The Hole in the Emerging Church

Quadrants of Christianity

Phyllis Tickle defines the emerging church as the conversation at the centre of the quadrants of Christianity. But is the conservative quadrant welcome in the conversation?

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.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • I think people could do a lot worse than go back to Romans 15 and apply the principles behind it to other areas of theology. There’s a simplicity we ignore in our defensiveness. If we believe in good faith that something is wrong, and yet trample on a brother or sister who thinks differently… damaging or destroying what faith they have or forcing them to compromise their own understanding of doctrine to serve our understanding, we will have to answer for that. Similarly if we don’t stand by what we believe because somebody asks us to change it to suit the needs of their personal theology, we will have to answer for that. We we will all have to give an account for the way we treated others. The Good Samaritan would have been considered a half blood heretic by the listeners who heard Jesus’ parable, and indeed by the Hebrew characters in the tale itself… our theology should not limit the quality of our mercy or the compassion with which we treat different thinking people.

  • Incidentally, I am fascinated by that chart… it looks very much like the 2 axis chart created by the Political Compass. Do you know who originated the study behind it and if there is any way out of curiosity, I can plot myself on the scale?

    • I got the chart from Phyllis Tickle’s book The Great Emergence. I’m not sure if she came up with it herself or if it came from somewhere else but she does seem to be the expert at giving a fairly-neutral overview of the emerging movement.

  • Mike Arnold

    I was doing OK until your point, “If we believe in a god who loves even those who have their theology wrong, 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 there in lies my problem.
    When you come at me with the assumption that I am wrong and you right, what’s the point? I’ll not pursuade you nor you me. Only when we come together, open to the possibility that we both may be wrong- or indeed the other right that it is worth conversing.
    In this, humility is demanded on both sides, not the same arrogance you accuse me of displaying.

    • I think you’ve misunderstood me and we seem to be saying the exact same thing. I undoubtedly have some of my theology wrong. You probably do, too. I believe God loves us all anyway. I want to carry into the conversation that there are more important things than the precise accuracy of our theology.

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  • jcmmanuel

    You would invite the more conservative. But would you also invite those who go further than the “Emerging” Church? Christians like John Shelby Spong for instance? Just curious.

    • Yes, I would. The same logic applies: if we’re going to really call it a conversation, we should seek to honestly engage with those who disagree with us, whether it is to what modernism called the conservative end of the spectrum or the liberal end. I don’t agree with a lot of positions that Spong (and others like him) takes and I think it is fair to say that a lot of what he says is outside the realm of orthodoxy, but that doesn’t mean that he has nothing of value to contribute.

      • jcmmanuel

        Good. Because I expect the input from those people is what may ultimately save Christianity in some form. We better know less about god (and pretend less to know, more in particular) and try to know more about the human beings that surround us.