Category Archive: Theology – Ecclesiology

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November 28, 2005

The Church in Emerging Culture 4

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Brian McLaren‘s essay in The Church in Emerging Culture is very much like the books of his that I’ve read. He makes a number of good points, but on the whole it’s hard to pin down what he believes or what direction he would have the church take.

McLaren opens the essay by affirming that the message we preach never changes “if by message you mean the story that begins with ‘In the beginning, God created…'” (p. 191). Nevertheless, in the rest of the essay, McLaren wants to affirm, as well, that the message always changes in some way because it’s being addressed to a changing culture. Moreover, if our methods change, those changes are never limited to method; a change in method involves a change in message, too.

When McLaren talks about the gospel as a story, not as a collection of timeless moral principles, I’m with him. When he tells us that the gospel is “many versioned, many faceted, many layered, and Christ-centered,” I’m with him (though I agree with Horton that the variety in Scripture doesn’t allow us to pit, say, the theology of Paul against that of Matthew). When he says that the gospel is cumulative, starting with Genesis, I’m with him. When he says that the gospel isn’t just a report that we hear but is actually powerful, catalytic, and saving, I’m with him. When he rejects canned approaches (e.g., the sinner’s prayer, walking the aisle, etc.), I’m with him. And when he says that we all need to examine our methodologies to see if they’re distorting our message, I’m with him.

But when McLaren suggests that the message needs to change, I’m not with him. McLaren’s provides an example: his Jewish friend Sam, whose son was an Israeli soldier and stood up to his fellow soldiers who were tormenting a Palestinian and who ended up suffering for it. Is it possible, Sam asked, that Hitler could have prayed a prayer (e.g., “Jesus save me!”) and ended up in heaven after all the wicked things he did while his son, who suffered for the sake of someone else, could end up in hell simply because he didn’t trust in Jesus?

That’s a tough question, I grant. I suspect the question would make most of us uncomfortable if we were asked it to our faces, especially by someone we cared about. But what are our options? I don’t think McLaren wants to say that if Hitler did sincerely pray such a prayer he would still be punished because of the evil he did. But does McLaren want to say that someone who doesn’t trust in Jesus could still be saved because he was self-sacrificing?

In the end, McLaren says that he is still seeking, inviting people to join him in his search, and that he is less and less confidence that he can say “I have found.” Well, there’s some biblical truth in saying, with U2, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” None of us has attained to sinless perfection or to complete knowledge of Scripture.

But what’s the virtue of being a seeker if you never find anything, if you don’t land on anything and say, “Well, I’m not at the final goal yet, but I’ve found this I’m certain about this?” McLaren is very gracious, and in his concluding response to his interlocutors he indicates things he’s learned from all of them, but his essay leaves us with little more than an invitation to humility and a summons to keep seeking, which isn’t very helpful at all.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:57 pm | Discuss (0)
November 24, 2005

The Church in Emerging Culture 3

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The third essay in The Church in Emerging Culture is by Frederica Mathewes-Green and it is by far the most enjoyable to read and the funniest so far. It’s written in the form of a self-interview, modeled after the “Icarus” section of Joyce’s Ulysses.

The first half of the essay makes the point that in previous generations, too, there were people who wanted to be seen as rebels, who wanted to shock people by their art or their behaviour. Those “rebels,” however, weren’t as shocking as they had hoped; their art is now found in museum exhibits. The implied application to much of postmodernism is appropriate.

But the second half of the essay, in which one would expect Mathewes-Green to present her positive case for how the church should interact with the culture of the world around it, doesn’t take us very far. Mathewes-Green is Orthodox, and several of her theological points are helpfully critiqued by Michael Horton, who frequently points out that Mathewes-Green is making either-ors out of what should be both-ands.

In the end, beyond prayer and a desire to know Christ, I’m not sure what Mathewes-Green’s program for the church really is. She talks about the importance of having one’s life transformed by Christ: While many people have tried to make Jesus acceptable to us, conforming him to patterns that we can be comfortable with and understand, Jesus’ alternate plan is to transform us into people who can know him.

But what is the result of those transformed lives? As Erwin Raphael McManus asks, what if there are two or three or more people whose lives are being transformed? How will that transformation become evident and work itself out in their interactions? And how will the culture they necessarily develop relate to the culture(s) around them?

Those questions Mathewes-Green leaves unanswered.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:07 pm | Discuss (0)
November 23, 2005

The Church in Emerging Culture 2

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Michael Horton has the second essay in The Church in Emerging Culture. He starts by presenting a number of different things that “postmodernism” means, citing a plethora of names, to which Frederica Mathewes-Green responds amusingly, until the point when Horton cites both Walter Lippman and Steinar Kavale, prompting this comment from Mathewes-Green:

Man, it’s getting crowded in here! Hauerwas, maybe you can get on top of that bookcase over there. Steinar, you’re going to have to sit on Walter’s lap. And if any more intellectuals ring the doorbell, we’re going to turn out the lights and pretend nobody’s home (p. 115). 

In particular, Horton says, postmodernism has an academic and a popular side to it although in each side there is great variety. He seems to find what he calls academic postmodernism fairly congenial, but he doesn’t spend any time on it. Instead, he focuses on what he calls popular postmodernism, which he sees as either incoherent or not clearly distinct from modernism. He writes:

Postmodernism — or whatever one wishes to designate our brief moment in history — is the culture in which Sesame Street is considered educational; sexy is the term of approbation for everything from jeans to doctoral theses; watching sitcoms together at dinner is called family time; abortion is considered choice; films sell products; and a barrage of images and sound-bites selected for their entertainment and commercial value is called news. This general trend in culture translates into hipper-than-thou clubs passing for youth ministry, informal chats passing for sermons, and brazen marketing passing for evangelism, where busyness equals holiness, and expository preaching is considered too intellectual (p. 109). 

But what Horton seems to be describing here is not postmodernism but simply the way a lot of people in our society today act and think. As the opening of this paragraph reveals, Horton simply identifies the two. But why? I can well imagine postmodernists or those who share some sympathies with them opposing the trend of having sound bites pass for news. In fact, I can imagine postmodernists critiquing many of the things that Horton himself is critiquing. Horton appears to have overlooked the fact that no postmodernist is claiming that postmodernism equals the way things are today.

As the essay develops, more problems arise. Horton suggests that instead of speaking of modernity and postmodernity we would be better off following the New Testament distinction between “this present evil age” and “the age to come,” or life in the flesh and life in the Spirit (p. 113).

But as McLaren points out (and sometimes these first two essays read as if they were deliberately crafted to make McLaren stand out particularly well), Horton isn’t so much refining the discussion as changing the subject:

In answer to Michael’s rhetorical question, I would say, “We’re talking about two different things.” Those of us grappling with the need for change in the church are seeking to proclaim, in the power of the Spirit, the good news of the age to come in this present evil age, in which people live lives of quiet desperation in the flesh. Medieval, modern, postmodern, or whatever all occur in the present evil age — which is also, by the way, the age Jesus promised to be with us to the end of — in a world God created and still loves (p. 112). 

If Horton’s point is that the gospel creates its own culture and stands in critique of all other cultures, be they modern, postmodern, or whatever, then I heartily concur. If his point is that the gospel must not be accommodated to postmodern culture anymore than to modern culture, then I also agree wholeheartedly. But if Horton’s point is that all these other distinctions are essentially irrelevant and that the only distinction we really need in this discussion that between “this present age” and “the age to come” or “life in the flesh” and “life in the Spirit,” then I think he’s missed the point.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:32 pm | Discuss (0)

The Church in Emerging Culture 1

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Yesterday, I read a good portion of The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, edited by Leonard Sweet. The five perspectives are provided by Andy Crouch, Michael Horton, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brian McLaren, and Erwin Raphael McManus.

Sweet’s introduction includes a few helpful (though not detailed) criticisms of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture and (somewhat helpfully) discusses various approaches to change and various views of what problems we face in the modern world.

But then Sweet discusses the five perspectives in this book in terms of an extended metaphor, where participants in this discussion are described as Gardens, Parks, Glens, or Meadows. Maybe it was just that I’m still battling my fever but I can’t say that his metaphor made things a lot clearer for me. Just the opposite, in fact. More than that, having read Andy Crouch’s essay, I’m not at all sure whether he’s a Garden, Park, Glen, or Meadow.

Before I go further, a couple of comments about the formatting of the book. For some reason, the publishers choose to print this with wide pages, which makes it hard to read quickly. The print is also large: my arms aren’t long enough to hold the book far enough away. But then, interspersed with the black text of a participant’s essay are comments by the other participants in much smaller grey text. All of which together is a recipe for eye-strain.

Crouch’s chapter was, on the whole, disappointing, in part because it wasn’t clear exactly whose views he was interacting with and in part, too, because his approach was predominantly negative. Perhaps his chapter would have seemed stronger were it not for the comments interspersed throughout from McLaren and others. McLaren’s comments, in particular, were very helpful.

Crouch seems to be arguing that postmodernity is actually ultramodernity. Far from being (as McLaren and others have suggests) postindividualistic and postconsumeristic, Crouch says, postmodernity is extremely individualistic and extremely consumeristic. He presents the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral as an architectural symbol of modernism and the Mall of America as a corresponding symbol of “postmodernism,” which turns out to be more modernism taken to the extreme.

But, as McLaren points out, what Crouch calls “postmodernism” isn’t what he and many others mean by that term. McLaren grants that the Mall of America may be a symbol of ultramodernism, but that doesn’t make it a symbol of postmodernism.

My own sense is that Crouch tried to approach things this way: Many people talk about us moving into a postmodern culture, so Crouch simply looked at the culture he sees around him and concluded that this was what McLaren, et al., have in mind when they talk about “postmodern culture.” Well, no. That’s not it at all. And so Crouch’s bad methodology bred bad results in his essay.

Much of his essay, in fact, targets things that McLaren and other postmodernists of that stripe also target, namely individualism and consumerism, though McLaren at least, in one comment in response to Crouch, adds an important caution with regard to consumerism:

Buying and selling aren’t evil. They’re part of God’s world, and Scripture gives us moral guidelines to protect us from letting these good parts of life (a.k.a. “good work”) go bad (don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, do unto others, for starters). Andy himself makes and sells a magazine, and I’m sure he hopes to sell more copies of it. I would add that if you make canes, you are probably going to market them to older people and those who have been injured, not to parents of infants, to whom you will market diapers and rattles, which you will not market to teenagers, and so on. Andy’s magazine, I’m sure, has something like a target audience, and I’ll bet some demographic discussions take place in his office, or at least in his head at times…. So just as Andy is careful to warn “postmodern prophets” about oversimplifying or overstating their case, I want to join Andy in condeming the greed that seems to be one of the prime engines of our culture (post, ultra, or whatever), but I would also take care not to paint all commerce(creating, crafting, announcing, selling) as consumerism (p. 95).

That caution strikes me as something people need to hear right around this time of year when so many Christian voices are raised in response to the “consumerism” at Christmas time. While there may be some problems in the way things are done, the fact that people want to buy gifts and that stores want to sell gifts and even want to persuade you to buy their gifts isn’t wrong in itself.

One of the stronger features of Crouch’s essay was his emphasis on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, though that emphasis, too, was marred by Crouch’s insistence on believer baptism and his dismissive comments about infant baptism (for which Michael Horton rightly takes him to task).

Furthermore, the discussion of baptism and the Lord’s Supper was almost the only positive thing that Crouch included in his essay. It almost seemed as if he was saying that they were the cure to all the church’s ills in this era and the next (for which McManus and others rightly took him to task: What about churches which have practiced all these things and still ended up dead or wicked or compromised with the culture or whatever?).

Still, Crouch’s essay was a reminder that all who wrestle with what the church should look like would do well to take seriously what baptism and the Lord’s Supper say about the church and what they effect. All of us who are baptized leave behind our old stories and enter the church, a new community with a new story, where we are one body and where we eat together at one table. And so the church must not become divided into various demographic groups but must be united as one new community, defined, not by our own personal experiences and tastes, but by Jesus Christ.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:30 pm | Discuss (0)
May 9, 2005

Trinity Tavern Thursday

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Many churches have their Bible studies in the church basement. We do here, and a rather cold environment it is, too. But Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where my friend Rich Lusk pastors, has Trinity Tavern Thursday. Maybe it’s time we followed suit!

Posted by John Barach @ 7:48 pm | Discuss (0)
May 7, 2004

The Besetting Sin of Protestantism

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The latest issue of Reformation and Revival Journal (to which I recommend subscribing: I like it more and more) arrived at my house this week.

This issue focuses on Christian Oneness, a topic that warms my heart, and contains articles by two of my acquaintances, Rich Lusk and Travis Tamerius. The first article, however, is by T. M. Moore. It’s entitled “That They May Be One: Facing Up to the Besetting Sin of Protestantism.” Here’s how the article starts (I’ve broken it into shorter paragraphs for easier reading):

I had just finished a sermon exhorting our congregation to faith and boldness in taking up the challenge of a new stage in our ministry’s development, a sermon which I ended by quoting a wonderful prayer which Robert Van de Meyer attributes to St. Brendan (fl. ca. A.D. 560), which, tradition tells us, he offered just prior to departing in a leather boat with sixteen companions for points west across the uncharted sea.

The first person to approach me at the door was a minister of my denomination, who was visiting with us that day. I held out my hand to greet him, but he declined, looking first at my outstretched hand, and then, coming very close to my face, saying, “Couldn’t you find some worthy Reformed saint for your illustration? Did you have to use that Catholic?”

Note the emphasis: Not a Protestant saint, but a Reformed one. For this pastor it would not have been sufficient merely to draw on an example from the Protestant heritage; it had to be Reformed.

This anecdote speaks to me of much that is wrong in Protestantism. Not only does it demonstrate a fixation on form over substance — the jots and tittles of doctrine rather than the heart of faith — but it witnesses to a problem endemic in Protestant churches from the earliest days of the Reformation: Protestants too easily become ensnared in denominationalism, with the result that, at least among many pastors and church leaders, we fail to nurture and express the love of Christ much beyond the confines of our own fellowships. We tend to clog the veins and arteries of the Body of Christ with the plaque of denominational distinctives — doctrinal, liturgical, traditional, and practical — and impede the free flow of the love of Christ among the communions and members of his Body.

Here, more than in any single area, the sin of unbelief, which so easily besets the followers of Christ, has attached itself to Protestantism, and is choking life from the Body and suffocating our witness to the watching world. I agree with Edmund Clowney when he writes, “Only as the Church binds together those whom selfishness and hate have cut apart will its message be heard and its ministry of hope to the friendless be received.” The failure of Protestant churches to achieve that binding among themselves is one of the primary reasons that our witness for Christ has not been more effective over the past several generations (pp. 12-13).

While I might quibble with some of what Moore says here (I’m not convinced that “substance” and “form” can so easily be divided, for instance), I appreciate his point. As a Reformed pastor, I sometimes get the impression that the Reformed world is a bit too cosy and close-knit. We don’t associate much with the other churches around us. Some Reformed churches don’t admit to the Table members from non-Reformed churches.

I recall reading an old Bible study geared toward young adults in which the author, a venerable pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, asked the question, “How can we increase loyalty to our denomination?” Is that really what we want? Or would it be better to have loyalty to Christ and His church throughout the world? What about our loyalty to the guy in the other church down the street who is united to the same Christ we are?

I look forward to reading these articles in this issue of Reformation and Revival Journal, and I commend R&R for publishing them.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:17 pm | Discuss (0)
May 8, 2002

Evangelical Reunion

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I don’t remember why I stopped reading John Frame. When I was first becoming Reformed, I was a big Frame fan. In fact, it was when I was reading a section in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God that the light came on and I understood the biblical basis for infant baptism.

But for some reason, I stopped reading Frame around the time I went to seminary. Perhaps it was because I didn’t like something he’d written. Perhaps it was just that I was so busy keeping up with the reading in seminary that I didn’t have time to read Frame on the side. Perhaps it was something else.

Recently, however, I’ve started to read Frame again. I read his Perspectives on the Word of God back in January, as reported here. And yesterday morning, I finished Evangelical Reunion: Denominations and the One Body of Christ, about which I will now procede to rave. First, the obligatory caution: I don’t necessarily agree with everything Frame says in this book. But I certainly agree with a lot of the points he makes.

Frame argues that God intended his church to be one, not to be shattered into thousands of separate denominations. He traces the history of denominationalism and examines both the dangerous effects of denominations and the reasons why we love ’em (“My home, my family, my team”). Denominations tend to foster an “us against them” attitude: we bolster our confidence in our own denomination by running down others. We’re inclined to pretend that our “team” has a corner on the truth and thereby justify not reading or interacting widely with the rest of the Christian community. But, as Frame says, “We should get used to rooting more for ‘the church’ and less for a particular denomination” (p. 61).

Frame then goes on to talk about working toward reunion. Part of the path there involves getting to know people from outside our circles.

It is easy enough to be denominational chauvinists if we never encounter anyone from any other tradition. It is not so easy when we meet real flesh-and-blood fellow Christians from other branches of the church. This is especially the case when God calls us to stand together with them against unbelief (p. 72).

He talks about how to deal with differences of doctrine, practice, history, government, and priorities and then addresses our attitudes and our assumptions with regard to Christians from other churches. He points out that at least some degree of doctrinal tolerance is necessary and inescapable. We are continuing to learn, both as individuals and as churches and groups of churches: God doesn’t teach everyone everything all at once or even at the same rate. Therefore, we must be tolerant toward those who disagree with us. We ought to labour as much as possible to preserve the unity of the church.

Frame’s book isn’t perfect. In places it may raise more questions than it answers. I don’t think Frame would mind that. His goal is to get people thinking and discussing these issues as we work toward greater unity. Unfortunately, the book received only a few reviews before sinking into virtual oblivion with barely a ripple. It’s good to see that the book is available, complete with a new appendix, at Third Millennium. Christian Book Distributors also has some copies of the out-of-print first edition for $0.99, if you prefer an actual book. It’s well worth buying, reading, thinking about, and discussing, even if you end up disagreeing with him at points.

And while I’m raving about stuff, let me add that Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is a great album and Chaim Potok’s In the Beginning is a great book, and I’m going to go and combine them now for a few minutes before bed.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:46 pm | Discuss (0)
March 21, 2002


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Along the lines of what I wrote (and quoted from Jim Jordan) in the last post, check out Chris Smith‘s comments on Thomas Chalmers and the parish model as it applies to care for the local poor.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:31 pm | Discuss (0)

Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future

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All in all, a frustrating day with little accomplished. Yesterday morning, as I was sitting at my desk, I developed pain in the muscles between my spine and right shoulder. A massage yesterday helped a bit, as did a hot shower, but the pain is still there and the muscles in my neck are tensing up as a result.

All of that led to me being very close to a headache yesterday and today, which left me tired and draggy. I managed to slog my way through the introduction and first point of my Luke 23 sermon, but the whole thing feels a bit clunky to me right now. Mind you, when I look at it again tomorrow, it might not be as bad as I think. I’ve had that happen before.

I gave up on the sermon around 7:30 and then headed out for a late supper. Over an 8-ounce sirloin and a pint of stout at Brewsters, I read Jim Jordan‘s Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future. It’s a short book (46 pages), but it covers a lot of turf, tracing the patterns of history in terms of the Father, Son (Brother), and Spirit. I read quickly, trying to grasp the big picture. Someday (perhaps when I’m a little less draggy and muddle-headed) I’ll have to think it through more carefully. A couple of quotations:

God is in the business of changing humanity into a fit Bride, and so God breaks down all attempts to freeze history (p. 20).

Today, the bonds that used to hold our society together are starting to break and a “neo-tribalism” is developing. In that connection, Jordan writes,

… people today do not live in a fear of God, as people did at the time of the Reformation. People today live in isolation, rootlessness, anomie, loneliness, and with suicidal tendencies. They seek psychiatrists and read books trying to find individual “inner peace” by themselves, alone. The Hollywood movie What About Bob? points to this phenomenon. Bob’s psychiatrist deals with Bob as an individual, but what Bob really needs is to become part of a family (p. 35).

Jordan urges the church to respond to these developments by having the community gather around the communion table and by recovering enthusiastic singing and “a sense of place”:

Protestant churches are ideological; we drive past twenty churches to get to the one we agree with. This cannot change overnight, of course, but more and more the churches need to reach out into the communities right around them and become centers for the lonely and lost in their midst.

Jordan also calls for “total Bible saturation,” so that our common sense is shaped by Scripture, so that we live by the imperatives, lyrics, evaluations, facts, and symbolism of Scripture. The church ought to be tribal:

a community of enthusiastic singers gathered by real elders (old men) at a table. Such a local church must have a vision for the local community, not be constantly harping on national ills. Such a church must be planted in a place, and reach out with a vision of the New Community of God to all the lonely, isolated, and despairing people round about, people who are experiencing the many forms of death. Such a church must have something to offer in the way of a new community, and to do this she must know her songs, be feasting at her Lord’s table, and have elders who can provide her with a real government. The modern conservative church too often has nothing to offer but doctrine, cold ideas. The church must offer wholistic life to wholistic people (pp. 45-46).

I thought a bit about the church having a sense of place on Tuesday when I was in Calgary. I stopped for lunch in Mackenzie Towne, a development on the south end of the city. When you enter the development, you come to a traffic circle, and on the circle sits a church. It’s not right in the centre of town at this point, but the town may grow up around it so that it is eventually in the centre. It’s simply called Mackenzie Towne Church. I have no idea if it’s tied to any denomination and given our current state of doctrinal fragmentation in the church I’d probably end up driving past it to go elsewhere if I lived in Mackenzie Towne myself. But the idea is very attractive: this is the church for this area and for these people. The church’s mission isn’t necessarily to reach the whole city but to reach this particular community (first). As it is, many people live a long distance from the church they attend and that is bound to affect the nature of our community/communion.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:58 pm | Discuss (0)
February 20, 2002

The Newness of Life

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It’s taken me longer than I’d anticipated to read For the Life of the World, largely because I’ve been busy and a little too tired in the evenings to do much reading. But here’s another quotation from my reading tonight:

If the Church is truly the “newness of life” — the world and nature as restored in Christ — it is not, or rather ought not be, a purely religious institution in which to be “pious,” to be a member in “good standing,” means leaving one’s own personality at the entrance — in the “check room” — and replacing it with a worn-out, impersonal, neutral “good Christian” type personality. Piety in fact may be a very dangerous thing, a real opposition to the Holy Spirit who is the Giver of Life — of joy, movement and creativity — and not of the “good conscience” which looks at everything with suspicion, fear and moral indignation.

In other reading news, I’ve finished the first volume of The Book of the New Sun (loved it!) and I’m now reading Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit before going back to Gene Wolfe again.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:27 pm | Discuss (0)

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