The Emerging Church Movement’s Quasi-Political Kingdom Theology
Mathematician Eric Temple Bell said, “Euclid taught me that without assumptions there is no proof. Therefore, in any argument, examine the assumptions.” The Emerging Church movement has many assumptions to examine because it buys into popular cultural notions of right and wrong, truth and error. These popular cultural notions, however, have been shaped and molded by philosophical influences decades and centuries in advance. It is precisely these notions that become the assumptions under which popular culture operates today. Yesterday’s philosophies are today’s politics and the Emerging Church movement is a political movement to be sure.
Indeed, one of the difficulties in examining contemporary religious movements is the numerous philosophical influences involved. The Emerging Church movement exhibits traits of many of the following philosophies: communism, existentialism, postmodernism, relativism, subjectivism, pragmatism, humanism, and phenomenology to mention a few. These philosophies have their own interrelatedness that is difficult enough to discern. The task becomes proportionately more difficult as one introduces a religious element. However, I believe that, like mining for ore, we may be able to trace some nuggets in the stream of current activity to the originating vein of thought. In this article, we will look specifically at the Emerging Church’s philosophies that underlie their political agenda.
Emerging Church proponents are very interesting in Postmodernism. This is really a bad place for them to begin. Nevertheless, in order to understand Emerging Church thinking, we must understand Postmodernism. In Christian theology, Postmodernism characterizes its focus as shifting from a traditionally ecclesiastic one to a primarily Christological one. What they mean by “Christology,” however, is not the same as in non-postmodern theological studies. How so? Non-postmodern Christology focuses upon Jesus as divine, provoking a Theocentric (God-centered) view of Christianity. Postmodern Christology, however, deemphasizes Jesus’ divinity by regarding the historicity of the resurrection as irrelevant. This results in an anthropocentric (man-centered) view of Christianity.
John Milbank, a Postmodernist Theologian told Time Magazine that discussions about the historical resurrection have “no place” in his theology (Biema). Emerging Church leaders reflect these concerns both in their assumption of Postmodernism and in their stated concerns. Brian McLaren is one such leader. “I have become convinced that a generous orthodoxy appropriate for our postmodern world will have to grow out of the experience of the post-Christian, post-secular people of the cities of the twenty-first century” (92). Following consistently with this epistemology, McLaren declares, “We must continually be aware that the ‘old, old story’ may not be the ‘true, true story’” (294). If McLaren simply means by this statement that we must renew our affirmation in the absolute truthfulness of scripture to the detriment of denominational traditionalism, we would agree. However, this is not so clear. McLaren’s Postmodern assumptions cause us to question whether he agrees with Milbank in rejecting discussion of the historicity of the resurrection. It seems that he does.
The implication of such a rejection necessarily entails an avoidance of a discussion of the divinity of Christ, for the resurrection stands as this doctrine’s central proof. A lack of emphasis upon the divinity of Christ entails a stronger emphasis being placed upon the humanity of Christ. For Postmodern Christians, Christology becomes not a question of the deity of Christ, but rather, his humanity. As a result, Christianity becomes an anthropocentric (man-centered) religion. This is reflected by Maria Clara Bingemer also who recognizes the “anthropocentric character” of contemporary Christianity.
[Contemporary] Christian thinking, discourse, and action . . . have transferred the central axis of Christianity from the previously mentioned ecclesiocentrism to a more accentuated christocentrism, which in reflecting on the person of Jesus Christ and his project, searches for what is fundamental in Christian identity. Perhaps because of this emphasis, the anthropocentric characteristics of Christianity have been accentuated. The human being has been the center of theological and pastoral concerns of the Church, and it is in the name of human growth, development, and wholeness that the most significant Christian movements of the last decades have been formed and brought together. This anthropocentrism finds its base in Christology, in Jesus Christ, Lord of the Church and Redeemer of humanity (85-86 Emp. added).
Another name for anthropocentrism is humanism: placing humans at the center of concern and focusing upon humanity’s problems (as defined by humanity) as the primary work that we, mankind, must do. God may be acknowledged in a sort of patronizing fashion, but the praxis of such a focus is humanistic and anthropocentric. Such is the attitude of Humanist Manifesto II written in 1973: “We believe, however, that traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place revelation, God, ritual, or creed above human needs and experience do a disservice to the human species.” This entails that man’s primary responsibilities are not in his personal relationship with God, but rather, in his personal relationship with the rest of humanity. This shift of relationship implies a different personal ethic of behavior. The individual’s concern is no longer how to love God in holiness and purity as one who sustains a personal relationship with God, but rather, how he can be more socially conscious of society’s problems and work toward solutions in his relationship with his fellow man. As a result, sin against God takes a backseat to sin against man.
In this anthropocentric (man-centered) ethic, society arbitrates right and wrong because the daily problems of the culture end up being the problems with which the individual must concern himself. “Salvation” depends upon his anthropocentrism: his ability to be concerned about and work toward the solution of humanity’s issues (as defined by humanity). Personal ethical choices become matters of opinion because they do not relate to solving the problems of humanity as a whole. “Sin” becomes one’s lack of involvement in working toward humanistic solutions. This means that personal issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, take a back burner to cultural issues such as poverty and social justice.
Emerging Church practitioner Scot McKnight sympathizes with this ideology:
I have publicly aligned myself with the emerging movement. What attracts me is its soft postmodernism (or critical realism) and its praxis/missional focus. I also lean left in politics. I tell my friends that I have voted Democrat for years for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think the Democratic Party is worth a hoot, but its historic commitment to the poor and to centralizing government for social justice is what I think government should do. I don’t support abortion–in fact, I think it is immoral. I believe in civil rights, but I don’t believe homosexuality is God’s design.
For all of his support for social issues, McKnight recognizes a danger. He says:
Sometimes, however, when I look at emerging politics, I see Walter Rauschenbusch, the architect of the social gospel. Without trying to deny the spiritual gospel, he led his followers into the social gospel. The results were devastating for mainline Christianity’s ability to summon sinners to personal conversion. The results were also devastating for evangelical Christianity, which has itself struggled to maintain a proper balance.
As McKnight points out, the result of such anthropocentric thinking implies a church organization that is more concerned about social issues than personal conversion. As such, the church becomes less an institution concerned with the eternal salvation of immortal souls, but an institution concerned with the temporal preservation and quality of human life on earth. Such reduces the doctrine of the church to a Quasi-Political Kingdom Theology closer akin to contemporary Liberation Theology.
In the remainder of this article I would like to contrast the Biblical perspective and what Christians must do to combat these efforts.
First, we must renew our commitment to the teaching of the historical resurrection of Jesus. The apostles declared plainly that the resurrection implies personally responsibility on the part of the individual. In Acts 2:32, 36, Peter says, “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. . . . Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” The resurrection is our assurance that Jesus is the Lord. The resurrection is also our assurance that He will judge each individual personally one day. In Acts 17:30-31 Paul declared to the anthropocentric Athenians, “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.” The resurrection proves that the individual’s responsibility is first and foremost to his Lord and God, Jesus.
Second, because the most important relationship of the individual is with his Lord and God, this means that His life must be theocentric (God centered), not anthropocentric (man centered). The apostle Paul declared the preeminence of Christ in Colossians 1:16-18 “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.” No other relationship supersedes the relationship of the individual with the Lord because He is preeminent over all others. When the believer prioritizes and sustains this personal relationship he receives blessings: citizenship in the heavenly kingdom (Col.1:13), redemption, forgiveness (14), peace (20), reconciliation (21), holiness (22). This theocentric relationship addresses the individual’s problems (sins) as a necessary consequence of maintaining a loving relationship with the Lord because such a relationship motivates the praxis of the theocentrist’s life.
Third, addressing the problems (sins) of individual persons through the priority of their personal relationship with God facilitates addressing the greater problems of society as a whole. It is individual and personal sin that is the ultimate cause of all society’s ills. When each individual recognizes his responsibility to maintain a right relationship with a loving God, the condition of society improves. God demands of individuals that they love Him first, but that they love one another also (Matthew 22:37-40). A man who is concerned with keeping himself in the love of God will obey God’s command to love his fellow man. As already noted, his motivation for such obedience is his own relationship with God (Philippians 2:12).
Fourth, it is the responsibility of the church to address the problems (sins) that each individual faces in light of his responsibility to God. The church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). The church is the instrument that God uses for making personal application of His word in the lives of each individual and ensuring that such individuals remain faithful to Him (Acts 20:28). This means that the church has the authorized role of resolving society’s ill on a long term basis through the teaching and preaching of the message of the gospel (Matthew 28:18-20). Because the church has this primary role, and because the eternal salvation of the individual is at stake, there are physical consequences that ought not be resolved for individuals who refuse to obey God’s word and maintain fellowship with the church (Romans 16:17-18, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15).
Fifth, the government has no authority to interfere with the church’s efforts in this regard and government social welfare constitutes interference. When the government provides assistance to individuals who will not prioritize God in their life, making their personal salvation of utmost importance, the government undermines the consequences that God desires for these individuals to suffer as a result of their disobedience to Him. The sole role of government is to punish the evil-doer and to support those who do what is right (Romans 13:1-6, 1 Peter 2:13-14). The Christian has the obligation to support and be obedient to government in these areas, but beyond that, a Christian’s involvement in supporting government undermines God’s plan for man’s salvation.
The church has a divine obligation to teach personal and individual salvation through emphasizing the priority of the individual’s relationship with God! Any and all efforts that deemphasize that relationship as being first and foremost, undermine God’s plan for man’s salvation and cause souls to be lost. The Emerging Church’s emphasis upon political social involvement where man’s physical concerns are placed as a priority over man’s spiritual concerns is such an effort. Let us resolve to maintain a theocentric (God-centered) perspective as opposed to an anthropocentric (man-centered) one and may God help us to place Him in the highest place within each of our lives. Society will be blessed in our so doing.
American Humanist Association. Humanist Manifesto II. 22 May 2009 <http://www.americanhumanist.org/who_we_are/about_humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_II>
Bell, Eric Temple. in H. Eves. Return to Mathematical Circles. Boston: Prindle, Weber and Schmidt, 1988.
Biema, David Van. “God As a Postmodern.” Time Magazine. Sunday, December 09, 2001. 15 May 2009. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,187579,00.html>
Bingemer, Maria Clara. “A Post-Christian and Postmodern Christianism” in Liberation Theologies, Postmodernity, and the Americas. Florence: Routledge, 1997. Pp. 83-94.
McKnight, Scot. “Five Streams of the Emerging Church.” Christianity Today 51.2 (Feb. 2007): 34-39. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Scarborough-Phillips Library, Austin, TX. 15 May 2009 <https://ezproxy.stedwards.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.stedwards.edu:5000/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=23914494&site=ehost-live>.
McLaren, Brian D. A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2006.
 See Jody Apple’s article in this volume.