Friday, July 22, 2005

Emerging Evangelical: What's in a Name?

"Labeling" has become an artform in western life, to the extent that most in our culture, including many within the church, care more about certain words than we care about how those words are defined. "Liberal" "Conservative" "Calvinist" "Dispensationalist" "Charismatic" and other terms such as these are used with regularity, often without regard for their etymological or historical origins, or for that matter, their correct definitions.

One such compound term seems to be getting quite a bit of mileage these days: "Emerging Evangelical." And the problem is the same: most have no idea what either of these words mean.

I must admit two things of myself at the outset. First of all, I consider myself, although not an authority on the subject, to be a “fellow-journeyman” with others among the movement otherwise known as the “emerging church.” I believe this movement is helping all of Christendom to make an appropriate course-correction between the wrongly-separated categories of right doctrine and right practice--the whole proclamation of Scripture and the holistic incarnation of the Gospel through the promotion of social justice. I believe that many, under the guise of “conservative” theology, have circumvented the Scriptural call to mission in lieu of a right-wing agenda they intend to implement in a Zealotistic crusade for power, which they wrongly identify as the accomplishment of the Great Commission. And I believe that the central values of the emerging church counter this hunger for power with the call to follow a missional path of suffering and service that Jesus commands His followers to walk. Consequently, I am optimistic about much that I see and hear in this movement.

Conversely, I am also humbly, but unapologetically, Evangelical I believe that 2 Timothy 3:15-16 assumes the inerrancy of the autographic text of Scripture, and that this inerrancy by default commends acceptance of the veracity of the creation account, the miracles of both the Old and New Testaments, and subsequently, the authority of the Bible over every area of our lives, including both our thoughts, and our actions. I believe these authoritative Scriptures further declare the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the only path to fellowship with God, abundant life, and a secure eternity. I believe in a literal hell that is both horrifying and eternal, and that those who reject the message of the Gospel will be its occupants in a glorious-yet-sorrowful display of God’s infinite justice. I believe Scriptural teaching on the imago dei declares abortion to be the unequivocal murder of one created in God’s image. I believe these random statements (among many others) are absolute because Scripture is absolute, and Scripture is absolute because the God who inspired Scripture is absolute. And I believe all of these conclusions come by allowing Scripture to speak for itself, via the historical-grammatical approach to interpretation.

This is my understanding of what it means to be an "Emerging Evangelical," yet after reading these words, I am sure there are many who identify themselves as evangelical, as well as many who associate with the emerging church, who would claim that I am neither. In short, while the church uses a common vocabulary, there are many dictionaries!

This issue has been most recently brought to the forefront, probably unintentionally so, by Don Carson, in his latest book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. On the one hand, Carson's assessment of the emerging "conversation" is an accurate one. Though I have read many strong critiques of his work, I maintain that in the end, many associated with the emerging church hold to an ultimately incoherent theology that is sloppy at best, and heretical at worst. They are angry at Carson because he has called them on this point. Nevertheless, while Carson is accurate in his descriptions of these inaccuracies, he wrongly paints with a very broad brush, failing for example, to deal with much of anything in this movement outside of Emergent.

In response to Carson's work, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch of the Forge Mission Training Network have written an articulate position paper that outlines the different approaches taken by Emergent and Forge respectively. In addressing this concern, Frost and Hirsch correctly state that Carson has inadvertently lumped everyone together. "While we accept that Carson's assessment of McLaren and Chalke has some validity, we believe that there are multiple 'emerging' approaches to mission-in-the-west that have unfortunantely been unfairly tarred by the same brush that Don Carson applies to Emergent." These Austrailian missiologists are careful to state that while this was not Carson's intent, it was nonetheless the result. The reason? Frost and Hirsch contend that "many people who have read his book seem to be ignorant of the various permutations of the so-called emerging or missional church. This has become obvious as several articles now quote Becoming Conversant when attacking all new missional expressions of church."

The bottom line so far: It seems that while everyone uses the term "emerging," few seem to agree on what it means!

But the term "evangelical" has also had an elusive definition throughout its history. First used in the early 20th century as a way of distancing the "Carl F.H. Henry" Fundamentalists from more radical proponents of Fundamentalism, the term was basically used of believers who wanted to unite around five "fundamentals" they considered essential and foundational for the preaching of an authentic Christian Gospel: The inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, penal substitutionary atonement, the bodily ressurection of Jesus, and the literal second coming of Jesus. Within a few short decades however, the definition of this term had become so nebulous that entire collegiate lecture series' and symposiums were dedicated to the discussion of its true meaning. Vernon Grounds, in a 1956 article written for Eternity magazine, strongly asserted the fundamentals as essential in the makeup of anyone identifying as a part of Evangelicalism. "This then, is the nature of Protestant orthodoxy, a twentieth century continuation of the historic faith which springs from a bloody cross and an empty tomb, a Protestant against religious deviants from the Gospel of redemption, a witness to the truth and grace of God in Jesus Christ." And in 1971, Martyn Lloyd-Jones delivered a series of three addresses that were eventually published in book form with the title What is an Evangelical? The struggle for a uniform definition of this term continues today, as inclusivists like Clark Pinnock and open-theists like Gregory Boyd now seek to use it in describing their own theological and missiological vantagepoint.

In an effort to speak with more clarity, some organizations, including the Mid-Maryland Baptist Association in which I am employed, have chosen to use the term "Missional." At present, this term carries much less ecclesiastical "baggage," and is probably a more useful and accurate way of describing the central tenents of what many in emerging church circles are advocating. But I suspect that like other labels, this one is also eventually bound for the terminology "trash-heap" of terms that have come to mean so many things, that they now ultimately mean nothing.

So what is needed to overcome the mis-information that often clouds the vision and judgement of Christ's church? If the confusion is facillitated by the overuse of labels, then maybe a few of these labels should go the way of the dinosaur! But what will take their place?

How about "communication?" How about "dialogue?" Acquisition works such as The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives provide a wonderful example of how discussion can take place between those of different perspectives without oversimplifying the issues at hand, or sounding like the US Congress. And online communities, such as that provided by my old seminary colleague Steve McCoy ( are a conduit of information exchange that enriches the learning experience of which we all should avail ourselves.

My contention that labels can sometimes be confusing does not mean that they shouldn't be used. On the contrary, when rightly understood, labels help us to see where we are positionally, and define the contours of how we think, what we believe, and how we will behave as a result. What I'm suggesting here is that if "emerging church" proponents looked a little closer at their "evangelical" brethren, they might discover that not everyone in that movement is an intellectual slave to modernity. Conversely, evangelicals who take a long enough look at the wider emerging church movement will discover many who share their strong convictions, and want to see the unconverted come to share these same convictions within a relationship to Jesus Christ.

Not every emerging leader believes Brian McLaren is postmodernism's "Billy Graham," and not every evangelical believes that the "modern" expression of church is the zenith of its existence in the west. These two groups need to get together! The result, with a few exceptions, might well-resemble what is already happening in Australia. Frost and Hirsch correctly state: "To nurture a vigorous, truly transformational, missionary vision of the world based squarely on the Gospel, will require surer foundations than that which the culturally bound, always insecure, always uncertain, postmodern form of theologising can provide." Similarly: "A transformative missionary movement in the West will need an equally strong transformative vision of the world if we are going to be able to reclaim the ground lost by a disentigrating Christendom in the last few centuries."

In short, a radically agressive missiology, informed by a sound, Biblical theology, and carried by an equally Biblical ecclesiology, would make for a deadlly weapon against the powers of darkness. If emerging leaders who are evangelical, and evangelicals who are sympathetic to the causes of the emerging church could get together somehow, the result might be a God-glorifying synergy that could transform our world as we know it. But for this to take place, we have to check our labels at the conference room door!

The following resources may be helpful:

Carson, D.A. 2005. Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Frost, Michael and Alan Hirsch. 2003. The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers

Sweet, Leonard, ed. 2003. The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Includes contributions from Andy Crouch, Michael Horton, Fredreca Mathewes-Green, Brian McLaren, and Erwin McManus)

Minetrea, Milfred. 2004. Shaped by God's Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

**There will most likely be no online commentary for next week, as I will be in Atlanta attending the summer meetings at the North American Mission Board. God willing, postings will resume the week of July 31.

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