Posted by: Alex | May 21, 2011

The Younger Evangelicals: Community

Continuing our discussion of Robert E. Webber’s book The Younger Evangelicals.  We have examined the themes of “hermeneutics” and “incarnation” in Webber’s discussion of the “Emerging” movement among evangelicals.  Now, the third theme I want to discuss is “community.”  This has to do with how the “Emerging” movement views ecclessiology and its relationship to soteriology.

Webber points out that in large part this theme represents a reaction to earlier trends in evangelicalism, which seemingly downplayed the role of the community:

Modern evangelicalism has never had a very strong view of the corporate church.  It has suffered from the individualism of modernity and from the impact of both the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the experientialism of the romantic era.  For example, the early fundamentalist view of the church was shaped by the battle with the modernists.  They withdrew into a separatistic theology which was defined primarily by doctrinal purity… Evangelistic ecumenism shifted ecclesiology from the “purity of the church” to a view of the church shaped by its commitment to fulfill the Great Commission… Like the fundamentalist desire for purity of doctrine, the commitment of the broader evangelical church to the Great Commission is indeed part of what the church is all about.  But to reduce ecclesiology to the Great Commission alone is not adequately biblical.  The younger evangelical intuitively knows this and is in search of a deeper grasp of what it means to be the church… Younger evangelicals want to go beyond the reductionism of twentieth-century evangelicals to recover a more full understanding and experience of the church… Historic Christianity is a visible and earthed faith, not a Gnostic esoteric spiritualization of faith.  (107-109, emphasis his)

Webber wants to argue that the “Emerging” movement is in continuity with the development of Evangelical thought, and this historical narrative seems aimed at that to me.  The reaction of evangelicals to “liberalism” was separation and isolation, but that has gradually been seen as an overreaction and counter-productive, and the process of reengagement with society has led us to the point we are at now with the “Emerging” movement.  While I like that narrative, we must note that the response to it has been repeated warnings that the shift away from an emphasis on doctrinal purity in evangelicalism is a great danger, and thus this entire narrative is off on the wrong foot.

That response is partly fueled by the seeming adoption of “catholic” ideas about the role of the church in soteriology.  This has been especially prominent in recent years in the debate between advocates of the New Perspective on Paul, like NT Wright, and more “traditional” Reformed thinkers like John Piper.  Hopefully we will read some of that debate later this summer.  Webber is writing before that debate reached the popular level that is has now, but he still notes some of the mixing of ecclesiology and soteriology that seems to accompany this new emphasis on community:

The divine/human expression of God’s presence in the world bears a soteriological dimension.  Cyprian expressed this in the third century when he wrote, “He who hath not the church for his mother hath not God for his father.”  By this he meant that those who are in Christ are also in the church.  Like Cyprian, the younger evangelical sees the church as much more than an association of like-minded people.  The church is where the Spirit of God is forming a people who are the expression of God’s redeeming work in the world.  They are the people in whom the dwelling of God is forming a new creation.  They are God’s witnesses in the world; they witness God’s victory over the powers of evil (Eph. 3:10) and are a sign of the ultimate reconciliation of all things (Rom. 8:18-22).  For this reason the church does not have an eschatology, it is an eschatological people.  (113, emphasis his)

Here we can see that this view of the community is clearly tied to the theme of “incarnation” that we discussed yesterday.  In so far as the community is seen as the fulfillment of this “embodied presence” I find Webber’s notion of community intriguing and appealing.

However, one of the weak points of Webber’s presentation is his attempt to tie this into a historical narrative that is clearly idealized and romanticized.  This narrative has to do with the “pre-Constantinian” situation vs. the “Modern” situation for the church, with the argument being that postmodern evangelicals are reclaiming the “pre-Constantinian” paradigm.  To excerpt a few examples from Webber’s argument:

The Constantinian church joined the political arm of its society to shore up values and to achieve the good life.  As secularization occurred, Christianity retreated into an inward and personal faith.  In recent years the established church has become a place for privatized “me” religion, a therapeutic religion of “feel good” Christianity.  The younger evangelicals assert the church is not a private but a public faith.  It is a community of people who represent the “new creation.”  (117)

This quote is interesting because it uses some of the same rhetoric used by Hansen in Young, Restless, Reformed to describe the response to previous evangelicalism that is taking place in the Neo-Reformed movement.  There seems to be from both sides a conception that evangelicalism has gone through a theological dry spell and that a renewed emphasis on theology is needed to renew the movement.  So while both sides approach that theology very differently, they share a common motivation.  What is also interesting here, though, is that the historical narrative is being used to suggest that the pre-Constantinian church, and now the postmodern church following its lead, is a public faith which stands apart form the “political arm” of society.  I’m not convinced of that, I think its more likely that it stands apart from a particular “political arm” which has been more associated with evangelicalism in the past 50 years.  Another excerpt:

The Constantinian church is characterized by its professional clergy who have been trained in acceptable seminaries and passed through examinations conducted by their peers…  The pre-Constantinian view of ministry, recovered by the Reformers but since lost is most Protestant churches, is the priesthood of all believers.  Every man and woman is a minster… In a postmodern church it’s not “everyone for herself” but “everyone for each other.”  (120, emphasis his)

The first thing to say is that I don’t know any major leader in the “Emerging” movement who has also not been highly educated at prominent seminaries.  There is even now an “Emerging” seminary- Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle (where a good friend of mine is soon going to begin a master’s degree in counseling).  So this may be a bit of a romanticized picture that Webber is painting.  Still, there is definitely an emphasis in the “Emerging” movement on the participation of the people in the life of the church (which usually has a small staff, but this may be more a product of most of these churches being small start ups than a conscious decision to keep the staff small for theological reasons).  One more excerpt to a similar effect:

In the Constantinian church the local church sent missionaries.  the church was an agency committed to provide money.  In the pre-Constantinian and now postmodern paradigms, the church does not “send” missionaries nor does it have  “a missionary program.”  Instead it is a mission, no matter where it is geographically.  (121)

This goes back to the theme of “incarnation” which we discussed yesterday.  I will say that I don’t know that this is unique to the “Emerging” movement.  While many “Emerging” churches have this mentality- I think in particular of the church started by some great friends of mine in Memphis, Nations Church– there are many “Neo-Reformed” congregations that are taking the same view of their role in the community- see, for example, the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham.  Perhaps Webber would like to argue that both of these churches and the movements are in some sense reflective of the postmodern situation, but I’m not sure Brook Hills would like to be labeled postmodern.

Essentially, I think that a view of the Christian community which flows from the notion of the Church as the continued embodiment of the incarnation is one that can be very compelling, and that certainly can be grounded in the thought of the early church.  I would, however, be cautious about how much we simplify historical narratives to bolster a particular theological point.  I think Webber is guilty of some idealizing and romanticizing of the ancient tradition, and while I like the conclusion he wants to make, I think the argument may be problematic.

What do you think?  Does an incarnational model of the church community seem compelling to you?  How much should historical narratives shape our theology?



  1. […] Evangelicals.  We have examined the themes of “hermeneutics,” “incarnation,” and “community” in Webber’s discussion of the “Emerging” movement among evangelicals.  The fourth theme […]

  2. […] a movement rooted in postmodernism which seeks to “live” the gospel by being an incarnational community rather than a group which adheres to a clearly defined doctrinal statement.  As such, hermeneutics […]

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