PET VIII: Emerging church—heretics or heroes?

Problems in Ecclesiology Today VIII:
Emerging Church – heretics or heroes?

The Emerging Church (EC) continues to be the hot topic of discussion within American evangelicalism today, having displaced open theism as the object of conservative ire. Back in January of this year, there was an incident in which Cedarville University canceled a lecture by Shane Claiborne scheduled for Feb. 11. The event was canceled, according to Christianity Today, because “a small but vocal number of bloggers saw the lecture as a step toward liberal theology.” These bloggers “labeled [him] as belonging to the Emergent community.” The central blog referred to in the article is Slice of Laodicea, by Ingrid Schlueter, which represents some of the most reprehensible theology on the internet today. Here is only the most recent example, from a post decrying both Brian McClaren and Barack Obama supporters:
I am not a Republican. I am a Christian, and no Republican or Democrat who wars against God’s moral law and defends gay marriage, child killing or using human embryos for experimentation will get my vote. You can take that to the bank. McLaren has no moral compass because he rejects God’s Word as his only standard. You will notice a distinct correlation between those who reject God’s Word and their support for pro-death, pro-gay marriage candidates, and every other cause that is a revolt against heaven. That’s why the emerging church leaders and followers are up to their armpits in Obama campaign materials. When God’s Word gets thrown out, it affects every aspect of our lives and ethics. Ideas have practical consequences for men and nations.
I have no desire to dwell on this blog or the substance of her criticisms. Suffice it to say that I do not share her opinions. Those who call the EC leaders heretics who reject the Word of God are at best ignorant, and at worst, guilty of transgressing the law of Christ in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt. 7:1). There is quite a bit of judgmental, disparaging, even violent language coming from those who claim to be following God’s Word—a Word which demands that we love our enemies. I think it’s worth asking who’s actually throwing out the Word of God here.

That being said, I am also a strong critic of the EC. I may not view them as heretics, but I certainly cannot view them as heroes. In what follows, I will outline the reasons why I reject the EC. I embrace them as brothers and sisters in the Lord, but I cannot embrace their vision of the church and theology.

1. The Illusion of Postmodernity

Recently, Damien at Christians in Context wrote about the ecclesiology of the EC in dialogue with John Hammett. Hammett notes that the one common theme connecting the various leaders in the EC is “postmodernism.” I agree with this assessment, except that I view this as a reason why the EC is so deeply problematic. Brian McClaren and others in the EC basically take the reality of postmodernity for granted; they assume it has significance for the church. I strongly disagree with them on this. Postmodernism was fashionable for awhile, but it has since faded from view—and for good reason. It was an illusion from the beginning. What went by the name of “postmodernism” was really just a late form of modernism. If there really was any difference between the two, it was a difference of degree, not of kind. And so we see, at Envision for example, McClaren speaking about the “post-colonial church.” A more cynical critic might say that he’s just found a new fad to join. I would be more sympathetic: I think he’s finally recognized the failure of postmodernity to provide any lasting basis for change in the church. In retrospect, I would say these leaders got overexcited about the possibility of some new intellectual paradigm because they saw it as a justification for reconceiving church altogether. I may agree that there are things which the church needs to think differently about, but the way the EC embraced postmodernism is an unfortunate part of their history—not because postmodernism is somehow anti-Christian (as ignorant conservatives like to assert), but because postmodernism is a chimera, an empty cipher.

2. The Relation Between the Church and Culture

The relationship between church and culture is tricky business. Obviously, you cannot have a culture-less church; that would be equivalent to a human-less or world-less church. But the relation between church and culture is a controversial matter. All of the churches which, in different ways and to varying degrees, bear traces of the Constantinian heritage represent a general confusion between Christianity and culture, usually—as in the cases of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches—identifying Christianity with culture. Catholic and Anglican missions, for example, replicate the same Christian culture around the world, which is just a baptized form of cultural imperialism. For churches which engage in cultural replication, preaching is equivalent to propaganda, because what is being sown is not the gospel but a cultural and political institution. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Anabaptist communities seek to exist as an alien presence within the particular culture. They neither adopt the surrounding culture nor create their own, but live as “resident aliens,” as those who witness to a kingdom that stands over and even against culture.

The EC rejects the institutional structure of traditional denominations and so rejects the notion that the church is itself a culture. It also rejects the view of Anabaptists that the church should be an alien presence in the world. But because of its rejection of Constantinianism, the EC could never endorse a national church model, as we see with the Orthodox Church. Instead, the EC says that the church always takes local, particular forms in accordance with the local, particular culture. The church, according to the EC, must be relevant to the concrete culture in which it exists. Like the Anabaptists, the EC rejects the idea that the church should be a culture in itself, but unlike the Anabaptists, it is not an alien but rather a welcome presence within the local culture. If the EC has a motto or slogan, it is that the church needs to be relevant to people in the 21st century. And since each generation has its own kind of culture, we can see why the EC is primarily a movement of white people between the ages of 18 and 35.

Conservatives who attack the EC for capitulating to the tide of relativism miss the point. It’s not that the EC itself embraces relativism; it is rather that the culture within which the EC exists is relativistic. Conversely, people within the EC movement are quite right when they accuse the traditionalists for being bound to a culturally formed idea of the gospel and the church. But that only means the traditionalists and the EC are equally defining the church on the basis of the local culture. Having said that, even if they are often just as unsuccessful, the conservatives do have a point when they inquire as to the norm for the EC’s understanding of the gospel and the church. And here we get to the heart of my critique of the EC.

At the end of the day, because the EC has defined the church on the basis of the local culture, it makes the local culture the norm for how it reads Scripture and understands the gospel. This is the fundamental mistake of the EC: it embraces a form of contextual theology that is essentially religious ideology. Of course all theology is contextual; not even systematic/dogmatic theology denies that. The difference is not whether theology is contextual but whether one’s context is the central norm for theological talk about God. Dogmatic theology takes the witness of Holy Scripture as the final norm for all theological statements. Contextual theology subordinates Scripture to one’s personal experience or socio-historical context. And so we have a feminist christology, a womanist christology, a black christology, etc. These can all be very helpful and worthwhile, but at the end of the day, you have a God made in your own image. What you do not have is a God who can stand over against your particular context—a God who remains Lord and Judge, a God who can actually reconcile the world to Godself because there is an “infinitive qualitative distinction” between God and the world.

The problem with contextual theology is that it ends up identifying one’s context with revelation, rather than allowing God to transcend and thus judge our context. We end up placing God in our “contextual box,” and that allows us to manipulate God to serve our own interests. In short, contextual theology all too often is indistinguishable from pure ideology. And lest we forget, it was contextual theology that German Lutherans employed to justify Hitler’s fascist imperialism. Just because contextual theology is often done by oppressed groups does not make it any better. Once you allow a contextual theology for blacks, you open the door for a contextual theology of white supremacists.

It’s no surprise then that a lot of EC leaders and advocates have embraced process theology or panentheistic conceptions of God. These theological positions seek to identify God with the world itself, or at least include the world within the being of God. The consequence is that one’s socio-historical context is then able to define God, the gospel, and the church. The final result is that God looks just like me. God is what I want God to be. Once I have reached this point, there is nothing to guard me from joining the German Lutherans who made God an antisemite, or joining the KKK in America who made God an anti-Catholic racist. And I am not at all surprised that young evangelicals are flocking to the EC. As a young evangelical myself, I remember singing songs about Jesus being my best friend. American evangelicalism is deeply infected with the notion that God is just like you and me. “Jesus is my homeboy,” as the T-shirt states.

My point is that the EC has no way of combatting the devolution into ideology—and, thus, idolatry. By making cultural relevancy the starting-point and norm for all their thinking about the church, they have subordinated Scripture and revelation to their own particular cultural framework. It should not surprise us that the EC is almost entirely white, and made up of mostly one generation. Nor should it surprise us that the EC is primarily an American phenomenon. Nor should it surprise us that the EC is primarily bourgeois middle class. The fact that Doug Pagitt used his iPhone to give his presentation at the Envision Conference kind of summarizes the whole problem.

3. The Relation Between Christ and the Church

All of this goes back to how Christ relates to culture. EC leaders are fond of saying that the church should be “incarnational” in a way analogous to Christ’s incarnation. This is problematic for a number of reasons. For starters, the incarnation is sui generis, i.e., it is wholly unique and unrepeatable. In short, the incarnation is an event, not a idea that can be applied or a process that can be completed or a reality that can be replicated. What EC leaders mean is that the church takes root in a particular culture the way the Son of God is born within a particular culture. Not only is this a major oversimplification of the incarnation; the analogy simply does not work. In the incarnation, God relates to culture in a way that only God can: God elects culture (humanity) and takes on human nature by a sovereign act of divine freedom. As a result, the fact that Jesus is Jewish does not mean that God is Jewish, just as the fact that Jesus is male does not mean that God is male. God is wholly other than humanity so that God can be wholly for humanity. But God is only for us in that God is the Lord. God is our Judge, the one who cannot be possessed or confined or manipulated by any creaturely reality. Yet God is our Judge as the one who chose to be judged in our place.

While all this is true of God, it is not true of the church. The church does not transcend creaturely reality the way God does. Nor does the church elect culture the way God does. The church is not wholly other than culture, and thus the church cannot be wholly for culture. At best, one might say that the “invisible church”—the spiritual community of those who belong to Jesus Christ—transcends culture. But the “invisible church” is not an active subject; if anything, it is a metaphor which represents just our ontological bond to God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the people in the EC talk very little if at all about the “invisible church.” Their concern is almost exclusively with the visible, embodied, enculturated community. The ecclesiology of the EC begins from one’s individual cultural context. It begins with the axiom of relevancy: only the church that is relevant to me is a church of which I can be a part. But God has no such axiom. God did not choose to be relevant to humanity in assuming flesh. God did come to meet our needs and our interests. On the contrary, God came as an alien presence: as the friend of sinners and the antagonist of the religious, as the suffering servant who had no beauty that we should be attracted to him, as the lamb whose self-offering on the cross was an act of radical submission to God and radical defiance in the face of imperial power, as the one who interrupts and disrupts our lives as an alien Word of new life in the midst of death.

The church must seek to be the witness to this alien and disruptive word. When a church seeks to be “relevant” to society, this only reveals that the church has abandoned the truth that God came as the radically disruptive reconciler of the world. There is no intrinsic analogy between Jesus Christ and the church. There is only a unique event to which we must faithfully bear witness. We must jettison talk of “incarnational ministry,” which is just a platitude about being involved in the lives of others. The incarnation was not just the ultimate form of “incarnational ministry”; it is laughable even to talk this way. The event of the incarnation was an event of divine judgment for the sake of reconciliation. God did not assume flesh to become our friend; God came to be our Lord and Savior. When we remember that point, we will learn to subordinate our cultural context to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. Unfortunately, by emphasizing a relevant church and a relevant God, the EC has essentially lost its grip on the Christ event itself.

4. Conclusion

Is the EC the worst form of the church? By no means! It is no more problematic than other forms of Christianity. While I think the EC represents a very bad way of approaching the relationship between gospel and culture, it is really only a concentrated form of what we find dominate throughout American Christianity, evangelical or mainline. Moreover, as we learn from Barth and the Protestant tradition, we have to realize that all forms of the Christian church are sinful. Luther called the Catholic Church the “greatest of sinners,” but we have to apply this to all churches everywhere. We cannot let any form of the church escape the judgment of God upon all religion as the manifestation of human sinfulness. To paraphrase Paul, “There is no church that is righteous, not even one.”

Is there any hope for the EC? Yes, there is. Here are some brief suggestions for redeeming the EC and providing a true renewal of American Christianity:
  1. Jettison the language of postmodernity. There is nothing helpful to be found there, and it only serves to create barriers where no barriers need or should exist.
  2. Jettison the language of “incarnational ministry” or the church being the “hands and feet of Jesus.” All such language represents a superficial and erroneous christology, which in turn leads to an erroneous ecclesiology.
  3. Reject all notions of relevancy, whether in christology or in ecclesiology or in any other area of Christian thought.
  4. Similarly, stand under the judgment of God by standing under the judgment of Holy Scripture. Allow the witness of Scripture and life of Christ determine the proper shape of ecclesial existence. Remember that God is “wholly other” and calls us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2).
  5. Read and engage with the work of missional theologians such as David Bosch, Lamin Sanneh, Darrell Guder, Andrew Walls, Christopher J. H. Wright, and others. There are important resources here not only for rethinking central doctrines of the faith, but for rethinking how Christ and the church relate to culture.
  6. In addition to missional theology, read Barthians and Anabaptists on the church, the former to articulate the relation between Christ and the church and the latter to articulate the relationship between the church and culture.
  7. Pray for forgiveness for the way that the church in all times and places has compromised its witness to Jesus, desired to control and manipulate God, and sought to appease one’s cultural context rather than the Holy Spirit.
Update: Those interested might wish to read my much earlier discussion of the EC after listening to McClaren speak at Princeton Seminary.


Unknown said…
Great post, though I have either misunderstood or disagree with parts of it. I am a pastor of a Mennonite church that is part of a conference that is becoming increasingly comfortable with EC representatives. First, I should state outright that your critique of 'incarnational ministry' is 'academic' and by that I mean that I am not sure it is helpful practically and limited theologically. Incarnational is helpful to me with an increased pneumatology, which I see entirely lacking here. The analogy between Christ and church is of course head and body. And the faith community and individual live eucharistically and spiritually as the body.
I also do not quite understand your critique of contextual theology. You acknowledge its necessity but then roundly condemn it. And thinking that a theology of the poor opens the way to a theology of white supremacists seems as naive as conservative concerns of the 'slippery slope'. Yes, we must always leave room for the judgment of Christ. Here I am much in line with Rowan Williams, but I am not convinced that makes theology any less contextual. There is of course good and bad contextual theology.
Sorry, I need to run now. Hopefully I can pick this up later. I do want to speak to how EC gains traction in communities that are not caught up in the full hype of it.
Shane said…

Well done. This is a very cogent and timely analysis of the EC movement.

I would want to defend the notion of contextualization somewhat--though I think you have sounded a very important warning to be borne in mind. Basically, what I would want to say is this: all theology must be contextualized to be understandable. Christian theology is a historical product and like all other historical products it is intelligible only against a horizon of intellectual history. However, what I think people who are overimpressed with Heidegger and Gadamer often neglect is the pneumatological dimension of theology. Theology requires contetualization, but at least part of that work of contextualization is the holy spirit's work revealing God to the learner.

I don't see any conflict between the two points of view--because I don't view divine and human agency as competitive (with which I think you agree).


I don't presume to speak for David, but I personally despise the use of the word "incarnational" outside of the context of christology, because it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Christology. The incarnation was the union of the divine hypostasis with the human one, nevertheless without erasing the distinction between the two. Is your ministry the union of a divine hypostasis with a human one without confusion or separation? If not, then it isn't 'incarnational'.

The importance of the point at issue here is safeguarding the unique mediatorial role of Christ.
Anonymous said…

"The incarnation was the union of the divine hypostasis with the human one, nevertheless without erasing the distinction between the two."

The orthodox terminology is actually one hypostasis (the Word's) in which divine and human natures are united. The human nature of Christ is anhypostatic, it does not have its own hypostasis, its hypostasis is that of the Word.

Your point still stands, though. Incarnation talk should be limited to the incarnation.
Raffi Shahinian said…
Tough to nail down this whole Emergent thing, but can't argue that its a "thing." I've also posted today on a specific issue from within EC. Thought you might be interested.

Grace and Peace,
Parables of a Prodigal World
Unknown said…
I am happy to leave the term incarnational alone. If in theological discourses it is reserved for a very specific use then I wish no confusion.
"We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body." 2 Cor 4:10. This is the sort of thinking that I would have considered 'incarnational', it is the wrestling the with transcendent and present truth in and among us.

In addition to what I failed to add earlier I have mixed feelings about the critique of the 'postmodern'. To an extent this could be applied to other modern application of 'eras'. Yes, the period we have just experienced could be termed late-modern. Yes, this handle can be too easily used as reason and rationale for particular ideologies . But it is already a culturally ingrained description for most of the West (however we might affix a 'post') and so I suspect it would help little to create a new fight over this description. I suspect I would be persuaded by what would be a helpful 'cipher'. So yes I suppose I agree with dropping the language, depending of course on what would take its place.
Anonymous said…
Part of the nature of a contextual theology is that it shouldn't be divided up as society is. It is born in society, but it shouldn't reflect say, a white, rich, American notion of church or Christ or salvation. Such a theology isn't being very prophetic in its context, rather it has chosen to remain un-disruptive. This all David mentioned or implied.

Anyways, good post. I totally agree.

I will be posting a discussion of the image of the church as the "body of Christ" sometime in the next couple weeks. I've already started it. I was alerted to the need for such a discussion a few weeks ago, and again it is clear that we need some fresh thinking on that topic. Stay tuned.

Shane et al.:

You're absolutely right that theology is a contextual affair. That's what I meant by the necessity of some form of contextual theology. The issue is when contextual theology makes context the norm, instead of a source for theological reflection. In short, I agree with what you wrote. And I also agree about the non-competitive relation between divine and human agency.
Anonymous said…
David, this was a very helpful post. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

Your Barthian theology would need a little help from Bonhoeffer: Christ existing in the form of community. I think you over-simplify things: yes there's a qualitative difference between God and humans but God sovereignly decided to dwell among us. We need a contextual counter-cultural theology(see Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 2nd ed.), not just a theology "from above".
But your critique of Emergent love affair with postmodernism is to the point