Frederica Mathewes-Green Doesn’t Quite Bash the Emerging Church

Frederica Mathewes-Green has been very, very kind to me.  She’s read and endorsed a couple of my books, and her books have been influential on my thinking.

Frederica Mathewes-Green

She has said to me in private almost exactly what she said in answer to a question on Rachel Held-Evans’s blog, that a Christian who uses practices or theology from the Orthodox tradition without converting to wholehearted Orthodoxy is, in effect, making a fresh slower arrangement.  Here’s the Q and the A, with my response below:

From Karl: As someone who submitted as an adult to an ancient branch of the Christian faith, what do you make of the “emerging church” movement within (primarily) American evangelical and post-evangelical protestantism?

I haven’t kept up much with the emerging church. I think it has an inherent structural weakness, that it is defined more by what it is not than what it is.

I have known many emerging-church leaders who have been interested in taking aspects of Orthodox spirituality into their churches, and I have encouraged that, of course. But I think the drawback will always be that their people are not experiencing the faith of the early church itself, intact, but rather the selections from the early church that fit the taste of this particular contemporary leader. It’s being filtered through that person. There is still some benefit in that, of course, but it is like flowers in a vase. You can go to the garden of the ancient church and cut some flowers, and bring them into the worship space in a vase, and they will do much good, providing beauty and fresh life. But they are going to die. They have been cut off from their roots.

For me, when I realized that there was a spirituality that was developed by the early church—by the same community that wrote the New Testament and would naturally understand it best—and that this spirituality had been practiced unchanged by believers in every culture and time, I had to be there. I wanted to take it on its own terms, because I can’t trust my enculturated taste and preferences to know what’s actually best for me. It was, “If this still exists, why am I not there?” But not everybody feels that way. [Read the rest at Rachel Held Evans | Ask an Orthodox Christian…(Response)]

In Frederica’s analogy, any Orthodox practice or doctrine will die in my emerging vase, because I’m not taking the plant roots and all, but just cutting off the pretty blossom.  It will look nice for a time in my vase, but will ultimately wither and die.

But, contrary to her opinion, my experience has not been of death but of life.  I have been practicing the Jesus Prayer for many years now, and it continues to be the heart of my personal practice of prayer.  Meanwhile, I have been deeply affected by Orthodox teachings on several doctrines, including hamartiology, soteriology, pneumatology, and theosis.  But I have not converted to the Orthodox Church.  That’s because 1) I think a mosaic faith is a better, richer version of Christianity, and 2) the Orthodox Church, as Frederica admits on Rachel’s blog, continues to be primarily an ethnic church that, truth be told, isn’t that friendly to visitors.

Finally, I obviously disagree that the relatively flat structure of the emerging church is a “structural weakness.”  It’s actually the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church that is the weakness.

But on that count, I guess we’ll agree to disagree. 🙂

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  • Amen on the life-giving nature of a flat structure and mosaic faith. I too have benefitted from Orthodox spirituality in general and some of Mathewes-Green’s work in particular. But my hermeneutic of suspicion kicks into high gear whenever I hear comments from Catholic or Orthodox circles such as her comment that “when I realized that there was a spirituality that was developed by the early church—by the same community that wrote the New Testament and would naturally understand it best—and that this spirituality had been practiced unchanged by believers in every culture and time, I had to be there.” Such perspectives strike me as an incredibly romanticized view of history that masks the messiness and complexity of reality. But that’s what makes me a Protestant. Where she is drawn to orthodoxy, I’m drawn to paradoxy, polydoxy, and heteropraxy.

  • Scot Miller

    Sounds like Frederica Mathewes-Green would benefit from reading some philosophical hermeneutics, like Gadamer’s Truth and Method. She seems to be making the same hermenutical mistakes about her relationship to the “New Testament community” as fundamentalists/literalists do to the New Testament itself (i.e., neither recognizes that understanding is fundamentally historically conditioned, and we need to recognize that the horizon of meaning in the early church community and/or the New Testament is not identical to the horizon of meaning that we in have the 21st century. We all need to recognize our historical distances from the origins of the tradition, and not simply assume that we are understanding in a way that is identical with the community of the early church or the writers of the New Testament.)

  • Dan Hauge

    I think that the crux of Mathewes-Green’s perspective, and the perspective of many who critique the emerging church, comes in this quote: “I wanted to take [Orthodoxy] on its own terms, because I can’t trust my enculturated taste and preferences to know what’s actually best for me.”

    I understand this hesitancy, because it’s been a big part of my own spirituality for most of my life. If we are simply picking and choosing what ‘works for me’, how can we trust that there is any truth external to ourselves that we are participating in? Contrast this with the more emergent perspective, that we indeed can trust our intuitions and form our own mosiacs, because we trust that the Holy Spirit in ourselves is guiding our instincts, leading us to authentic spirituality for ourselves. And, moreover, that this is also what was happening in the earliest churches, and in other historical manifestations of Christianity, so that when we look to the past as a corrective to our own instincts, we are actually just substituting another era’s cultural prejudices for our own.

    At this point, I kind of find myself torn between the two perspectives. I am coming to appreciate more the emergent ‘present speaking Spirit’ perspective, yet I still feel an underlying sense that I lose something important if I am completely assuming my own instincts (or even my current community’s instincts) are sufficient to both interpret and sift through Scripture and tradition. There seems to be an inherent assumption of progression (which is why I sometimes think that ‘progressive Christian is a pretty good term), an assumption that ‘what we think today’ is always inherently better and truer than what has come before. Maybe there is something about the earliest revelation that is meant to be more normative? But on the other hand, again (sounding like Tevye now), perhaps Mathewes-Green’s inherent distrust of her own preferences reveals more of a fear that God can’t be fully present in and through ourselves and our present culture. Interesting.

  • Joe Carson

    Is God still God? If so, then He talks to us, today, and not just via tradition. Otherwise, we are orphans in an uncaring universe.

    I think theologians need to say that, clearly, in evaluating any Christian trends/practices.

  • Dan, thanks for your honest sharing of your struggle. For what it’s worth, I shared my own working out of these issues in a post I just did for Patheos on “Picking and Choosing Scripture as a Twenty-first Century Christian” (A Progressive Christian Lectionary Commentary for Oct 23, 2011):

  • Curiously, I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with the heart of Frederica’s point and yet not converting to Orthodoxy nor having any plans to convert. I’m not sure I can explain it.

    I will note that I’m sure she didn’t mean it would with or die in your life or the life of any other individual. The individual benefit any of us experience from an Orthodox practice or teaching may well flower and last through our life and beyond. That’s part of the “do much good” she mentions. No, I believe her comment was the longer view. Without the church to sustain them generation after generation — cut off from those roots — they will eventually wither and die in the community. And I think history provides pretty good evidence that, for whatever reason, that’s true.

  • Larry Kamphausen (@priestlygoth)

    Oddly enouhg perhaps my experience both agrees with your responce Tony and with the point Frederica Mathewes-Green is making. I write Icons according to the Easter Orthodox tradtion, also say the Jesus prayer, am in conversation and dialog with Orhtodox both through friendship and Orthodox Authors. I like you have not become Orthodox, the ethnic thing is one barrier, but also just haven’t felt that is where God was taking me at the moment. But, I also feel I’m missing something. It gives life yes, but at times I also feel there is a hollowness to these practices for me. Not always but at moments. These moments have meant for me that I must ask what is the Church, and I will admit I haven’t been able to counter the Orthodox claim to be the Church. Most of the time I think we Protestant and Emergent folk are more play acting which may have its place but falls short of the truth and of having the Mind of Christ.
    Something doesn’t seem right with all this, not that obviously I have been convinced by the Orthodox, but on some level I’m thinking there’s more to their claims thane we who put them off are willing to admit.

  • Dear Tony,

    Today is the first time I have come across your blog. I find it very enlightening and enjoyable. I see the struggles that many have and are going through and I identify themes that clearly display themselves. There is ancient and continuous faith, the witness of this faith has been brought to this country, USA, by those seeking a better life circumstance from Eastern European and Middle-East and Northern African people. While the ancient faith is recognizable in part by new seekers in this country, older and uncommon ways hinder union with these groups. And to keep an analogy going, flowers do fade in due season even if left on their roots. Everyone is sad when flowers fade, wither and dry up no matter if they are cut or in situ. We have joy at their memory. Best advice – keep reading the scriptures, the early church fathers and mothers, test all knowledge, but PRAY WITHOUT CEASING.

  • Interestingly, one of the best ways to interpret the work of John Wesley is to incorporate his broad reading in early church writers, especially those who would be considered early church. Meaning, the Orthodox may want an all or nothing approach, but some very vibrant movements already radically appropriated themes and values in a Western Context. Personally, I’ve benefited enormously from Orthodox monastics, and many of those were writing in the era of a unified church prior to 1054. And find Orthodox pneumatology to be significantly helpful (as does Moltmann). I sharply disagree with the continuation of hierarchical governance and the imposition of prior culturally formed patterns of worship as the objects which define Christian worship. Am I allowed to do that? Why not? That’s the bonus of living in a free church tradition, which I absolutely celebrate as being the most overall creative engagement with the Spirit of Life.

    We should learn from our elders, but we should not pretend that their eras are our eras and that the Spirit is a dead wind, blowing only for a season that is encapsulated in a static tradition.

    • Great comment, Patrick. Wesley is, indeed, Exhibit A that Orthodoxy can be fulfillingly used in other contexts.

  • Frederica’s comments are based on the assumption that the beliefs of the early church are better, simply b/c they’re older. I challenge that assumption. A Christianity that is informed by two millennia of academic, social and scientific progress will be superior to one that was hatched in an era where slavery was the accepted norm, women were regarded as inferior and gravity-fed toilets were the highest form of technology available.

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  • A lot of good comments.
    I served 5 years in the Navy, saw the world, encountered foreign languages and cultures and came to learn that my preconceptions of them were destroyed in the encountering of em. I also learned, in learning foreign languages, the enormous problems of translation and cultural context, and so rejected the rigid Sola Scriptura northern fundamental Baptist faith of my childhood, remaining agnostic for twenty years before converting to Orthodoxy.

    I’d encourage y’all outside of the Orthodox Church to refer to the experience of those in the Church when discussing it. And I don’t think Frederica an exclusive source, either, but she is by-and-large right here.

    References to post-Reformation western thought usually leaves me completely cold, because most of both the thinkers of the time and readers of today display broad ignorance of Church history prior to the Reformation.

    What I can say is completely wrong is the idea that Frederica thinks the beliefs of the early Church (a historical thing with historical evidence and documentation) to be better “because they are older”. The entire idea of tne Church as a bearer of eternal truths is that it is to teach the world. The idea that the Church needs, regarding those eternal truths, to “learn” from academic, social and scientific progress is to put the cart before the horse or to insist on standing and walking on one’s head. Never mind that we appear to be “progressing” toward a future of Wall-E or tne Matrix rather than a utopia – and utopias are always godless things amyway

  • I’d also like to address the “mosaic” idea, which, as was correctly pointed out, IS syncretism.
    It presupposes our ability to correctly and completely identify the truth – the WHOLE truth – on our own steam. I submit that none of us could possibly know enough to be able to do it – or else it would have been done long ago, and we would need neither revelation nor a Church. It does not take into account the problem of our broken perception – an analogy would be seeing a silhouette of a man in the next room raising a knife over a helpless victim. If only we would walk through the door we would see that it is a surgeon working over an operating table. So it is with much that we perceive to be right and wrong. We are clearly not all right regarding our perceptions; a great many of us must obviously be mistaken about a great many things. Therefore there must be an arbiter, even an arbiter of Scripture – which people can turn to defend any position at all. Icons can be both attacked and defended with Scripture, and so can “gay marriage”. There must be some body capable of telling me that I am wrong about some things, capable of not only confirming where I AM right, but also of correcting me where I am wrong. Scripture alone cannot do this; we are even warned in Scripture not to do this.

    In any event, to cop a line from GK Cgesterton, which intelligent Christians do well to respect, eclectic/mosaic faith results in membership in a vast and universal church, of which you are the only member.

    In addition, the reliance on the Holy Spirit to guide individuals into all truth has led… to the enormous divisions we have today. It has certainly not led to unity and definitely led to division. All talk about “correct exegesis” fails to cover that fact.

  • Strange that you believe that your version of church is a mosaic faith. That is exactly what Holy Orthodoxy is- a mosaic. A beautiful mosaic. I converted to the Orthodox church two years ago.