Revisioning the Church

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 9, 2006

Ed Stetzer, church planting guru, has recently written an article in Baptist Press called "Understanding the Emerging Church." I think his summary of three different streams of the emerging movement are pretty helpful, especially for those new to the emerging church conversation.  However, there is one area in which I take issue.  Below are pieces from his article, with my commentary.


My own observation as one who speaks at some events classified as “emerging” is
that there are three broad categories of what is often called “the emerging
church.” Oddly enough, I think I can fairly say that most in the emerging
conversation would agree with my assessments about the “types” of emerging
leaders and churches — and just differ with my conclusions…

The first type of emerging leaders and churches are what Stetzer calls "relevants":

…Yes, I made up the word. Sorry about the grammar. However, it expresses an
important idea. There are a good number of young (and not so young) leaders who
some classify as “emerging” that really are just trying to make their worship,
music and outreach more contextual to emerging culture. Ironically, while some
may consider them liberal, they are often deeply committed to biblical
preaching, male pastoral leadership and other values common in conservative
evangelical churches…

I’ve been in some discussions with friends about whether or not these people are really "emerging." I’m not really interested in figuring out who is "in" and who is "out," but I think it is understandable.  Many in the emerging church are troubled by "relevants" who keep with the same way of doing church–an in so doing keep most of the embedded dysfunctions–but merely slap a new label on it and call it "emerging." Many within emerging want the movement to stand for something theologically deeper than that. 

The second type are the "reconstructionists":

The reconstructionists think that the current form of church is frequently
irrelevant and the structure is unhelpful. Yet, they typically hold to a more
orthodox view of the Gospel and Scripture. Therefore, we see an increase in
models of church that reject certain organizational models, embracing what are
often called “incarnational” or “house” models. They are responding to the fact
that after decades of trying fresh ideas in innovative churches, North America
is less churched, and those that are churched are less committed…

Reconstructionists realize that a change in packaging won’t do.  It has been interesting to me how receptive folks have been to reconstruction.  I think most serious Christians in this country know that the Church has got some serious problems.  However, types 1 and 2 seem to both be driven by a sense of pragmatism.  And both seem to assume that evangelical theology has been pretty well figured out (except for a few key arguments), while ecclesiology is completely up for grabs.  Most evangelicals I know think ecclesiology is basically the fluid outer layer of a static set of beliefs.  That way of thinking has always frustrated me, but for different reasons.  I used to think that ecclesiology was supposed to be set too.  I would never have said that everything was static, but I would have said that it was "set"–maybe in the way jello "sets" the shape is there, but there is some room for "jiggle." 

Much of the concern has been addressed at those I call revisionists. Right
now, many of those who are revisionists are being read by younger leaders and
perceived as evangelicals. They are not — at least according to our
evangelical understanding of Scripture. We significantly differ from them
regarding what the Bible is, what it teaches and how we should live it in our
churches. I don?t hate them, question their motives and I won?t try to
mischaracterize their beliefs. But, I won?t agree with them.

This is where I start having problems with Stetzer.  I’ve read a good handful of books about evangelicalism.  Not one of them has had the same definition of what an "evangelical" is.  I’d like to know what definition he’s using. 

Revisionists are questioning (and in some cases denying) issues like the nature
of the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, the complementarian
nature of gender, and the nature of the Gospel itself. This is not new — some
mainline theologians quietly abandoned these doctrines a generation ago. The
revisionist emerging church leaders should be treated, appreciated and read as
we read mainline theologians — they often have good descriptions, but their
prescriptions fail to take into account the full teaching of the Word of God.

There is SO much I could go into here.  He mentions a handful of doctrines that could each warrant a doctoral thesis.  Let me just say that the nature of the atonement, the reality of hell, the complementarian nature of gender, and even the Gospel itself have never been nailed down effectively by all those who would call themselves "evangelical." Stetzer seems to have a narrower definition of "evangelical"–maybe he should say "reformed conservative evangelical."

The penal substitutionary view of the atonement has been over-emphasized, due in part to the strong emphasis on forensics within early Reformation systematic theology.  What Jesus accomplished on the Cross is multifaceted and has had lots of interpretations over the past 2000 years–even with some very conservative, biblically-driven, thinkers. And to address his other doctrinal concerns: I believe there is a hell, but I don’t think Jesus’ teachings on hell (nor those of John in Revelation) are so clear and free from symbolism to develop an iron-clad doctrine of hell.  And I never knew being a complementarian was a pre-requisite for being an evangelical.  I’ll talk more about the Gospel later.

Does that mean we cannot learn from them? Certainly not. I read mainline
theologians like Marcus Borg and George Lindbeck like others in the past read
Karl Barth — good thinkers, but deeply wrong on issues I hold as important. I
read many emerging church writers the same way. They ask good questions, but I
am driven to Scripture for the answers.

…To be in this conversation, we need to think
biblically and critically. We should journey and partner with the “relevants,”
seeking to make the Gospel understandable in emerging culture. We can and
should enter into dialogue with reconstructionists — learning, discussing and
applying together what Scripture teaches about church.

But, we can and must speak prophetically to revisionists that, yes, we know the
current system is not impacting the culture as it should — but the change we
need is more Bible, more maturity, more discernment and more missional
engagement, not an abandonment of the teachings of scripture about church,
theology and practice. Every group that left these basics has ended up walking
away from the faith and then, in a great twist of irony, is soon seen as
irrelevant to the world they tried to reach.

This is an important moment in the emerging church. Many “emerging”
evangelicals are distancing themselves from the revisionist leaders. Papers
have been presented, publishing relationships have been altered, and many in
the blogosphere are questioning the ecumenical nature of new partnerships.
That?s good. Let?s affirm the good, look to the Scriptures for answers to the
hard questions, and, yes, let?s graciously disagree when others hold views
contrary to our best scriptural understanding of God, Bible and church.

I understand why Stezer puts revisionists in with non-evangelical mainline thinkers.  And I believe that Stetzer’s tone is very irenic and his statements are gracious.  But they are also incredibly bound by presuppositions.  He never explains what he means when he says "the Gospel" but he does believe that many revisionists are challenging or rejecting it.  I assume what he means is the Gospel which hinges upon: Christ’s substitutionary atonement, the Gospel of foreign imputed righteousness and legal justification before God. 

My difficulty is that I have serious biblical and theological problems with how the traditional way that this version of the Gospel is articulated.  How is it that I can disagree with these seemingly rock-solid biblical doctrines while I take the Bible very seriously?  I don’t mentally disregard those passages which I find unhelpful in order to construct my own version of the Gospel–though I must do that, or I’d agree with him. Or maybe it is that I am confused or misled.  But I think the truth is that Stetzer and I are entering into exegesis with a different set of assumptions. 

According to Stetzer, I am not an evangelical.  I have some friends who’ve thrown aside the category of "evangelical" because they believe it is unhelpful.  But I still would like to be considered "in."

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4 Responses to “Revisioning the Church”

  1. toddh on January 9th, 2006 8:54 pm

    Great points. That threefold description by Stetzer is helpful in understanding the movement. I think I have run across more of the “relevants” which has turned me off a bit. I think you’re right on in showing how Stetzer has a pretty narrow view of what an evangelical is too.

  2. blorge on January 11th, 2006 2:34 am

    why exactly do you still want to be considered “in”? What benefit do you see? How does it fit within your structures to see yourself as “in”?

    I’m not saying that to be rude, but I think I’ve pretty much given up on wanting to be “in” but it’s more because I define it rather narrowly as well, and have rejected the narrower group. Maybe that’s not fair, but that’s where I’m at.

  3. Van S on January 11th, 2006 9:16 am


    I do think you define “evangelicalism” more narrowly than I perhaps do. It is important for me to be free to be “in” because it is my religious tradition, and most of my Christian friends are within this tradition. The denomination in which I am a church planter is an evangelical tradition. I attend an evangelical seminary. I am not exclusively evangelical, but I am an evangelical. Maybe I should take the step and call myself a “neo” evangelical, but I don’t like when folks come along, like Stetzer, and draw the “circle” more tightly than most other evangelicals and tell me that I can’t be a part of the fellowship anymore.

  4. esp?ritu paz on January 12th, 2006 12:52 pm

    I think it is a matter that is larger than “not liking” when we are disfellowshipped for this or that clause. The disfellowshipped of all people should be wooing those with eliminating power for a larger purpose. We can add more meaning to “being evangelical” by demonstration of character beyond the expectation of those who have the eliminating voice. Often it is too easy to cut away and not take seriously the criticisms someone might level, however, I believe it is an opportunity for character-shaping. It seems this author at a gutt level would be gratified if some of us “relevants” would take him up on his “invitation” here. Perhaps, we could invite him and his cronies to the blog. Dialogue goes both ways. Our God given purpose would be to seek the intergenerational unification of the church, not the energy-draining tear-down and rebuilding we currently see.

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