The Essence Of Emergent? image

The Essence Of Emergent?

The emergent movement has always been a bit of a mystery to me, and there are probably a bunch of reasons for that. I’m a church leader, and emergent types don’t generally (other than a well-known guy in Grand Rapids) lead large or well-known churches, which makes understanding what they believe and do somewhat harder for me. Self-identified emergents are often hard to pin down, using slightly mysterious words like “fluid” or “natural” or “simple” to refer to the type of church they attend (if they even call it a church, as opposed a “community”).

The whole distinction between “emerging” and “emergent” helped muddy the waters further; which one was Driscoll and which one was Pagitt, again? And to top it all off, until very recently, I had never encountered anybody who was part of an emergent church, with the exception of someone I met once who said they were into “organic” church (the most baffling nomenclature of all, in my view. What does it mean? Carbon-based? Alive? Non-GM?) So the whole emergent thing was, as far as I was concerned, a mediated phenomenon, explained to me either by the enthusiastic (like Brian Maclaren) or the sceptical (like D A Carson). What ordinary emergent people did or said was beyond my ken, as they say.
Until two weeks ago, when as some of you know (thanks to our illustrious friend Saint Stuffed Shirt) I was mugged by a bunch of them on an American blog for being, among other things, “devious”, “manipulative” and “icky”. It was my first direct encounter with real emergent types, and it opened my eyes to something I had not picked up from all the things I’d read about the movement. As I had understood it, the distinctive features of the emergent church were mainly to do with doctrine: essentially leftie on all issues, from pacifism and social justice (hooray), through hell and gender (hmmm), to penal substitution and sexuality (boo). There were also distinctive features connected with church practice, like meeting format, terminology, missionary strategy and so on. But what nobody had ever told me was that at the very heart of the emergent movement was a grave suspicion, and often an outright rejection, of spiritual authority.
I had written a brief piece talking about the importance of asking questions when sharing the gospel with people – a concept that, I assumed, would be right up the street of the emergent types I had read about (and, of course, the basic focus of my new book). But I had made a number of mistakes. For example, the photo of me which appeared on the page had me smiling while speaking at a conference, with a collared shirt and a headset microphone clearly visible. Some commenters highlighted this as a cause of innate suspicion, since it made me look like I was used to telling people what to believe (which as an elder and preacher I am, of course; I have read the Pastoral Epistles, after all). Another commenter picked up on the fact that I had referred to readers of this particular blog as “well instructed” – for me, the phrase was innocuous, but to her, it connoted a heavy-handed authority lurking behind the webpage, as if the main blogger, a professor of New Testament studies, had the right to “instruct” people on anything. (I have since noticed that others who post on the blog generally use language like “participating in the community” to avoid this problem, but you live and learn.) Several were upset that I was asking questions about origins and the resurrection with a view to explaining the gospel to them; didn’t asking questions which I already had answers to imply a superiority and an arrogance? And so on.
Needless to say, I felt quite misunderstood and more than a little upset by all this, some of which was expressed in unhelpfully personal and slightly unpleasant ways. The point of this post, though, is not to air my grievances because my therapist thought it would help expunge the memories – I’ve been called worse by people in my own church! – but to draw attention to the common denominator of all those comments, and many more I have noticed since: a suspicion, or rejection, of spiritual authority. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s an expert “instructing” laypeople, an elder “teaching” or “governing” a church, or even a Christian “preaching the gospel to” a sceptic: emergents don’t have much time for authority within the church. Leave the a-word to the state, the army and (maybe) God. Christian brothers and sisters, engaged as we are in an ongoing peer-to-peer conversation about issues of faith, should have nothing to do with anything so autocratic and hierarchical.
Where does this all come from? After all, the Bible is stuffed full of leaders, called by God to lead and govern his people, whether patriarchs, prophets, kings, priests, apostles or elders/overseers, and three New Testament books look remarkably like leadership manuals for the early church, peppered through with instructions to “correct, rebuke, exhort”, “keep a careful watch on the doctrine”, “charge certain people not to teach”, “instruct”, “admonish”, and so on. Not only so, but the existence of church government offices in the first place, along with commands like “submit to them, for they keep watch over you as those who must give an account” and “respect those who are over you in the Lord and admonish you”, clearly indicate that the apostles expected some people to exercise an authority in the church that others did not. So what’s the problem with spiritual authority?
It would be easy to accuse all emergents of having swallowed the democratic spirit of the age, but I suspect there is more to it than that. Many individuals seem to me (and admittedly this is a very anecdotal point) to be coming from a place of pain when authority in the church is discussed – the assumption is often that anything authoritative is authoritarian – which suggests that they reject authority because somebody previously misused it. Heavy-handed, legalistic leadership has probably recruited many more emergents than anything Rob Bell or Brian Maclaren have said, and it’s helpful for those of us in church leadership to bear that in mind, and watch our steps accordingly. On the other hand, many emergents also seem to have a deeper problem with the authority of God himself, whether exercised through Scripture (many emergents believe the Bible has mistakes in it), through leaders (as we are discussing here) or even through the gospel (as one commenter I saw recently put it, “Oh, to be able to hang out somewhere and not be called to repent.”) And without wanting to sound too apocalyptic about it, challenging the authority of God is what got the human race into trouble in the first place.
So I feel like I’m getting a bit more of an idea of what makes emergents tick. My sample size, though, is still vanishingly small, so if anyone thinks the essence of emergent is to be found elsewhere, or knows of emergent people who think spiritual authority is wonderful, then please tell me contribute to the conversation.
Andrew Wilson’s new book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption, is out now, published by IVP who are offering a generous discount for readers of this blog.

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