A Call To Reform – Part 1

A restlessness has been simmering within North American Protestant churches since 2000 that calls for reform.  The energy was at first scattered but later gained focus and momentum through the leadership of Brian McLaren.  The movement, if we can call it that, is known as Emerging Church and now Emergent Church.  God raised up different movements in history to remedy the sickness of His church.  In the sixteenth century, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli led the Reformation that resulted in Protestantism.  Pietism from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries transformed the heady religious exercise into a life related spiritual discipline.  Arguably, Pentecostalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought liveliness back into a rigid and emotionless church.  Now, what sort of challenge is the twenty-first century Protestant church facing that gives birth to, yet, another movement?   The purpose of this article is to take a glimpse at possible answers to this question.

A Brief Assessment

Justin Taylor, one of the three editors of Reclaiming the Center, paints a broad stroke picture of this movement in the introduction of the anthology.  He describes how Roger Webber divides twentieth-century evangelicals into two camps:  the traditional evangelicals (1950-1975, led by Billy Graham) and the pragmatic evangelicals (1975-2000, led by Bill Hybels).  The emergent church leaders are termed younger evangelicals (2000 and beyond) led by Brian McLaren.  “Younger” refers not only to age but also to spirit, and is evidenced by supporters from a broad spectrum.  According to Taylor, in addition to McLaren being the ‘pastor’ of the movement, Roger Olson and Robert Webber are the ‘publicists’, while the late Stanley Grenz was the ‘professor.’

I believe Emergent Church is merely one product that came out of this “restlessness” I speak of at the beginning of this article.  The Church has been encountering mega sociological shifts that ultimately brought theological reactions, which in turn, expresses itself with a new form of spirituality.  A typical example of this spirituality would be someone like Donald Miller.[1]  The sociological shift that I refer to is, of course, postmodernism.  And, the theological reaction[2] that greeted postmodernity, according to Olson, is postconservatism.  Every time we need to define ‘post’ anything ‘-ism’ is troublesome.  It often means that the new form differs from the old but does not oppose it.  Unlike liberalism, postconservatism does not stand against the values of the conservatist.  In fact, it holds many elements valued by conservatists like the centrality of the Bible and major doctrines alike; however, postconservatism sees itself beyond conservatism.  We must remember that its supporters did not simply adopt some new ideas but they struggled through a spiritual journey.  According to McLaren’s own story in A New Kind of Christian, some of those journeys are hurtful.  The reason is not because the church has been bad, but when Christians try to face up to challenges from the ever-changing world with values they hold on from the past and find out that they do not work, their world begins to collapse and they fall into crises.  I will try to point out a few of these problems in the following paragraphs.


1. A Different Gospel

Like many other fellow Christians, I was raised up with the understanding that the gospel is about believing Jesus which leads to eternal life.  The most common theological model for today’s understanding is penal-substitution.  With this view, we are brought to a court scene where God is the judge with mankind being on trial.  This theory emphasizes the seriousness of sin.  Man has violated the law of God, which is not to be taken lightly.  At the same time, the judge loves the human race but a simple pardon of the rebellion would undermine the severity of the consequence.  Therefore, it requires an atonement “that would provide grounds for forgiveness and simultaneously retain the structure of moral government.”[3] The Passion of Christ fulfilled this requirement.  When we accept Jesus as our Savior, our sins are pardoned.  What God did in the death of Christ has substituted for our penalty if we were to continue in sin.  In other words, we are “declared righteous.”

While this view of the gospel answered questions asked by the sixteenth century, it is not adequate to guide the twenty-first century with our pursuit.  Penal-substitution focuses on “guilty” or “not guilty”, which translates to “saved” or “not saved.” It forces a heaven or hell mentality on the believers, and that became the greatest passion of the evangelicals.  This mindset has created many great evangelists, and the zeal for seeking the unsaved can be found in stories like that of John Harper.  Harper was one of the passengers on Titanic.  After the “unsinkable” plummeted to the bottom of the ocean, Harper swam in the icy cold water from one person to another asking the same question “Are you saved?” as he tried to bring one more soul to God’s kingdom before he died from hypothermia.  The strength of the penal-substitution lies with its ability to cope with crises.  It provides instant salvation at the brink of death or despair.  On the other hand, it lacks the continuity to every day life in the absence of crisis.  Going back to the court scene, we see that the prisoner on trial is declared righteous.  But, what happens when he walks out of the court room?  Penal-substitution never provides the answer.

One problem of viewing the gospel in this sense is that it becomes merely a means for us to get to heaven.  Coupled with the doctrine of perseverance[4], once we passed through the door of salvation we no longer have any needs of the key that got us in.  The only thing left to do is to pass the key to the next person.  Tony Campolo speaks of the time he attended an evangelistic event when he was a young lad.  The speaker spoke of how messed up the world was and how wonderful things will be when people believed in Jesus.  He said Jesus was like the general and his believers were his army and together they would change the world.  Campolo was excited at the message and he asked the speaker what he should do.  He was told that believers were like the recruiting sergeants, and they were to bring unbelievers to join God’s army.  Then, they will become recruiting sergeants and bring in more people.  Campolo concluded that story by saying that in time he realized that we are all recruiting sergeants and the real work had never begun.  A gospel with this perspective centralizes on Jesus’ crucifixion but marginalizes his life.  The motto of this theology is “Jesus was born to die.” The life of Jesus, his ministries, and the lives of the people he touched became unnecessary.  If Jesus had been crucified at age sixteen, it would have been alright.  In this sense, not only the life of Christ is marginalized but also the Samaritan woman by the well, Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears, the leper, the blind, the mute, and the adulterous woman who almost got stoned to death.  Ultimately, the same is true with our lives.  When we view the world with a bottom-line perspective that marks just two door ways of “heaven” or “hell”, then the gospel becomes irrelevant to life after “we’re in”.

     Based on this assessment, I believe the reform will look for a different model, or supplemental models, of atonement.  This model would build a link between the good news and our lives that make us more Christ-like.  One example I can think of comes from Greek Orthodox theology.  The centrality of their view of salvation lies not with the crucifixion of Christ but with the doctrine of Trinity.  They see that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit commune in an eternal and harmonious dance.  God keeps inviting us to join this dance through the ages.  Sin means people are stepping out of the dance, corrupting its beauty and rhythm instead of moving with grace and reverence.  Consequently, Jesus enters creation to restore the rhythm and beauty again.[5] Athanasius, a fourth century bishop, told a powerful story that illustrates how this works.  Once upon a time there was a good and kind king.  Some people in one of his distant cities exploited the freedom they enjoyed and started doing evil.  In their crime, these rebels feared that one day the king would come to punish them, and they nurtured a hatred for the king.  They convinced the city to follow them and they claimed independence from the king.  As they followed their evilness, all sort of crimes broke loose—violence, slavery, murder, and rape—despair soon ruled over the city.  The king struggled with the dilemma of letting them be or sending his troops—both would cause great destruction.  The wise king did something surprising.  He took off his royal robe and dressed as a homeless wanderer.  He lived in the city next to the garbage dump and took up a trade of fixing broken potter and furniture.  People were attracted by his goodness and respect that they would linger just to be in his presence.  He told them the rebels had fooled them, and that the true king had a better way to live, which he exemplified and taught.  One after another followed his ways.  Soon, he had hundreds of followers.  His influence became a movement.  The entire city finally regretted its rebellion but now feared to return to the king, believing that he would destroy them for their crimes.  But, the king-in-disguise told them the good newsHe was the king and that he loved them and welcomed them back into his kingdom.  Such is the gospel of the Greek Orthodox.

[1] If you are under 30, Miller’s Blue like Jazz is a must read.  If you are over 30, it is still highly recommended.

[2] I must admit that ‘reaction’ is not the best choice of vocabulary to fairly describe its course.

[3] Millard Erickson.  Christian Theology, 2nd ed., p.807.

[4] This doctrine says salvation is sustained by God to the end.  Therefore, a believer does not lose salvation.

[5] Brian McLaren.  A Generous Orthodoxy, p.56.

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