The Emergent Church

Herbert Douglass

Part V

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May 26th, 2010 by Herbert Douglass

The fundamental question, that one issue, that has separated philosophers and theologians since the beginning of recorded history is epistemology: how we know things, or, how we think we know things.

That is exactly what is at stake today when we discuss the "emerging church" or "emergents"--is truth to be found in the exciting conversation of listening to each other, trusting in our own feelings or is truth found in listening to the authority of the Bible?

The emergents flee from the authority of an inspired Book. They test authority by their feelings that make more sense for them than boring sermons and a list of proof texts. These personal feelings are echoed by others who "feel" that same way about churches--churches that seem so particular, so restrictive, so exclusive!  They prefer a Jesus who is inclusive and not judgmental --nobody left out, ever!

With that rejection of boring churches, and those memorized texts by the dozens to get an A in Bible class, I can heartily agree. I too reject the use of the Bible to build walls around churches that have forgotten how to build appealing escalators that go both ways. I too wince when I hear parents, teachers, and preachers beat the commandments into the young and old with great earnestness but without showing in transformed living their own joy of avoiding the tears and heartbreak that always follow the breaking of those commandments--that is, if they have really found that joy of loyal obedience. Truth is not served by cold heads and hearts, no matter how correct the doctrine may be. 

So, we today end up with the historical standoff and a devilish debater's trick--the familiar either/or question: Is authority found in what God has said or is it found in our spiritual impulses--doctrine or experience.

But anybody who thinks twice knows that the issue is better framed with the "holy and." We don't have to decide between either/or!

God is a very person-oriented Person--that is the open secret of the Trinity.  Further, Jesus said, "I am the Truth." Truth is knowing a Person, not merely the words about that Person. In other words Truth equals doctrine plus a relationship with the Person behind the doctrine.

Most theological arguments could be solved in five minutes, if all concerned would use the "holy and" rather than the "either/or" question. For example, think of all the ink and shouting that could be avoided if we simply took the "holy and" when we want a definition of righteousness by faith: justification AND sanctification, both working together from the first commitment of faith in following Jesus to the day we go to sleep or when Jesus returns. Both those terms are very experiential. If we don't sense that, we can be sure that we don't understand what those two words mean--another example of doctrine AND experience.

Our emergent friends, however, reject the absoluteness of Bible truth, linear thinking (coherent, logical), certainty, and the cerebral as opposed to affective. They have seen the downside of all those characteristics: arrogance, inflexibility, desire to control, and always having to be "right."

Emergents turn to the changing culture for guide posts, without claims to be right or true, facing the culture in which we all live, but allowing this culture to control our emotions and aesthetics. They deny foundational thinking, enduring truths. They insist that we "know" things in many different ways, that there is no "best" way. Instead of focusing on "right" belief, they think in terms of love, relationships and tolerance wherein nobody is ever wrong.

All this can be summed up with two words: pluralism/diversity and relativism. For them, God has many ways to find Him--Christianity being one. Relativism has been rampant for more than a century in all areas of life--architecture, graphic arts, literature, and definitely within the Christian church.  Thus, absolutism denies relativism--obviously. Why? Because relativism insists that morality and religion are relative to the people who embrace them.

None of the above, however, suggests that the emergents that I have read disregard the Bible! Hardly!

Brian McLaren, perhaps the most prolific of the emergents, wrote: "I believe it [the Bible] is a gift from God, inspired by God, to benefit us in the most important way possible: equipping us so that we can benefit others, so that we can play our part in the ongoing mission of God. My regard for the Bible is higher than ever."[1]  Yet reading throughout his well-received book, A Generous Orthodoxy, one goes back and forth applauding but just when you think he has a point, he makes some outrageous exaggeration that is off the chart. McLaren simply and categorically is against authority, infallibility, objectivity, and literalness in his use of the Bible.

Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, Grandview, MI, said in a Christianity Today interview: "The Bible is still in the center for us but it is a different kind of center. We want to embrace mystery, rather than conquer it." Rob's wife, Kristen, continuing the interview: "I grew up thinking we've figured out the Bible, that we knew what it means.  Now I have no idea what it means. And yet I feel like life is big again-like life used to be black and white, and now it's in color."[2]

Kristen credits Brian McLaren with directing their thinking on Spiritual authority: "Our lifeboat was A New Kind of Christian." Here McLaren speaks through Neo who helps the bewildered pastor, Dan Poole, discover a new kind of Christianity and a new kind of biblical authority: "When we let it go as a modern answer book, we get to rediscover it for what it really is: an ancient book of incredible spiritual value for us, a kind of universal and cosmic history, a book that tells us who we are and what story we find ourselves in so that we know what to do and how to live. That letting go is going to be hard on you evangelicals."[3]

Going back to our original question: What authority do you trust most?--everyone has his or her own private answer. It will be transparent in the choices made in life. Nicodemus learned something on that summer evening when Jesus lifted him above his devotion to the Scriptures (the Old Testament), commendable as that may have been. After that memorable discussion, Nicodemus was never the same. He was loyal to Jesus, His new Lord, ever after, even when our Lord's disciples had fled into the dark corners of Jerusalem on the bleak Friday afternoon. He and Joseph of Arimathaea got the unusual permission to bury our Lord's lifeless form in a new burial cave, never used.

He had connected with Truth as his head filled with a new look at Scripture and his heart filled with a new relationship. This was really authentic living!

Relationship theology is great only to the extent it leads us to our Lord who came to earth to establish that relationship. Making relationships with friends who are also seeking relationships with others who seek the excitement of asking questions and questioning all the answers-always leads to dead ends.  Just like picking out a lifemate: those who are wise learn as much as they can about that "knockout guy" or that "dazzling beaut" before they make very long-lasting decisions.  Hooking up with a relationship that "wows" for a few months, without a careful examination of what the facts are, also leads to sad, dead ends.  Likewise, saying that Jesus is one's Inspiration without knowing what He has said about who would be His loyal followers--is dreaming up a spiritual mirage and a sad, dead end.

Authentic authority always unites truth and experience.  But truth brings the authenticity to our feelings/experience. Not the other way around.