The Anti-Ecclesial Rhetoric of Emerging Church Movements

One of the things I have grown weary of in the last decade or so, is anti-ecclesial rhetoric. What I mean by this is the pitting of the ‘church’ over against Jesus, or ‘the established church’ over against more ‘organic’ models of Christianity (e.g. house churches, and the like). I suppose we all from time to time look for something or someone to blame our problems on, and the Christian church has become something of a punching bag, even for a goodly number of devout Christians. Sometimes this is because they have joined the ‘I’m spiritual, not religious’ movement, or the ‘I love Jesus, but the church…. not so much’ band wagon. Some of this frankly is caused by a profound misunderstanding of the word church/ ekklesia. Perhaps then, it would be wise to start this post with some basic definitions.

The church is the corporate people of God assembled for worship, fellowship, and service. It is not a building, it is not an institution, it is not an organization. Any church that is even moderately successful certainly needs a regular place to meet, needs some organization, needs some structure, but the ekklesia as defined in the NT is not these things. I would stress the church needs structure, needs buildings, needs organization, but it should not be identified with them. It is precisely when the buildings, structures, and organizations or institutions of the church become overly-sacralized that they become difficult if not impossible to change. That’s what I call Christians developing an ‘edifice’ complex.

The word ekklesia, often translated ‘church’ actual means ‘assembly’. One person is not the church. A group of unassembled Christian friends is not the church. No, there is an element of assembling for worship, fellowship, service that makes a group of people a church. You need to be having church to be a church.

It is certainly true that in my lifetime brand name denominational loyalty has declined in Protestantism (less so in Catholic or Orthodox circles). Some of this is caused by the weak ecclesiology of Protestant theology to begin with. By this I mean that Protestants tend to emphasize one’s individual walk with Christ, individual piety, individual commitment, and so on, at the expense of the group identity and unity. And when you throw in a hyper-active sensitivity about this or that view of truth or orthodoxy, it is no wonder that it seems that Protestants are better at fulfilling the Genesis commandment to be fruitful and multiple (by church splits) than at fulfilling the Great Commission. Put another way, when you stress your vision of Truth with a capital T, rather than the need for unity (with a little ‘u’), dividing and sub-dividing is inevitable it seems. There are literally hundreds of Protestant denominations…and frankly this is an all too modern phenomenon. Denominationalism did not exist in say the fourth century A.D. It is a decidedly Protestant development, or subplot.

Thus, when one gets to the emerging church folks, and you hear a lot of their anti-ecclesial rhetoric, it has a long precedent in Protestantism, whether it is Luther railing against the Pope, or Calvin complaining about the situation in Switzerland, or Wesley struggling with the Anglican Church, or the Free Methodists splitting off from the Methodist Episcopal Church or various Baptist groups splitting and multiplying prodigiously. And in all of this, few have stopped to ask—Is all this disputatiousness a good witness to the world? Put another way—Why should the world listen to any church group when we can’t even agree among ourselves, as we speak with forked tongues?

Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for renewal movements of God’s Spirit wherever they come from. We need them. What we don’t need is the church eating it’s own young or old. What we don’t need is any part of the church claiming to be ‘the one true church apostolic and universal’ at the expense of other parts of the body of Christ. What we don’t need is the oh so familiar attempt to blame the structures for the problems of the church, when, after all it is the people of God who set up, maintain, and run those structures. They are not, inherently, the real problem. As Pogo once said ‘I have seen the enemy, the enemy is me.’ We need to look in the mirror. What we also really don’t need is one part of the Christian church having the hubris to think it has a stranglehold on the truth. This in the end simply reflects arrogance and ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn from others who are not part of our particular portion of Christ’s body.

One more thing. With the anti-ecclesial rhetoric has also come some anti-intellectual, and even anti-educational and anti-seminary rhetoric. Correct me if I am wrong but in a Dark Age where the culture and the church in general is becoming more and more Biblically illiterate what we surely don’t need is less training in the Bible. What we don’t need is a dumbing down of Christian college and seminary core curriculum in Bible, Church History, Theology. What we don’t need is less emphasis on learning the actual languages that the Bible was written in, and learning the historical, literary, rhetorical context in which it was given.

Nor do we need the arrogance and foolishness that says ‘I can learn all that on my own, thank you very much. I don’t need formal training by experts.’ Really? Would you go to a dentist who said— ‘I’ve got no degrees and no formal training and I’ve never extracted a tooth, but lets start with you.’? I think you get my drift. Ministers (clergy and lay), need as much training by experts as possible in the core Christian curricula. They just do. Because if the leaders are not the resident experts for their people, then we are dealing with leaders who simply pool their ignorance with that of their people. And that only furthers the darkness of the Dark Age into which we have been descending.

It is my hope that when the Emerging Church stops Emerging from wherever it has been previously hidden and starts merging with other groups of Christians who are willing to partner with them, that it will be realized that it was after all unprofitable and unhelpful to sass your Mother, to repudiate the womb from which you emerged, by which I mean the ekklesia, the body of Christ, the people of God, which will always need structures and organizations. Think on these things.

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  • Christian Reyes

    Good read. I think most’ emergents’ are just a bunch of dumb twenty and thirty somethings.

  • Randy Woodley

    In a spirit of respect, I couldn’t disagree with you more. While you say you are for renewal-it seems like you want an organized renewal. I’m not sure if you see the depths of degradation in the current state of the church. You know well what Christians have done in the past and continue to do now. Why is it that genocide, theft, greed, avarice, hypocrisy, etc. almost always stem from the most powerful, organized elements of Christ’s body? What is even more rampant is the complacency and cooperation with evil they amass in the system by doing nothing while still having a wonderful orthodoxy. This is more descriptive of the church today-the reality-not the image. You speak of the church with the “edifice complex” as if it is the exception when in actuality-it represents the overwhelming majority of expression in American Christianity.

    I also think you underestimate the work of the Spirit in these new movements. Emergents, Jesus Radicals, Neo-Monastics, etc, are people who are trying to re-gain their faith because of the abuses of the edifice oriented and even evangelical church. It is messy, disorganized, mostly leaderless, and libertine but I believe Jesus is found in all those places, and I must admit-if i look hard enough, he is even found in the edifice oriented churches. As followers of Jesus, let’s learn to talk about our sins openly-not deny them.

    Yes, it hurts to have all this thrown up at us all the time. Perhaps once we learn to own it and we become the people who bring it up, and we change our direction, it won’t sting so much. Honest conversation is where Jesus will be found. In those conversations people need to heal from church abuse. I am happy to allow that to happen wherever and whenever it occurs. I even encourage it. Ben, without picking a fight with all these young people trying to learn to love Jesus in spite of their bad experiences in the organized church, I encourage you to encourage new faith expressions as they organically occur. Who knows what Jesus might be doing?

    I hope you receive this in love as a brother in Christ. You are a great teacher whom I respect, but today-I’m taking another position.

  • RJR Fan

    Ben, I love the loving way you interact with those who post comments. Perhaps, the “emergent” phenomenon is an attempt to deal with an issue Leon Podles, a Roman Catholic scholar, pinpointed in his book “The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Western Christianity.” Men are made to be engaged, responsible, effective. The Western Christian culture, Catholic and Protestant, does not promote those characteristics with sufficient vigor. The easiest way to “go along to get along” is to lapse into a proxy model of living our faith — hiring others to do it for us. This keeps the machinery going, and doesn’t make waves. And so many godly women hear their biological clocks running out, as men shun church. (Podles suggests that “Beowulf” was written as a tract for an audience that would rather be heroes than saved — and portrayed a Christian warrior who was both.)

    I don’t know the answer, Ben, but I grieve for the gender imbalance. And I grieve for the ease with which a once-vibrant church that felt like a raucous family reunion happening under the benign gaze of a clan of crazy uncles — vivid and memorable hard-edged high-achievers in a whole range of vocations — underwent a phase change. A change of state. And morphed into a religious corporation run by a panel of slick, salaried, religious professionals.

    Obviously, we can’t get back what we once had — but what can we strive for? Something vital has gone missing, and I am grieving, and groping for a way forward. Sometimes, I sense the appeal of a local Baptist minster’s approach. He re-invented himself as a “life coach” (evangelism through disciple-making), catalyzes home churches, befriends Muslims, and offers a safe environment for converts from that background.

    I am eager to read your response.

  • Ben Witherington

    Randy I am all in favor of revival movements but they do not need to caricature those who are not part of their movement, painting everyone with a broad brush, and furthermore it’s not helpful when people portray themselves as victims of the mean hierarchy, when in fact it’s mostly untrue. Most people I know involved in emergent movements have certainly never been abused by anyone in the church. They just don’t like hierarchy, and some of them are just full of youthful rebellion, which, since that happens in every generation, has nothing to do with the present state of the church. BW3

  • TMMexOPC

    It’s equally dangerous to paint those who are exploring what church means with a broad brush as “full of youthful rebellion.” The “emerging” folks I know are Boomers, for instance, who are part of committed, organized assemblies in house settings. They have and have had church leaders question whether they are even believers. Randy Woodley’s response is most refreshing.

    You say: “Any church that is even moderately successful certainly needs a regular place to meet, needs some organization, needs some structure…” So consider these two scenarios. A church in the city has members who drive in on Sunday and for events from the suburbs, then go home without serving the city. In fact, it service is disruptive to the neighborhood because the volume is so loud for three-four hours every Sunday that people cannot enjoy being in their homes. A second assembly, a small, eclectic mix of college age students, Boomers and professionals–all who live in the city–meet in a home across the street. They share a meal, sometimes celebrate the Supper, pray together and support each other. And they serve their neighbors, tend to the poor, work with kids in gangs and have seen people come to faith in their midst. Both have structure, a regular place to meet and some organization, but the second has leaders who share authority.

    So a question: Why do people who gather each week in a church building sneer at people who gather in other circumstances? Why, in my examples, is the first group so quick to judge the second without looking to its own sinful patterns? Why grow weary of people who are seeking authenticity and striving to serve the Lord instead of coming along side them?

  • Ben Witherington

    First of all, many traditional churches have in home groups like you are referring to. It’s not an either/or proposition. It is certainly true that for some people, visiting another person’s home is less intimidating than going to a traditional church building, and that’s fine. I have nothing against an in home group, but not as an alternative to a meeting of the whole body of Christ of that assembly or group.

    Secondly, the issue is what does ‘share authority’ mean in your scenario? Does it mean for example, that people who have no gifts and graces for say, administration, or say, leading worship, simply volunteer and do this without any discernment process about spiritual gifts etc.? On the short term, as an experiment that may be alright, for example in an InterVarsity fellowship group meeting, but in the long run, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 12-14, people should function according to the gifts and graces God has given them. See the gift lists in 1 Cor. 12 and Romans as well.


  • Jesse Bruce

    Tsk, tsk, professor…a Christian demanding an apology? You, of all people should know better. You’re embarassing the angels. :)

  • Ben Witherington

    I afraid Jesse it’s you who are embarrassing yourself. And its a poor witness. But blessings on you anyway. BW3

  • Jesse Bruce

    Acts 4:13
    Contemporary English Version (CEV)

    13 The officials were amazed to see how brave Peter and John were, and they knew that these two apostles were only ordinary men and not well educated. The officials were certain that these men had been with Jesus.

    Does this scripture stick in your craw every time you read it professor? The leaders who established the foundation of the church.

  • Ben Witherington

    Nope, not at all since that’s a terrible translation. An ‘idiotai’ means a person who is not an insider, which in this case means these two gentleman got their education in Galilee, not in Jerusalem. It’s the typical stuffy Jerusalem establishment stuff, and it has nothing to do with Peter or John being uneducated. The word ‘agrammateus’ means someone who has not studied with one of the Jerusalem ‘grammatoi’ or scribes. It does not mean illiterate. By citing this Scripture, you have simply proved my point. You need to study the original languages to grasp the real meaning of such a text! BW3

  • Zach Lind

    I find it interesting that Ben will respond to every commenter that’s pushing back on his post but doesn’t bother responding to this glaring example of “disputatiousness” in the very first comment:

    “Good read. I think most’ emergents’ are just a bunch of dumb twenty and thirty somethings.”

    Apparently disputatiousness travels on a one way street.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Zach: I didn’t think it was worth responding to. There is no meat on that bone, it’s just a weak rejoinder. BW3

  • Jesse Bruce

    21st Century King James Version (KJ21)
    13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marveled…

    American Standard Version (ASV)
    13 Now when they beheld the boldness of Peter and John, and had perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled…

    Amplified Bible (AMP)
    13 Now when they saw the boldness and unfettered eloquence of Peter and John and perceived that they were unlearned and untrained in the schools [common men with no educational advantages], they marveled;

    New King James Version (NKJV)
    13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled…

    What version do you want to use professor??? Are you right, and these dozens of other scholars wrong? The fact is, you’re interpreting, not translating and your interpretation doesn’t fit the passage. The leaders MARVELED. If your “interpretation was correct, why would the leaders MARVEL? They might despise them because they are Galileans, but MARVEL?? Really? Your knowledge of Greek utterly fails to “dazzle.”

  • Brad C

    First – ekklesia comes from Greek meaning to “call out” or to “call together” it wasn’t an exclusive term used by the early church. It was a term used to describe a calling together to talk or a meeting. Nothing special about “ekklesia” – the term has been overassigned meaning by theologians.

    Second – emergent types are hardly anti-intellectual, it seems just the opposite. Most of the movement stems from the philosophical realization that modernity was “over” and the epistemological structures used to build the modern world and the church are being reconsidered. Ideas like – Radical Individualism, Sufficiency of Language, Omni-competence of human reason and their outcomes – concepts like certainty, objectivity, and absolutism – all being reconsidered. When you listen to the emergent conversation it is discussions like: “What is the church without the concept of Radical Individualism in place?” or “If language doesn’t provide absolute meaning what is the Bible?” etc.

    The hard part is that most denominations and denominational institutions have been built using conceptual structures that are no longer valid – but they can’t let them go. I know it is very hard to let go of understanding that has “given us” meaning and purpose (it has been very hard for me) but it is time to let them go – they just don’t work anymore. It is hard for me to study church history and realize we actually killed folks for believing “incorrectly about Baptism”, etc, etc.

    The emergent movement doesn’t seem anti-intellectual and anti-ecclesial to me – it just smacks into the certainty of the modern world and the institutions trying to preserve the idea.

  • Jay

    And those kids with their loud rock and roll music…

  • Ben Witherington

    Try reading a few actual commentaries on Acts. They will tell you about the translation tradition— the RSV, and the NRSV just follow the KJV, as does the New KJV….. without independent research. You will discover if you read the Acts commentaries, that those folks who are actually experts in Acts Greek text are in agreement that what is meant is :1) they are not trained by the grammatoi in Jerusalem, and so not under the Sanhedrin’s supervision; 2) ‘idiotai’ is also used in 1 Cor. 14 and simply means an outsider, not someone who is illiterate or ignorant. Both of those translations are way off the mark. In this case it means of course that Peter and John are not from Judaea nor were they trained there, and so the assumption is they don’t have the quality of education or learning that they should. They were astounded of course because they showed they did have a remarkable degree of both learning and inspiration from the Spirit, despite not having been trained in Jerusalem. But again, since every English translation is already an interpretation you need to read it in the original with the help of good commentaries. BW3

  • Ben Witherington

    Thanks for this Brad. The problem with what you are talking about is those more heady emergent thinkers seem to be assuming a false epistemology. An epistemology for example that assumes that it is not possible for persons to be objective enough to make rational decisions about the real world, and also an assumption that meaning is not in texts but in the eye of the beholder (see reader-response criticism). In other words, it wants to throw the good bits of modernity out with the bathwater, and unfortunately this will not work. BW3

  • John Vest

    This sounds to me like another status quo Christian in denial of change. I’m growing weary of that.

  • Francis J. Beckwith

    Randy writes: “Why is it that genocide, theft, greed, avarice, hypocrisy, etc. almost always stem from the most powerful, organized elements of Christ’s body?”

    Here’s the answer: only that which is great and attractive can be corrupted in direct proportion to its accomplishments. The hospitals, orphanages, monastaries, universities, and nearly unlimited works of mercy could have only been accomplished by an ecclesial body with leadership, direction, and organization, with confidence that it was extending the mission of the Gospel to touch every facet of society. This is why the emergent church must be in communion with its brothers and sisters in ways that show obedience to its predecessors and the traditions it has inherited, including the Scriptures, the creeds, the spiritual disciplines, the liturgy, etc. None of these gifts was the consequence of a body that conducted its ecclesial life as the present emergents do.

    You can’t have the benefits of paternity and the privileges of patrimony without having a father. But that requires obedience and submission to that which one did not choose or invent. I suspect that most of the emergents–nurtured as they are in a culture that confuses freedom with the libertine ethos–do not have the stomach for that move. I hope I’m wrong.

  • Ben Witherington

    Thank you Francis for injecting some historical perspective and sanity into this discussion. BW3

  • Brad C



    I would disagree – it is only a false epistemology if you are still holding on to assumptions of the modern world, assumptions that aren’t working anymore. Emergent folks aren’t anti-realist they tend to be pragmatist some even analytics but not anti-realist. This criticism tends to come from folks who study continental philosophy to find out what postmodernism is and then ascribe the thoughts of Foucault to the emergent group – they aren’t in that camp.

    I guess I am surprised that you would find them anti-intellectual or anti-ecclesial – I just don’t see it. I see a strong passion for theology and for the church – otherwise they would just walk away from it all.

  • Steve.

    Hi Ben

    I am a first-time commenter here. While I can appreciate your candor and concerns regarding aspects of the emergent church’s generalizations, I think you as a Christian blogger have a substantial responsibility to avoid committing the same kind of generalization and “painting with broad brush strokes” those in the emergent church movement who find serious, and well-documented problems within the Church in the West. Just go to Barna’s web site and check out some of his data. Listen to voices as diverse as Roger Olsen, R.C. Sproul, Ravi Zacharias, and John Piper who all from differing perspectives think the broader Christian Church is dysfunctional, biblically illiterate, anti-intellectual, anti-reason and generally incable of articulating the entire story of God’s plan for redemption and reconciliation. This is not something the emergent church invented or made up. The above mentioned men are all Evangelical Christions or one stripe or another. They consider themselves to be firmly within the historic orthodoxy of Christianity. I am not sure what Church you are looking at but it is not the same one these men and myself observe. To be honest, I found your post to be sophomoric — something I would expect from a first-year Bible College student. You state an interesting hypothesis and then fail to rigorously make your case. Your post, in this case is nothing more than a poorly explicated opinion full of nothing but how you feel about the subject. What this reader came away with was that you simply do not like the EC critically examine ecclesiology. It’s not YOUR church only. It’s theirs as well.

  • Patrick O

    First off, I agree that a lot of the emergent church conversation over the years has been filled with dismissive and often degrading rhetoric. This goes both ways, of course, which has led to sharp lines being drawn.

    That being said, there’s nothing unique in this about emergents. Evangelicals, for instance, are sharply divided between Calvinists and Ariminians. The list can go on and on, often times barely recognizing the other as even being part of a shared church. So, emergent folks aren’t unique in that, they’re just raising different arguments.

    And in many cases the arguments they are raising are extremely common, it’s just that in our day and age most people vote with their feet–just disappear from the church world. Often because churches can be highly dysfunctional, and often so in common ways. Dismissing such as being just how churches are, I think, is taking the call of the church too lightly. We have, for instance, the letters of Paul precisely because he was willing to challenge and correct. We have debates and challenges all through Scripture. But when denominations and such don’t have avenues for such debates, and assert a dominating hierarchy that dismisses real concerns, then that passion has to flow somewhere, either outside of the church or into renewal movements.

    The question, I think, is whether the critiques being raised are valid. We can and should certainly also critique the manner of disagreement but shouldn’t then wholesale dismiss all of the challenges simply because we think the people raising them are a bit too strident for our tastes.

    I would argue that there is indeed a substantive critique being addressed by emerging churches and in their more contemporary expressions also some very constructive proposals. Indeed, these proposals aren’t new. They reflect impulses seen throughout history–and more recently I would argue reflect very much a similar critique that theologians like Moltmann have been raising for decades.

  • Patrick O

    One more point, I would strongly argue that using the term “anti-ecclesial” is entirely missing the goal of emerging churches and those like them. Oftentimes they are very pro-ecclesial, just against what they see as deficient forms of ecclesiology. Equating a narrow approach to ecclesiology as defining the church itself seems wrong to me.

  • Jonathan Wagner

    The entire belief system of modern day Christianity is rooted on top of an institution established by what we believe to be the disciples and later solidified at Nicaea. Any sect that declares Independence will ultimately consolidate to form another organization since all christian belief is built on top of the idea of cohesiveness of belief, even if it is not possible. Any desire for cohesiveness of belief demands an institution physical or metaphorical. Christianity has been fighting for cohesiveness for 2000+ years. Catholics, protestants, Jehovah’s witness etc.. are all attempts at establishing institutions that can best explain the some what complex nature of scripture. The one thing this is not, is a new movement.

  • cken

    Francis had me with his greater good concept until it got to “the creeds, the spiritual disciplines, the liturgy”. I have always viewed these as manmade constructs having to some degree a basis in scripture, but not always having any spiritual significance. Baptism may be a good example; it seems to have devolved from spiritual, to symbolic, to something you were told you had to do, to what is now construed as a fun event to be done almost as a party. I know that may not be true for all regions or denominations, but it is for some. I think the loss or the lack of teaching of the spiritual meaning behind many of the christian symbols and rituals is one of the reasons people look elsewhere for meaning. Church is quite often perceived as some combination of Pharisees and money changers, going through meaningless ritual; perhaps rightly so. Make no mistake, I have met some very nice people at various churches who were fun to socialize with. More often than not however, any discussion of scripiture or theology was relegated to Sunday only and that on the most limited basis considered acceptable. As a result I either changed churches or avoided their social events as a waste of my time. Perhaps this is representative of what you call emergents. I don’t know because I don’t label myself or others.

  • Tony Jones

    Ben you’re way off, as I’ve written:

    Honestly, what’s most disconcerting is that, in the face of testimony of well-traveled and well-educated emergents in your comment section, you refuse to even acknowledge the possibility that you got this one wrong.

  • Ben Witherington

    Thank you Patrick. And thanks to all of you for this conversation. George Barna is the co-author of Pagan Christianity. A book filled with misinformation about the history of the church and it’s theology, backed up with very questionable statistics, a book which has been critiqued in great detail on my blog (when it was on the Beliefnet website). If you folks have been paying attention, much of what I have said in this post has also been said, perhaps in a less irritating way, by Scot McKnight on his blog. Both Scot and I have been clear that we are always happy about renewal movements of all sorts, and have been equally clear about the flaws in the traditional church. Neither of these things negates the important point that this post was making, namely that there are serious flaws in the ecclesiology of emergent leaders thinking and writings. Francis Beckwith, for example, in his post, has pointed out a couple of key things. BW3

  • Ben Witherington

    As this discussion comes to a close, here are a few points worth further reflection: 1) since the Emerging/emergent church groups are not a united bunch and indeed represent a variety of responses to the inadequacies of the traditional church, to whom are they accountable? (Please don’t say to God). By this I mean that all church groups of any size need accountability structures that do not arise from immediately within the particular local expression of that group. For example, the Corinthian house churches were all accountable to Paul, who takes his apostolic role quite seriously; 2) since the Emerging Church folks are mostly low church Protestants of one sort or another, what strategies do they have for avoiding the besetting sins of such groups— namely divisiveness and constant splits, often along lines of strong personalities. 3) since our culture is a mixture of modern and post-modern thought systems and praxis, how will the Emerging folks address those who do not buy into post-modern thinking, epistemology etc. Think on these things BW3

  • Tony Jones

    Ben, Neither Barna nor Viola has ever — EVER — used the rubric of “emergent” or “emerging” to describe themselves. Nor has any expert. Thus, when you write a post about “emerging” without naming those at whom you are aiming, no one — NO ONE — suspects that you are taking aim at Barna/Viola. Everyone — EVERYONE — is going to assume that you are aiming at those who actually use “emerging” as a self-descriptor.

    And in response to your closing comment, let me suggest that you read my book, The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement in which those very questions are addressed. For you to think they we’ve been unaware of those questions shows that you haven’t investigated the movement very deeply. We have, indeed, thought on these things.

    And that book wasn’t too anti-intellectual for Princeton, so it just might pass muster with you.

  • Ben Witherington

    Tony I am not saying Viola is amongst the Emerging folks. Their info was cited in one of the responses, if you are reading the whole thread, and I was responding to that. I’d be happy to look at your book and possibly review it on the blog here. Tell your publisher to send me one.

    Let me be clear— I have indeed talked to various people in the Emerging Church movement, though not with you, obviously. I don’t think my remarks are off target when one reads what some of those folks have written. You may be an exception, I don’t know. What I do know is that you sound rather defensive, and I wonder why. I do not accept the non-hierarchial ecclesiology that I have heard about from Emergent folks. It’s unBiblical frankly, but that’s a debate for another time.

    Blessings, BW3

  • Kedric

    Dr. Witherington,

    For a moment I thought I might be reading Carl Trueman. :)

    Theological differences make for a lot of the differences in churches, but another aspect of those differences would fall under “Christian Living.” The Emergents represent an evangelical form of Christian living that differes from the individual piety of the past toward more social justice and corporate responsibility.

    However, I’ve seen a tendency to appreciate certain liturgical elements of church tradition (while chastising other Evangelicals for abandoning them), but then draw back from the deep-rooted theology of centuries of Christian reflection (sometimes using terms such as “scholastic”). In that respect, the Emergents remain fully Evangelical. The Emergent Church is also an American phenomena and its ideas, to me, would not apply well outside of our context.

  • Ben Witherington

    Thank you Kedric. Yes the social justice side of the Emergent movement is refreshing and commendable. What I find ironic is that some Emergents seems to see that as a new emphasis not found in mainstream Protestant Churches. This I find especially ironic since Evangelical Methodists have been doing this since John Wesley himself. In this respect they seem to be reacting more against the over-spiritualizing of non-Methodist low church traditions. BW3

  • Jesse Bruce

    @ Ben…Re: Acts 4:13 you are flat wrong professor. It is not lost on me that you fail to list a single transalation that would back you up. I looked at 28 and simply put forth a few at random. I could not find any that supported you. The verse uses 2 Greek words not just one as you know… “idiota” and “agrammatos” which means flatly illiterate. The author wanted to make clear these 2 men were uneducated and plainly illiterate to the point that the Jewish leaders were amazed at their eloquence and the power of their presence. You may have a buddy or 2 that wrote a commentary agreeing with you but obviously the vast majority of Bible translators do not.

    Of course, like any “proper” seminarian you neglect to mention the importance of communicating with Holy Spirit Who lives within us and Who inspired the words we are reading. Modern seminarians follow closely the habits of the religious experts in Jesus’ day who devoted their whole lives to the study of the scriptures and in debate over their meaning, but utterly failed to recognise the Messiah when He arrived because their hearts were unconnected to the Living Word. Their hearts were filled with pride, living to impress one another and always striving for pre-emminence. They had no real power! Their great swelling words of oratory were in fact empty and devoid of power to profoundly change and individuals life – much less that of a whole culture.

    It is no wonder that Paul considered his previous education and learning to be worthless as dung in his fervent pursuit of the destiny laid out for him by the Spirit of God. He certainly recognised the importance of sound doctrine, but also understood that it would be his ongoing experience of intimacy with the indwelling Christ that would get him there.

    Seminarians “teach” the doctrine of the indwelling Christ, but are bereft of its power. They know the “language” and have it down solid in their notes, But actually walking in resurrection power – no, not so much, nor do they care about doing so. Some wrongly believe that Paul was chosen to write most of the N.T because of his previous education. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus said, “those who are forgiven much will love much!” No other writer of the Bible came close to matching Paul’s sin. He imprisoned and murdered God’s children! When the day of his conversion arrived and the full horror of his actions gripped him, God’s love for him penetrated Paul’s heart to a depth few if any other human being had ever experienced. THAT is what prepared and empowered Paul to write of the grace of God in the depth that he did. THAT gave him the boldness and resolve to travel without the comfort of a spouse and endure with genuine joy everything the powers of darkness clobbered him with.

    The scripure commands us to follow those who through faith and patience inherit the promises – not those who live behind closed doors in ivory towers thinking about the next book they are going to write, and wondering how their peers will receive it. So, again I say, Burn down the buildings! Erect in their stead a large monument at each place that reads – “Go read your Bible with your heart fully engaged with His and He will finish the work He started in you, and you will complete the works He has ordained for you to accomplish on this earth, in this age.”

  • Ben Witherington

    Sorry Jesse but, sadly, it is you who are wrong. A grammateus is a scribe– to be without scribal training does not mean to be without education. Secondly, ‘idiotai’ as in 1 Cor. 14.16 means an ‘outsider’ not an illiterate person. Have you read any of the solid commentaries on Acts? Any of them? One of them?

    And since you insist….. I hardly live in an ivory tower. I preach and teach all over the country and around the world, and have pastored 6 churches. I lead Bible studies and teach Sunday school most every week. So repent brother— you know neither me, nor the Scriptures, and sadly you are both arrogant and ignorant about these things. It’s a bad witness— you need to repent. You need to give the Holy Spirit more information to work with in your life. BW3

  • Jesse Bruce

    28 transalations agree solidly with me on Acts 4:13. Any commentary that is at odds with the main and plain of scripture is at odds with the Living Word – regardless of of the number of titles after the writers’ names.

  • Ben Witherington

    Jesse you didn’t answer my question— did you read any of the commentaries on this? Every English translation (or translation into any non-Greek language) is already an interpretation. 28 translations can be as wrong as one translation, especially when they mostly depend on each other and not the original Greek text. It’s time to stop using the Holy Spirit as a labor-saving device. God gave you a brain so that you could ‘study to find yourself approved’ as the Scriptures say. And if you really believe the Bible is the living Word of God, as I do, then you will realize it was not written originally in English, and their are no perfect English translation. Hence, study is required in the original languages to get at the meaning of the text. It just is….. There are no short-cuts. Unfortunately, all too often when people say all I need is my English Bible, my brain, and the Holy Spirit to understand the Bible, what then comes out of their mouths as an interpretation is wrong about 50% of the time. Sad, but true. Blessings on you anyhow, BW3

  • Jesse Bruce

    Ben, you have yet to list a single Bible translation that agrees with you. Also, you are seriously at odds with God when you exalt the “opinions” of man above the Holy Spirit. And that my dear brother gets to root of perhaps the most important issue of our times. You and the vast majority of Christian leaders today seriously underestimate the leadership of ability of The Lord Jesus and The Holy Spirit. That is why the day of the fulfilling of Ezekiel’s prophecy in Ezekiel 34 is on the horizon.

  • Ben Witherington

    I hate to break it to you Jesse, but those English translations were all done by human beings, and reflect ‘the opinions of human beings’. Try the New Living—- “The members of the council were amazed when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, for they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures. They also recognized them as men who had been with Jesus.” This is pretty close to literal in regard to the second phrase. It means they had no special education, in this case from Jerusalem scribes and teachers. The other word however ‘idiotai’ does indeed mean an outsider….in 1 Cor. 14, and here as well. Here is the NCV that is getting at the gist of what is said—- “The leaders saw that Peter and John were not afraid to speak, and they understood that these men had no special training or education. So they were amazed. Then they realized that Peter and John had been with Jesus.: In short, they didn’t have higher degrees. They were not learned in the Jerusalem sense of the term. Think about it for a minute. There was no way for the Jerusalem Sanhedrin to know whether Peter and John were literate or not, unless they gave them a literacy test— which they did not. But they could know for sure they had not received higher education in Jerusalem, which they had not done. Blessings, BW3

  • Jesse Bruce

    Ben, the fact remains that many other scholars disagree with you. Why should anyone take your rendering over that of 100s of others? I read the 2 translations you cited. I can just as easily interpret them to mean what the others said, and I believe. You are basing your interpretation primarily on what you deduce from your understanding of the Jewish culture at that time which we both know is largely theoretical and could be argued endlessly.

    You assert the scriptures cannot be properly understood by the common man without the aid of commentaries written by men such as you, and of course we all know that all modern commentaries are in agreement don’t we?

    I have read a sizable amount of modern scholarship. A few years ago in a private home meeting I sat at the feet of a well-known scholar from Jerusalem for several nights as he expounded on scriptures from the gospels. This man is highly regarded by both Christian and Jewish scholars alike. But I was amazed as I sat there and listened to him “strip” the power from the scriptures as he did exactly what you are doing, inserting Jewish culture “as he understood it” into his interpretation of the scriptures nullifying the main and plain of what was written.

    No wonder the Messiah was revealed to uneducated shepherds the night Jesus was born but not to the pharisees who had the scriptures memorized and spoke of little else to one another.

    Tell me…why did the “Living Word scriptures” fail to bring the pharisees into a “living” relationship with God? I could understand if it was just a few who didn’t believe, but most? Nearly all? And the few who did believe were cowards??? Uneducated shepherds found him, an old widow in the temple, but pharisees who spent their whole lives in the study and meditation of scripture were wholly ignored by God??? Really? Does the Bible not state very clearly that those who seek him diligently will be rewarded? What were the shepherds doing that the pharisees weren’t? How can you be absolutely certain that modern “scholars” have not fallen into the same trap?

    Tell me, Ben…what expression of God’s word was Job speaking of when he said, “I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.”

  • http://www, RON M WEEKS

    We are as a community to be easy and open to the whole expression of what faith, belief, grace, hope and care are the essential components. I am a Canadian Lay person who really thinks the stereo types are trying to define and model it to fit a mould. Common is not to be ruled as conventional or designed. It is the will and intent of Jesus and Apostle teachings that brings those who are seeking assistance and guides, not guidance and leadership by dogma that will reveal the spirit of faith into those who are requesting some aid, in being better Christians. If you are interested read and send my free posting to those who are in need of a few moments of reading and study of what real emerging church can do for each individual, whether, young or mature, single or partnerrs in life

    Blessed is the ones who are willing to share faith, anyway it is meant to be brought out.


  • Patrick O

    To go back, if I may, to your “closing” comments. The idea of accountability is certainly a key one, I agree. What I struggle with is the idea that rigid hierarchies themselves provide substantive accountability. Certainly in many cases yes, but when the hierarchy itself becomes corrupt, the whole system breaks down, as such corruption then protects itself. With this, then, hierarchy has not itself been shown to protect against either theological or ethical lapses in the church. Paul, certainly, can be said to be above reproach, but merely having authority to wield accountability does not accountability bring. Oftentimes, then, such accountability is used primarily to force submission to the authority, not to actually wrestle with real issues or theological questions.

    The Church actually existed with a form of flexible hierarchy that allowed congregations to raise up their own bishops, who then represented them at councils. Such councils of the whole church then could speak with a voice to the whole church. We’re no longer a united church (the blame is not only the Reformation but also the mutual excommunications of 1054).

    So, are there other models to leadership and accountability? Yes, I think there are. A marriage, for instance, involves an expression of unity that is not always unified in opinion, yet exists without someone in a higher position to mediate. The husband and wife are called to submit to each other, and in this submission expressing both love and respect for each other, finding a way of living together that is often responsible for the crucial task of raising up the next generation. Indeed, we see in the letter to the Ephesians specifically uses this as a model for the church.

    Other approaches might reflect the Wikipedia model, where instances of mistakes occur but overall there is a pattern of accuracy based on open involvement. Somewhere I read that Wikipedia was actually a bit more accurate per topic than the Encyclopedia Britannica.

    My point is that there can be and are models of accountability that depend on equality and open participation, and I would argue that such models might even be ultimately more Scriptural, even if certainly there has been a need then and throughout history for more hierarchical models. It wasn’t God who thought a king was ideal for Israel, and I suspect he doesn’t see similar hierarchies as the best model for the church. Otherwise, the Spirit would have been conveyed to humanity and to the church in a manner that reflects such a rigid hierarchical decision making.

    Even Paul could be wrong, after all. Something Barnabas thought at least once. And even when they were wrong it’s a good thing others in the church were able to dispute Paul’s authority, as it caused him to express his decisions with very interesting and helpful letters, explaining and reasoning his position, rather then mandating and controlling.

  • ben Witherington

    Thank you Patrick for this thoughtful response. Obviously there are always dangers with any power structure. I would only want to push back on one point you make. Hierarchial church polity is not necessarily the opposite of equality or egalitarianism or open participation. It certainly isn’t in my Methodist tradition. BW3

    And as for you Jesse, may the Lord bless you and keep you, and remove from you your assumption that any interpretation of Scripture that doesn’t agree with yours must be human opinions. BW3

  • Jesse Bruce

    No meat on that, Ben. Be blessed. :)

  • Maxie Dunnam

    Ben,my friend, now that hopefully you have finished that lively discussion on the church (I applaud your wisdom and candor…and some of your humor), let’s focus at another point. As Christianity and the Church are increasingly pushed to the margins of our society, increasingly bereft of its cultural powers and privileges, isn’t it true that an apologetic of reason will no longer be our convincing response? If so, what does that say about the role of seminaries;maybe more focused, what kind of “equipping” for ministry must the seminary provide.? I’m convinced that what we need for ministry effectiveness is Kingdom knowledge (begin with knowing God) and Kingdom competence (begin with ministry, not preparation for ministry…prepare for ministry as you are in ministry). That means a different approach to curriculum and a different kind of professor…and I believe you might be one of those “different kinds”.

  • Ben Witherington

    A blessing to hear from you Maxie (in fact I heard from you this morning at Centenary in Sunday school, as they kept quoting you!). I think it will require some combination of reason, praxis, and straight word providing of examples. The post-modern, post-Christian situation still has an intellectual component and ethos, it’s just not a Christian one. What is very different is that a sense of objectivity has been lost. Each person reads their own meanings into the text and into the church, into their lives, and thinks they have a right to ignore any outside, uncomfortable objective truths that may impinge. In short, we have descended into almost pure narcissism, the heart turned in upon itself. Even worse, we have churches catering to this narcissism with all sorts of ‘needs based’ preaching, (needs being determined by the expressed felt needs of the congregation— which have as much to do with wants and desires as actual needs). In one sense, we are closer to the pluralistic and narcissistic ethos of the NT world than ever, which makes the Word all that much more directly relevant to preach. But we also face the new hostility of the post-Christian and even anti-Christian situation…. which suggests we must be prepared to suffer (something that sits uncomfortably with the pablums of Joel Osteen about prosperity and happiness and health). In short, yes I think the seminary must retool in some ways, but not by dumbing down the curriculum into some sort of chicken soup for the soul— rather we must boil up the people to the level of the Word. Blessings BW3

  • Gord MacGowan

    Garry, your comments have provoked my thinking. Frankly, I don’t have the time to read all the responses, but it is clear you have precipitated quite a discussion here. I agree with your emphasis on the need to learn from others, and not to isolate oneself. Who hasn’t been hurt by the edifice church, and who hasn’t been stung by those who don’t understand you? Have you truly lived and explored if you haven’t made a few enemies? I wonder if the current response to church abuse (mass exodus) stems from the individualism we have embraced from our culture that promotes our rights to protect ourselves almost in an extreme sense, and ultimately seems to offer the very opposite of what it promises: woundedness, isolation, and a smaller view of the truth. The last largely because a fuller understanding and maturity emerge from listening to other points of view and developing a broad range of relationships, even if they hurt you.

    I wonder if emergents think they are the first to identify problems with the historic church (to which the Pentecostal now seem to belong)? Doesn’t every new movement begin with a touch of exclusiveness, which for a time serves to protect the ideals and distinctives to which it is committed? After a while the isolationism erodes at its foundations and serves to promote its undoing, which I think is where Pentecostalism is today. I am sure that a future generation of emergents will call out to their constituency to overcome their “us versus them” mentality and explore greater unity as its strengths, in isolation, serve to undermine its survival. In the meantime, I think the rest of the Church should avoid taking offence at their criticism and continue to take stock of their own shortcomings, so that when greater unity becomes the emergent cry, there will be someone to extend the hand of friendship.

    I also agree with the observation that Protestantism has suffered a lack of ecclesiology. I think that an institutional ecclesiology, though, is not where we need to head. Perhaps we should be formalizing a healthy sense of disorganization that enables a certain amount of protection and efficiency while preserving a need for ongoing relational unity. This, of course, does not work well with the mega-church model, which requires a high level of organization and hierarchical structure to accomplish its goals, much like a large corporation or a denomination. We can’t have it both ways, it seems. We can either have slick, highly oiled organizations that produce excellent programming and depend on a strong class of professional ecclesiastical management, or we can have organizations that emphasize the quality of personal relationships among believers, and the sharing of truth in that context. The latter almost certainly must forgo the strengths of the former to achieve success. Since the impartation of truth and the quality of relationship seems paramount in Scripture, I am inclined to pursue the latter.

    This is not to denigrate structure but to keep it to a minimum. Structure should follow strategy; it should serve the purposes of the organization and not the other way around. It seems that as organizations develop, new generations, out of touch with the principles of their founders, grow impatient with the alleged inefficiency of their structure and seek to become more highly organized to achieve “success”. What changes is the definition of success: from worshiping God, obeying Him, imparting truth, developing relationships, and transforming lives and community through the worship, obedience, impartation and relationships; to achieving certain numbers of transformed lives and certain benchmarks of transformed community. I think this happens because it is difficult to measure success when we simply focus on the principles of the former strategy. This leads to idolatry of success and the building of the edifice that ultimately seems to glorify the version of the edifice being built, and the names of its builders. Didn’t Paul say in 1 Corinthians 3:5 “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul?” When we get back to Christ we ought to be able to avoid the imbalances of being an Apollos or a Paul movement and more easily join the community of the Ekklesia. This may make me sound like an emergent, but I have come to a place in my life where the last thing I want is to become labelled and experience the isolation that follows. I hope my aim is to find Christ wherever He is to be found and fellowship with Him and those who seek Him.

  • R. Jay Pearson

    In his book THE ORTHODOX CHURCH, Greek Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware wrote the following: “Many people may be members of the Church who are not visibly so; invisible bonds may exist despite an outward separation. The Spirit of God blows where it chooses and, as Irenaeus said, where the Spirit is, there is the Church. We know where the Church is but we cannot be sure where the Church is not.”

    He was remarking how this is the view among most “moderate” Orthodox Christians, which includes most Orthodox who have contact with other Christians outside the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Which means, basically, most Orthodox.

    But overall, Ware’s point is true: wherever the Spirit is, there is the Church. Even where it cannot be visibly identified (otherwise known as “where the Church is not.”)

    Many Christians today are “where the Church is not.” Myself among them. And yes, there are some who are “anti-ecclesial” in the sense that they are at times (though not always) arrogantly dismissive of some older, more institutional traditions (such as Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, etc.) which have come to lack a modern relevance in their approach to today’s evolving generation of believers AND non-believers.

    Where Emergents are concerned, I have my own criticism. As I recently posted on Tony Jone’s “Theoblogy” blog, Emergents (especially the “leaders”) can be “a tad snobby, and even a bit too arrogant; know-it-all-ish; and vehemently averse to criticism (which is the most notable common characteristic I’ve encountered among Emergents). . . . My own perception of Emergent-ism is that it’s simply the left-leaning wing of the American Evangelical stripe, presenting a contrast to the right-leaning wing (think Southern Baptist Convention, and the ilk).”

    In that vein, I do believe that AT TIMES the Emergents are arrogantly anti-ecclesial. They have a frequent tendency of contrasting their fresh, hip new “way” of faith perception and action with the older, dry “way” of some historic Church institutions. As such, “fresh” is better than “old.”

    But having said that, and in spite of my own criticisms, I think Emergentism is a response to the hostility of the older generation of the Church, particularly in the United States. And I think it is an important response. The “old guard” American church has a sad reputation for intolerance, particularly toward women, gays, etc. Furthermore the “old guard” became seduced by conservative (i.e., right-wing) American politics such that for an entire generation Christian faithfulness was measured by one’s level of fealty to certain American political issues.

    Those of us in the post-1980′s generation see this not only as wrong, but as a dangerous and damaging perversion of the Gospel and the identity of Jesus as the embodiment of Love. And we want no part of that perversion.

    And so similarly as King Josiah — whose father before him, King Amon, perverted the worship of God — we of this “new generation” have rediscovered the Word anew (see 2 Kings chapter 22), and are moving forward in continued rediscovery of it and its place in our faith, with a desire simply to be more faithful than our forebears.

    If, then, there is hostility among Emergents toward the “old guard,” it is perhaps righteous. If it is rebellion, it is perhaps necessary. For just as Josiah sought diligently to renew relationship with God (see 2 Kings 23), many of us are moved to proverbially “tear down” (see 2 Kings 23:4-16) the theological and other accoutrements found in the “old guard” which have served to create more barriers than bridges.

    But overall, to agree with you IN PART, I agree the time has definitely come for Emergents to be much more gracious than they thus far have been.

    Yet ultimately . . . “Keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them — in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38-39, NRSV)

  • Ben Witherington

    Thank you Jay, this is perhaps the most helpful and sane comment yet in this discussion, and I think you are largely right. BW3

  • Arthur Sido

    Swing and a miss.

    This essay contains just enough unsubstantiated assertions to reassure the comfortable church attender that they are doing the right thing. For those who have gone beyond “faithfulness by attendance” and asked some of the hard questions, even those of us who are not self-proclaimed “experts”, this amounts to little more than a series of unsubstantiated assertions and allegations.

    While you certainly have lots of assertions telling us why this alleged “anti-ecclesial rhetoric” is wrong you do little to explain why the alternative, i.e. more of the same, is right. The old saying is true here, when you find yourself in a hole the first thing you do is stop digging. You bemoan the division in the church but your solution is to perpetuate precisely the sorts of traditions that have inflamed division in the church for centuries. The divisions of the Reformation were not led by uppity lay people lashing out against “The Man” but rather by clergy who jealously guarded their own traditions and often were willing to stand by or even cheer while the state killed to protect their turf. The church divides over power and money and influence so why would we be surprised when a system based on those things leads to division?

    I understand the fear and often the anger that comes from those who make a profession out of ministry and why they are so fearful of anyone who questions the house of cards that is the institutional church. If my livelihood were threatened I would be upset as well. Fortunately, dare I say providentially, many Christians have walked away from the traditions of man and are pursuing community and fellowship outside of the four walls of church buildings, authoritarian top down “leadership” by experts and the confining rituals that have both marked the visible church and crippled our ministry. Essays like this and books like Kevin DeYoung’s “Why We Love The Church” are little more than desperate attempts to prop up a system that is dying away and becoming irrelevant to the church. The future is not found in “experts” or religion or institutions but in the community of believers ministering side by side in love amidst a world that hates them. I for one am glad to see the church heading in this direction. For those who choose to cling stubbornly to traditions from the past I simply ask that you stay out of the way.