Thought 1: So what’s what’s so fearsome about “emerging”?
Scot McKnight is one of the leading scholars in the emerging church movement, and yet his book doesn’t partake of the sins alleged against that movement.
He plainly respects the authority and inspiration of scripture. He plainly centers his Christianity on the gospel and faith in Jesus. He does not extend false hope to those without Jesus.
The book could have written by any number of mainstream evangelical authors.
Thought 2: Did you notice the Postmodernism?
McKnight’s argument that the scripture is story (or narrative) doesn’t sound very radical. It’s not. In fact, it’s just plain right. But had he written in terms of “metanarrative,” we’d all be running around screaming “Postmodernism!”
You see, Postmodernism contains some foolishness and some wisdom. The wise scholar picks the wise parts and leaves the foolish parts behind. The Postmodern observation that stories are powerful — powerful enough to define a culture — is right.
And this means that whoever tells the Story of God defines the church. If the Story is: God hid laws in the Bible and you need our expertise to find and interpret them or you’ll go to hell, then you get one kind of church. If the Story is: God sent his Son to rescue us from the brokeness and otherness that came from the Curse, well, you get something else altogether.
Think about the sermons and classes being taught at your church. What is the underlying Story? Is it the right Story?
Thought 3: Generous orthodoxy
I’m borrowing a term from Brian McLaren that’s really a little broader than what I’m about to say, but it makes the point very well nonetheless. You see, there are teachings that are non-negotiable. Some orthodoxy is necessary. But we need to be as generous as God himself in deciding what really is orthodoxy — what really are the boundaries of the Kingdom.
After class, a fine student pressed me, with intellectual articulation and heartfelt passion, that if we choose [to read the Bible with tradition rather than through tradition] we are led to hundreds of view, with no real unity. How can we let everyone read the Bible for themselves? Won’t that lead to millions of readings?
My response? No, it won’t lead to millions of readings, but it will lead to many readings. Culturally shaped expressions of the gospel are exactly what Paul did and wanted. That’s exactly what Peter and Hebrews and John and James and the others were doing. Culturally shaped readings and expressions of the gospel are the way it has been, is, and always will be. In fact, I believe that gospel adaptation for every culture, for every church, and for every Christian is precisely why God gave us the Bible. The Bible shows us how.
Hmm … This one bears serious reflection. Let’s start with: what are the alternatives? The only way to avoid multiple expressions of the gospel is to adopt a hierarchical denominational structure where the headquarters tells us what to believe. But even the highly-hierarchical Catholic church has considerable disagreement within its ranks. The only churches I can think of that allow only one expression of the gospel are, well, cults. Even the Churches of Christ, for all their strictness, have allowed some differences of opinion. Always.
Well, how might we reduce the disagreements? Severe, hateful peer pressure has been known to work for a while, but the only permanent solution is really good teaching on how to study and interpret the Bible. But even the best teaching will not produce perfect uniformity. We remain broken, imperfect people, and so we’re just going to disagree on some things.
Then isn’t this a disaster? How can we say that God is cool with all these disagreements? Because, McKnight argues, James expressed the gospel differently from Paul and John expressed it differently from Matthew. They all spoke truth — real truth — but from different perspectives.
Yes, but they didn’t disagree. We disagree. Isn’t that a category difference?
Yes and no. Yes, disagreement is different from different perspectives. But disagreement is the inevitable consequence of being broken humans. The solution, therefore, isn’t to pretend that we aren’t broken. It’s foolish to argue that anyone can pick up a Bible and read it exactly as David Lipscomb, B. C. Goodpasture, and Neil Anderson read. They don’t agree among themselves!
Do we give up and tolerate any interpretation at all, no matter how stupid? No. Rather, we let God instruct us as to who to accept and who not to accept. And this means we stand for the gospel and the Story — but we extend to one another the same grace God has extended to us.
(Rom 15:7) Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
“Accepted you” is aorist in the Greek. It refers to action that happened in the past at a particular point in time. It refers to the terms on which God saved us: faith, repentance, baptism — none of which had to be perfect. A real but imperfect faith, a real but imperfect repentance, and real but imperfect baptism is quite enough. And if God accepts us on those terms, so must we accept anyone else who meets those terms.
In short, yes there is an orthodoxy on which we must insist — but it’s a very generous one.
And in this there is freedom — freedom to serve effectively in God’s mission. No longer must we agree on every fine point of doctrine to consider one another brothers, to cooperate, or to do mission together. And we’re freed to re-articulate the gospel in terms that are true in current culture.
We don’t have to have Sunday night church in a 21st Century urban congregation. The gospel doesn’t require it. It’s not part of the Story. And it may not serve God’s mission well at all in that place.
Being missional means thinking like a missionary, and thinking like a missionary means learning how to reach people in a culture that may be foreign to you. You learn to express God’s gospel in terms that speak to the hearts of people in a foreign culture — and as a missionary, your own comfort is quite beside the point.
Missionaries don’t worry about whether they enjoy the style of music or preaching. Missionaries worry about whether the music and preaching touches the hearts of the lost in their adopted culture. And grace allows us to be missionaries knowing that God wants exactly that. Grace, you see, is just another word for generosity.
And when you get past questions of worship, and church organization, and such, you find that we believers pretty much agree on what matters: the gospel and the mission we’ve been given to serve together. And that’s quite enough.