Matthew Paul Turner’s 38 Theses

matthew-paul-turner1Matthew Paul Turner recently posted a nice list of 38 inspirational suggestions for the Church. It’s a nice list of values and actions he would like to see it embrace. While I agree with most of them, there are some suggestions that I see as problematic.

Let me state up front that I get that these are supposed to be inspirational ideas, not specific agenda items. Most of my qualms are in regards to their application rather than the idea itself. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to skip over those that I’m on board with:

2) The Church needs to sober of its addiction to cool and/or its addiction of trying to be cool. We weren’t called to be cool or to pursue cool. Our addiction to that end is sucking us dry of meaning, depth, and future relevance. Besides, the Church isn’t cool, especially when its trying to be.

There are few things more cringe-worthy than seeing a Christian try to be cool. We’ve all endured pastors who try to use a pop culture reference in a sermon that reveals just how out of touch they are. But every element of our worship tradition was new at one time. What has deep meaning now was once a head-scratching change that lots of people probably didn’t get or feel comfortable with. The church constantly fumbles in its attempts to be relevant, but sometimes these attempts stick. Contemporary worship was a deliberate attempt to appeal to people who found liturgical services stuffy and dull. It’s been so successful that many Christians have never experienced any other kind of service.

8) The Church should be known more for celebrating and experiencing the mysteries of God as opposed to learning and reciting humanity’s definitions of God.

I’m not sure what Matthew’s getting at here. It sounds like he’s critiquing the Catholic Catechism, but I need to hear more.

11) The Church should stop fighting a war against religion and embrace the fact that we are a part of religion, that not all religion is bad, and that sometimes religion (in its myriad of forms) can actually be spiritually helpful for some believers.

I assume that he’s referring to evangelical rhetoric that Christianity isn’t really a religion, but a life-changing commitment. To me that line was always nothing more than a marketing strategy. I agree that it’s nonsensical, but I don’t think it amounts to a war against religion.

12) The Church should stop creating enemies out of people with whom it disagrees.

I agree completely, with one minor quibble. There’s a tendency for liberal Christians to criticize evangelicals for their adversarial mentality and miss the fact that they’re doing the same thing. I’m guilty of this, too.

13) The Church should be known for creating/engaging space, time, and practice for helping people connect to the God of the Universe.

As I see it, this idea conflicts with #2. If the church isn’t helping people connect to God, then it needs to try out new approaches, and this will inevitably lead to attempts at coolness.

15) The Church should be defined by the teachings of Christ more so than the theologies of Paul, the Apostle.

This is one of those tricky ideas that sounds good in spirit but becomes difficult to apply. No matter what denomination one subscribes to, most of our theology comes from Paul. Without him Jesus remains a great prophet whose teachings only apply to Jewish people.

22) The Church should evaluate and/or rethink its role among its community, seeking to serve the greater good of all people regardless of their creed, origins, or orientation.

 

27) The Church should seek to bring glory to God through worship, confession, prayer, and pursuit of the common good.

While I find postmodernism problematic, I do believe that there’s some merit to the deconstructionist approach to language. The premise that individuals apply their own meaning to language makes sense to me. (The Wikipedia article gives a good example: “Words have meaning only because of contrast-effects with other words. ‘Red’ means what it does only by contrast with ‘blue’, ‘green’, etc“). If I state that I bought a red car, you might envision a slick sporty red corvette, while your husband might envision a beat up old Volkswagen.  

The problem with the idea of a “greater good” or the “common good” is that everyone interprets the concept differently. Few people attend a church that they believe isn’t already serving the greater good. One church might define the community’s greater good as trying to convert as many people as possible, while other churches may interpret it as respecting all religious beliefs.

29) The Church should seek out ways to engage God’s resurrection story here on Earth.

This is another idea that I think needs further explanation.

Overall, I commend Matthew for coming up with a good list. But it’s deceptively easy to read some of these suggestions and come away with the belief that the church is already doing these things, or that a more conservative theology would accomplish these goals better than a liberal theology. Obviously this isn’t his intention, but that’s why we need to take the next step and work out how these goals would be carried out in real life.

7 Good Questions

questionsAlastair Roberts has a very good post about progressive evangelicals. I’ll address his initial arguments in a second post, but I think his best contribution to the ongoing dialogue about the church can be found in the comments section. In response to a reader of his blog, Roberts offers seven questions for progressive evangelicals to answer, and I think they warrant serious consideration:

1. Are you a member of a church?

I’ll start off by saying that I may not be the best representative of progressive evangelicalism (readers of my blog know that I loathe the word “progressive,” but I’ll roll with it here for clarity’s sake.)

I have not fully embraced progressive theology, although I identify with the movement. My answer would be: technically I still am a member of an evangelical church. I have told the leadership of my church that I would go back in a heartbeat if the church reset its priorities, and I have asked them to keep me on their membership roles because I have not given up  on the possibility of returning. However, I am currently not attending a church because the transformations that have troubled me are not exclusive to my church.

That said, I agree with his underlying assumption: Christians should worship together within a church context. Despite arguments that the Bible never says anything about establishing the modern church as we know it, there is no better model for congregating together and worshipping together.

2. Do you identify with the teaching position of your church?

Yes and no. Whenever I look at an evangelical church’s faith statement (which can be found on most church websites), I find myself agreeing with all of their points except for two. While I agree with the evangelical position that the Bible is divinely inspired, I know from experience that most evangelicals equate divine inspiration with creationism, patriarchy, and so on.

In a sense it’s like reading the Constitution. Both Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg read the Constitution and agree with it, but they interpret its meaning in radically different ways.

The second issue I disagree with is eschatology. To be fair, many evangelical churches leave eschatology (i.e. how they interpret the book of Revelation and End Times theology) out of their faith statements, and many more consider it a minor point. That’s a big reason why I have no problem with churches who subscribe to premillennialism, provided their position doesn’t spill over into political nonsense like trying to guess who the Antichrist is or using the End Times as an argument against global warming.

3. Has the vast majority of your spiritual formation occurred within this movement?

I assume that Roberts is asking whether my spiritual formation took place within traditional evangelicalism.  And the bottom line is yes, almost all of my formation took place within an evangelical context. As my ongoing autobiographical series illustrates, even when I attended  mainline churches, my spiritual formation took place through conservative evangelical organizations. But I’ve never experienced the before-and-after transformation that most progressive evangelicals experience. I never left conservative evangelicalism behind because I’ve always been a progressive evangelical.

4. Who are the leading figures in your movement and where did their primary spiritual formation occur?

That’s difficult to answer, and I think this illustrates Roberts’ strongest point in his original post. Progressive evangelicalism lacks leaders, and the nature of American progressivism in general is that it loathes leaders. (The Occupy Wall Street movement is classic example of a progressive movement that failed because it took pains not to establish structure or leadership.)

My list of leading figures are a hodgepodge of authors and theologians: Augustine, Luther, John Wesley, Reinhold Neibuhr, Dallas Willard,  John Stott, Karen Armstrong, Peter Enns, and Elaine Pagels. Obviously many of these people espouse theologies that are diametrically opposed to one other, and this illustrates my own theological quirks.

5. Did you move to your current church context or community from a different theological context?

No. My flirtations with the Methodist and Episcopalian churches were made within an evangelical context.

6. Do most of your peers in your context share your theological persuasions?

No, and that’s my eternal predicament. I can find enough common ground with evangelicals of any persuasion that I can comfortably converse and worship with them, and if we never diverge from our common ground, people can and do assume I am “one of them.” But the areas I disagree on are drastic. I’ve often thought that I was born a hundred years too late. Back in the early 1900’s  there was a large socialist and civil rights movement within the evangelical church, and had I lived at that time I would likely have found many more kindred spirits.

7. To what extent does your experience mirror that of your peers who share your position?

My biography has very little in common with the progressives I’ve encountered online. I’m on their side regarding the changes they want to see take place within the church as well as their political positions, but I’ve lived my whole life knowing that I would have to suppress a large number of my core beliefs no matter what church I choose to worship with. Liberal churches loathe exclusivism and my passion for the great Commission, while conservatives loathe feminism, evolution, and a historical reading of scripture.

Liberal Christians Have it Backwards

I’ve seen a number of variations of Susan Strouse’s   essay about her path to liberal Christianity. The moment of revelation for her came at a friend’s funeral:

“I attended a funeral and happened to sit next to a friend from my interfaith women’s group. The service was in an Episcopal church, and when the priest read the gospel, I heard the words I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me through the ears of my friend—who is Jewish. I myself have read that text at countless funerals, but this time I was appalled by its apparent exclusivism. I was profoundly disturbed by this and found myself unwilling to leave her sitting in the pew when it was time to go up for Communion.”

I empathize with her reservations. It’s always awkward to be in a social setting and realize that you or you friends are not welcome to partake in the ritual at hand. But let’s use a less extreme example. I have frequently found myself in attendance at Catholic Mass. Usually this has been because I was visiting Catholic friends or family members. The Catholic Church practices closed communion. I am not Catholic.

Now for the longest tine I didn’t understand the reasoning behind closed communion. I was a Christian, after all. How dare the Catholic Church deem me unworthy of the Eucharist? I confess that at times when I was a teenager I went ahead and took Catholic communion anyway because darn it, I was a believer. But as this blog explains there is a legitimate reasoning behind the Catholic practice of closed communion. I recommend that you read it if you have time, but the gist of it is that the Catholic understanding of communion is radically different than the Protestant understanding, and it is an insult to Catholic beliefs to be presumptive enough to partake in their sacred ritual if one does not accept their beliefs.

Strouse’s reasoning illustrates the biggest flaw I see in Liberal Christianity. Liberal Christians begin with a diagnosis that God is problematic, then prescribes a man made solution intended to accommodate society’s unease with God. Who God is and what God desires is irrelevant. What matters is what people want from God, and what desires they believe God should reasonably expect of them. In theory the end result would create the most pleasant and harmonious society.

The highest priority for Liberal Christians are societal rather than religious. Interfaith dialogue is the goal, and to attain it individual religious beliefs must be subservient to it. Interfaith dialogue cannot work unless people of all faiths water down their beliefs to make allowances for other possibilities.

So a Muslim cannot state that the Koran is the Word of God,  Christians cannot state that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jews cannot claim to be the Chosen People.Each of these beliefs is in conflict with one another, and while one can pay them lip service as possibilities, they cannot be taken seriously.  So while most of the debate over Interfaith dialogue comes from Christians, it is equally insulting to the closely held beliefs of people of other faiths.

In the case of controversial verses like John 14:6, there are two basic tacts Liberal Christians take. One is to dismiss the Bible outright as unreliable, and the other is to claim that it doesn’t really say what it appears to say. Strouse goes for the latter approach. I don’t want to focus here on proofs that her reasoning is in error, what I am concerned with is the “Man first/God second” dynamic I see within Liberal Christianity. There are many ways that it manifests itself , but all of them – whether we are debating Hell’s existence or the Ordination of women – begin with the wrong premise. This is not to say that all liberal conclusions are false. Rather, it is to say that correct answers are arrived at almost by accident.

The question should not be what kind of God would most effectively accommodate all beliefs and modern sensibilities. The question should be who is God, and what does He (or if you prefer, She) want?  If God wants everything you want and believes everything you believe, then there’s probably something off. We have to accept that God’s Will is not our will, and that mean sometimes we’ll disagree with God, perhaps even strongly disagree.