The Hole in the Emerging Church
This will shock many to hear, but in the early years of the emerging movement – at least its organized forms – Mark Driscoll was a key member. In a fairly sudden twist, he declared the emerging movement heretical and has consistently condemned anyone and everyone even loosely tied to the label since. In many ways, he is now known as the anti-emerging, conservative Reformed spokesperson. Most have bought into the idea that conservative evangelical and Reformed theology is inherently opposed to emerging theology and vice versa.
On the other hand, last week I had dinner with my wife’s cousin and her husband. Like me, he is a Christian and enjoys a good theological discussion. Unlike me are a lot of aspects of his theology, most of them going back to the idea of justice: the legal framework for salvation, evangelism being about keeping people out of Hell, God being bound by retributive justice, etc. No, he didn’t change my mind on anything and I doubt I changed his mind on anything, but I don’t think that was really the primary point. It was clear that much of our picture of God was radically different but at no point in the conversation did I feel like he was not my brother.
Afterwards I began to think about these types of conversation and realized something important. The emerging church, which attempts to define itself as a conversation, has a blatant hole in our conversation. Rarely if ever do we have certain groups in our conversation: Reformed Christians, conservative (politically or theologically) Christians, fundamentalist Christians, and complementarian Christians. We are great at discussing with those ideas. Many of the emerging leaders come from a conservative evangelical – sometimes Reformed, sometimes not – past. They, like me, are well-familiar with conservative and Reformed thought. But there is a big difference between talking about the ideas and talking to those who still hold the ideas as brothers and sisters. I think we’re often missing the latter in a way that we aren’t missing as much with our Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Mainline brothers and sisters.
While I want to look at what we, those who call ourselves emergings striving for this goal of conversation, can be doing better, I obviously can’t entirely blame us either. Conversations do take both sides choosing to engage and many neo-Reformed Christians, conservative Christians, and fundamentalist Christians have no interest in joining the conversation. When you start with a framework of a judgemental God where some level of fear is expected, they often don’t have interest in those of us who think otherwise. It may not be worth the risk for many of them to step into conversation with “obvious heresy” and therefore risk God’s wrath. It actually makes perfect sense within that system of religion. Some do, like this cousin-in-law, even though he couldn’t quite grasp the idea of a god of restorative justice instead of retributive justice, and I applaud him and any others in that category.
I’m beginning to think that the only way we can ever consider the emerging church movement a success is if we can find ways to welcome our conservative and Reformed brothers and sisters to the conversation. That’s the Catch-22 we’ve set ourselves up for by defining success in terms of an ecumenical conversation. If we don’t find a way to include them, we fail at the goal. Including them when they don’t really want anything to do with us seems to be virtually impossible, though.
It is at this point that I firmly believe we must live what we say. If we believe in a god who loves even those who have their theology wrong – if we believe there are more important things than theology – then we must show our conservative brothers and sisters this god through our own love even when it doesn’t make sense to them and even when they often don’t extend that same grace toward our inevitable errors. If we believe in a god who wants to restore all people and not a minority arbitrarily chosen, we must act out of a similar desire to restore all people including those who are often promoting the exact opposite. When we simply argue that our understanding of God is better or more biblical than theirs, we are actually operating on the same modern framework that we critique. Our priority in that mindset, like theirs, is getting our theology right no matter what the cost to the humanity of those who we are engaging with. That will never change anybody’s mind and more importantly it will never change people’s relationships with God and others from a law-based worldview to a grace-based worldview. If we proclaim grace and an end to the judgemental church, we must show it in our everyday interactions with all including those who we are tempted to judge.