Is Evangelicalism Ending? 4

Is Evangelicalism Ending? 4 January 4, 2013

I begin with this claim: the church, the local church as well as the church universal, is a politic. Instead of supporting a political party, which confuses the church into serving two masters, the church strives to be a politic. These are my words, not David Fitch’s, but I think they get to the heart of David’s section on how the church is to recover the core of our politics for mission. The problem is the Christian Nation vision, but the solution is to abandon that and to become a politic under the Lordship of Jesus, a politic of the kingdom of God. Fitch, in The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions) examines four theologians.

The questions we need to face are these: How is your church shaping the politic of the church as part of God’s mission in this world? How is your church a “politic”? The gospel is performed as well as proclaimed. How does it perform the mission of God? Has your church been co-opted by political partisanship?

They are Henri du Lubac, William Cavanaugh, Nathan Kerr and John Howard Yoder. Here’s how he ties them together:

Lubac’s focus is on the Body of Christ in his physical body, in the Eucharist and in the church, but the eucharist has become a place for spectating instead of embodying that Body. Cavanaugh, another Catholic theologian, contends the eucharist births a political presence and engages society for redemption and renewal. It is thus a subversive presence.

Nathan Kerr, however, subverts both of these ideas (and Fitch’s) by contending the church is the church when it is dispersed into mission. Missiology precedes ecclesiology. The church becomes a non-site place! This leads to John Howard Yoder … who advocates the church as those who live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ — when the church embodies the “gifts.” It lives today what the world is to become. The church does this in binding and loosing, breaking bread, baptism, the gifts, and the rule of conversation.

And the church does this as the body that extends the incarnation, by living the kingdom, and by having a porous boundary.

Now Fitch digs: “Evangelicals have put forth the church as Christ’s voluntarist army dispersing individuals into the world to do the work of Christ and his mission.” He says it is “the social body of His Lordship (His Reign) incarnating Christ in the world for God’s mission” (166).

The Sunday gathering is in order to be shaped together into his body for the world in eucharist, preaching the Word and re-entry into the world. Sunday gatherings are not to be distinguished from daily living.

David Fitch observes that the new forms of evangelicalism are a witness to some form of discontent. He includes the emerging church, the missional church, neo-monasticism and the organic house-church movement. These, Fitch contends, are the “contours of the post-evangelical landscape” (179).

The questions we need to face are these: What forms of evangelicalism do you think will be most vibrant in the next twenty years or so? Is evangelicalism itself changing, or are these splinter groups with only a few years to survive? Do you think the NeoReformed/NeoPuritan movement is another witness to discontent?

David Fitch focuses on three groups in this time of discontent who are providing plausible, yet inadequate, visions for the “birthing of a renewed Christian political presence for our time” (179).

He takes up his three themes again (Inerrant Bible, Salvation, Christian Nation) and sketches how seminal young post evangelicals are proposing ideas: Peter Rollins, Brian McLaren, and Alan Hirsch with Michael Frost. By the way, Fitch thinks James Davison Hunter’s proposal of “faithful presence” is a form of NeoAnabaptism, and I completely agree.

With each of these young theologians, Fitch sees both promise and problems. So, Peter Rollins: while Rollins clearly points us to the capturing of God in Bible and while he pushes us into apophatic theology to remind us that the infinite God cannot be contained by human words, and while he wants us to focus not so much on believing the right things but believing in the right way, Fitch says Rollins is in danger of de-incarnationalizing the Word of God. The Christian is called both to affirm the centrality of Scripture as the place where God has spoken and to land in particular ways in particular settings. For Rollins Scripture can become another Master-Signifier without content. He also thinks his liturgies run the same risk.

Brian McLaren points out the problem of a too otherworldly salvation and of a decisionism that does not lead to transformation and Brian also points to the need to focus God’s mission in kingdom theology and to do all of this in the now, but he thinks McLaren is in danger of de-eschatologizing the kingdom by separating it too much for a robust christology or ecclesiology and a future eschatology. He thinks Brian is too close to seeing Jesus too much as guide and exemplar away from the ruling Lord and Christ. Kingdom too easily can become another nebulous Master-Signifier where advocacy for justice loses its trinitarian and eschatological bearings.

And he sees much of value in Hirsch and Frost in their pushing against the consumerist and attractional church, and their advocacy for organic missional work, and for a dispersed church but they run the risk of de-ecclesiologizing the church’s relationship to society. (Too much missional claims do this.) The practices of the church are too separated from the mission of the church. Which practices? eucharist, baptism, preaching, fellowship, gifts, etc.. Their claim that the proper order is christology, mission and then ecclesiology runs the risk of a Christ too separated from the church and its practices, and can suggest too individualistic of a soteriology and mission.

Thanks David. Good job. Much to think on here.

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  • Bob

    “[Fitch] includes the emerging church, the missional church, neo-monasticism and the organic house-church movement…”

    Not a whole unlike what happened to the early church after the apostolic era and before the Constantinian. Trying to serve two masters invariably results in serving only one, and the wrong one at that.

  • (1) The church is a polity, not a politic.

    (2) All too often, those who warn us against serving two masters serve God and (a truncated and idolized version of) relevance.

    (3) Theologians who pontificate on politics and economics ought to do themselves and the church the great favor of mastering politics and economics. They rarely ever do. That is no exaggeration, not even a little. Anyone who quotes Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, or John Howard Yoder as authorities on politics or economics does not know what he or she is talking about any more than someone who quotes Hayek or Smith on Reformed theology really understands Reformed theology.

  • I’m not sure what you mean when you use “politic” as a noun.

  • scotmcknight

    Michael, pedantic perhaps but “politic” is used this way in theological studies.
    Kullervo: a social body that embodies its theology, beliefs, practices in such a way that it functions as an alternative way of life in society and culture.

  • scotmcknight

    Michael, you’re being a bit cranky. While I understand your point, the issue here for Yoder et al is letting the economic vision of Jesus shape how economics are done. You may not like Sider, but it’s not like he hasn’t thought through this stuff.

  • This looks like a great read. I mean, definitely some theological trendiness happening, but that’s a given for a book that seems to be drawing on a bunch important threads and themes and weaving them into a unified vision. One concept that’s been very big for me recently has been the idea of the Church as Temple. What are the ecclesiological implications for understanding the NT Church as the already/not yet eschatological Temple in union with Christ that points forward to the final dwelling with God in Rev 21-22. Yeah, I’ve been reading a lot of G.K. Beale. I think the Temple concept is an important one for understanding the mission of the Church in the world as a community that is spreading the knowledge, presence, and glory of God in its gathered worship, Gospel-proclamation, bread-breaking, fellowship, discipline, good works, etc. across barriers of race, class, sex, and nationality. I don’t know how to frame that in terms of the discussion, but the Temple is a neglected category when it comes to political theologies and it shouldn’t be.

    As for the Neo-Reformed question, in some ways, yes, I do think it’s a witness to discontent. It looks atypical though, because the Reformed and Neo-Reformed don’t have the strong anti-institutional bias and streak of woundedness that fuels a lot of the rise of the emergent, house, and Neo-monastic movements. In terms of having a heavy ecclesiology, the Neo-Reformed stand a better chance of sustainably maintaining gains made precisely because it doesn’t fail where Rollins, McLaren, and the house-church crowd do. It has its own weaknesses, particularly an aggressiveness towards culture and authoritarian streaks, but if moderating voices like those of Hunter, who has a lot of appeal in the more intellectual wing of the Neo-Reformed set, prevail, a gentler sort of Tim Keller-Reformed churches, we have good reasons to think that will be a dominant force in the future of Evangelicalism.

  • T


    Your 2nd and 3rd points aren’t especially helpful in their current form.

    Assuming also that you yourself have studied economics with more depth, then you are aware that there are no shortage of experts in the field with a wide array of opinions, some of which would support the kinds of policies that Sider and Wallis have supported. Rather than argue about who should or shouldn’t be quoted as an expert or authority (or insult people who disagree with you on that point), let’s discuss the actual issues.

    On that score, I think that Jesus’ teaching about two masters is relevant to any discussion about politics and the Christian faith. Obviously, I don’t think that my thinking so, by itself, means that I am attempting to serve “relevance” but I’m open to hearing you on that.

  • Patrick O

    Lots of good stuff here, but I’ll add a couple (minor?) critiques.

    “seminal young post evangelicals are proposing ideas: Peter Rollins, Brian McLaren, and Alan Hirsch with Michael Frost”

    McLaren, Hirsch, and Frost may be proposing ideas but they’re far from being young. Why the insistence on youth?

    “Has your church been co-opted by political partisanship?”
    The tendency here is to see Evangelicalism as co-opted by the political right. But it seems that the emerging, missional folks are equally as partisan on the other side. One does not question where Wallis or McLaren or others stand, and they tend to critique one side and cheerlead for the other very consistently. A conservative in emerging circles is as alienated as a liberal in emerging circles–even if they share exact same goals.

    Indeed, there’s a curious move away from a rhetorical Constantinianism, in which the church is a patriotic cheerleader and towards a functional Constantinianism in which the state is assumed to be the answer to the church’s social goals. I’m just not sure how this is really operating as a separate politic. I believe the goal is right on, but the examples so far show we’re not seeing it in action. Embracing the Left wholesale is not a prophetic move any more than embracing the Right. My Facebook experiences during the last election showed zero difference between my Evangelical friends and my missional/emerging friends in how they approached political partisanship. Indeed, my emerging/missional friends were much more strident, in more of a 80s religious right kind of political zealousness for the Left.

    Fitch’s critiques about Hirsch and Frost reflect, I think, a bit of Hauerwasian (Yoder?) assumption about the role of the church, “living today what the world is to become.” Yet, I think that assumption can and should be challenged. Moltmann, I suggest, offers a very substantive ecclesiology that very nicely fits in with Hirsch’s and Frost’s goals. Tony Jones’s The Church is Flat gets at this approach which embeds the church within the world, non-divisive, not merely a model to the world but a transforming presence in it.

  • josenmiami

    I guess I got to this post a little late, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and I am a huge fan of Fitch’s book. Good post, although I am not sure about the ensuing conversation yet