The Emerging Church: Swinging the Pendulum too Far?

Is Right Practice the Antidote to Easy Belief-ism?

Michael Wittmer’s first book is one of my favorites of all time. In Heaven is a Place on Earth, Wittmer maps out a biblical worldview by combining a proper understanding of the imago Dei with the biblical story of Creation-Fall-Redemption.

His follow-up book is called Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus is not Enough. In it, he tries to strike a balance between conservative evangelicalism and the emerging church. His premise is that the evangelicalism of the 20th Century pressed too far one way, and that “postmodern innovators” (his term for the leaders in the emerging church movement) are overreacting by swinging the pendulum too far the other way. He states that his book is a “friendly warning” to the postmodern innovators of the emerging church. He states,

“I am thankful for their emphasis on authentic Christian living. Their vision for what the church can become is both exhilarating and challenging. My only concern, and the point I will press in this book, is that their quest to correct abuses of previous generations must not lead them to err on the opposite extreme. Perhaps our parents overemphasized right belief more than good behavior, but that must not become an excuse to teach good behavior at the expense of right belief. If we continue down this road, it may not be long until our liberal method leads to liberal conclusions. Authentic Christianity demands our head, heart, and hands. Our labor for Christ flows from our love for him, which can arise only when we know and think rightly about him. Genuine Christians never stop serving, because they never stop loving, and they never stop loving, because they never stop believing.” (pp. 19-20)

Wittmer’s book is a welcome addition to the conversation. Whereas D.A. Carson’s book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church was poorly researched and reactionary without truly understanding the movement, Wittmer is actually conversant with the emerging church. He understands it, and thus he can authentically deal with one of the major issues for evangelicals who want to embrace the emerging church: The tension between belief and practice.

Evangelicals have placed a high emphasis on "believing in Jesus," and this “belief” has often (in a modernist world) been articulated as believing certain propositions about Jesus. According to many evangelical churches, if you can state that you believe that Jesus died for your sins and trust that he satisfied God’s wrath against those sins on the cross, you are “saved.” This is topped off with saying a “sinner’s prayer,” and an assurance that from now on, no matter what you do, you’re in… you are guaranteed your place in heaven.

The “postmodern innovators” of the emerging church have reacted to this by saying that Jesus is more interested in our actions than in what we can state to be truth. In Brian McLaren’s book The Last Word and the Word After That, the character Markus states that conservative Christians wrongly believe that “on judgment day, all God will care about is opening up our skulls and checking our brains…to see if we had the right notion of salvation by grace through faith in there somewhere.”

Wittmer states that McLaren’s answer to this incorrect understanding of faith is insufficient. Wittmer writes, “McLaren counters this extreme view by claiming that God judges people on the quality of their works rather than on what they believe.” (p. 35) Wittmer’s point: the postmodern innovators so underemphasize right belief and so overemphasize right ethics that they swing the pendulum too far the other way.

But does McLaren actually advocate “works righteousness?” No, he does not. In fact, McLaren very much advocates faith in the person of Jesus Christ. He has said, "I believe people are saved not by objective truth, but by Jesus. Their faith isn’t in their knowledge, but in God." (source) This is an excellent quote, and gets at the center of the issue.

The question that Mike Wittmer is going to have to deal with is this: Does faith in our knowledge about Jesus save us?

I believe it does not. I believe that faith in the person of Jesus is what delivers us.

But, here is where it gets very tricky: What basic facts do we need to “know” in order to place our faith in Jesus? This is what Wittmer gets into in his second chapter. Watch for my interaction with Mike Wittmer on this in an upcoming post.


David said...

Thanks for writing this. I'm very interested in this book now. I'll be looking forward to what else you have to say about the book.

joeldaniel said...

interesting stuff, bob. i'd like to contend that the emerging conversation isn't totally afraid of the idea of beliefs as they are that beliefs can be so clearly stated as evangelicalism would have us believe. have we somehow now sorted out all the answers after all these years, or is it possible that mystery and discussion are still allowed to exist.

i suggest while at the same time agreeing that some in the emerging have swung too far. a quote from an emerging leader at the Envision '08 conference i went to this past summer that i found somewhat disconcerting:

"the problem (with the church) may not be figuring out how to expand the table or tent but may be a problem with the tent or table itself."

that's what i call swinging too far to one side. what i hope doesn't get lost by people reading Wittmer (particularly evangelicals) is that we need to move from where the modern church is at currently. it's surely not a healthy position, and just because emerging folks are at times swinging too far away doesn't mean we should ignore them.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Quite interesting. I don't have the book, but would like to read it. Somehow I'm having trouble connecting with what Michael is saying, and though I haven't been an avid reader of Brian McLaren, I do connect quite well with the quote you share from him.

At any rate, I'll be most interested in your further postings on this book, and great to see you back in the blog world.

Great Googly Moogly! said...

I've just started the book and it will be nice to go through it while interacting with your comments. I'm really excited to read it because I also thought "Heaven is a Place on Earth" was a great book.


mikewittmer said...

Hi Bob:

Thanks for reviewing my book. I'd like to make a couple notes of clarification:

1. I would say that my view is a both/and rather than a "balanced" view. I am not trying to find a middle ground between emergent and conservative folks but rather saying that I want to believe the historic doctrines of the faith like a conservative and care about social justice as the Emergents are known for. The upshot is that I want to argue that the historic doctrines of the faith do not get in the way of loving the other (as some Emergents imply), but actually supply the impetus for such love (see chapter 3).

2. I don't believe that McLaren is arguing for works-righteousness. If McLaren believes what his protagonist Markus implies, then he thinks that we may all be born already accepted by God, and unless we "opt out" we will die in God's good graces. McLaren does not believe that we earn our salvation, apparently because he does not think that we're really lost. Note that I am attempting to systematically piece together the suggestions from his writings, so it could be that I'm misreading him. At any rate, the point of my chapter is not to say that McLaren believes this or that but that many of his readers think he is saying this and that and they agree with him. I want to discuss the ideas that are being presented, not get caught up in labels and who is in what camp. For now, I just want to say that I don't recall saying that McLaren believes in works-righteousness, and for the record I do not believe that he does.

Thanks again for interacting with my book. I look forward to the rest!

Michael Kruse said...

Thanks for this post, Bob. I just went to Amazon to buy the book.

steve poling said...

You may find Gresham Machen's book "Christianity And Liberalism" a helpful tonic. (In fact, anything by Machen is worth your attention.) The "ethic of Jesus" is an old canard of old-fashioned Modernism. It was a thistle to grasp in the 1920s because nobody in his right mind will oppose good works and righteousness. The complaint then and now has to be a reminder that good thoughts are the parents of good works. We must have orthodox belief systems to be in any position to produce works approved by the Master. I believe in faith alone, but it is a faith that is not alone. (Yeah, I stole that.)

It would be a horrid thing if the devil failed in its attack on Christianity in the 1920s with Modernist unbelief but succeeded with the exact same attack in the 2000s with Postmodernist skepticism.

P.s. Amazon doesn't offer this book for the Kindle. Sigh. Mike, if you're listening, can you ask someone at Zondervan to fix this?