Jude and The Emergent Church

Posted: July 15, 2009 by Josiah Batten in Current Issues, Emerging Church
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In the present day no person acquainted with the facts can deny that there are monumental shifts taking place inside of the Church.  America is basically following Europe in a move towards post-modernism.  At the same time the more traditional Church (by “traditional” I mean “the Church as we’ve known it up to this point”) is facing the house Church movement, emergent theology and ecclesiology, emergent evangelicalism, and the new methodologies inherent with each.

At times like this it’s important to remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who points out the New Testament Church was a thermostat setting the cultural temperature rather than a thermometer simply responding to and recording it (see Letter from a Birmingham Jail).  In Verse 4 of his single-chapter Epistle, Jude warns against “godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” (NIV).

I must say some of the “emerging” trends have alarmed me.  In an attempt to move away from traditionalism and towards progress we may have forgot what “progress” really is.  As C.S. Lewis defined it in Mere Christianity, progress is “getting nearer to the place where you want to be”.  Inherent in that assertion is the assumption that we actually know where we want to be.  However, as many leaders in the “emergent” Church will admit, they don’t know where they want to be.  Quite simply they know where they don’t want to be (e.g.- where we are presently at) and mistakenly hold that any move away from that spot is in some way “progress”.  It is necessary to acknowledge that we could move away from where we are presently and still be on the wrong road, therefore achieving no progress whatsoever.

While in the space given here it would be impossible to present a comprehensive caricature of the emergent Church (and indeed, there is not one “emergent” Church but many) , there are a few common statements I’ve noticed among certain Emergents.  These I shall address.  I’m working on the assumption that inside of the Christian Church “progress” refers to those things that help us grow in relationship with Christ; those things that help us “take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me [us]” (Philippians 3:12, NIV).

I’ve encountered many Emergents who assert that because Christianity is about a relationship with Christ other things don’t matter.  For example, many moral requirements are readily dismissed by Emergents because “Christianity is about grace”.  Often this is a reaction to fundamentalism.  Where fundamentalists enact the standards of a Pharisee (don’t go to theaters), Emergents often react by going to the opposite extreme (we’ll not only go to theaters, but we’ll see the filthiest movie playing and justify it by grace).

This demonstrates not only misguided notions about grace, but also misguided notions about Jesus.  To think that grace equals the cancelling of all moral requirements is a severe folly.  Grace is undeserved favor.  I see God’s grace as this:  He trades His forgiveness for my sins, the whole time knowing this deal is completely unfair.  If there were not moral requirements that we break then grace would be unnecessary.  To say that God’s grace and forgiveness eliminate the necessity of moral restraints would be like saying “because a lifeguard saved me as I drowned I’m going to drown myself again”.  Surely the opposite is true, because a lifeguard saved you from drowning you’re going to first be very grateful, and second take extra precautions to ensure you don’t drown again.  This idea of a dichotomy between grace and works is ludicrous.  They are complementary, not contradictory.  God’s grace yields good works in us.  Because I’ve received God’s grace I help the poor, I lobby against genocide, I’m honest with people.  These things are all natural by-products of grace, they are signs that grace has been received; they are not methods of attaining grace.

This represents misguided notions about Christ because if our goal is to know Christ in an intimate relationship we must know Him as He truly is by His nature.  By His nature Christ hates sin.  Because Christ loves people He hates murder.  Because Christ loves children He hates kidnapping.  If we’re not becoming better people because we know Christ, the logical conclusion is that we don’t know Him!  God is working in us to will and act according to His good purpose, and what is His good purpose but carrying on the work begun in us which is being conformed day by day to be more and more like Christ (see Philippians 2:12-13, 1:6, 3:10-11)?

A second notion common among many Emergents is religious pluralism.  Undoubtedly we’ve all heard someone say “there are many ways to God” or “there’s not just one way to God”.  The fact is many people say this because it’s quick, popular, and convenient.  It eliminates any need for deep thinking and quickly pays lip service to 1,000 different propositions while committing to none (committing to all views is no different than committing to no view).  I should like to ask the pluralist, how does he or she know there are many ways to God?  Has he or she tried them?  I suspect this is a case of being a thermometer rather than a thermostat.  Not to mention, such a statement is an insult to the particularists who compose a majority of the planet’s population.

Closely related to pluralism is relativism.  While pluralism says “there are many ways to God” relativism says “your way is just as true as mine” (this is just one form of relativism).  I can’t think of a more subtle way to deny supremacy and sufficiency of Christ.  If many ways to God are equally valid then there was really no point whatsoever in Christ dying and rising.  C.S. Lewis said that Jesus is either Lord, liar, or lunatic.  If Christ’s death was not essential for the salvation of man then He is both a liar and a lunatic, but not Lord.  Anyone who willingly dies on a cross without a purpose as noble as drawing humanity into a saving relationship with God is, quite frankly, a lunatic.  If that purpose is there, and if this person does what they say they will do (rise from the dead), then there’s good reason to believe that that person is Lord.

I can imagine many people will object:  “But many people are good people without being Christian”.  This claim I must reject.  While it is possible to do good things without being a Christian, it is impossible to be a good person.  God is good, He is the standard for good, anything short of meeting that standard is “not good”.  None of us meet that standard outside of a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, and therefore outside of the grace of God none of us can be “good”.

What most people really mean when they say “I know good people who aren’t Christians” is “I know people who are more or less decent and friendly people”.  If either pluralism or relativism are correct then “good” does not exist in any objective sense and it becomes impossible for anybody to be “good”.  So really what we then view as a “good person” is just someone that we find agreeable.  Generally they’re not serial killers or bank robbers, but they tell occasional lies and may be dishonest if that’s what it takes to get ahead.  They may be very friendly, and we may genuinely like them, but using our subjective standard to rate them does not make them “good” anymore then using the same standard makes green better then purple.  You may find green more aesthetically pleasing then purple, but that does not make green “good” and purple “bad”.  Thus, realistically, a pluralist and relativist can’t say “I know many good people who are not Christian”, they must say “I know many people whom I subjectively find agreeable and to my liking who are not Christian”.

In conclusion I believe it’s necessary to deeply consider some of the philosophical underpinnings driving many people in the Emergent Church.  We can’t accept to disregard our critical faculties simply to embrace any new movement away from traditionalism.  Without a doubt ecclesiastical reform is necessary, but it must be truly progressive and not simply appeasing a whim of popular opinion at the present time.

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