by Roger Oakland
In order for the emerging church to succeed, the Bible has to be looked at through entirely different glasses, and Christianity needs to be open to a new type of faith. Brian McLaren calls this new faith a “generous orthodoxy.”1 While such an orthodoxy allows a smorgasbord of ideas to be proclaimed in the name of Christ, many of these ideas are actually forbidden and rejected by Scripture.
Doug Pagitt believes that he is part of a cutting-edge response to the new postmodern world. It’s a response he and others see as completely unique, never having been tried before in the history of man. Pagitt states:
It seems to me that our post-industrial times require us to ask new questions-questions that people 100 years ago would have never thought of asking. Could it be that our answers will move us to re-imagine the way of Christianity in our world? Perhaps we as Christians today are not only to consider what it means to be a 21st century church, but also and perhaps more importantly-what it means to have a 21st century faith.2
Many people I meet at conferences who come from a wide variety of church backgrounds tell me the church they have been attending for years has radically changed. Their pastor no longer teaches the Bible. Instead, the Sunday morning service is a skit or a series of stories. The Bible seems to have become the forbidden book. While there are pastors who do still teach the Bible, they are becoming the exception rather than the rule.
Emergent leaders often say the message remains the same, but our methods must change if we are going to be relevant to our generation. The measure of success for many pastors today is how many are coming, rather than how many are listening and obeying what God has said in His Word. Let’s consider how Doug Pagitt uses the Bible in his own church. He states:
At Solomon’s Porch, sermons are not primarily about my extracting truth from the Bible to apply to people’s lives. In many ways the sermon is less a lecture or motivational speech than it is an act of poetry-of putting words around people’s experiences to allow them to find deeper connection in their lives… So our sermons are not lessons that precisely define belief so much as they are stories that welcome our hopes and ideas and participation.3
What Pagitt is describing is a contextual theology; that is, don’t use the Bible as a means of theology or measuring rod of truth and standards by which to live; and rather than have the Bible mold the Christian’s life, let the Christian’s life mold the Bible. That’s what Pagitt calls “putting words around people’s experiences.” As this idea is developed, emerging proponents have to move away from Bible teachings and draw into a dialectic approach. That way, instead of just one person preaching truth or teaching biblical doctrine, everyone can have a say and thus come to a consensus of what the Bible might be saying. Pagitt explains:
To move beyond this passive approach to faith, we’ve tried to create a community that’s more like a potluck: people eat and they also bring something for others. Our belief is built when all of us engage our hopes, dreams, ideas and understandings with the story of God as it unfolds through history and through us.4
You may not have heard the term before, but contextual theology is a prominent message from the emerging church. In his book, Models of Contextual Theology (1992), Stephen B. Bevans defines contextual theology as:
… a way of doing theology in which one takes into account: the spirit and message of the gospel; the tradition of the Christian people; the culture in which one is theologizing; and social change in that culture, whether brought about by western technological process or the grass-roots struggle for equality, justice and liberation.5
In other words, the Bible in, and of itself, is not free-standing-other factors (culture, ethnicity, history) must be taken into consideration, and with those factors, the message of the Bible must be adjusted to fit. As one writer puts it, “Contextual theology aims at the humanization of theology.”6 But two questions need to be asked. First, will the contextualizing of Scripture cause such a twisting of its truth that it no longer is the Word of God, and secondly, is Scripture ineffective without this contextualization? To the first, I give a resounding yes! And to the second, an absolute no. The Word of God, which is an inspired work of the living Creator, is far more than any human-inspired book and has been written in such a way that every human being, rich or poor, man or woman, intelligent or challenged will understand the meaning of the Gospel message if it is presented in their native language; and thanks to the tireless work of missionaries for centuries, the Gospel in native languages is becoming a reality in most cultures today.
Dean Flemming is a New Testament teacher at European Nazarene College in Germany and the author of Contextualization in the New Testament. In his book, he defends contextual theology:
Every church in every particular place and time must learn to do theology in a way that makes sense to its audience while challenging it at the deepest level. In fact, some of the most promising conversations about contextualization today (whether they are recognized as such or not) are coming from churches in the West that are discovering new ways of embodying the gospel for an emerging postmodern culture.7
These “churches in the West” Flemming considers “most promising” are the emerging churches. He would agree with Bevans’ model of theology, but he has an answer to the emerging church’s dilemma. He states:
Many sincere Christians are still suspicious that attempts to contextualize theology and Christian behavior will lead to the compromising of biblical truth … we must look to the New Testament for mentoring in the task of doing theology in our various settings.8
There’s good reason some Christians are suspicious. But it can seem harmless at first because Flemming suggests the answer is in the New Testament, which he believes should be used as a prototype or pattern rather than something for doctrine or theology. New Testament theology is always open for change, he says, but we can learn how to develop this change by studying New Testament stories and characters. The premise Flemming presents of contextualizing Scripture is that since cultures and societies are always changing, the Word must change with it and be conformed to these changes. But I would challenge this. The Bible says the Word is living, active, and powerful:
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
And if the Word is this powerful, then it is stable and eternal as well. God, in His magnificence, is the Author of Scripture, and He surpasses time, culture, and societies. Contextualizing says people and cultures change, and therefore God’s Word must change. But, on the contrary, it’s people who need to change to conform to Scripture. If we really believe that the Bible is God’s Word, this would be clear to see; but if we think to ourselves that the Word is not infallible, not inspired, then contextualization would be the obvious expectation.
While certain parts of the Bible may be read as poetry (as Pagitt suggests), for indeed the Bible is a beautifully written masterpiece, it is also a living mechanism that is not to be altered-rather it alters the reader’s heart and life. It is much more than putting words around people’s experiences as emergents suggest.
The Bible tells us God is always right; it is man who is so often wrong. When we rely upon human consensus, we will end up with man’s perspective and not God’s revelation. This is a dangerous way to develop one’s spiritual life-the results can lead to terrible deception.
Brian McLaren put it well when he admitted it isn’t just the way the message is presented that emerging church proponents want to change … it’s the message itself they are changing:
It has been fashionable among the innovative [emerging] pastors I know to say, “We’re not changing the message; we’re only changing the medium.” This claim is probably less than honest … in the new church we must realize how medium and message are intertwined. When we change the medium, the message that’s received is changed, however subtly, as well. We might as well get beyond our naivete or denial about this….9
While reaching today’s generation for the cause of Christ is something we as Christians should all desire, we must remember Jesus Christ challenged us to follow Him and be obedient to
His Word. Scripture commands us to “be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). But the emergents are leading followers in the opposite direction, teaching that the Word of God needs to be conformed to people and cultures instead of allowing it to conform lives through Jesus Christ…. reimagining Christianity allows a dangerous kind of freedom;
like cutting the suspension ropes on a hot air balloon, the free fall may be exhilarating but the results catastrophic.(From Faith Undone, pp. 42-45.)
1. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan,
2. Pagitt, Church Re-Imagined, op. cit., pp. 17, 19.
3. Ibid., p. 166.
4. Doug Pagitt, Church Re-Imagined, op. cit., p. 167.
5. Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis
Books, Seventh Printing, November 2000, http://www.cca.org.hk/resources/
ctc/ctc94-02/1.Yuzon.html), p. 1.
6. Paul L. Lehmann, “Contextual Theology” (Theology Today, Princeton
Theological Seminary, 1972, http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1972/v29-1-
7. Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament (Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p. 14.
8. Ibid, pp. 14-15.
9. Brian McLaren, Church on the Other Side, op. cit., p. 68.