Emergent Church… Good Theology … Bad Theology

From Tony Jones in his book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier:

Good theology begets beautiful Christianity. And so it follows that Bad theology begets ugly Christianity. That may sound supremely arrogant, but hear me out. A lot of us, emergents included, are disheartened by the complexion of Christianity in America. We’re embarrassed by the Jesus junk we see in stores, by the preachers we see on TV, and by the ill-fated marriage of faith and politics. We’re equally saddened by the $75 million evangelical megachurch campus in the suburbs and the shuttered mainline church in the city. While there is much that is good about being Christian in America today, very many of us think there needs to be a profound change in the way that Christianity is practiced and promulgated. All I’m saying is that the current practices that embarrass us are reflective of a deeply held theology. So, while we rethink how we live the faith, we must also reconsider what the faith actually is.

When I read these words I couldn’t help but say “Amen, brother”.  One of the major things that sadden me is how much we Christians spend on our church building and institutions compared to what we spend on loving our brothers. When I pass by the even not so megachurches in my area I almost always cringe. It embarrasses me to think of all the money these members are spending on themselves while I see so much need going unmet in the area.

As mentioned above another thing that is doing damage to the church is the ill-fated marriage between faith and politics. When did that happen? Yes, there is much to be celebrated about being a Christian in America but there is also much that needs re-alignment and that is what the emergent movement is all about. Tony Jones and this book were at the leading edge of the emergent movement. Later in the movement Harvey Cox came out with his book entitled The Future of Faith to address the topic of what faith actually is and that is that faith is not a set of beliefs, almost all manmade, but instead is about a way of “being”.

So we must refigure our theology. Too much bad theology has engendered too many unhealthy churches and too many people who don’t quite get the whole “following Christ” way of life. Too much thin theology is responsible for too many Christians who practice the faith in ways that are a mile wide and an inch deep. The hope of emergents, their ministry, their message is, more than anything, a call for a reinvigoration of Christian theology-not in the ivy towers, not even in pulpits and pews, but on the street.

The “mile wide and inch deep” reference stuck me as a perfect description of what Christian faith has become for too many. They say all you have to do to be a Christian is to make an altar call and proclaim as such. That is so far from reality to almost be ridiculous. Theology is nothing more than man’s beliefs about God and far too often it comes down to man’s desires of what they want God to be, where it should be the other way around.  To emergents Christianity is meant to be a life changing event; not something that is simply professed and then quickly ignored.

The Emergent Church….. They Love Everyone….

I am going to spend the next few posts giving you some more info about the emergent church movement now taking place around the world. The source for these posts is a book by Tony Jones entitled The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. Tony is one of the original leaders of this movement so his words have an insight into the beginning thoughts about just what is the emergent church today.  I am not going to give you a front-to-back look at this book but instead will be jumping around to fit the theme I have chosen for each post. There are a lot of highlighted quotes in the book that give more depth to it so I will also be letting you see some of them.

Lets start out with some fundamental reasons behind this new way of looking at church.


More than one emergent reported sentiments similar to one young man who said, “This emergent church is my last attempt at church. If this doesn’t work, I’m out. I don’t think I’ll ever give up on God, but I’m on the verge of giving up on the notion that human beings can form organizations that faithfully represent God in the world.”…..

In an emergent church, you’re likely to hear a phrase like “Our calling as a church is to partner with God in the work that God is already doing in the world-to cooperate in the building of God’s Kingdom.” Many theological assumptions lie behind this statement, not least of which is a robust faith in God’s presence and ongoing activity in the world. Further, the idea that human beings can “cooperate” with God is particularly galling to conservative Calvinists, who generally deny the human ability to participate with God’s work. This posture, however, is too passive for most emergents, who see the Bible as a call for us to contribute to God’s purposes.

The first quote here is very much where I once was in relation to “doing church”. The more I studied the Bible and the more I was exposed to current church practices the more discouraged I became. I was very much attuned to the reality that human beings seemed unable to form organizations to faithfully represent what the words of Jesus were telling me.

The second quote strikes at the heart of my concerns.  Much of current day church establishments especially those of a conservative nature just don’t seem to see the same words that I did when studying the red letters. Calvinists in particular say God has it all planned out. He knows before you are born whether he is going to allow you to come to him or just summarily cast you into an eternal torment. Calvinists might be the extreme end of this spectrum but they are not alone in those basic thoughts.

I know in a Lutheran church that I once attended I sat in the pew week after week with the minister telling me that as far as God is concerned I am nothing more than a worthless piece of snot but he loves me anyway and he doesn’t expect anything from me. There was almost never a mention of actually doing anything to help “God’s kingdom come to earth as it is in heaven”. I was told that my only duties were to thank God for his grace and maybe help bring some more members to our local congregation. We like most small congregations needed the money.  I was also frequently told to watch out for that “big bad world” out there as it wants to take my faith away.

The emergent church is almost a counter-church to the ones I have been exposed to.  They tell me that I am to partner with God in the work that he is doing. They tell me that I am very much part of the team that God has assembled to build His kingdom on earth. They tell me that church is not focused on “me” but about loving” others”… That is the message I have sought for much of my life.

Don’t Put It All On God…

Some Christians believe that absolutely everything that happens in your life was totally planned by God and is His will. They cite a verse here and a verse there to back up their claim. I am one who is a firm believer in free will so I am not going to put all the mistakes I have made in this life on God’s back. If God is totally responsible for everything that has happened in my life then I really don’t have any choice in the matter. That seems a strange way to rationalize life to me.

I am just not one to believe that serial killers are the way they are because God planned it that way. Or as one firmly defeated candidate for the Senate from my State said that children born from rape is God’s will. Blaming God for all our troubles both personal and corporate is an easy way to shirk our responsibilities in matters. We can always say “it is God’s will so I can’t do anything about it”.

Don’t put it all on God. That and the belief that we have no responsibilities relative to being a Christian are the two major pitfalls of some versions of His church today. Those who say Christianity is a something for nothing religion are seriously missing the messages of Jesus and in the process are seriously polluting His words.  Another very damaging belief is that since I am a sinner God doesn’t expect anything from me. He thinks of me as a worthless piece of snot but loves me anyway.  The more I heard this message the more nauseated I became. God did not put us here simply to sit back and let grace flow over us. He intends us to live a Godly life as he showed us through Jesus.

Being a follower of Jesus Christ is definitely not a something for nothing proposition! In fact it is really a fundamentally  life changing process when we actually take it to heart. Putting all our problems and all our bad decisions on God’s back is a giant cop-out….

On A Short Leash…..

Source: On a Short Leash – QuakerQuaker.

Had occasion to recall a dog that I used to walk. Normally, she was well-behaved and a joy to take to the park. One day, however, this good dog showed a quite different side to her regular disposition. She pulled and pulled and would not stop when I told her to heel. After several attempts at same, I was forced to yank her leash and propel her anxiousness backwards.

Apparently, a dog can forget about the person at the other end of the leash.

Now, what about dog spelled backwards? Do we sometimes forget about God walking along with us in this life? Do we still, as early Quakers cautioned, sometimes race ahead of God’s Spirit? And, do we force God to get rough with us – even to propel us backwards, so we remember what it is to walk the right way through life?

Thanks Clem Gerdlemann for this post on QuakerQuaker. It got me seriously thinking about being on a leash with God on the other end. While I am a strong believer in God having given us free will I also believe that He gives us personal revelations to help guide us through life.  Jerking our chain to bring us back to reality is part of those revelations.

So, I kind of believe, along with Clem that God has us on a leash. I would only differ in the length of the leash. I know when I walk my sixty pound basset hound I for the most part let her have the full fifteen feet of the retractable leash. She can go pretty much wherever she wants. Since bassets “hear and see” with their nose what she smells determines where she goes. Sometimes it is necessary to let her know who is in command, but given her sixty pounds that takes a good effort on my part 🙂

Like bassets we humans don’t often use all our senses when we travel through life. We often get hung up on this or that and it is most often a self-focused this or that. When we forget that Jesus’ command was to love God and to love each other we certainly deserve a jerk backwards. But, I think God’s leash is more than long enough for us to hang ourselves. He is just not in the business of “making” us do what He wants.

The Quaker belief of the “light of God” in all of us is the leash to me.  You might call it a virtual leach if you want. God ingrains in each of us his messages of life but he leaves it up to us to grow that light into a beacon that shows others the way to Him.

Reading Scripture….

All followers of Jesus should be regular readers of Scripture. This is the primary place where we get our lessons from Jesus Christ. Learning how to read scripture is at the heart of learning what Jesus intended for us to do.  The topic of literalism came up very early in church history. Origen, who was one of the first church theologians, warned us not to take much of what is in scripture as  literal. That seems to be a lesson lost on so many in the fundamentalist’s organizations even today.  They insist that everything in the Bible is literal and without the possibility of error.

Here are some words about that from Diane Butler Bass in her book entitled “The People’s History Of Christianity”:

The problem with literalism began, according to Origen, in Genesis:

Who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it. The mystical meaning entailed seeking out “the heavenly things of which these serve as a pattern or shadow” in the text.

For Origen, reading scripture was a search for the “wisdom hidden” under the literal words. In his book On First Principles Origen pointed out scriptural contradictions from Genesis through the Gospels. Not intending to ridicule God’s Word, Origen claimed….

It is interesting to see that the battle with the literalists started very early in church history. It is also interesting to see that even in the third century the argument against literalism was so well documented that Origen went through the text line by line to find scriptural  contradictions and he claimed he found many.

When we recognize that much of scripture is myth, allegory, or whatever you want to call it, that is intended to teach us lessons instead of being taken literally, then we are freed to look for the actual messages contained in those words and not get fixated on the words themselves.

I know the recent reasons for this literal interpretation is because of the principle of “the slippery slope”. That is if we give in to any belief then all beliefs will be attacked and therefore become worthless.   The slippery slope has gotten us into so much trouble in the recent world that I mourn the very thought was even created.  The NRA uses it to try to prevent ANY gun regulations. The Republican Party uses it as a reason for total obstructionism.

The slippery slope does more damage in the religious realm as all the others where it is falsely applied.  When we celebrate our diversity in beliefs instead of trying to kill them, then we will be able to get back to the true messages of Jesus Christ and that is what the emergent church is attempting to do….

The Church and Evolution….

I know you expect this post to be about how the church is very much against the idea of evolution. But really it is going to be quite the opposite. Yes, many denominations within the church, like so many other areas of science, deny evolution of the species as originated by Darwin. The Scopes Monkey trial was evidence of that. William Jennings Bryan put up quite an argument about that and the church has for the most part has stiffly followed it up since then.

But, this post is actually about how the church has practiced evolution over its two millennia.  That is, the church as evolved, some might say devolved,  from its earliest followers strict attention to the teaching of Jesus until today where those very teaching for the most part take a back burner to what we are told we must believe. There were a couple of discrete step in the evolution but for the most part it has been gradually happening throughout its history.

Theology is defined as the Study of religion. From the first people to give us their opinions of what the church means to the present day theologians there have been a myriad of different views of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Like every other realm theology is not all good or all bad. It is just man’s beliefs of the nature of God.

Here are some words about theology from some famous people in our history. I pasted these words here sometime ago and have to apologize that I lost the source.

Thomas Paine the American revolutionary, wrote in his two part work The Age of Reason, “The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.

Walter Kaufmann the philosopher, in his essay “Against Theology”, sought to differentiate theology from religion in general. “Theology, of course, is not religion; and a great deal of religion is emphatically anti-theological… An attack on theology, therefore, should not be taken as necessarily involving an attack on religion. Religion can be, and often has been, untheological or even anti-theological.” However, Kaufmann found that “Christianity is inescapably a theological religion

Thomas Paine, who is the founder of much of what this country was founded on said some pretty cynical  things about those who have opinions of what is religion.  As he pointed out above we have very little scientific evidence of what we call Christianity. It seems to have been based on man’s opinions.

Walter Kaufmann had a different take on it. Theology is not religion and in fact much of it is very anti-theological. I will have to study this aspect of religion some more to intelligently speak of these matters….

Man’s Fingerprints…..

canstockphoto3440941One thing that seems so hard for many fundamentalist Christians is the idea that much of their religious traditions and beliefs come from man, not God. They seem totally unable to even conceive of that idea. Without that acknowledgement they have doomed their version of Christianity to the trash heap of time. Science, that they generally deem as the enemy, will eventually become just be too convincing for them to deny.

Before I was excluded from a Lutheran church for my belief that the Bible is not totally literal or inerrant I had a lengthy discussion with a clergy leader there. He tried his best to convince me of the inerrancy of the Bible. When it became obvious that I was not going to discount scientific discovery as  “God just trying to trick us”, he made the statement “What would happen to your faith if you found out that everything in the Bible is literally true and without the possibility of error?” He got a very different answer than what he was expecting.

When I responded to his question that I would be totally astounded by that fact but it would not change my beliefs in Jesus and that he is the foundation of my faith. I concentrate on his words and messages and not on what others said about him either during his life or especially many years after his death.  But, I think my counter-question to him had a much deeper ramification. I asked him “What would it do to your faith if God told you that the Bible was written by men and was not totally from or even endorsed by Him?”  I never got an answer to my question other than “that is quite impossible.”

Once we accept that man’s fingerprints are all over the Bible and other ancient religious texts  the sooner we can get to the core of Christianity and that is the words, messages, and commands of Jesus.  When he came to live with us on this earth it was not just to die for our sins, he could have done that in a day.  Instead, he spent thirty-three years here to teach us how to live. When we no longer base our faith primarily on man-made belief that occurred after his death we get to the true meaning of being a follower of Jesus.

  • No, I am not throwing out all the traditions and doctrine of the church. I certainly celebrate much of that history. But we must realize that man’s fingerprints are all over this traditions and doctrine.
  • No, I am not opening it up to anyone that wants to believe whatever they want. Jesus made it clear that being a follower of his was more important that just saying certain words. He did not intend his church to be something-for-nothing; he intended it to be the guiding light of our lives.
  • No, I am not saying that all the authors of belief system we currently have were not inspired by God but I am saying that every word they wrote came from their heartfelt thoughts but they were by no means dictated directly by God.
  • No, I am not throwing the Bible out of the church. Instead I am giving it the rightful place and that is to teach us church history, give us examples of Godly living, and most importantly give us the words and messages of Jesus.

Change is difficult, especially within many very conservative church establishments. We need to accept that man’s fingerprints are all over our Bible and then move from there to a belief system more like the early Christians. That is what the current emergent church movement is all about…..


Despite recent trends the U.S. is still pretty much an inclusive society. As the saying on the plaque at the Statue Of Liberty goes we welcome all others to our shores. The resulting diversity is in my mind one of the primary reasons we have been such a strong and prosperous country. Elitism is by definition exclusive. It wants more and more for a smaller and smaller portion of society. It celebrates that fact that more than half the wealth of this country is in the hands of the top one percent of the population.

The advantages of inclusiveness and diversity are equally true for our religious institutions.  Unfortunately most religious organization are exclusive. When they can’t even agree within themselves about something they call “religious” they far too often split over their differences. Each of the currently 39,000 different versions of Christianity today go out into the secular world to proclaim that they alone have it right when it comes to God.  But then again, many don’t actually go outside their doors with any seriousness. Instead they tell us to come and see them and if we jump through all the right hoops and proclaim the right beliefs then they will let us join their group. To me that pompous attitude is not the message of Jesus. Jesus didn’t put conditions on his welcoming tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans and such; he welcomed them all without conditions.

I realize the above words are somewhat critical. No, they are actually very critical! This criticism did not come lightly upon me; it evolved for many years of observation and study.  I have come to truly mourn the fact about what much of Christ’s church has become. Thank heavens I have also been exposed to an evolving Christianity that has allowed my view of Christ to grow and not die as a result of this all too common church exclusiveness.

I have been exposed to numerous authors who tell me a different story. It is a story of celebrating Christian diversity. It is a story of getting back to the words of Jesus and putting all the various man-made beliefs about him on the back burner, and in some instances completely off the stove. It is about welcoming all people to our midst.  It is about actively going into the community to be our brother’s keeper. It is about being a Christian instead of just proclaiming certain belief, man-made beliefs. It is not self-focused but is about helping others.

My religious evolution was somewhat similar to when I went deaf. Before I met others who were deaf I was convinced that I was the only one out there. Before I was exposed to the other side of Christianity, the inclusive version, I was very distraught about what I saw in the church. Now I have hope for the church of Jesus. Will some of the current church institutions step away from their practices of exclusion or will they be simply sidelined to an ever decreasing minority? In some ways I really don’t care as there is now an alternative on the horizon to take their place if they stubbornly insist on the pompous belief that they are the only true Christians out there.

The emergent church movement gives me hope that the messages of Jesus will not be lost to mankind. All of Christianity will not be deemed irrelevant to the world and discarded. The idea of actually following Jesus will be resurrected, or I might say rescued, to return as a mantel of morality in this world.

Do What I Say….

Let’s get back to Luke 6 for our study today.

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”

This is one of the most direct passages about “being” a Christian found in the Gospels. When someone is a lord in your life that means that he has great authority over you. You listen to him and do what he says. The first sentence in this passage Jesus sternly tells us to do what he says and then he goes on to be more specific. What more could we ask for?

If we actually do what Jesus says we have a solid foundation for the rest of our lives. Whenever we question what we should do about any circumstances in our lives we are supposed to go back to Jesus’ words and commands to find the answers.

The problem with all of this is that we tend to pick and choose which words of Jesus we will obey. If we don’t like a particular part of his message we ignore that and concentrate on the words we like. I must also admit that many of the red letters are somewhat hard to understand. For instance when he tells us to chop off our hands if they cause us to sin. I don’t think he meant that literally but it seems to be up to us to determine that. I wish he had made things like that clearer.

But the words above could not be clearer. We must never ignore his words  and especially his commands just because we don’t particularly like what he said. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case with many Christians today. A partial reason for that is that we have watered down his words with so many of our own. Some theologians over the years have even relegated Jesus words to be no more important than any others found in our Bibles. Jesus and Jonah seem to be on the same plane to them. How sad is that?

Who Do We Owe Our Allegiance???

Today I want to look at some words from Brian D. McLaren in his book A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith

Our faith is vain and self-centered if it only brings blessing for us or to us. It also must result in blessing that flows through us to the world…..

If we locate Jesus primarily in light of the story that has unfolded since his time on earth, we will understand him in one way. But if we see him emerging from within a story that had been unfolding through his ancestors, and if we primarily locate him in that story, we might understand him in a very different way. Once I had acknowledged (albeit roughly and crudely) these two very different ways of understanding Jesus, and once I acknowledged that nobody in the Hebrew Scriptures ever talked about original sin, total depravity, “the Fall,” or eternal conscious torment in hell, a suspicion began to grow in me about where the six-lined narrative might possibly have come from. I was able to articulate it a few months later in a conversation with a friend, as I recounted my little exercise in setting up the backward and frontward lines of sight to see Jesus: “What we call the biblical story line isn’t the shape of the story of Adam, Abraham, and their Jewish descendants. It’s the shape of the Greek philosophical narrative that Plato taught! That’s the descent into Plato’s cave of illusion and the ascent into philosophical enlightenment.” 

More and more people are coming to realize that the person of Jesus who we thought we knew was actually made up by others who came many years after him. I have not yet studied much about the thoughts of Plato but I do know that they had a profound affect on Augustine and that Augustine had a profound affect on shaping the fourth century church.  As pointed above when we look at  Hebrew Scripture which was the foundations for our Old Testament we don’t find many of the things that some now consider to be foundational to Christianity. That fact and knowing that Jesus didn’t actually say anything about them causes me to come to one conclusion and that is they are actually derived from human thoughts after the fact.

Yes, I do think that God continues to give us personal revelation even today so why can’t I just believe that all the things that man invented after Jesus was given to them by revelation?  The main reason I can’t is because much of it has nothing to do with the messages Jesus gave us while he was on the earth and they have little or nothing to do with the messages he did give us. I am totally convinced that much of the history of the church was definitely not from Jesus. This includes the Constantine era when the church leaders were corrupted by worldly power. It includes the pre-Reformation period when grace was being sold to build bigger and bigger cathedrals.  It also includes periods like the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the burning of heretics. These action were certainly a result of the lust of power by the people of the times. They were not from Christ.

As Mr. McLaren points out in the book above the emergent church movement is attempting to go back to those things that Jesus did teach and to discard much of the past baggage loaded on the church by succeeding generations. We do not owe allegiance to our ancestors but instead only to Jesus himself. It is time to come to realize the difference between the two.

Finally it is also time to heed the first sentence in the quote above. Our faith should not result in vain and self-centered thoughts focused on self. Our faith must result in blessings that flow through us to the world…