I’m an Incarnational Christian: Some Initial Thoughts

I’m an Incarnational Christian: Some Initial Thoughts August 11, 2011

As the results of last week’s poll, and lots of excellent commentary, I’m ready to commit to identifying myself as an “incarnational Christian.” In fact, I’ve already changed my status on Facebook.

I’ll be trotting out my thoughts in a relatively unsystematic way in coming days, and I would welcome you to either leave comments here, on Facebook, or write a post on your own blog and leave the link in the comments below.

  • This is not about not being evangelical. We will not define “incarnational Christianity” by what we’re not. We simply think that the term “evangelical” has been politicized and, at least as it’s used by the media, it does not mean what we want it to mean.
  • We should not capitalize “incarnational.” That might lead some to believe that this is on the way to becoming a denomination or an organization. This is not an organization — it’s simply a descriptive adjective that will help others understand the version of Christianity that we practice. We are incarnational Christians, not Incarnational Christians.

  • We should do everything we can to avoid letting this descriptor being politicized.
    That means, when we’re asked to explain what it means to be an incarnational Christian, we should rely on theological categories. No talk about how we’re “not that kind of Christian” (is anyone else sick of phrase?) or about how we’re politically this or that. We talk about the incarnational aspect of our Christianity (more about that in tomorrow’s post).
  • We should not commoditize this word. This is not about making money, for me or anyone.

What are your additions to this list?

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  • Dan Johnson

    Hi Tony, I am intrigued by our apparent need in the Christian community to have a title. Fundamentalist, Biblicist, Incarnational, dispensationalist, etc., etc., etc. Do titles help the community? Do they help to reach the lost or provide for the needy? It seems like we so quickly reach for titles within our belief system to identify our position when what’s really the only important thing is that we believe.

    Not Republican or Democrat. American.
    Not Incarnational or Dispensational. Disciple.

    Do we need titles?

    • coryke

      I know this thread is several days old now, but thought I’d like to respond to Dan Johnson’s question where he asked: do we need titles?

      I think the answer is yes – not because we necessarily want them, but because there will be a label one way or another. Either one determines the label and its parameters (to the best of one’s ability) or someone else chooses it. Either way, someone will label this understanding of Christianity, and wouldn’t it be nice if those with that understanding could (to use a political phrase) “control the message”?

      Would that we did not live in a world with the penchant for these games! But, sigh,we do.

      This may be part of what Tony meant when he commented on this thread: “Dan, “emergent” doesn’t work because it’s not inherently theological. And because we allowed our critics to get out in front of us an define it.” (my emphasis on the second sentence).

  • Here’s my suggestion: F*** brands, let’s just be the Body of Christ!

    The reason why I mention this is because I feel like movements become brands way too often. For example, some might say that the emerging church has become a brand (I both agree and disagree). Once you identify yourself by a certain brand or tribe, people automatically think, “Oh, so in other words you believe in this about atonement, and this about homosexuality, etc.”

    I’m not saying I don’t like the phrase “incarnational Christian,” because I do believe Christians are called to be Christ’s ambassadors here on earth. However, I just hope it doesn’t become another brand name, like Emergent or Evangelical or Outlaw Preacher.

    • Bluetexan

      Don’t worry Travis. “Incarnational” isn’t going anywhere.

      The word “emergent” is here to stay Tony. Embrace it.

  • Nick Jackson

    Absolutely love those parameters, Tony.

    I like the direction of “incarnational Christian” but I also identify with Travis’s reservations. What if we take a look at these parameters in how we define ourselves as “incarnational Christians” but refrain from using that label.

    Do we need to create a new label in order to avoid being categorized and polticized?

  • Jay

    I think we keep this simple. We are incarnational Christians for we are attempting to be Christ’s body enfleshed on earth. We are trying, through the grace of God, to walk in the way of Jesus as revealed in the scriptures, which are interpreted through the community of others who are trying to walk in the way of Jesus. We may and will differ on our interpretations, but no matter the differences, incarnational Christianity never forgets the presence of Christ in the other.

  • This thought from Michael Stewart’s twitter stream is why I appreciate incarnational over progressive…

    “In the Bible we are never called to bring down, build or advance the kingdom of God. We are called to receive it.”

    We are called to proceed faithfully “here on earth” just as our Lord did. But it isn’t on us to make it progress anywhere. If it does, awesome, but that progression shouldn’t define us.

  • Dan H.

    What are you going to do when people start capitalizing, politicizing, commoditizing, and equating it to not being an evangelical?

  • Isn’t this the same stuff we said about being “Emergent” Christians???

  • Sparra

    There’s already an issue with this that ‘incarnational’ already has been politicised by some. In UK ICs are often small communities of people who move into deprived areas, and exists in their community as church, often without service or building.
    …which is great, but there is a feeling from some of them that they’re the ‘real’ Christians and the ‘others’ are just messing about with outdated and theologically inferior institutions.
    …which has some value, but because I’m not in with them, I’m out.

  • Dan Hauge

    I’ll be interested to see what happens with this, and I’m more interested to see how people will flesh out the theology behind it. Tony, I appreciate the desire to see this defined in theological terms rather than political, though I still suspect that after a while, the political values will still be what they are, and the current political divisions will still manifest themselves, and attach to any new term, no matter what it is.

    I’m also still a bit curious as to why ’emergent’ doesn’t work for you . . .?

    • Dan, “emergent” doesn’t work because it’s not inherently theological. And because we allowed our critics to get out in front of us an define it.

      • I’ll be interested to hear more about why the language has to be “inherently theological” (what’ the value?), Tony. Also, I’m not as certain as you seem to be that it’s too late for “emergent.” I think what the critics have said is what it is, but it hasn’t been the final word.

        For example, we had an amazing conversation just this past week at the Charlotte Emergent cohort about “what is the emerging church?” and “what is Emergent?” People are still just discovering and/or wrapping their minds around these ideas. So, while I think I’ve been teetering where you are on abandoning “emergent,” I’m not sure we should be done with it just yet. (“I’m not dead yet! I’ll bite your leg off!”)

  • Here’s a novel idea. How about we just call ourselves believers of Jesus Christ and live our lives incarnationally like Jesus did? I don’t use the term Christian because even that has a negative connotation. Especially, in a Muslim country where we live as missionaries. But, I agree “Evangelical” is out. Too institutionalized and political for my taste.

  • My theological work is in general in a different area than all of this. I am late to the game on focusing on Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” but am only addressing it on my blog by request. I wish I had more time to devote to these theological works.

    I wish I had the time for “The Church Is Flat” it looks very interesting. The cursory look at this whole movement seemed to me to be about giving the old barn of failed liberalism another coat of paint. Then progressivism needed a coat of paint of emergentism. Now it seems more to me that incarnational is yet another coat of paint to the old barn.

    I will be interested to see if incarnational sticks and watch it play itself out.

    • Scot Miller

      I suppose I could say that the label “Evangelical” is really just the old barn of failed fundamentalism given another coat of paint, but that really wouldn’t be fair, would it? So I would suggest that you wouldn’t get attached to your cursory look.

      Since I grew up as a Southern Baptist, graduated from a Southern Baptist college and the Southern Baptist Seminary (Al Mohler lived down the hall from me when we were M.Div. students), I think I understand what now passes as “Evangelical.” And since I came to embrace really liberal theology early in my education and really gave up on theology in general for secular philosophy and the academic study of religion, my impression is that the Emergent Church movement is far too conservative for most liberals. Evangelicals and Emergents (or “incarnational Christians”) share the orthodox conviction that God in Jesus should make a living difference in one’s life, that the experience of God makes a difference. (Good grief, Tony Jones had blog post about why a literal/physical resurrection is important.) So you really miss the boat by thinking that “incarnational Christians” are just liberals under a different name. If anything, I think they see themselves as a “third way” between liberalism and fundamentalism.

      Perhaps the Emergent Church Movement will collapse into liberalism, just as Evangelicalism tends to collapse into fundamentalism, but for the moment it really appears as a rejection of lifeless, overintellectualized liberalism and of the anti-intellectual literalism of fundamentalism.

      • My best guess is that Tony will reach a national platform like Wallis and McLaren at some point in the future, and I presume that his focus will follow suit in a more pronounced politicized writing and selection of topics (in time we will see).
        Most social topics that Emerg/Incar’s write on and talk about are progressive/liberal. I have seen Emergent congregations organize political protests of conservative book signings at the Barnes and Nobles. The leftist’s dominant issues in current affairs can be checklisted in much of Jone’s, McLaren’s, and Wallis (and others) Internet publishings.

        I am thankful that Tony holds the the literal resurrection, but so does Benny Hinn. I think they see themselves as a third way too, and some people are ignorant and some delusional. Liberal theology’s direction is to do what you did, Scot, and leave. Moving onto liberal theological premises puts one onto a path of Christianity being pointless, or just an academic study.

        I think that your “for the moment” statement is true in some cases, but time will show the direction of the movement.

        • Scot Miller

          Gee, I’m not sure that too many liberals would find common ground with Benny Hinn in the same way that Tony et al have common ground with Evangelicals and with liberals. Hard to see Hinn as a third way between liberalism and conservatism…. maybe just a third way between crazy conservatives and not-so-crazy conservatives (although it’s hard to see Hinn as anything but crazy).

          It’s interesting that your objection to the Emergent/incarnational church is political more than theological.

  • I really appreciate the consensus about incarnational in that it focuses on the kingdom of heaven, coming to Earth. Perfect! Sounds just like the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus.

    I do have two concerns about it:

    1) sounds like Christmas. We hear a lot about the incarnation at Christmas — so will people call us Christmas Christians? Not a bad thing, I guess, especially if we can take the focus off traditions for Christmas and put focus more on bringing Jesus to Earth. But might be source of some good jokes.

    2) I think all Christians (maybe because of the Christmas connection) would feel that they want in on the incarnational gig. It doesn’t really differentiate. Might be confusing because they would be traditional, incarnational, evangelical Christians. Since we are loading the word with a more progressive theological bent, we’ll know what it means but the average Joe won’t.

    Because of these concerns I would rather just agree that this word defines our understanding of the gospel message, and therefore what type of believers we are. It should be used with other words that indicate that our beliefs use a more progressive theological system relative to the conservative/literalist view. Because we are free to undo the literalist meaning, we are free to really engage in the intended meaning of the kingdom of heaven.

    • progressive, therefore incarnational

  • progressive, therefore incarnational [did this post twice?]

  • Kim Glenn

    Another thought about things that incarnational Christians do not do:

    ‘convert’ people with intense words and social pressure.

    An incarnational Christian attempts to model what BEing Christ-like is without insisting that others follow suit. An incarnational Christian does not EXclude anyone.

    • Already starting to define yourself by what you are “not”.

    • We will not define “incarnational Christianity” by what we’re not. – Tony Jones

  • BradleyD,

    No, the postman did not ring twice. 🙂

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  • Nick

    I agree with the sentiment of hesitation from everyone about having labels, but everyone here saying they don’t want labels has attempted to give a label in order to remove the label. Saying, let’s just “be the body of Christ” or “we’re disciples” or “believers of Christ” is still labeling yourself. It’s the same this as saying “I’m non-denomination”. At one time maybe that sounded like a great way to get away from denominationalism, but now if someone tells you “I go to a non-denominational church” you know what they’re church is like.

    I think we should yes not worry about the label so much, and worry more about how we define that label with our lives, but we are creatures who communicate with language. Labels are unavoidable. They are necessarily for communication. Let’s not worry about the label, but whatever it is, we must own it.

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  • Zach Lind

    Don’t mean to be a spoiler here but ALL of the things Tony warns not to do with “incarnational Christian” will eventually happen if the phrase ends up catching on. This is the problem with coming up with a new word. It will follow the fate of all the other descriptors like liberal, conservative, progressive, emergent, missional, etc….

    Tony, you’ve made your bed with “emergent.” My advice is you lie in it, get comfortable and continue to make your case, like you’ve already done to some extent, why it’s still a worthwhile descriptor and how it has influenced the whole of Christianity and especially that it’s NOT DEAD.