A postemergent comment on Rhett Smith’s comments

7:12 pm | Emergent Church

The Emergent No blog recently posted a transcript of Absolutely Not! A critical look at the emerging church movement, a lecture delivered by Phil Johnson at the 2006 Shepherds’ Conference. In my opinion, Phil Johnson does an excellent job of providing a valuable critique of the emergent movement. To put it simply, he gets it. He’s done his homework, and despite attempts to distance him from the emerging conversation, he is squarely in the middle of the discourse, giving him a legitimate vantage point from which to express his perspective.

Rhett Smith posted a response to Phil’s session on his blog. I don’t intend to provide a point for point discussion of Rhett Smith’s discussion, but I will comment on a few points.

Full disclosure requires that I discuss my own personal involvement with college ministry. Since 1997, I have been involved on a purely volunteer basis with a variety of college ministries at the University of Texas at Dallas, including Quest, college ministry through my local church, and more recently with Campus Crusade and International Students, Inc. I have also interacted with other student leaders of college ministries at other Texas schools, including folks from UNT, TAMU, Duke, UT-Austin, and Texas Tech and a diverse body of organizations such the Baptist Student Ministries, InterVarsity, Chi Alpha, and the Navigators. I have had firsthand experience with a wide variety of apologetic approaches, including classical apologetics, presuppositional, and a variety of postmodern methodologies, and have developed a strong appreciation that no one approach alone can fit all the diverse needs of post-modern and ultra-modern secular campuses. I have seen many ministries experiment with a variety of styles in aesthetics, worship, teaching styles, and have seen first-hand that experimentation often fails. I have also seen times when students, though paying lip service to the desire to grow and be challenged, fall into apathetic ruts from which it can be nearly impossible for them to move.

My first comment is with regard to Thomas Kuhn and paradigm shifts. While old paradigms fall out of favor when they begin to suffer from an excess of blind spots, new paradigms are routinely affected by blind spots of their own. Phil’s comments provide a valuable insight into what the blind spots of the emerging church are. For my part, I think there are many good and beneficial aspects to the emerging church, but these beneficial things are neither unique to nor distinctive of the emerging church. Likewise it is unwise to turn a blind eye to the problems of the emerging church. It is easy to overlook the blemishes that exist in one’s own prized paradigm; it takes humility to acknowledge and address those blind spots honestly. My goal to the best of my limited ability is to take the best aspects of the emerging church and avoid the numerous problems that the emerging conversation is creating for itself. If I allow myself to consider my own view as a paradigm shift, perhaps my postemergent views will represent a Calvin to an emergent Luther. Who can say? But if the emerging movement dismisses, marginalizes, ignores, or continues to treat critics of the emerging church uncharitably, they will be weaker for their loss. As the Proverbs note, it is better to be rebuked by a wise man than praised by a fool. The problem is that far too often we only want to hear praise, but chafe at rebuke.

Rhett commented “Phil and his blogging allegiance would become squeamish at the thought of the ‘emerging church’ being a catalyst for reform in the church, and I’m sure that would also work vice-versa.” Based upon his past blog posts, it is safe to say that Phil holds to the reform doctrine of Semper Reformanda. From my vantage point, it is pretty clear that Phil puts his belief into practice, even turning the critical eye to his own theology. After all, Phil wants to burn down Evangelical churches - this seems to be a pretty radical passion for reformation, if you ask me.

Rhett also asks “Can one not have a conversation and dialogue with people who hold other views? Can one not respect and admire and think that other people’s views are worthy, without necessarily buying into all of it?” My concern in most of the emerging dialogue is that voices of disagreement are dismissed, marginalized, ignored, or treated uncharitably. Let me ask the question this way: Can an emergent not have a conversation and dialogue with people who hold other views? Can one not respect and admire and think that non-emergent views are worthy, without necessarily buying into all of them?

Regarding contempt for authority, Rhett states: “I think ‘emergent’ has less to do with ‘contempt for authority’ than fear that the powerbrokers of evangelicalism and American theology could one day be possibly usurped.” I think this statement itself show a contempt for authority - the authorities are merely powerbrokers with their own selfish interests. How cynical and uncharitable is this statement? How does this not breed contempt for authority? “There would be a lot of pastors without jobs as they take up ‘tent ministries’ alongside of their church work.” What of people like me who actually work professionally to support themselves and their ministry work, whose only interest is passion for Christ? In my experience, most of the real ministry work is done by people who work to support themselves.

Rhett also expresses concerns about women in ministry: “The exclusion of women in ministry, from the pastorate down. I see that as a denial of the clarity and perspicuity of Scripture.” For my part, I don’t see throngs of women being excluded from ministry work. Rather the opposite - it is impossible to keep women from exercising their gifts and ministering to the body of Christ. Complementarian in their beliefs, most women minister to people in ways that don’t draw attention to themselves or seek a position of status. And, God blesses their work, and the body is stronger for it. If there are throngs of women who are being excluded from ministry, why aren’t there more outspoken women prominently visible in the emerging conversation?

Finally, I’d like to suggest that Rhett’s use of Miroslav Volf misses the point. If sets are fuzzy, we should realize that both good and bad aspects exist in the emerging conversation, since by necessity both good and bad aspects exist in the fuzzy set of the emerging conversation. Is there not value in working to bring clarity to these matters? Bringing clarity to fuzziness and ambiguity involves bringing a picture sharply into focus, often exposing the lines and observing new categories as they come into view. If clarity is the goal of dialogue, then we should be thanking Phil Johnson for sharpening the focus for all of us, rather than chastising him for his effort to bring valuable insight into important aspects of the emerging discussion.

In conclusion, I do believe that a discussion would be a great way to identify problems and find solutions. However, a discussion by necessity involves multiple parties, otherwise the “discussion” will in reality be nothing more than a series of Emergent Monologues that exclude perspectives that disagree. Phil Johnson has done a great service to the emerging church by helping bring clarity to problems that do exist. Emergent folks should be humbly appreciative of the fact that Phil has invested the time and effort to embrace the conversation even when he disagrees with certain aspects of it.




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