No observer of the emerging church was surprised to see leading voice Brian McLaren endorse Sen. Barack Obama for President. Liberal politics and emerging theology go hand in hand. But what is the connection? Must one lead to the other?
Christians are drawn to the emerging church for many reasons. Many are uncomfortable with the evangelical status quo, especially the bond between conservative politics and conservative theology. Others simply see the winds of culture shifting, and they don't want to be left behind. But I would suggest some deeper connections between liberal politics and emerging theology.
Emerging church leaders believe that the evangelical gospel is too small, too individualistic. They do not emphasize God's plan to forgive sins through the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Rather, they talk about the "secret message of Jesus" or God's plan to renew his creation. Scot McKnight wrote for CT about this shift regarding McLaren. "In this aggressive emphasis on the here and now, we see a devaluation of the traditional view of heaven, and the need for a radical reworking of familiar terms—eternal life, heaven, kingdom, repent, believe, and sin," McKnight observed. "These terms now take their meaning from the story of God's current redemption of the entire created order through the followers of Jesus who embody and expand his message."
McLaren may not be heavenly minded, but he is trying to do earthly good. He can partner with anyone who seems to be working toward the same agenda, whether in the name of Jesus or not. This reflects the communal spirit of the emerging church, which highlights the works of Jesus instead of his work on the Cross.
But despite the emerging church's talk about community, postmodernism actually encourages greater individualism. It does this through a view called perspectivalism. At its best, perspectivalism reminds us that our knowledge is limited and conditioned at least in part by our experience. Doug Pagitt reflects this view when he writes in Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, "Theology is the living understanding of the story of God in play with the story of our lives." For Pagitt, however, this means all theology is temporary. It is relative; it doesn't transcend time or geography. Extreme perspectivalism can wreak havoc on biblical hermeneutics. How are we supposed to apply the Bible's teaching today? This approach presents particular problems for an issue like homosexuality where the Bible's teaching runs counter to the cultural trends today. There is a strong temptation to explain away the Bible as itself representing a culturally bound perspective, or in the name epistemic humility not dare to claim any position as being biblical.
This kind of perspectivalism compounds existing problems for evangelicals trying to make policy judgments. Evangelicals don't have a long history of sophisticated political thinking. We too often confuse ends with means. In other words, we assume that if you want to achieve a certain political goal, you must adopt the same political strategy. Consider debates about whether the federal government needs a constitutional amendment to protect traditional marriage. Surely you can see homosexuality is a sin and not believe the amendment strategy is prudent. When debates over policy get mixed in with debates over hermeneutics, faithful and effective political engagement is virtually impossible.
Of course, much could be written about the connections between theological conservatism with the Religious Right. Some conservatives overestimate their grasp on objective truth and demonize those who disagree. But even though we can see the Left-Left, Right-Right connections, they are not inevitable. We know this because our Christian brothers and sisters around the world do not conform to this pattern. We know this because until recently, mainline Protestants formed the base of America's conservative movement.
From history we learn that Abraham Kuyper led theological conservatives away from the lapsed Dutch Reformed Church in 1886. But he also worked to launch a labor union and founded the forerunner to the Christian Democratic parties in Europe. William Jennings Bryan opposed theological liberals in his Presbyterian denomination after serving as Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state. Carl F.H. Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today and a champion for biblical inerrancy, was no political liberal. But he did believe capitalism should not be immune from criticism. That was enough to mark him a socialist among some conservatives.
History teaches us another lesson. We celebrate those Christians like Bonhoeffer or Wilberforce who stood on biblical principle and challenged the evils of their day. Timeless theology enabled them to see what their contemporaries sinfully ignored. They started with the radical message that it was necessary for Jesus Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead. This is the gospel Paul preached, the gospel that led the Jews to complain to city authorities that he and Silas had "turned the world upside down." Paul and Silas acted "against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus" (Acts 17:6).
If Christians today want to turn the world upside down, then we must preach the apostolic gospel of King Jesus. Before "everything must change," Jesus is building a kingdom of subjects who repent of their sins and trust him to forgive them. Then we can follow Jesus' example and reject political power plays; otherwise, "we will, ironically, be assimilated into the very idolatries of wealth, status, and power we seek to change," as the Gospel Coalition's Theological Vision for Ministry explains. "If we seek service rather than power, we may have significant cultural impact."
Collin Hansen is a Christianity Today editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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