Disclaimer: This is my personal response to Brett’s ETS paper, “Essential Concerns Regarding the Emerging Church.” Brett emailed me the paper before he presented it, but, although I tried to call him a couple times, we were unable to speak before his presentation. He had asked me for written comments, but I told him in an email that I’d rather talk about it in person. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. What I also told Brett, in an email, was that I found him to be even-handed, and even generous at points, in the paper, but that I totally disagree with his conclusions.
I do not want to respond to this paper in a blog post. I don’t really have time for this, and I really don’t think this is the appropriate medium for this kind of thing. But Brett and others (like the A-Team) continually accuse me of not directly answering my critics. In fact, I spend a couple of hours every week emailing my critics, but only when they ask me specific questions or levy specific charges. Along these lines, Brett’s paper has few charges against me and no questions for me. Nevertheless, I’ll try to respond as I can.
I will not respond on behalf of Doug, Brian, or Spencer. I do not speak for them. And, though I do speak for Emergent Village, I am NOT speaking on behalf of Emergent Village here. Emergent Village leaders published a response to our critics in the summer of 2005, and that apologia still stands. This is my response, and mine alone.
Finally, Brett recorded an interview with me several years ago in which I answered each of his questions directly. That interview was never released, but I hereby ask Brett to release it publicly and leave it up to others to decide whether I evade Brett’s questions or otherwise avoid true “conversation.”
I’ll proceed section by section.
1) Is Brett qualified? Indeed, Brett is just as qualified as anyone to pass judgment on my writings and speaking. He has listened carefully, I think, to what I have said and read some what I have written. I do wonder, based on this paper, if he has read anything of mine other than Postmodern Youth Ministry and my blog. I have written several books of a more spiritual nature, all of which contain confessio of my faith in Jesus Christ. For instance, on page 18 of The Sacred Way, I write,
I think that something about Jesus—who he was (Jesus of Nazareth) and who he is (Jesus the Christ)—inspired the people who developed these disciplines centuries ago. He led them on this quest, which really is unique to Christianity. For only in Christianity is there the belief that the one, true God came to earth as a human being, and that, to this day, we can know him in as personal a way as the disciples who shared lunch with him 2,000 years ago. That is, Christians engage in these spiritual practices not out of duty or obligation but because there is a promise attached: God will personally meet us in the midst of these disciplines.
I’ve even edited versions of the writings of John Bunyan and Augustine. So, if Brett has not read my books on prayer and Christian history, or has chosen to disregard the theological statements therein, then I think he may be less than qulaified to pass judgment on my orthodoxy.
Further, I find it strange that Brett’s own qualifications have nothing to do with his own claims to orthodoxy (or, for that matter, orthopraxy). The only thing we find out about him is what church he attends. He gives us little else to go on. So, what qualifies him as an orthodoxy cop? Because he works for STR? Because he’s allowed to present at ETS? Because he holds a bachelors degree from the Bible Institue of Los Angeles? And, I wonder, were Brett’s own theological and philosophical dispositions to be judged by Calvin or Augustine or Luther, would they stand up? It’s hard for me to know, since I’ve only interacted with Brett on what he doesn’t like about me and my friends; I’ve not read his own substantive contributions to theological discourse.
2) Brett’s appreciation of ECM and EV is extremely short — in fact, it’s the shortest section of the paper. To appreciate the missional nature of the ECM without enbracing any of the theology that makes missionality possible seems very difficult to me. But Brett doesn’t tell us how he does this, so we’re left to take him at his word.
3) ECM vs. EV and the leadership of the latter: Here Brett is fair, I think. But, regardless of how much he and others protest, Emerging Church and Emergent Church are and will be used interchangably. Also, I consider the Gibbs/Bolger definition (“Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures”) to be so broad as to border on meaninglessness. Every church in America falls under that definition.
4) The Cross: First of all, after saying that the views of McLaren, Pagitt, and Jones don’t equate to the views of Emergent Village (as a traditional denomination might), Brett titles his section, “Three Essential Concerns Regarding Emergent Village.” Instead, it should read, “Three Essential Concerns Regarding McLaren, Pagitt, and Jones.” While he tries to tie us to EV earlier, he also says that we don’t claim to speak for everyone who associates with EV. He’s right: we don’t. So don’t paint everyone in EV with the same brush.
On the actual point of Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross, Brett does not mention me, so I’ll assume that I pass muster as orthodox on this point.
5) The Authority of the Bible: Again, I am not mentioned, so maybe I’m OK here, too. But I am on the record as reviling the so-called “doctrine of inerrancy.” It’s a doctrine that demands so many relative clauses (“in the original manuscripts”(which, by the way, we don’t have), “in the author’s intention” (which, by the way, we can’t know), etc.) as to render it worthless. I choose, instead, to speak of the trustworthiness, even infallibility, of scripture.
6) The Nature of Truth: Yet again, I am not mentioned, even though I have spoken and written extensively on truth. I’m starting to feel left out!
But, let me defend a friend for a moment (even though I said I wasn’t going to do this!). Brett takes Doug to task for “equivocating” on his use of the word, “truth.” But that’s like saying that I’m equivocating when I say I “love” my wife and I “love” steak. Of course I’m using the word “love” differently in each case. We do this all the time with words. So did Paul, which is what keep biblical scholars in business. When Paul writes of “righteousness” in one context, it means something somewhat different than in another context. To divorce Doug’s words from the contexts in which they were written does him a great disservice. This is what I meant when I blogged earlier about Brett using a classic “straw man” argument.
It is not enough, Brett writes, “for E
leaders to say, ‘We believe in truth, we believe in truth.’” He wants to say what we mean by truth. Yet I have talked ad naseum about what I mean by “truth,” and I think I have been very clear on this point — just ask anyone at the National Youth Workers Convention or the National Pastors Convention. I’ve even taped an interview with Brett in which I talk explicitly with him about what I mean by truth. Is Brett disregarding my clear and positive statements about truth because they don’t aid his argument or because he is unfamiliar with them?
(Frankly, I’m a bit shocked that “scholarship” like this is allowed in an academic guild like ETS.)
7) Brett’s Most Serious Concern: Opening the Door to Unorthodoxy: This section starts with a faulty premise: that any one person is closer to unorthodoxy than any other. That is, because we (MacLaren/Pagitt/Jones) are talking about certain topics that Brett deems dangerous, we’re closer to leaving the historic, orthodox Christian church than someone else (for example, Brett himself). But let’s all be honest about this: we’ve all had friends who were as deeply ensconced in evangelical orthodoxy as possible leave the church and the faith at the proverbial drop of a hat. Anyone can leave at anytime. People leave for all sorts of reasons. I have friends (and relatives) who have left the faith because of a spiritual crisis, an illness, a book they’ve read, a relationship they’ve gotten into, and an intellectual crisis. Brett might have a crisis of faith tomorrow and leave the Christian faith. It’s possible; I know because I’ve seen it happen.
Here, in this section, Brett finally levels a charge at me directly. He quotes me from blogs and seminars saying 1) I am orthodox in my beliefs and 2) I am open to dialogue about even the most sacred Christian doctrines, like the Trinity. These two statements, Brett seems to imply, are contradictory (but he does not say how). He writes, “Orthodoxy is limited by its very nature.” “There is a limit,” he continues, “To what you can believe and still call yourself orthodox.” But, again, he does nothing to establish this bald claim, nor does he explicitly show that I think orthodoxy is unlimited. Definitions of “orthodoxy” generally speak of “adherence” or “conformance” to “traditional” or “commonplace” beliefs — they even talk of the early, ecumenical creeds. But no where is there a definition of limitations as being inherent to orthodoxy.
Brett, what are the limits of orthodoxy? And who gets to define them? And where do you get off making an assertion like that with no evidence and no warrants for such a claim? And where have I broached these supposed “limits” of orthodoxy?
In bold and underline, Brett writes, “The door to unorthodoxy is now open.”
Brett, it’s always been open, and no matter what you tell me I can and cannot “leave on the table for reconsideration,” that door will not close. The bigger danger, it seems to me, is your misplaced confidence that your door is somehow closed to unorthodoxy. It’s not, my friend, and it’s extraordinarily arrogant (or naive) to claim that it is. You have just as much liklihood to veer into unorthodoxy as I.
8) Spencer Burke: Finally, my name surfaces again in regards to the Burke/Taylor book. Brett wishes I would say more than expressing my friendship and affection for Spencer (and Barry) and clarifying that neither is in leadership in EV (that’s not to say that they won’t be someday, but they aren’t right now). I’ve read Spencer’s book, and I’ve been talking to him for several years about the concepts therein. I chose not to endorse that book, though asked, because I disagree with some of the conclusions Spencer draws and the way that he gets to them.
But that choice has no, zero, none, zilch, nada implications for my friendship with Spencer and my wholehearted endorsement of his ministry. These are ad hoc decisions, book endorsements. For instance, I endorsed Scott Smith’s book (which Brett falsely says we in EV have ignored), even though I disagree with much of Scott’s philosophy. Scott knows that. I’ve told him. Because we’re friends. Same goes for Spencer. And the same goes for several other friends I have with whom I diagree.
What I find troubling, in the converse, is how virtually no one in the conservative evangelical camp will do what Brett is asking me to do, which is publicly turn on a friend. (Well, I take that back: Dobson quickly abandoned Ted Haggard.) When Mark Driscoll makes openly offensive and un-Christian remarks, why doesn’t John Piper publicly spank him? Why does Justin Taylor approvingly link to his blog post? Where are the public voices or Tim Keller and Mark Dever and Mark Galli and Michael Horton and Ed Stetzer and CJ Mahaney? Tim Challies seems to be the only member of that team with the cojones to call Mark to task. Are the rest doing it privately? We can only hope.
9) Pastoral Concerns: Brett concludes by recounting two anecdotes about persons he met who were “reconsidering” doctrines that he considers essential. Although these conversations took place at the Emergent Convention in 2005, Brett makes no claim that their thoughts are in any way tied to the teachings of McLaren, Pagitt, or Jones. Their mere presence at an Emergent event seems to be evidence enough that we are responsible for their theological drift.
While Brett may think that everyone who attends Rock Harbor Church with him holds certain doctrinal positions, I can virtually guarantee you that if I poked around a bit, I’d find some folks who were questioning some of those doctrines. Does that mean that Rock Harbor has “opened the door to unorthodoxy”? Of course not. Now, it may be true that folks who are struggling and questioning do not feel the freedom to talk openly about their theological struggles at Rock Harbor. I don’t know. But I do know that many in Emergent Village generally feel that we’ve cultivated an environment in which they can talk openly. I’d say that the two men who spoke briefly to Brett in 2005 are a testament to that environment, and I’d rather have that than people who quietly slip out the back door because they feel like they can’t talk about what they’re really thinking.
So, there. I hope I’ve done justice to Brett’s arguments (and lack thereof). I’ve tried to be fair and not be too snarky (but sometimes I can’t help it). For the record, I consider Brett a very kind person and a brother in Christ. But I do think he’s wrong about some stuff, and I think his paper could be much stronger if he made fewer unwarranted claims.