(Originally posted Nov 13, 2006 on randehle.com) Many of the leading voices in the emerging church prefer the term “conversation” to “movement.” In that vein, D.A. Carson has attempted to join the discussion with his book, Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2005). In his preface, Carson writes, “Whenever a Christian movement comes along that presents itself as reformist, it should not be summarily dismissed.” He expresses his desire to engage in the conversation in a manner that encourages mutual learning – certainly an admirable and necessary aim.
It strikes me as unfortunate, then, that Carson’s book is so clearly biased against the emerging church; so much so that I am afraid he has struck down any real hope for bilateral communication. For example, consider the scathing remarks of my friend and seminary classmate, Dustin, in response to what Carson has written: “[It] should have the subtitle ‘Why I despise Brian Mclaren[sic] and why everything he thinks is wrong.’ …most of the accusations posed in the book are simply untrue.” (For whatever it’s worth, I find Dustin’s comments no more beneficial to healthy dialogue than what Carson has written.)
From the initial pages, Carson expresses his desire to engage in a well-reasoned and balanced conversation about substantive areas of difference as well as agreement. If he has fallen short of the target, as I believe he has, then what may be needed in place of his work? First, it is necessary to establish the foundation upon which the conversation will be based. It would be easy to say that the Bible is our foundation but among theologians, that is so simplistic as to be meaningless. After all, a key element of Emergent involves reevaluating how the Bible is to be read and understood. It has long been difficult for us evangelicals to reduce our core beliefs – what we consider the essentials of faith – to a bare minimum. Whether it is the mode of baptism, the meaning and significance of the Lord’s Supper, or the form of church government, we tend to define our position, draw the battle lines, and take a firm stand in defense of those beliefs. Those in the emerging church, on the other hand, may not only hold different views of those core beliefs, but even consider them as so non-essential as to be essentially insignificant…to which we respond with a shocked gasp, a disgusted rolling of the eyes, and a quick about-face. As evangelicals, we need to instead respond with the grace of a counselor who at times must mask his disgust at his patient’s behavior if he is to help him overcome that behavior. We must remain at the table and reason through our faith; as Peter exhorted, we must “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)
Likewise, those in the emerging church who tend toward a carte blanche rejection of all that has preceded them must put aside such prejudices and listen attentively to those who have truly investigated and become prayerfully convinced of their convictions. When a couple become parents for the first time, it can be tempting to reject all the methods of their parents, believing they can do a better job raising their own children. Wisdom suggests otherwise; wisdom would have the young parents thoughtfully consider both what their own parents did well and what they did poorly, then emulate the former even as they seek to avoid the latter. And in this they must recognize that they, too, will make mistakes…which their own children will one day need to redeem.
Finally, engaging in a mutually-beneficial dialogue will require that evangelicals recognize the value in allowing for uncertainty while emergents recognize a similar value in certainty. Key to both of these is appropriately – and biblically – determining where to allow for uncertainty and where to look for certainty. Let us consider two examples, baptism and homosexuality. In baptism, is it really essential that an individual be completely soaked – especially if, as most evangelicals believe, baptism is purely symbolic and has no effect on salvation? Many times I have seen someone immersed whose head didn’t quite go all the way under the water. Does she, like the mythical Achilles, somehow have a spiritual weak spot as a result? Or could it be that in our desire to stay true to the most accurate translation of the word baptize, we have become like the Pharisees who so narrowly defined exactly how much work was allowed to be done on the Sabbath without breaking the fourth commandment?
In choosing the topic of homosexuality as my second example, I recognize that I face the great risk of having the rest of my comments overlooked and of having the reader focus only on expressing their own views on this important but controversial topic. I beg you to flee that temptation and remember that I am merely using this as an example of an area that many in the emerging church are viewing with a measure of uncertainty. Could it be, however, that God really does detest homosexuality as much as our English translations of the Bible suggest? Scripture is certainly unambiguous about God’s hatred of sin; no less certain is the biblical mandate that my attitude and behavior toward a homosexual – or any other sinner – be constrained by God’s grace as exemplified by the life and teachings of Jesus, such as his words to the woman caught in adultery (John 8). Thus constrained, is it really so harmful to conclude from diligent study that homosexuality is sinful? Perhaps not.
If the church in any of its manifestations is to reclaim its place in God’s redemptive plan for a world separated from him, then we must work together as the body that we are – and that means that the various parts of the body must communicate – with each other and with the world around us – in grace and truth. Doing so will require from all sides that we put off our personal prejudices, our biases, our preferences, and that we learn to communicate much as a missionary does: crossing barriers of culture, language, and theology, and so opening the doors to meaningful, life-changing dialogue focused on the eternally life-changing message of salvation in Jesus Christ.
I think it will take a while for the broader evangelical church to find the “discussion” approach to theology to be acceptable. It asks you to have beliefs but either hold them loosely or at least dispassionately. This is difficult in a faith whose followers consider its teaching to be the highest truth.
I agree that there are certain doctrines where we draw too fine a line between orthodoxy and heresy. The call for peace in the church is quickly dismissed in the pursuit of doctrinal purity. But what are we to do, exercise wisdom? It is much to easy to be hard nosed and heavy handed for that.
I have not read Carson’s book yet, but if he cannot properly engage the movement who can? How do you speak to a movement that says they will listen only if you agree that what you are saying in not true for everyone, or at least not important? If you are right that he shows no respect for the movements leaders I can see that putting up an unnecessary road block. Then again, people today consider strong disagreement disrespectful. If you say someone is wrong, and name them by name, that is thought rude. The possibility for true dialog is eliminated out of the box. What would a proper dialog look like, and still ask for the necessary changes on both sides?
You have enticed me to do some more reading, either way.
”How do you speak to a movement that says they will listen only if you agree that what you are saying in not true for everyone, or at least not important?” This is a very good question – perhaps even the heart of the matter. What is the common ground, the foundation on which to build in the discussion, if evangelicals accept objective truth and emergents do not? Both sides must give; evangelicals must allow that some of their dogmatic doctrines may actually be off the mark, while emergents need to allow room for objective truth…and then consider where they might find that.