. Firstly, a theology containing propositional truth is deemed unnecessary. Tomlinson writes, “…post-evangelicals are less inclined to look for truth in propositional statements… and more likely to seek it in symbols, ambiguities, and situational judgments” (94). What is being rejected by many in the Emerging conversation is “…the idea that human beings could grasp this objective world in an objective manner” (Rollins 11). 

            Secondly, because many Emergents believe that objective truth is practically unreachable, they imply that people cannot know God truly. Since propositional truth is ambiguous, we can only know God mystically Many Emergent church leaders appeal to mystery as the thing they can rely on most securely. As Kevin Deyoung points out in his book Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be (written with Ted Kluck), “The Christian faith is mysterious. But when we talk about Christianity, we don’t start with mystery. It’s some combination of pious confusion and intellectual laziness to claim that living in mystery is at the heart of Christianity” (Deyoung, Kluck 38). Christianity begins with a God who acts, as seen in the creation account of Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word,” says John 1:1, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That Word speaks today through the Scriptures. The Spirit convicts hearts by the word of God. 

            Thirdly, supposed process of theology leads many in the Emergent church to claim that what we believe about God is not as important as how we live. “…Orthodoxy is no longer (mis)understood as the opposite of heresy but rather is understood as a term that signals a way of being in the world rather than a means of believing things about the world” (Rollins 3). Interestingly enough, Rollins boils everything down to love; love “…as knowledge of God” (Rollins 3). One would think that in order to love correctly it would also be necessary have to have some type of understanding of what God’s love is and how God acts in love. The ideas about what this love is or how this love acts could properly be called doctrine, as arising directly from Scripture and the picture it presents of Jesus Christ. If ideas about love do not proceed from the Bible, that one’s idea of love is simply a reflection of the self. Doctrine, then, would seem quite important! But Rollins does not see the contradiction and believes that traditional orthodoxy will not cost us anything (Rollins 3). One wonders if Rollins could say the same thing to the Church persecuted all over the world, or to Athanasius, Gresham Machen, and John Bunyan, all who suffered for what they believed.

            This essay will explore whether the ideas of many in the Emergent church are biblical; whether they are in line with biblical authors’ ideas about propositional truth, the knowability of God, and whether orthopraxy should take precedence over orthodoxy. The belief of the author is that the Emergent church strays from the biblical portrait of Christianity as it deemphasizes propositional truth, takes a stance that paints God more as a mystery than anything else, and stresses orthopraxy at the expense of orthodoxy. 

Author's Note: Next Thursday the second installment will be posted on the blog. Stay tuned!

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