Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Post-Modern Emergent Church

The Emergent Church (EC) has showered the Evangelical Church with many valid critiques. We need to listen to these and cry out to our Lord for forgiveness and wisdom to proceed. However, we have to also ask what has the EC to offer in its place.

EC guru Tony Jones might be the best one to tell us. About him, Todd Hunter, the national director of Alpha USA writes,

“No one I know is better equipped than Tony Jones to write an insider’s history of emergent churches.”

Nevertheless, it’s hard to pin down what the EC is all about, so let’s take a look at what they and specifically Jones say:

“There’ll be no cutting corners, no easy answers, no magic bullets.” (The New Christians, 111)

Indeed, sometimes we feed our congregants “easy answers,” when it’s time that they should be sharpening their teeth on steak. However, Jones seemingly offers a lot of easy answers, and this statement seems to be an example of one. But perhaps I’m a bit too critical, so let’s look at a few more statements:

“Of course God is hard to grasp. One might even say that God is impossible to grasp.”

While I think that we need to be ever vigilant about our theological formulations, the EC has promoted skepticism as the Queen of virtues. While it is true that God is hard to grasp, the Bible assures us that we can and do have meaningful knowledge of God (Jeremiah 9:23-24; 1 John 5:20), because He has revealed Himself to us (Romans 1:18-21; Proverbs 1). Nevertheless, Jones seems assured that he knows something about God’s – His unknowability – while the rest of us can’t grasp anything about Him.

While Jones professes a high regard for theology, he also insists that it’s “local” – relative our circumstances and temporary – as opposed to “universal,” absolute, and permanent:

“Theology is not universal, nor is it transcendent. The God about whom we theologize is transcendent, but our human musings about God are not. To think that our theology is not local and specific is a falsity that has been foisted on the church.”

How then can Jones assert that God is “transcendent” if all we have are local, personal “musings?” In addition to this paradox, while it is true that our “musings” are not transcendent, God-breathed Scripture is! This suggests that as far as our teachings reflect Scripture, we are imparting timeless truths. While our personal and cultural circumstances strongly influence what we see, it doesn’t mean that we can’t rise above relativism. However, because of our fallibility, care must always be exercised that we aren’t distorting Scripture with our own agendas.

Can we know when our culture has gotten the best of us? This is like asking the question, “Can I tell the difference between ‘Jesus died for my sins’ and ‘Jesus will return in August of 2010?’” One statement is clearly in accord with the facts of Scripture, while the other isn’t! This kind of discernment isn’t impossible!

Besides, I’d like to ask Tony if his statement that “Theology is not universal, nor is it transcendent” is a “local” and culture-bound assessment. If he admits that it is, then he should also be highly skeptical of all his theological pronouncements and all the books he’s written in which he dogmatically proclaims his “local” and personal beliefs. In other words, Jones has to also be skeptical of his skepticism. Similarly, he asserts,

“To assume that our convictions about God are somehow timeless is the deepest arrogance, and it establishes an imperialistic attitude that has a chilling effect on the honest conversation that’s needed for theology to progress.” (114)

However, what kind of theological “progress” can we make if, at best, it’s all “local” and temporary. Is our understanding that Christ has died for our sins” not a timeless truth? Once again, I’d like to ask Tony, “Aren’t you also “arrogant” in your charge that our “convictions” aren’t timeless? Aren’t you equally dogmatic?” Interestingly, many of his assertions are equally self-contradictory:

“The Kingdom of God is expansive, explosive, and un-pin-downable (to coin a phrase). Consequently, our characterizations of God and God’s Kingdom are necessarily fleeting?”

I wonder whether he also regards his own proclamations as “fleeting?” Consequently, Jones’ indictments fall prey to his own charge of “un-pin-downable” and “fleeting!” As any lawyer knows, you can’t build a charge upon something that is fleeting.

Nevertheless, Jones asserts that the EC is not without its solid convictions and commitments:

“That theology is local, conversational, and temporary does not mean that we must hold our beliefs without conviction. This is a charge often thrown at emergent Christians, but it’s false. As a society, we’ve been wrong about all sorts of things in the past, like slavery….Our forebears held positions on these issues with deep conviction, but they were wrong. And I can say that unequivocally. At least I can say that from my vantage point – as one who came after them –they were wrong. What I cannot say is which side of those issues I would have been on a century or two ago. Nor can I say which issues I’m mistaken on today.”

If he can’t say “which issues I’m mistaken on today,” how then can he have any strong convictions? How can he have any confidence in his beliefs? How can he confidently assert that Christ died for his sins or that slavery is wrong? Nevertheless, he does speak with conviction, but it’s clear that his theology doesn’t give him any basis for this. In fact, he’s undermined any basis for confidence by claiming that all beliefs are “local” and impermanent – products of our relative circumstances!

I’m not trying to say that coming to a theologically stable and secure place isn’t difficult. Sometimes it’s accompanied by great turmoil and insecurity, but this isn’t the same thing as what the EC is saying – that it’s impossible and arrogant.

Elsewhere, Jones proclaims, with an air of certainty, that,

“If one has rock-solid certainty, it’s only natural to suppose that all other viewpoints are wrong and therefore impose one’s certainty on others. Proper confidence, by contrast, lends itself to persuasion, not imposition.”

Why wouldn’t Jones’ “proper confidence” also want to “impose?” Ironically, it might prove more likely to impose. As I’ve grown in certainty and assurance of the Christian faith, I’ve found that I’ve become more charitable and less defensive. Security in Christ has bred a greater “other-centeredness” and has relieved me of some of my egotistical self-concern. When I lacked this assurance, I was more prone to over-compensate by being over-assertive, as if this proved my spiritual credentials.

Instead of backing off our assurances, I’ve observed that it’s these assurances that have enabled us to become spiritually secure, personally humble and therefore, non-coercive. The more certain I became of Christ, the less assured I had to be in myself, my own giftedness and accomplishments. Therefore, I was relieved of the pressure of trying to prove myself at every turn. Consequently, I don’t believe that the EC can deliver on the non-impositional goods.

What then does the EC believe? While they are very dogmatic about their critiques and disdain for the Evangelical Church, they seem to adopt the very opposite posture when it comes to postmodern professionals.

What do we do when our brother sins against us? Well, Jones agrees that we should talk to that individual in private, and if he doesn’t listen to bring some others with us the next time. If he still fails to repent, he should then be brought before the church. However, this is only for more of the same discussions. Any form of punishment or church discipline is absent from his equation.

Well, what then of Jesus’ command that the church should then treat the unrepentant one as a “pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17)? According to Jones, Jesus received the unrepentant sinners and tax collectors, and so the church must continue to do the same. This is what is meant to treat them as a “pagan or a tax collector.” There’s no mention of the necessity for repentance (Luke 17:3)! No church discipline! No excommunication! To support his permissive interpretation, Jones cites Eugene Petersen’s The Message:

“If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” (91)

Some years back, I had a contentious student in my Sunday School class. He would repeatedly stand and charge, “Don’t listen to him. He’s a false teacher!” He wasn’t amenable to discussion. He was unwilling or perhaps also unable to show how I was teaching wrongly. After several unpleasant encounters with this student, I went to the elders. Fortunately, the elders hadn’t read Eugene Petersen and didn’t tell me “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch.”

Church discipline is a very necessary tool to prevent the leaven of sin from leavening and corrupting the entire loaf of the church (1 Cor. 5:5-8; Gal. 5:8-9), a tool the will probably fall into greater disuse through the influence of postmodern permissiveness. It’s also a practice for which God commended the churches (Rev. 2:2) and censured other churches which were too permissive (Rev. 2:14; 20).

Despite his numerous pronouncements about tolerance and the need for conversation, Jones censures The Rhyme Bible Storybook for its “unbiblical” portrayal of the people of Joshua’s Jericho:

“It’s downright dishonest to impugn the morals and motives of the seemingly innocent residents of Jericho. They were, by all accounts, just going about their lives in Jericho when, unbeknownst to them, God promised their acreage to the Israelites. Their own crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time…The biblical God is the instigator of all sorts of nasty incidents, especially in the Old Testament, that don’t make for good children’s stories. It might be easier to swallow if the Jerichoans were indeed ‘wicked’…”

Indeed, God didn’t recite a litany of charges against each city which He had designated for destruction. He didn’t have to! It was enough that He condemned the behaviors of the Canaanite peoples in general (Lev. 18:24-28; 20:22-23; Gen. 15:16; Deut. 9:5). Consequently, we’re left to marvel at the severity of Jones’ attack against the children’s Rhyme Storybook (and even the “biblical God”), referring to its author as “downright dishonest.”

Jones seems to be bewildered that conservative preachers and theologians have taken issue with his theology and the EC. He acts clueless, and carefully paints his critics as small-minded bigots. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped many evangelicals from applauding his book. Go figure!

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