No, Mr. Oakland, I'm not an Emergent Church

Today’s entry is a (belated) response to an open letter of sorts from Roger Oakland, the president of Understanding the Times. If you care to read what my particular thoughts are on the topic, it would help if you read his comments, as well as the interview he references with Rob Bell on BeliefeNet.com. Otherwise, a lot of this won’t make too much sense. But then this is me were talking about, right? Here is the blow by blow.

DISCLAIMER: This is in no way intended to be an attack nor a defense of either Roger Oakland or Rob Bell. It is intended to be an attempt to rescue the baby that is being thrown out with the bath water from both houses.

Roger Oakland’s Comments

“There are pastors (including Calvary Chapel pastors) who are promoting Rob Bell’s view that Christianity must be “reinvented for the 21st century.” Rob Bell is one of the prominent leaders of the Emerging Church movement.”

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so interpretation can be in the ear of the listener. If I didn’t know who Rob Bell was and I read that, what would come to my mind that is rooted in solid Biblical doctrine, is the idea of methodology and not theology. I’m all about getting church out of a rut, freed from tradition and “this is the way we’ve always done it.” So to me, reinventing Christianity for the 21st century means to examine our methodology and determine what still communicates, examining if people are living out their faith and not stuck in dead orthodoxy. If I didn’t know who Rob Bell was I’d be like, “Gee, Roger, what’s your deal?” But, as you keep reading, he goes on to explain what this language is intended to communicate.

Oakland describes one of Bell’s major influences.

Ken Wilber was raised in a conservative Christian church, but at some point he left that faith and is now a major proponent of Buddhist mysticism. His book that Bell recommends, A Brief History of Everything, is published by Shambhala Publications, named after the term, which in Buddhism means the mystical abode of spirit beings. Wilber is one of the most respected and highly regarded theoreticians in the New Age movement today.

Yikes! This does not sound like a person who should be having any influence over someone with the title of Pastor. Then, Roger brings out the big guns.

Any pastor (including a Calvary Chapel pastor) who follows and promotes the teachings of Rob Bell (Velvet Elvis – Nooma films etc.), but claims not to be part of the Emerging Church, after reading the following article about Rob Bell, needs to publicly declare whether they are Emerging Church or not. A pastor who follows Rob Bell (who is following Ken WIlber), has the potential to be led away from a Bible based Christianity towards a New Age eastern mysticism that includes contemplative spirituality. This is a perfect example of how a shepherd who is supposed to protect his flock from wolves can become a wolf in sheep’s clothing and become a danger to his own flock and other pastors who follow him or his methods.

Sounds like a challenge to me! However, as I have said in previous posts on this blog and over on SMP, there needs to be a distinction between style and content, between methodology and theology. I think there are probably some good style and execution lessons to be learned from Rob Bell and the EC. I know I would adopt some if I could in the space we rent, but we can’t due to storage limitations and building codes. So let’s look at the BeliefeNet.com article and see what’s up.

The Rob Bell Interview
The title of the article is “‘Velvet Elvis’ Author Encourages Exploration of Doubts.” Remember that interpretation can be in the ear of the listener. At first blush, I have no problem with this title. I love it when new/young believers ask questions and explore doubts that have come up in their walks with the Lord. It’s a learning and teaching opportunity. But there is one essential element: there is nothing wrong with exploring doubts so long as, going into the discussion, one understands that there are answers to the doubts and those answers are found in God’s inerrant and infallible word. The first response to any question or doubt about the faith should always be, “What does God have to say about it?” and you crack open the Bible.

Consider the following keeping in mind that there is a very important semantic issue; what does Bell mean when he uses these words?

Faith in Jesus, Bell says, must be repainted for each generation if it is to avoid the fate of his velvet Elvis. “What often happens in religion is people freeze the faith at a certain point,” Bell says. “There’s no more need to paint. We’ve got the ultimate painting.”

On the contrary, he says — religion, like art, must keep exploring and reforming, or “you end up with a velvet Elvis on your hands.”

“Every generation has to ask difficult questions about what does it mean to follow Jesus. What does the kingdom of God look like as it explodes at this time, in this place?”

On the surface, I can agree with these sentiments. In fact, I think these sentiments could easily be applied to what Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel went through in its early days. The denomination Chuck was a part of was frozen, so he left. When he signed on at Calvary Chapel, it was also frozen. They were Velvet Elvis paintings. So what did Chuck do? He basically asked what it meant for that generation of people to follow Jesus, what does the kingdom of God look like at that time in that place in that culture. His answer was to simply adopt Acts 2:42-47. He used it as a template with which to reinvent the way church was done. And it was a template. It wasn’t a manual that defined every detail as to how to do, but it was a guide as to what to do. The freezing process begins, churches begin to think that they have the ultimate painting, when the how and the what, when the style and content, when the methodology and the theology begin to meld into one. This is what has been happening to the Calvary Chapel movement of churches in my opinion (speaking as a CC affiliated pastor).

Chuck’s template has become the rule of law for many CCs. This has led to many CCs becoming institutions for Bible learning while very few in that fellowship are experiencing or living out a dynamic relationship with Jesus. This, in my humble opinion, is why many people are leaving CCs and other doctrinally solid Bible teaching churches for churches with forms and rituals like Emergent Churches, the Eastern Orthodox church, etc. They want an experience. While one’s relationship with God should not be based on experience, experience is a fruit, a natural byproduct of a relationship. Just like kids who fall in love at summer camp have no real basis for a long-term relationship (generally speaking), people who have some kind of shallow-yet-flashy religious experience have no real basis for a long term relationship with Jesus. But, people who have
a solid marriage continually experience a sense of love for one another and that is evident in their lives. Others can tell that they are experiencing something that it is real. But I digress.

At one point, Bell writes about a personal crisis three or four years ago when he felt burned out. He describes sitting in a storage closet while thousands gathered for the next worship service. “I was moments away from leaving the whole thing,” Bell writes. “I wasn’t even sure I was a Christian anymore.”

I admit that I have been there. But I also know why I’ve been there. I was operating in the power of the flesh and not in the Spirit. My understanding is that Bell comes from a tradition that teaches that the gifts of the Spirit ceased with the Apostles (the view is called cessationism). As a result, being continually Spirit filled as Peter and others were in Acts, doesn’t enter into ones personal relationship with Jesus. Instead, relying on other natural giftings and resources is the norm. At times (plural) I have been where Bell was because I know I wasn’t walking in the Spirit ala Galatians 5:16+. This point isn’t critical to this discussion, it’s more of a side point, but it’s an important one none the less.

Why? Because this is how most ECs function. The Spirit isn’t a person with whom we can have a relationship, He is an “it,” a theological concept that is in the word and is very real of course, but not central. When Jesus says that He is going to send us another Helper that will basically take His place while He isn’t physically on earth, that sounds pretty central and significant to me. Just as Jesus walked and talked and taught the disciples, so the Spirit walks, talks, and teaches us today. He may not be a physical presence with us, but He is with us non the less. This is significant to the concept of this next quote.

“Anybody who’s ever found a disconnect between church and real life will find this book difficult to put down,” says Lyn Cryderman, vice president and publisher of books [for Zondervan].

It should be pointed out that many, if not most, of the objections to mainstream, conservative, fundamentalist churches have a basis in reality. The objections are to extreme examples that are out of balance with scripture. However, the reactions and solutions employed to combat those extreme examples are equally extreme and out of balance with scripture. As I said above, people are bailing on Bible teaching churches for experience. That’s the disconnect between church life and real life Cryderman refers to. Interestingly enough, it seems to me that this disconnect is being encouraged in our schools and secular culture. People are encouraged to keep their spiritual life private and separate from their public lives. In the 2004 Presidential election Sen. John Kerry provided the perfect example of this. He said that, as a Catholic, he personally believed that abortion was wrong, but he wasn’t going to let that interfere with what he viewed as his responsibility to the public in order to protect a woman’s right to chose. Boy am I thankful that men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln didn’t segregate their private and public lives like that.

When you read Acts, especially the first 12 chapters, you can’t help but see that there was no such disconnect. There was no distinction between one’s private life and their public life. Their lives were centered around the apostles teaching and doctrine, prayer, living in community with one another, which was publicly evident to the point that it was the major expression of evangelism. They didn’t have to think about living a missional life, it was second nature. What they experienced in their private lives was being lived out in their public lives through the power and comfort of the Holy Spirit. The compassion of Jesus was expressed in women like Tabitha who made clothes for the poor among them. It was expressed in men like Philip and Stephen who served as food distributors to the widows among them. It was expressed as as in churches helping one another out when aid was needed. They were passing Jesus’ test of love as found in John 13:34-35, “All men will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.” Neither the extreme conservative fundy nor the extreme liberal EC is making converts, let alone disciples. Hmmm.

Cryderman says he has “high expectations” for the book because, unlike most books about Christianity, it encourages readers to question their beliefs and church teachings.

“It’s refreshing to have somebody say, `Go ahead, test it all you want,’ instead of, `There must be something wrong with you because you’ve got some doubts.”‘

Again, on the surface I have no problem with this. Challenge the text, challenge the theology, knowing that God will answer. Be like the Bereans and search the scriptures to see if these things are so. Have confidence that there are answers, there are solutions, there is hope and certainty. But this next statement makes it easy to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Indeed, Bell urges readers to test his own text. The Bible itself, he writes, is a book that constantly must be wrestled with and re-interpreted. He dismisses claims that “Scripture alone” will answer all questions. Bible interpretation is colored by historical context, the reader’s bias and current realities, he says. The more you study the Bible, the more questions it raises.

Yikes! Stop the train, I want to get off! This is just flat out wrong. The issue isn’t reinterpretation, it’s one of reapplication. The Bible means what it says and says what it means. That never changes. What changes is culture. What changes is the ways in which the Gospel can be expressed and applied. From a pastoral perspective, if one’s Bible interpretation is colored by historical context, bias, and current realities, then one has never learned how to read or study the Bible. That’s Bible interpretation rule numero uno; what did this mean to those people at that time? Once that is understood it can then be transplanted to today and lived out. The statement “The more you study the Bible, the more questions it raises.” is true of any discipline. The more you learn about physics the more questions are raised. Equally true is that there are answers for all of those Bible and faith questions. That’s what God says, “Come, let us reason together.” God wants interaction, He wants dialogue with His people. Anyone in a relationship has to have that.

“It is not possible to simply do what the Bible says,” Bell writes. “We must first make decisions about what it means at this time, in this place, for these people.”

Again, yikes. If it were not possible to simply do what the Bible says, God would not have told us to do it. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son. What if Abe had sat down and said to himself, “Precious, I have to make a decision about what God meant at this time in this place for me and my son. Surely God doesn’t want me to kill this child that He Himself promised would be the one though whom He would fulfill the rest of His promises”? What if Moses had done the same thing when confronted by the burning bush? What if Jesus had bailed on going through the crucifixion because He made His own subjective decision as to what God really meant?

The point Bell is challenging people with is the same thing Satan challenged Eve with. “Did God really say…? Are you sure that’s what He meant? After all, it isn’t possible to simply do (or not do) what He said. You have to decide for yourself what He meant.” The Biblical reality is that God gives us things to do. In addition, He gives us the resources to accomplish them. The more “impossible” the command sounds, the more one has to trust God, and the more God will be glorified in the end. Case in point is Abraham and Sarah. It was impossible for them to have children at the ages o
f 90 and 100, yet God gave them the ability to do so. That’s what God’s Holy Spirit does for us. God says, “Don’t fulfill the lust of the flesh.” How can I do that? “Walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh.”

Noting the Bible has been used to defend slavery and mistreat women, he writes, “sometimes when I hear people quote the Bible, I just want to throw up.”

In similarly bold language, Bell tackles questions about Jesus, salvation, the institutional church and religious prejudice.

Bell has a point in that the Bible has been used to defend some of the worst atrocities in history. No question. But that doesn’t mean that the problem was or is with God’s word. The problem was and is people using the Bible to support their views and actions and not to dictate them. The one who is deceived is the one who gets the two things confused. “I want to do this, I have found this scripture and will use it to support what I want to do, therefore the Bible is dictating my actions.” This has become the norm in Bible teaching for many churches. It’s application isn’t restricted to the crusades and slavery. I heard one pastor (whose name escapes me at the moment) teach that, since Jesus surprised people with his teachings, that were are to be spontaneous in how we do church, therefore that’s what the Bible teaches. The reality is that Jesus didn’t sit and think, “Now how can I surprise people today. I know, I will forgive a woman guilty of adultery.” One of the side effects of what He did was surprising to be sure, but that wasn’t the goal. Bell is guilty of the same methodology that he attacks.

“My intent has always been to discover the real Christ and the resurrected Christ, and what (he) is saying to me and to us,” says Bell, 34, with the excited intensity of someone equally at home with a Bible or a skateboard.

My response to that is, how does he know what the real and the resurrected Christ is saying? What is his standard for determining this? If the Bible needs to be constantly reinterpreted, what do we base reality and truth upon? Bell’s, and the answers of others in the EC, are as much like jello as this statement. For an interesting dialog on this issue, head on over the Mike Macon’s blog and read through his exchange with some EC proponents. You might even see a post or two from me over there.

“I think a lot of people are deeply fascinated with Jesus and just can’t do the Christian packages they’ve seen. Christianity is a little suspect, but Jesus, right on. So I’m trying to free Jesus from the religion that’s built up around him.”

Too many churches put Jesus and the Bible into a walled-in worldview where no questions are allowed, Bell says.

Again, there is a kernel of truth in this. The objection has a good basis. I share this objection in fact and have been trying to root out any element of it in the church I pastor and will be vigilant to do so in the future. However…

In this “brickianity,” as he calls it, church doctrines are like bricks. Removing one can bring the whole wall tumbling down.

“What terrifies me are communities that don’t have questions,” Bell says. “If there’s any place where you would express your deepest doubts, it would be church.”

The doctrines of the Bible are not the issue, it’s what people build with them. Again, the separation of style and content, methodology and theology. If one takes the doctrine of inerrancy (there are no errors of history, fact, or science in the Bible) and says “Just shut up and believe it.” that’s wrong. And that is what some do. I agree with Bell in that church should be a place to come and ask the tough questions. But it should also be a place where you can learn the sometimes tough answers that are available, not just revel in the pseudo-wisdom of being a deep thinker, a heavy who seeks the deeper things.

Bell goes on to say…

“They [people] are hungry for the infinite mystery of God and the “revolution” Jesus could make in their lives and the world. He calls for a faith that fights poverty, injustice and suffering — to make “this world the kind of place God can come to.”

This demonstrates a worldview imposed on scripture. Jesus didn’t come to start a movement that would change the world into a place where God can come and establish His kingdom. Our function isn’t to set the stage for Jesus’ return. Should poverty, injustice, and suffering be dealt with? Certainly. But dealing with those things aren’t the primary reason Jesus came nor are they the primary mission of a disciple. The primary mission of a disciple is to make more disciples. The primary mission of Jesus was to reconcile people to God by paying the price for our sin and sin nature so that we can both live for Him here on earth, and live with Him in eternity.

The Bible clearly teaches that the world is going to get worse and worse. That doesn’t free Christians from compassion and concern for the world. It should give us a sense of urgency to reach as many people with the gospel as we can. But it does mean that God is going to come back and institute His own justice. We don’t need to get the world ready for Him to come back to. That’s not His command to us. Our job is to deliver the message, walk with those who receive it, and live it out.

“We want a faith that demands everything of us,” he says. “We want it to shake us up and turn us upside down.”

That’s cool. I’m down with that. After all, Christians were accused of turning the whole world upside down with their doctrine. Yes, doctrine. You know, those bricks in the walls that Bell wants to tear down. But I digress.

Bell also shakes up traditional evangelical beliefs. While calling Christ’s way “the best possible way to live,” Bell writes Jesus did not claim one religion is better than another when he said he was “the way, the truth and the life.” Rather, he writes, “his way is the way to the depth of reality.”

As a follower of Jesus, Bell says, he is free to claim the truth wherever he finds it.

“One of the lies is that truth only resides in this particular community or that particular thought system,” Bell says. “I affirm the truth anywhere in any religious system, in any worldview. If it’s true, it belongs to God.”

OK, I’m going to say it. That’s a load of crap. It quite simply contradicts the Bible from cover to cover. It sounds wise. It sounds spiritual. So did Satan in the garden. At least Bell is consistent. He is reinterpreting. It’s like Bell is saying, “The label on the can of paint says ‘blue’ but really it’s red.” It just isn’t. Undoubtedly this is what Mr. Oakland objects to, and I do too.

I encourage people to ask questions because there are answers. I would burn candles if I were allowed to. I might even put the Bible study before worship during the service once in a while (gasp!). But I’m not an EC. I am interested in breaking Jesus, the Bible, and doctrines out of the mold of moldy tradition (methodology), even if that tradition comes from the hay days of CC, but I’m not an EC. To be sure the EC is messed up theologically, but they are connecting with the culture. I can learn from that without becoming that. They are doing what Paul was doing in Acts 17 much better than many solid Bible teaching churches, better than my church is doing. I can learn from that without becoming that.

Mr. Bell, I think you are horribly, horribly wrong and are leading people into deception. You are sincere and mean no harm, but you are sincerely wrong. But I do admire your ability to connect with people. Mr. Oakland, I think you are right to sound the alarm on the
se vital issues. You are also sincere and desire people to walk in truth. Hopefully the people you tick off will walk away and think about what you say and not just walk away. Lord knows plenty of people (who were very wrong) have said things that ticked me off, but they did get me thinking, and in the end I was more confident in what I believed. The why in what we believe is as important as the what.

So to answer the challenge; yes I am a CC pastor, no I’m not an EC. OK. I got that out of my system. Next!

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