How those professing to be believers understand the message of the gospel will determine how they view their mission in this life. Since the emergent church sees the gospel not merely as the redemption of lost souls but also as the restoration of the planet and salvation from man’s inhumanity to man, they comprehend their task as Christians differently from that of most evangelicals. They call it “missional”.
Emergent Mission: Missional
Missional is a term that seems to be drawn from the writings of missiologist Lesslie Newbigin who pops up all over emergent literature. It is difficult to pin down a good definition of missional, but it seems to mean that as Christians we exist to serve. We serve by loving and living in such a way that we bless those around us. But more than that, we are to be engaged in changing and even creating culture as we bring the kingdom of God to earth. Rather than calling people out of this world system and into “the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13), we are to bring the kingdom to them. It would appear that the goal of the missional Christian is to transform the “domain of darkness” (Colossians 1:13) into the kingdom of God. McLaren tells us that his missional calling is summed up in these words, “Blessed in this life to be a blessing to everyone on earth.” He adds, “My mission isn’t to figure out who is already blessed, or not blessed, or unblessable. My calling is to be blessed so I can bless everyone.” Further,
From this understanding we place less emphasis on whose lineage, rites, doctrines, structures, and terminology are right and more emphasis on whose actions, service, outreach, kindness, and effectiveness are good…. [In order] to help our world get back on the road to being truly and wholly good again, the way God created it to be…. We’re here on a mission to join God in bringing blessing to our needy world. We hope to bring God’s blessing to you, whoever you are and whatever you believe, and if you’d like to join us in this mission and the faith that creates and nourishes it, you’re welcome.We get a better understanding of where McLaren is headed when he writes, “I hope that both they (people everywhere) and I will become better people, transformed by God’s Spirit, more pleasing to God, more of a blessing to the world, so that God’s kingdom… comes on earth as in heaven.” And what kind of people will populate this kingdom? Apparently people from all faith and religions.
Although I don’t hope all Buddhists will become (cultural) Christians, I do hope all who feel so called will become Buddhist followers of Jesus; I believe they should be given that opportunity and invitation. I don’t hope all Jews or Hindus will become members of the Christian religion. But I do hope all who feel so called will become Jewish or Hindu followers of Jesus.It doesn’t take long to realize that the kingdom of the emergent community is not the kingdom of God, nor the church, as described in Scripture – unless the missional mandate is to fill the kingdom with tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). But once this unbiblical view of God’s kingdom is accepted, what is our mission—that is, how do we live missionally?
Rob Bell writes, “For Jesus, the question wasn’t how do I get into Heaven? but how do I bring heaven here?... The goal isn’t escaping this world but making this world the kind of place God can come to. And God is remaking us into the kind of people who can do this kind of work.” Dan Kimball adds, “Our faith also includes kingdom living, part of which is the responsibility to fight locally and globally for social justice on behalf of the poor and needy. Our example is Jesus, who spent His time among the lepers, the poor and the needy.”
These quotes give good examples of half truths twisted into distorted vision. Did Jesus show compassion and minister to the poor? Certainly, but did Jesus, or the apostles after Him, fight for social justice on behalf of the poor and needy? Not at all. While Jesus, through the transformation of lives, began a process that would revolutionize much of the world in regard to injustice, He never made these things a central platform of His ministry nor that of the church. Jesus said virtually nothing about the environment, political tyranny, eradication of poverty and illiteracy, elimination of deadly disease or other social ills. This does not mean that these things are not important, but they are obviously not the heart of His ministry which was to save us from our sins and enable us “to become the righteousness of God in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus could have started a social revolution without going to the cross, but without the cross we could not be redeemed from sin. Our mission is to call people “out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
But the missional agenda is different. Here we are to bless people, for that is why God has chosen us – to be a blessing to others. What does it mean to be a blessing? Apparently it does not mean coming to saving faith in Christ, because Bell tells us that “God blesses everybody. People who don’t believe in God. People who are opposed to God. People who do violent, evil things. God’s intention is to bless everybody.” And how does this blessing happen? It happens as the church gives up its efforts to convert people to Christ and simply serves them: “The most powerful things happen when the church surrenders its desire to convert people and convince them to join. It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display.” In this way (Bell tells us) the “gospel is good news, especially for those who don’t believe it…. [As a matter of fact] if the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.”
But is the gospel good news for everybody? It may very well be a blessing to have Christian people treat you with the love of Christ, but Jesus and the Scriptures could not be more clear that those who do not know Christ are under the wrath of God (Romans 1:18ff), will perish (2 Thessalonians 2:9), are eternally doomed (Luke 12:46-48) and will spend eternity in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15) – hardly good news to those who reject Him.
Many of the unusual positions held by the emergent leaders stem directly from their theology of the Scriptures as well as their hermeneutical approach. First, insiders of the emerging church “conversation” are fond of expressing their excitement and fidelity to the Word of God, even as they undermine it. McLaren says, “I want to affirm that my regard for Scripture is higher than ever.” Bell tells us that for over ten years he has oriented his life around studying, reading, and trying to understand the Bible. One would have to wonder why Bell devotes so much time to the understanding of the Bible since he apparently agrees with his wife who stated in a joint interview that she has “no idea what most of it means. And yet life is big again.”
In order to press home their views, the emergent leaders must perform some interesting gymnastics with the Scriptures. How can someone express high regard for Scripture yet come up with such fanciful interpretations? First, they question inspiration. Wondering out loud about Paul’s epistles, Bell writes, “A man named Paul is writing this, so is it his word or God’s Word?’ McLaren pulls out the old Jesus versus Paul card, “We retained Jesus as Savior but promoted the apostle Paul (or someone else) to Lord and Teacher…. And/or decided that Jesus’ life and teachings were completely interpreted by Paul.” Bell, in complete ignorance of history and the doctrine of biblical preservation, informs his readers that the canon came about as a result of a vote of the church fathers: “In reaction to abuses by the church, a group of believers during a time called the Reformation claimed that we only need the authority of the Bible. But the problem is that we got the Bible from the church voting on what the Bible even is.”
Anyone still clinging tenaciously to the Word, after inspiration is denied, will further loosen his grip when he discovers that the Scriptures are not inerrant, infallible nor authoritative. McLaren said these are words related to a philosophical belief system that he used to hold. But he no longer believes the “Bible is absolutely equivalent to the phrase ‘the Word of God’ as used in the Bible. Although I do find the term inerrancy useful… I would prefer to use the term inherency to describe my view of Scripture.” By the use of inherency he is dusting off the neo-orthodox view of the Scriptures, which taught that the Bible contains the “word of God” but is not the completed Word of God, for God’s Word can be found in anything He “inspires.”
If you have any confidence left in Scripture at this point, McLaren and his friends can take care of that by telling you that you have been misreading the Bible all along. “There is more than one way to ‘kill’ the Bible,” he says. “You can dissect it, analyze it, abstract it. You can read its ragged stories and ragamuffin poetry, and from them you can derive neat abstractions, sterile propositions, and sharp-edged principles.” To the emergent people the Bible was never intended to be studied and analyzed; it was meant to be embraced as art, to be read as a story. The proof is that it is written as narrative and poetry and story. Granted much of it is in this genre but, as D. A. Carson points out, much of it is also “law, lament, instruction, wisdom, ethical injunction, warning, apocalyptic imagery, letters, promises, reports, propositions, ritual, and more. The easy appeal to the overarching narrative proves immensely distortive.” Regarding Scripture, Carson leaves us with a powerful warning: “At some juncture churches have to decide whether they will, by God’s grace, try to live in submission to Scripture, or try to domesticate Scripture.”
With such an understanding of the Scriptures how can the emerging church claim to be in any sense devoted to the Bible? By developing new hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation involving rules and principles that enable us to interpret anything we read, from the newspaper to the Bible, although the word is used almost exclusively in reference to Scripture. The hermeneutic used by most of us all of the time in extrabiblical literature could be called “normal” or “literal.” That is, we believe that words make sense, can be understood and can communicate a message that the author wants to convey. When we read tax laws, as confusing as they might be, we approach them though normal hermeneutics believing that we can and must understand what they say. When we turn to the sports page of a newspaper and read that such-and-such team just won the championship, we naturally believe that a fact has been communicated (the team won) and that we can understand what the author of the article has said, all because we use normal hermeneutics.
But when it comes to Scripture, many are not content to use normal hermeneutics (called grammatical-historical by theologians). Rather many approaches to interpretation have been invented. We have allegorical and devotional hermeneutics which add supposed hidden meanings to words and texts, liberal hermeneutics which deny the supernatural and anything that is not politically correct at the moment, and neo-orthodox hermeneutics which say that anything that “inspires” us is the word of God to us.
More recently new hermeneutical approaches have been invented, each attempting, in my opinion, to circumvent the clear teaching of the Word. At least three new hermeneutics are making the rounds in emergent circles:
1) Postmodern hermeneutics (or hermeneutics of suspicion): Since postmodernism is laced with deconstructionism, and since the emergent church is the postmodern church, it is only natural that a postmodern hermeneutic of Scripture would be developed and employed in this movement. McLaren explains it well, “The Bible requires human interpretation, which was [is] a problem…. How do “I” know the Bible is always right? And if “I” am sophisticated enough to realize that I know nothing of the Bible without my own involvement via interpretation….What good is it, liberals would ask conservatives, to have an inerrant Bible if you have no inerrant interpretations?…”What these new hermeneutics have in common is the deliberate movement away from the words and message of Scripture to a new message beyond the pages of the Word. In the process, the Bible becomes nothing more than a shell or perhaps a museum piece to be admired but ignored. Scripture as handed down by God has been replaced with the imaginations of man in order to fit better with our culture. But if we have no authoritative word from God, with what is the church left? Nothing but mystery and mysticism.
I trust these abbreviated quotes express the postmodern approach to Scripture. Even if they feign belief in an inspired, inerrant Bible, it is of little consequence because we lack inerrant interpreters. In the emerging church’s view, the Bible may very well be communication of truth from God to man, but since we are incapable of interpreting the Scriptures “truthfully” it matters little.
Of course, employing postmodern hermeneutics renders the Scriptures impotent, and causes us to ask why God bothered at all trying to communicate with mankind? And what did God mean in Psalm 19 when he tells us of the benefits and power of the Word? And why did Paul tell Timothy to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2) if there is nothing in the Word that can be taught with confidence? While we will agree that infallible and inerrant interpreters are nonexistent, it does not follow that the Bible cannot be understood, rather the vast majority of the Scriptures are clear and comprehensible.
2) Rhetorical hermeneutics: McLaren defines this as, "An approach to Scripture that among other things tells us that we normally pay too much attention to what the writers are saying and not enough to what they are doing. Rhetorical interpretation would ask, “What is Jesus trying to do by using the language of hell?…”"
In other words, since we can’t understand words, by postmodern necessity we are free to ignore words and try to interpret actions. This is hardly a step in the right direction as anyone who tries to interpret body language could testify.
3) Redemptive Hermeneutics: This is a methodology invented by Dallas Theological Seminary graduate William Webb and endorsed by Dallas professors such as Darrell L. Bock and Stephen R. Spencer, originally in order to provide some kind of justification of the egalitarian movement. Unlike many egalitarians, Webb concedes that, if the Bible is read using normal hermeneutics, men and women are given different roles and functions in the home and in the church. Webb’s solution is to move beyond the written words to the spirit of the words which will allow accommodation for the views and attitudes of our age. “While Scripture had a positive influence in its time, we should take that redemptive spirit and move to an even better, more fully-realized ethic today." Why is this important? Because “Christians have to reevaluate their beliefs due to changing attitudes toward women and toward homosexuals.”
McLaren uses this hermeneutic to teach that the Holy Spirit will continue to lead us to new truth beyond the written word. “I can’t see church history in any other way, except this: semper reformanda, continually being lead and taught and guided by the Spirit into new truth.” Bell uses the same hermeneutic to make this comment on Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, “[Jesus] is giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible” (emphasis his). These new interpretations lead to a new church, “It is our turn to step up and take responsibility for who the church is going to be for a new generation. It is our turn to redefine and reshape and dream it all up again.” But they are wrong. It is not up to us to redefine, reshape and dream up the church again; God has already settled this matter.
The emerging church is not excited about truth (as a matter of fact staying true to their postmodern roots, they reject and are suspicious of truth claims) but they are enamored with mystery. Donald Miller writes his book Blue Like Jazz to develop this very theme. He summarizes his thoughts,
At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay. And wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow. I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.When Rob Bell is faced with giving answers to the pertinent issues of life such as heaven, hell, suicide, the devil and God or love and rape, he has no answers – just hugs. “Most of my responses were about how we need others to carry our burdens and how our real needs in life are not for more information but for loving community with other people on the journey.” But the classic answer belongs to McLaren, who virtually closes his book A Generous Orthodoxy with this statement:
Consider for a minute what it would mean to get the glory of God finally and fully right in your thinking or to get a fully formed opinion of God’s goodness or holiness. Then I think you’ll feel the irony: all these years of pursuing orthodoxy ended up like this – in front of all this glory understanding nothing” (emphasis his).There we have it. Ultimately, we know nothing. Even though Jesus was clear that we worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23), in the emergent church there is no truth, no theology, no understanding of God. However, this does not stop them from embracing the presence of God or so we are told. How does such a “faith” survive? On the basis of mysticism.
Peter Rollins, emergent leader with Ikon in Northern Ireland, says, “We at Ikon are developing a theology which derives from the mystics, a theology without theology to complement our religion without religion.” Emergent leaders can say such things because of their overbearing emphasis on experience. Kimble has it backwards when he asserts, “The old paradigm taught that if you had the right teaching, you will experience God. The new paradigm says that if you experience God, you will have the right teaching.” Carson is correct, “For almost everyone within the movement, this works out in an emphasis on feeling and affections over against linear thought and rationality, on experience over against truth.” The emerging church is a movement in search of an experience, not the truth. They seem to have little realization that an experience based on anything but truth is a mirage. The Scriptures never deny the proper place of experience, but our Lord says, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). The emergent church is a movement that is in bondage to its own imagination, not one held captive to the truth of God.