Strains Within the Emergent Church Movement

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In Emergent Church: Apostate or Nothing New Under the Sun?, I addressed the Emergent Church Movement primarily in terms of what's going on with its key philosophical claims, especially its epistemological claims. For non-philosophers, epistemology is the theory of knowledge, justification for belief, and other questions related to our understanding of the world, how we get it, and what makes it a good or bad state of mind regarding a particular belief or set of beliefs. Epistemological issues in the context of Christian belief thus deal with whether we can be certain that Christianity is true, what gives us good reasons to believe it, the status of the Bible as revelation from God, and the nature of truth itself. I ignored many crucial elements of this movement, and I'd like to remedy that now.

Ed Stetzer discusses three strains with the so-called Emergent Church: Relevants, Reconstructionists, and Revisionists [hat tip: Mickey McLean]. My previous post left us with a choice in how evangelical Christians should evaluate this movement, and I suggest that either there's very little new at all about this movement, and it's classic evangelicalism, or it's heresy and/or heteropraxy. There's probably some of both in the movement. What we need to do is isolate strains with it and then consider each separately. Stetzer's three categories provide one categorizing system to begin this work.

Relevants just want to make sure Christians are doing proper contextualization, recognizing the barriers to cross-cultural communication in a world that is becoming increasingly postmodern and seeking to make sure the gospel is communicable to the current generation. If that's all that's involved, then these types within the Emergent Church are doing nothing new, absolutely nothing at all. This is no contrast with modernism, and it's not postmodernism either. The language Emergent types often use (i.e. the word 'emergent') is this seriously misleading. This is just classic Christianity as standing outside culture, recognizing the good and bad in it and willing to communicate within each culture but assuming no correct cultural way to express itself. One might disagree with some of how they do this, but it's not heresy or heteropraxy, and the general approach is nothing new, at least in principle. It's applying principles to a new situation, but that happens in standard evangelical congregations all the time. I see nothing emergent about this. It's possible that some particular applications of this principle constitute heresy or heteropraxy, but those need to be discussed on an individual basis. The general approach is fine and nothing new.

Where this can go wrong from a biblical perspective is fairly clear. If someone wants to make the gospel more culturally accessible by leaving out parts that are culturally unacceptable (e.g. the nature of sin and the gulf between humanity and God because of it), then it's not heresy, because it doesn't deny anything crucial to the gospel. It's just that it doesn't declare the gospel. It hides it and then makes a pretense of preaching the gospel. If someone wants to make Christianity more culture-friendly by avoiding calling something sin that the Bible clearly states is sin, then the same sort of thing happens. It doesn't count as heteropraxy if it doesn't deny what the Bible says, but it hides what God has made known. That's bad and worth criticizing. If someone goes so far as to deny something crucial to the gospel, then the heresy charge is worth considering (other factors might come into play, such as whether they just haven't thought through the implications of what they're saying or if instead they've outright denied the gospel in plain form after having been confronted about it and show a consistent pattern of unrepentance, but people doing that are in the third category below and not properly just Relevants).

His second category is Reconstructionists. This is an unfortunate term, because it's often used for the Reconstructionist movement among theonomistic postmillenialists, who think Christians should seek to reconstruct every law in every government to reflect the laws of ancient Israel as mediated through Moses. That's not what this focus within the emergent movement is doing. The idea here is that the structures and forms within evangelicalism's worship meetings and congregational governance are unbiblical and/or not contrary to biblical ones but not required by them, and in addition they are bad in terms of relating to our current culture. This strain uses the term 'incarnational' a lot to signify having the entire body of Christ serving rather than some select few (or even the one-man ministry that dominates most evangelical churches). House churches are part of this movement. There's a tendency to avoid official programs that take a lot of bureaucratic nonsense, overhead for oversight, and staffing. Worship styles get reevaluated. What sorts of things take place in a public meeting have to it carefully into a sense of what the public meeting is all about.

As with the first category, this isn't really anything new, at least in principle. Evangelicals have been doing this since the Reformation and then the Puritans. It happened again with the charismatic movement, and smaller movements like the house church movement (which appeared long before postmodernism infected evangelicalism), cell groups, contemporary worship movements across the generations (beginning with Martin Luther), movements to translate the Bible in contemporary, ordinary language (beginning with the Vulgate originally but with Tyndale in English, a good deal before the KJV), leadership by plural eldership rather than one pastor, removing the clergy/lay distinction, positioning a meeting room so everyone faces each other, and so on. My congregation has taken part in many of these things, and I don't think applying the term 'emergent' to it would be anything but a huge mistake. My congregation is well within the mainstream of evangelicalism but simply reevaluates much of what we do according to scripture first and then according to what's culturally helpful among the things that aren't scripturally mandated but often assumed.

This can go astray just as easily as the first category. Someone might wrongly evaluate what must be done or what might be done. This post isn't to settle the details of what must be done or what might be done, and I don't think it should be too controversial to say that someone could think something is permissible and then do it because the culture would welcoe it more, only to be doing something wrong. It's probably even easier to be wrong in thinking something is required when it's not required (which results in legalism, ironically about something that often enough is supposed to be a reaction against legalism). Perhaps something might even be seen to be essential for reaching out to postmoderns, but it's something Christian congregations shouldn't be doing at all. It's in working out examples of this where people might disagree. I think the structure of this category should make sense without the examples, so I want to leave it at this for now.

Finally, we have the Revisionists. Some of the Revisionists are reconsidering crucial doctrines of orthodox, biblical Christianity, and some have outright denied those doctrines. I'm not going to deal with specifics here any more than I did above, but I do intend to address some of those issues in forthcoming posts. I've even begun to write much of that material already, but I wanted to keep this post about the fundamental issues, and including it here would detract from that. It suffices to say that I think the issues Stetzer raises are more complex than he thinks they are, and holding the views he says are compromising the gospel don't necessarily do so, though perhaps in most cases they do.

That discussion will come, however. What I want to say now is that questioning crucial elements of the gospel as stated in the scriptures does seem to me to count as something genuinely new and thus emerging from evangelicalism into something else, but what that means is that it's also emerging from gospel-centered Christianity into something else. Those who are denying the crucial claims of the Christian gospel simply are not Christians, unless they believe the gospel itself but say some additional things that they don't realize are in conflict with the gospel they do believe. Perhaps that happens with some of the Revisionists. But it's clear that Revisionists, if they are genuninely revisionist about biblical teachings central to the gospel, are flirting with the sort of thing that is roundly condemned all through the New Testament.

That, in fact, is what is worrying so many people about the emergent movement. People are clearly questioning or denying things that many believe to be central to the gospel. As I said, I'll look at the details of some of this in future posts, but given that that's happening I think the criticisms are fair, as long as those criticisms take into account that most of what is wrongly called Emerging is simply classic evangelicalism's willingness to contextualize and speak to a culture in its own language. There's nothing wrong with that, though it's also nothing new, and Emergent types who pretend otherwise are just way out of step with the history of evangelicalism. This is pretty much how evangelicalism developed as an alternative to what is now called fundamentalism (both were once subsumed under the same name when the term 'fundamentalism' didn't have the negative connotations the media gave it in the 1980s).

In the end, I think Stetzer's categories enable me to flesh out a little more what I meant when I said that the Emergent Church is either not new and thus not emerging from anything or new but not part of the church, i.e. the body of genuine believers who are spiritually speaking with Christ in the presence of God. We'll see about whether the particular claims some make about which views or claims lead to which status, but I'm dealing with the general question here. I don't think this further reflection requires me to change much in my general thesis from my previous post. There's not much new in the Emergent Church/Conversation that is acceptable. Most of what's new is unacceptable for a Bible-believing Christian, and most of what's acceptable and even good has been in evangelicalism all along. I will argue in the next post that there are some views that don't deny the gospel that are sort of new, but I don't agree with some of those views, and I'm not sure I'd call them better views than what evangelicals have classically held.

But there's one big modification that Stetzer has forced me to consider, and it's something I haven't mentioned yet. He points out that virtually all of the modifications the Revisionists are considering or adopting are not new anyway. Most of them have taken place in pretty clear ways in mainline denominations, some of them for over hundreds of years and some only more recently, but not very many are new with the Emergent movement. That means maybe I should just be saying that very little of the Emergent movement is new to begin with. Some is old and fully consistent with standard evangelicalism, indeed part of its main emphases and distinctives from the more extreme fundamentalists. Some is old but part of mainline denial of gospel teaching or biblical practice. In terms of the issues in this post, very little is even new (though I'm less sure if the issues from my last post involve something new among those calling themselves Christian, even if they're not as new in the academy).

What's truly ironic, as Stetzer notes, is that rejecting these biblical elements has led to the increasing irrelevance of churches in the mainline denominations. Those whose primary experience of Christianity is from the sort of groups who have historically denied the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are exactly those who think Christianity is for very small groups of grandmothers. Those denominations don't tend to attract people, especially younger people. They tend to die out. The same is true of the campus ministries of those denominations as compared with the evangelical campus organizations. Groups like Campus Crusade for Christ, Baptist Campus Ministries, the Navigators, or InterVarsity Christian Fellowship tend to thrive on campuses where the official chaplaincies of the mainline denominations are very small. When the evangelical groups are small, it's usually because there are already several at the campus or because the word simply hasn't gotten out very well about the group's being there. The more conservative congregations in mainline denominations are growing, as are the evangelical groups on campus, and it frustrates the leadership of the mainline denominations to no end. They can't understand why people are drawn to those outdated doctrines that enlightened, postmodern people now understand. This is something the Emergent movement should keep in mind. The Revisionists within the Emergent movement are moving in the direction of the leadership of the mainline denominations, and that's something that I think is very much worth avoiding.

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5 Comments

Very helpful Jeremy. My observaton has been that there isn't anything new too. At the same time, I know some Christians who are younger aren't aware of the trends that have taken place in the church (or are aware theoretically but haven't lived through them and experienced them) - so they think this is all new.

I'm interested to see what follows in your next posts. Particulalrly on revisionism. Like you I've had the red flags on some of that. The rest to me is just stuff churches are doing anyway, as you said.

Jeremy, well written. I'd like to say that there is nothing new from the standpoint of Reformed or Restoration confessions because they have already done a lot of reinventing, leaving out Bible emphases inconvenient to their emphasis and the like. However, most, not all, of those past responses to Roman Catholic overreaching also opposed church-state cross-passage.

I am not so sure the Emergent Church wants to come down on one side or another of church-state if it looks like power options and access could be lost by doing so. Perhaps there are varying views within the movement on this. My take on McLaren is that he is pro-political-involvment, so long as we're talking Democratic party and leftward liberation-type theology.

I think that there is already charity in the world; that institutional arrangements to preserve charitable communities in a world hostile to them do not necessarily detract from charity; and that the Emergent Church movement is based in part in a need for significance and ego gratification in appearing to be the one who finally gets the faith right when those who are getting the faith right are not very busy blowing their horn over it and proving that a new movement is not necessary.

The Navigators have had the Catholic Discipleship Ministry, Emmaus Journey since 2000. http://www.emmausjourney.org/ This ministry fully supports Catholic doctrine. So does this make the Navigators Relevents that omit crucial portions of the gospel?

I don't think the Navigators omit any of the gospel in their statement of faith. Perhaps that particular ministry has different views from the organization as a whole. I'm not sure how it's supposed to work.

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