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FIRST-PERSON: The Gospel at the center

WASHINGTON (BP)–Wheaton College graduate Rob Bell and his wife, Kristen, started Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., with a desire to reach people for Christ.

This is normally what one would expect to be the ambition of the mind and heart of a pastor who had previously been intimately acquainted with the institutions and church life of modern day evangelicalism, as Bell had been. What began as a church plant has grown to envelop thousands who come to hear Bell preach each Sunday. He explores a “rabbinic style” of preaching he says comes directly from Jesus’ example. Gone are the influences of professional engineers of preaching (a.k.a. seminary professors of preaching) who teach that the sermon should be written as if the pastor was preparing some sort of speech for a class.

The trajectory for Bell’s preaching is more of an “art form” than some sort of theologically scientific speech. He sees preaching in need of “rescue” from textual analysts who seem to have everything figured out.

Bell is quick to point out that he is in rediscovery mode. What he is rediscovering is “Christianity as an Eastern religion.” These were the exact words Bell used when recently interviewed by author Andy Crouch of Christianity Today magazine.

Bell’s sojourn began with a jettisoning of the legal language that so ardently dominated evangelical thought. Both he and his wife also began questioning their long-held assumptions about the Bible itself. Discovering that the Bible is a “human product” made all the difference for them. Kristen Bell is on the record as stating, “I grew up thinking that we figured out the Bible –- that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again -– like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color.”

Their mentor — or their “lifeboat” as Kristen says — was Brian McLaren’s now famous book, “A New Kind of Christian.” The Bells are not alone. Hundreds are reading McLaren’s books — so many, in fact, that PBS’ “Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly” recently aired a two-part series on McLaren and what has come to be known as the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). The program interviewed McLaren and evangelical theologians.

The result was a clearer-than-expected articulation of some of the animating beliefs of McLaren and, presumably, those who look to him as one of the movement’s standard bearers. McLaren stated that “for some people the traditional view of hell makes God look like a torturer.” He goes on to state that he desires to start a conversation about “the old view [about hell] and problems with it so that we can together move forward in reconsidering, and maybe there is a better understanding of what Jesus meant and what the Scriptures mean when they’ve talked about issues like judgment, justice, hell.” The “old view” must be amended in some way so as to open the way for Christians to be “more ethical and humane,” McLaren said. To read the Bible literally will result, in his estimation, in “stonings going on in the street.”

As expected, this has created concern (some in the ECM would describe it as paranoia) in evangelical ranks. It is becoming clear that this is not just a way to become more culturally adaptive, but instead is a fundamental questioning of the inspiration, authority and perfection of Holy Scripture. What if McLaren is right? Could it be that the lives of Christians actually improve if they do not know what the Bible means? What if the very teaching of Jesus and the Apostles has been drastically misunderstood to the point that a new discovery of the true gospel is now needed in order for the worlds of everyone to move from black and white to color? Could it be that such discussions now dominate the evangelical landscape -– including the Southern Baptist Convention?

If history teaches the church anything, it is that all too often the Bible is the source of great discussion and even disagreement to the point that sooner or later the issues become very personal — as does faith itself. The SBC fought great battles to defend the doctrine of the plenary, verbal inspiration of Holy Scripture. Many people, through decades of controversy, vociferously opposed the hermeneutic approach that held the Bible was simply the product of culturally shackled men authoring error-filled documents that reflected more ancient practice than eternal truth. The idea that the task of the church in each generation should be to reconfigure the doctrinal framework of the Gospel was adamantly rejected.

The great danger is not that such discussions about these issues are still taking place. Discussions (or conversations) are always welcome among Christians as a safeguard, because the best of men are men at best. Humans are prone to error, and no one can honestly claim to understand everything revealed in Holy Scripture. That said, continued debate about the veracity and authority of Scripture’s very essence should not be welcomed in the name of cultural relevance, beauty or further attempts to restore to the church an “uncorrupted” faith. Ideas such as justification and the careful preaching of the very words of the Bible should not be sidelined only to be replaced by human speculation regarding various tenets of unknowable truth.

Sociologists have noted that participants in the Emerging Church Movement are largely “emerging” from churches that are forcefully conservative to the point that doctrine is propositionally structured in historic confessions, creeds, or other statements of faith. While Christian unity and charity is to be aggressively pursued at all costs so as not to perpetuate a sinful factionalism which would bring dishonor to Christ, the fascination of blurring the lines of orthodoxy in favor of more progressive ideas should not be accepted uncritically.

For in the end, the Apostle Paul spoke not only of a crisis of corruption in the church, but of a kairos of the times whereby he asked the Ephesians to pray that words (not unknowable or difficult to understand concepts of metaphysics) might be given to him so that he might boldly proclaim the mystery of the Gospel -– Eph. 6:19. For Paul, the Gospel was mysterious insofar as the doctrines which he understood actually to be the Gospel were beyond his ability to understand. For instance, it is and forever will remain a mystery as to why God would save sinners. The Gospel’s teaching was and is clear, knowable and able to be easily understood.

While no human being will ever be able adequately to explain the mystery of the incarnation, the resurrection, or the Trinity, a “generous orthodoxy” (an idea taken from McLaren’s book by the same title) would never reframe these doctrines or others like them in such fluid terms so as to confuse others of their true meaning. In the end, this orthodoxy is not generous, but dangerous.
Douglas Baker is a writer who lives and works in Washington, D.C.

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  • Douglas E. Baker