A friend recently asked what it means that I use “emergent evangelical” as my religious affiliation on FaceBook. So here’s a look at what the phrase means to me.
I. “Evangelicals” Today
“Evangelical” has come to be a bad word in much of American society, for several reasons.
One that is particularly pertinent on this blog is that so many self-professed “evangelical” churches and spokespersons have been serving so obviously as a propaganda arm of the radical Republican right (Rush, Fox, etc.).
And, like the teachers many of them imbibe from, they have come to be known – sometimes unjustly – for a repulsive, even frightening, mixture of arrogance, unawareness, and judgmentalism. Seriously. For example, the self-congratulation, mixed with contempt of “unbelievers” on so much of “Christian radio” is palpable, and the misrepresentation and false judging are frequent.
It makes me think of Matthew 5:20
I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
There is also a serious problem with what the Gospel actually is. Do we realize how Jesus Himself defined “the Gospel”? He repeatedly described that awesome good news as “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”.
And there is a real problem with what it means to believe in Christ.
[Many of us] are stuck with a theology that is inherently resistant to a vital spirituality . . . We have come to accept “Believe Jesus died for your sins” in a way that does not involve “Believe Jesus in everything.” – Dallas Willard (in The Great Omission, p64)
Among evangelicals in general, it is now assumed that you can be a Christian without being a disciple of Jesus, and many are – or so it seems. – Dallas Willard (in The Great Omission, p166)
II. Evangelical? Me?
But I still call myself an evangelical. Here are some basic reasons why.
- Changed Lives
I take the Bible very seriously, which American evangelicals have historically tried to do. I go to the Bible as the source and critic of my philosophy, theology, ethics, political concerns, standards of church life, personal guidance – and whatever else fits in a list like that.
I preach from it and I endeavor to live from it.
I try to treat the Bible with a great deal of respect – the respect that is not just talk but is also the hard work it takes to interpret it and apply it in terms that honor how it presents itself. That does take some work. But it is an avowed evangelical principle, and one I embrace.
I think the Gospel really is God’s good news for this human race. (“Evangelical” comes from the New Testament Greek word translated “good news.”) It is a major concern of my thinking, living, and ministry.
I believe in and try to promote the change of heart and life that is a huge theme in both the New and Old Testaments. It is also a major emphasis in the tradition of English-speaking evangelicalism.
III. So If There are Bible-believing, Bible-preaching Evangelicals, Who Needs “Emergent Christianity”?
Well, I also am firmly convinced that much of what passes for “evangelical” teaching and practice in America of late is straying or has strayed significantly from the Bible, from the Gospel, from Christ, from holiness of life, sometimes even from common decency.
I am not at all alone in that conviction.
So I feel a strong affinity to the amorphous movement that sometimes is called “emergent Christianity”.
It is emerging from a more careful reading of the Bible.
It is emerging from a more rigorous application of the Bible’s moral and spiritual teaching to those (us!) who claim to believe the Bible.
And it is “emerging” because it’s a considerable process. It seems most “emergents” come from fairly conservative theological backgrounds, and so have to work carefully and arduously to both respect the healthy elements of our traditions AND to fully and honestly engage with the actual reality of Scripture that is right before our eyes – Scripture we have been taught to read selectively and self-flatteringly. It can take a while for an individual or a group to move along that road – thus it is “emerging.”
IV. For Example . . .
Brian McLaren is a key spokesman for the movement. I don’t agree with everything he says – but that’s true of any name you can bring up. It is VERY true for me of many contemporary “evangelical” leaders – I disagree with a great deal of what they say and how they say it. So why should I blindly follow when it seems they blindly lead? It seems to me McLaren is being rigorously careful to not blindly lead.
In a recent book (Everything Must Change, p146) he helps a bit in defining this term, or movement, or stance. Here he is applying it to what we might call political technology. He first describes a Jesus defined by our natural human nature but who does not fit very well with the Gospel accounts.
this jihadist Jesus . . . sees domination, violence, and torture as the eternal legacy of God’s creative project.
On the other hand –
The Jesus of the emerging reading we have considered . . . tells us the opposite: that good will prevail by peace, love, truth, faithfulness, and courageous endurance of suffering, and that domination, violence, and torture are among the things that will be overcome.
That does kinda sound like New Testament teaching, and the Christ of the Gospels, doesn’t it?
In this view, no good deed will be forgotten or wasted, so we should start doing the next good thing now, faithfully continue, and never give up until the dream comes true. Even if doing so will cost us our life . . .
For this Jesus, love and grace – not violence and domination – finally win.
As the Apostle Paul says:
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
– Romans 12:19-21
That is an extremely radical notion – overcome evil with GOOD! And it comes from the Bible.
And, in Jesus’ words,
No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. . . Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?
– Luke 6:43, 46
Listening to emergent Christian thinkers helps me be more sensitive to doing what Jesus says.