During the summer of 2009, in an effort to learn more about the Emergent Church movement from an Evangelical perspective, I read DeYoung and Kluck's Why We're Not Emergent. While I never quite finished the book (as I eventually tired of DeYoung's somewhat arrogant-sounding, condescending tone), it did lead me to a place of deep self-reflection and thought regarding Emergent vs. Reformed theology. I do not claim to be Emergent or Reformed, and have struggled for the past two years to place myself on the spectrum of theological belief. However, with Bell's recent publication of Love Wins, my curiosity regarding the Emergent Church has once again been piqued. I shared a rather lengthy excerpt from Why We're Not Emergent two years ago, and subsequently posted a discussion of my struggle to find middle ground between DeYoung's arguments and the various beliefs of the Emergent Church. Since Bell, a major figure in the Emergent Church movement, has recently written such a controversial work, I thought now would be an appropriate time to revisit my thoughts from 2009, and hopefully ignite further discussion. This does not address Universalism, but rather focuses largely on both politics and intimacy with God, two issues which, for the most part, have always been the greatest sources of my theological confusion.
I think there needs to be a caution and rebuke on both "sides": that emergent-types don't ignore or reject doctrine, and that Reformed Evangelicals don't reject aspects of spiritual formation and the uniqueness and intimacy that come with individual personal relationships with God. When we talk about the most extreme aspects of the Emergent Church, I certainly don't agree with those positions, but I likewise do not agree with some of the most "extreme" of Evangelical Christians.
Yes, our faith should inform our actions, thoughts, words, etc. Our politics should certainly be influenced by our faith in Jesus Christ, but I believe that is going to place us in a position where we can't really claim strong allegiance to one side, more or less what DeYoung says in his chapter. However, while I agree that the Emergent Church largely bolsters liberal political agendas, the author needs to be careful not to make huge generalizations. I understand a lot of the complaints and viewpoints of the Emergent Church. I voted for Obama. I care about racism, environmental degradation, etc. I am registered as a "Decline to State." Many Conservative Evangelicals have told me to come outright and say that I'm a Democrat. I'm not a Democrat. I do care about issues like abortion and gay marriage, issues that are usually labeled as Republican. But, being part of a party that supports more of my "issues" is not important to me.
On the one hand, I realize that the values and convictions of people living by the Spirit will not be the same as the values and convictions of people still living in the flesh. Imposing moral convictions or religious values on people without bringing them the transformative truth of the Gospel will leave them frustrated and angry, and will leave us feeling defeated. God does not desire for us to create a Christian America, but to create disciples of Jesus Christ living in America. My pastor said that politics is designed to coerce people into behaving a certain way (usually it is for good). However, I don't think representing Christian values from the capitol will suddenly result in multitudes of people coming to Christ. I don't think Christians will be effective in preaching the Gospel by using coercive forms.
The way I see it is that Christians should be followers of Christ first, and political second (or third, fourth, whatever). What I mean is that our political beliefs should never eclipse our devotion to Jesus Christ. If non-Christian people define us by our political fervor before they define us as deeply devoted to the Kingdom of God, then I think there is a problem. The reason that so often politics become so important to so many people is because humans are desperately searching for a sense of identity and cause with which they can become passionate. As followers of Christ, we are identified as His children and our passions should be His passions. Whatever happens in our world politically, God is still sovereign, and His plans will not fail. He will be victorious! All that is to say, while politics do matter to some degree, and laws are necessary to keep society in line, politics as a whole matter so little in the grand scheme of things when we consider God's ultimate plan. We should be fervent about God, and in turn He will inform our political beliefs and decisions. Christians and the Church were not designed to be political entities or to even necessarily back specific political causes, but Christians and the Church were designed to fully believe in and support the Gospel message and the Word of God. Our aim should not be to change the legality of issues related to Christian values, but to seek to transform the hearts of those opposing those values in the first place!
I think that that may have been the line of thought of the early emergents, though I think many of them have strayed from such thoughts or positions. I think it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the Gospel, when we become so steadfast on a particular cause or mission that we give in to an "us/them" mentality. Just like with mega churches, I think numbers, recruiting followers, and designing plans of action cloud our thoughts, so that we forget about Jesus amidst our over-commitment to an idea rather than to Him. I hope that makes sense.
I find myself personally frustrated because I agree with philosophies on both ends, yet both still remain insufficient and weak (in my opinion). I don't like DeYoung's attitude for the most part, because he certainly does come off with an air of superiority (and at times sounds condescending). My heart and soul champion a lot of what the Emergent Church stands for and is fighting for, but I also am firmly and passionately, passionately, passionately committed to the truth--the Gospel message, the Bible--and communicating that truth to the world. I don't want to stray from right doctrine and right orthodoxy. But, I also realize the intimacy, freedom, and artistic (?) nature of my own relationship with God, and sometimes Reformed Evangelicalism seems too caught up in "head knowledge" and intellectualism that it holds no reverence (?) for intimacy with the Living God (perhaps reverence is the incorrect word, and perhaps I am wrong about this--it is more a less a gut-level feeling, which I hope is a sign of the Spirit giving me discernment).
I've heard two different analogies regarding bridges (as you mentioned in your comment), and I've actually been struggling with each one for the past few days. In a recent sermon, I heard one pastor say that we can act as bridges or barriers as Christians, and that we need to make sure that we are always acting as bridges to draw people to Christ. In DeYoung's book, he instead says we need to be careful not to become bridges in the sense that we support moral relativism, and therefore ultimately reject belief in Christ as the necessary means for salvation. His book suggests that instead, we need to act as walls that demarcate biblical theology: there is no gray area, only a belief in Christ as the Messiah and Son of God, or a rejection of Christ as the Messiah and Son of God. I sit confused. Should I be a bridge or a wall? Does it matter? Like Paul, shouldn't I become all things to all men for the sake of furthering the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9--love it!)? To me, Paul's message suggests that I need to simultaneously be a bridge and a wall, which, by natural means, would be impossible. Thankfully, the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me (Isaiah 61:1).
We can't be uncertain about our theology or our God. We must cling to Him and His Word, for the Bible is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16); God tells us who He is in words we can understand. It amazes me that there can still be so much dissention, conflict, and disagreement over a scripture that, to me, should be clear and non-debatable. Cannot God reveal Himself to us? It is sin! We are so blind to who God is, and our simple, human minds are so incapable of comprehending His glory. We cannot gaze upon the face of God and live (Exodus 33:20).
I too pray for wisdom, and ask that the Lord would give me both clarity of mind, and compassion and a discerning heart for dealing with those whose beliefs stray from the truth. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I rejoice in that I serve the One who is all truth.