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“Emergent Evangelical” – Can I Be Both?

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.

  1. Bible
  2. 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.

  3. Gospel
  4. 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.

  5. Changed Lives
  6. 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.

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  • Nice to find your blog as I was researching “turn the other cheek” in preparing some peacemaking Bible studies in Nigeria.

    I’m still trying to understand the “emergent church” idea. Your example of a peaceable vs. jihadist Jesus doesn’t seem to helpful to me, since that certainly isn’t a new idea, nor has it ever been absent from the evangelical mainstream. Certainly, politically conservative (for that matter, leftist as well) Christians have advocated using power for their own agendas, which they usually see as righteous. They may or may not cite Jesus or Christianity as supporting their views. There has always been another side, however, seeking to counter or balance that view, and probably most people landing somewhere in the middle.

    So, can you give a few more examples that might distinguish a “regular” evangelical from an emergent one?

  • what a concept! Christianity that means a relationship with Christ, and love for not just our neighbor and enemy, but also for our spouse and children. And actually reading the Bible and doing what it says!

  • Barb, I like your writing. Nice to see you post again.

    Feeling really lonesome in a way. Research over the past five years has forced some bracing realizations upon us. Very hard to achieve any depth of communication with a society in denial, even “Christian” schools of thought which entrench and perpetuate all that denial. No one, it seems, really wants much of the truth anymore, be it about things divine or mundane.

    Larry if you want any writing done, say something via email and if I can serve in any way, it would be a relief.

  • It sometimes seems as if the conservative evangelicals have caused some people to feel that they are not evangelical if they do not hold certain beliefs. I think we are all evangelical in our own way. We may choose to convert others but we may also choose to attempt to live by example of our values or beliefs. The diversity of approaches and/or beliefs serves all of us, if we choose to accept it, because it causes us to think about faith. I recently had an encounter with someone emphatic about the question of converting an atheist. I only pointed out that the situation required some balance because part of showing Christian love for that individual required showing him respect. I didn’t argue with this person because part of showing her Christian love required me to show her respect as well. I don’t know that it made any impression on this person at all – all I do know is that it was up to God whether it did or not. I hope the emergent movement can help tone down the volume so that a real dialog can take place.

  • Glad to see you posting about this. I think you nail it with the Bible. I recall evangelical groups in Boston among highly literate people who had scant idea of what was in the book, and thought me an oddball and a misfit for carrying on about it. They felt somehow I was “in the flesh” and not “listening to the spirit” which guided them minus knowing Scripture. This is somewhat of a parody, but such was my sense of things. Also I had a lot of pain due to family issues and endured a lot of criticism for not being “joyous” enough. This was a kinship group including a lot of Harvard kids. The kinship leader surmised the parking lot at one of our camp-outs – Porcshes, BMWs (not me, didn’t have a vehicle) – and quipped “we don’t lust for the things of the world. We already have them.”


    I’m going to read this again later.

    One thing I bet you’re going to see: when the great round-up gets underway, when it’s found out that the kingdom pertains to governing people on earth rather than destroying the planet, people are going to find out what’s in that book. I have long studied the Jewish traditions of the first century church. While the amount of books in the Boston Public Library about that German who wrote 1,500 years after Christ were so many I suppose they might have filled a 53′ cargo container or two, the amount of books written about the church before the fall of Jerusalem in ’70 AD were so few I could carry them home on foot in two knapsacks via the trolley.

    My study indicates that the Mosaic scripture in particular is perfect, yet it is a coded language about the science of resurrection, if you will. It is perfect, but it is an error to assume it all is intelligible by a strictly literal exegesis.

    One scripture that used to be hard was the one of the SyroPhonecian woman whose daughter needed healing, and Jesus said it was not right to cast the children’s bread to the dogs.

    She said “truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat the crumbs from beneath their masters’ table” meriting His amazement at her words and his granting of her request.

    Recently I studied that one in all available Bible study books I could find, and I feel no one – none – understood the punch line. I believe the dogs – gentiles – understand so little of Scripture – what it is, how it works – that they are as if eating crumbs from under the table (the word) of their masters (the Jews).

    Thanks for this post, although “evangelical” should be a superfluous term to calling oneself a Christian. It is sad now that to say to most people that you are a Christian (in the US, not necessarily elsewhere) is to quickly lend the impression that you are an adherent to the republican party.