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Austin Grigg

Husband, father of three boys, dabbling theologian, web developer and business owner.

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The Emergent Church

This is the first in a series of posts looking at tough theological questions. If you missed the intro, check it out here.

The first theological topic is the emergent church. The word “emergent” is used so loosely and applied to so many different movements in the church today. I think is it so difficult to understand because it is not well defined and used in a very nebulous way. Mark Driscoll wrote an article that outlines the different “lanes” of the emergent church and was very helpful to me in clarifying the issue and helping to wade through the jargon. Here is the synopsis taken from that article, “Navigating The Emerging Church Highway”:
Wading through the entire emerging church milieu is incredibly complicated. In this article I seek to provide a simple but accurate means of navigating the emerging church highway by focusing on its four lanes and their leaders. For the purposes of this article I will define them as Emerging Evangelicals, House Church Evangelicals, Emerging Reformers, and Emergent Liberals. What the first three lanes have in common is theological orthodoxy. Churches in these lanes are not interested in reconsidering major Christian doctrines such as those that view the Bible as God’s Word, God as triune, Jesus as God and the only means of salvation, humanity as sinful, all sex outside of heterosexual marriage (including homosexuality) as sin, and heaven and hell as literal, conscious, and eternal. In the fourth lane are the Emergent Liberals, who are most controversial and are not theologically evangelical. The three main leaders of this lane are Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell. The Emergent Liberal lane of the emerging church has drifted away from a discussion about how to contextualize timeless Christian truth in timely cultural ways and has instead come to focus on creating a new Christianity. 1
As Mark Driscoll points out, many groups and churches are being labeled as emergent, but the "Emergent Liberals", as he refers to them, are not merely interested in understanding how to best express the church and the Christian faith in our current culture, but are redefining what it means to be Christian (of course none of their claims are new, that's why the apostles wrote to the churches about them 2000 years ago). If that seems extreme, here is a quote from a book I've been reading by Marcus Borg who emphatically writes that the emerging church is doing exactly that: making a new Christianity.
The differences between the earlier and emerging ways of seeing Christianity and being Christian involve specific conflicts as well as more foundational issues. These include how we see the Bible, God, Jesus, faith, and the Christian life. To begin with, examples of specific issues that divide the contemporary church...2
He goes on to mention ordination of women, gay and lesbian marriage and ordination as clergy, and christian exclusivism, arguing that this emerging Christianity is re-evaluating and redefining these issues. He sums up this introduction with:
Beneath the specific differences is conflict about more foundational matters, including especially how we see the Bible and its authority. For the earlier way of being Christian, the Bible is seen as the revealed will of God, as "God's truth," and thus as absolute and unchangeable. The changes listed above challenge passages in the Bible that (1) teach the subordination of women and forbid them to have authority over men, (2) declare homosexual behavior to be sinful, and (3) proclaim Jesus as the only way to salvation. To regard these passages as not expressing God's will for all time implies a very different understanding of the Bible's authority and interpretation.3
Borg gets one thing right: the foundation is our understanding of the scriptures. If we don't have a basis for our theology and our convictions, we can make up whatever we believe to be true and right. What's interesting is how he values the scriptures, but sees them more as a personal experience rather than a revelation from God. There are many evidences for the authenticity and infallibility of the Bible (including its coherence as a book written over 2000 years by more than 40 authors, the consistency of it's message, its accuracy in predicting future events), but the most compelling to me is from the Bible itself. The authors of the Bible repeatedly declare the scriptures to be God's word and even refer to the other apostle's teachings in the New Testament to be scripture.

2 Timothy 3:16
"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,"

Matthew 5:17
"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill."

John 3:34
"For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure."

Revelation 22:18-19
"I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book."

It is also important to recognize that there are issues/beliefs that are essential to the Christian faith, and then there are doctrinal issues that are secondary. Another name for this is open hand and closed hand issues. Open hand issues are those things which are negotiable and are a matter of style, preference and wisdom. Closed hand issues are those things which are not negotiable and are issues of biblical authority.4 Mark Driscoll puts it this way:
Open-handed issues are those issues which Bible-believing Christians can debate over, disagree over, even discuss over, but not divide over. The closed-handed issues are those issues we really have to remain committed to, to remain Christian. 5
I say all that to emphasize that yes, we should hold deeply and protect the close-handed issues, but be open and generous around the open-handed issues. The open-handed issues should not divide us. Our worship style and position on infant baptism should not keep us from working together as the Church, across denominations, cultures, and time.

This is a deep and broad topic, but I hope I've demystified the emergent/emerging church a little. At the end of the day, I believe the Bible to be true, to be the very words of God -- if they are not, I don't know what is left to stand on. To be clear, the Bible is made up of poetry, history, genealogy, letters, prophesy -- we would be silly to not read it contextually and dwell intently on its implication for our culture, but I think we would make a far greater error to believe it is simply metaphorical and assume we have a corner on what it means for us today.

2 The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg (Page 3)
3 The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg (Page 4)
Interesting thoughts, Austin! I would encourage you to look further than Driscoll in exploring the Emergent Church movement. While he certainly has a good deal of knowledge on the subject, there are many other voices who would disagree with his characterization of their ministries.

I would also like to challenge you to avoid Driscoll's rigidness in defining what is Christian and what is not. I may not be following what you wrote correctly, but the quotes you present from Borg and Driscoll seem to me to say that if you don't agree that homosexuality is sin, women are subordinate to men's authority, or that the Bible is completely without error, you don't believe in the authority of scripture, and are therefore not a Christian. In my mind, this charge to adhere to the Borg/Driscoll interpretation of scripture would exclude such people as N.T. Wright, Anne Lamont, and Frances Collins, which I think would be a grave error.

Thanks for your thoughts and the good, hard work this post obviously took!

Justin, thanks for your feedback. I think we missed each other on this one, hopefully I can clarify a couple of thing things you brought up. First, I appreciate your admonishment to look past Driscoll -- I absolutely have tried to read and listen to other voices, he is just often the most clear and concise (although can be the most blunt and abrasive).

I'll try to see if I can update the post to make my comments on Borg more clear because I do not side with Borg at all -- he is encouraging homosexuality in the church, ordination of women, and questioning the authority of scripture. That being said, my comments regarding Borg and pointing out those issues were simply to give some context to the issues surrounding the Emergent church. I believe those issues point to a deeper root cause which is our understanding of scripture, not the other way around.

As I mentioned at the end, it is important to frame this conversation around open handed and close-handed issues (of which I believe homosexuality and female ordination are non-essential, but hugely important in our theology and practical lives). I do think our understanding of scripture and Jesus as the only path to salvation are close-handed issues. At the end of the day we have to begin and end with Jesus, not a set of issues. Jesus is who changes us, Jesus is who saves us, Jesus is the one in whom we've put our hope and now build the Church on.

I hope that gives some better clarity to what I was trying to say and for my intentions.

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