Beyond Evangelical? (Part 1)

Post-Modernity

The spirit of this age – at least in the West – is post-modernity, which views reality as subjective and truth (if it even exists) as individual and relative.

It is not all bad, but neither is it Christ!

Steeped in a post-modern culture, Western Christians are increasingly re-defining Jesus through post-modern sensibilities that we’ve uncritically inherited from the world.

As a result, we focus on a personal, highly individualistic relationship with Him – which is often driven more by our own needs, our own hurts, and our own insecurities than by Jesus Himself.

And so the primary focus of our faith becomes “me and my relationship with Jesus” or “our own little clique’s relationship with Jesus”.

Existential Pietism

This belief that Jesus is all about subjective relationships is rooted in existentialism and pietism.

Like so many other “-isms”, existentialism and pietism have taken different forms throughout church history, only to emerge and die and then re-emerge time and again – but always with the claim of being new and novel. But where existentialism retreats from anything that is not about a personal experience of Jesus, pietism says that a personal experience of Jesus is the answer to all that ails us, the church, and society.

There is seldom anything new under the sun – especially when it comes to fringe theologies – and the spiffy new post-modern garb of today’s existentialism and pietism bears neat sounding designer labels like “Beyond Evangelical” (with more of an emphasis on the existentialism) and “Emergent” (which is heavier on the pietism).

Like most great errors in church history, existentialism and pietism are rooted in enough truth to be very alluring. But truth out of balance can be the most deceptive of all.

In fact, Jesus is both subjectively relational (i.e., as the Living Word, He relates to me, speaks to me, and dwells within me personally) and objectively propositional (i.e., He defines and proclaims absolute truth through His written word as Lord over all creation – independent of my sensitivities and opinions!).

The problem, however, is that post-modern Christians want the subjectively relational Jesus, but seem to discount – if not deny – the objectively propositional Jesus.

They do this by wanting to avoid the offense of propositional declarations, standards, doctrines and creeds (even though their own stance is driven by theology and creed, but just not a fully Biblical theology or creed!) – or by being critical of those who dare inject God’s objective truths into the great debates of our age.

But like two sides of a coin, you can’t authentically have one Jesus without knowing the other Jesus. And any attempt to promote one side of Jesus to the neglect of the other can’t help but become gross error.

Which Jesus?

Christians steeped in post-modernity, whether under the banner of “Beyond Evangelical” or “Emergent” or whatever other “us” verses “them” label is in vogue today (but gone tomorrow), need to be asked: Are you of Christ, or of this age?

If you embrace a solely relational Jesus, and deny or discount that He also relates to us and to His creation propositionally through objective truth that applies to and defines all reality, then you are not of Christ as He has authentically revealed Himself to be.

You see, Jesus cares deeply about me, but He is more than about me. He created all and thus defines all. And through His Kingdom, He asserts His authority and Lordship over all aspects of that creation – which is more than just me!

The authentic Jesus relates to me personally and subjectively, but He bids me to become a disciple who submits to His objective Lordship so that I can advance His kingdom – not only relationally, but also propositionally. And I do so as I increasingly understand, affirm and apply His objective Lordship – borne of His redemptive life in me – to all spheres of life, culture and history.

See Part 2 of Beyond Evangelical?

~ Jim

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14 responses

  1. Hi Jim,

    I personally wouldn’t say that Emergent Christians, Beyond Evangelical or post-modern Christians want the subjectively relational Jesus, but seem to discount – if not deny – the objectively propositional Jesus. It is a danger, a very real one, that Christians who view the world through the postmodern worldview are and will continue to be tempted with. But, in my opinion, it would be fairer to say that this is a serious danger that we need to be aware of, combat and renounce if found. But I certainly would begin to imply that all or even the majority have fallen into this trap.

    There are plenty of Emergent and Beyond Evangelicals who are clearly aware of these issues and don’t succumb to this “spirit of the age” any more than all Evangelicals succumbed to the non-supernatural materialism that comes with viewing the world through the Enlightenment. I would suggest that most Emergent Christians would say there are absolute truths revealed in the Scriptures. They would just be less prone to announce definitively that they have the whole shebang figured out.

    The Enlightenment was the underlying worldview of Evangelicalism just as much as postmodernism is the underlying spirit of the age of Emergent Christians. To succumb to either pagan worldview, Enlightenment or postmodernism, is to make a serious error. I would suggest that we not be too quick to view the current reality too dualistically. Again, in my opinion, it is wiser to talk of trends, tendencies and potentials that clear definitive statements. Humans behavior, either individually and particularly in societies at the level of worldview, does not lend itself to dichotomistic or dualistic definitive statements.

    One last statement. Postmodernism, with all its faults, is still closer to the worldview revealed in the Bible than is the Enlightenment. Both are pagan to the core. Both are dangerous, but if I were forced to pick, which I am not, I would strongly choose postmodernism over the Enlightenment, which has almost nothing in common with the worldview revealed in the Bible All this for what it is worth.

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    • Ross —

      Just to be very clear, my blog does not embrace the enlightenment or evangelicalism. There were clear problems with both. Yet the Beyond Evangelicalism and Emergent movements are, out of reaction to those problems, falling into their own traps. I am seeking to avoid all of these either/or dichotomies that proponents in both camps keep trying to push.

      The problem with the enlightenment was not propositional truth, but the view that reason alone could arrive at that truth. Jesus, however, through our reason and also through revelation, is able to speak objective truth – both subjectively and propositionally.

      I think you are being too charitable with the Beyond Evangelical mentality. As I interact with that crowd, I see lots of unhealthy Christians who tend to be very insular, introspective and anemic. Studies on the “organic” church in the West – of which the Beyond Evangelical movement is closely identified – bear me out.

      In the West, this very subjective and non-propopositional reaction to the problems of the enlightenment has borne bad fruit. Again, the data backs me up. See, for example, http://www.simplechurch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Review-2011.pdf.

      I deeply believe in the main tenants of the “organic” church community – which involve open participatory fellowship meetings, flat leadership, and expressing Jesus in us as we minister one to another. But I am alarmed at the status of that community here in the West, and find it interesting that our “organic” problems don’t seem to exist as much outside the West where post-modernity is not present.

      For more on the enlightenment and post-modernity, see my slide presentation http://crossroadjunction.com/2010/11/12/the-great-divide/.

      BTW, congratulations on your new book, Viral Jesus (available at http://www.amazon.com/Viral-Jesus-Recovering-contagious-Gospel/dp/1616384859/, if you don’t mind the plug!), and thanks for the complementary copy you sent me. I’m hearing good things about it, hoping to get to it in a week or so, and anxiously look forward to reading what you have to say.

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  3. Jim, what you write about is something our organic/participatory assembly keeps batting around. We’ve drawn strength and insight from other brothers and sisters and assemblies (of all sorts) around us; we have folks who are a regular part of our assembly who also still participate somewhat regularly inside different IC’s. We desire for each other to follow Jesus, in His way and time, taking hold of His truths and internalizing their meaning as His shepherding of that soul dictates.

    If there were not objective Truth to be known — as well as relational Grace — John could have simply skipped the first chapter of his Gospel and most of the letters he wrote under the Inspiration. And, certainly, we’d have to discard that propositional rabbinic Paul. Most pertinently we’d have to discard all the absolutist statements Jesus is recorded as making that leave one in no doubt that He objectively and definitely and propositionally AND relationally knew Himself to be: the Lamb of God; the Son of God; the suffering Servant of God, and One who, when you’d seen Him, was the image of God made visible to you on earth; the Resurrection and the Life.

    We keep reminding one another to keep looking to Him as faith-starter and life-finisher, encouraged and edified by our interpersonal interactions, affirming the Truth-and-Grace He reveals to each of us, in Scriptures and also as we experience Him in our daily lives, as pertinent in community and a source of hope and faith.

    Our assembly is trying to live lightly outside the structures lots of folks (IC or OC or ‘new-Christian-kid-on-the-block’ or ‘beyond’ whatever) keep insisting are necessary; we keep trusting Him to make of us what we ought to be. We are content, for we see the Love of God and the Truth of God spreading beyond us every week, catching the hearts of others we have prayed would turn to Him.

    Those He chooses to bring to Himself via our undertakings are not always the ones we set out to find or bring; He has a plan for our good, showing His glory despite our limitations, and for the good of those He is awakening to seek and keep on seeking until they find.

    Thanks for writing this, Jim.

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    • I agree.

      What I find most bizarre by some of these Beyond Evangelical authors is how vocal they are in telling Christians what we can’t do – we can’t be engaged in cultural or civic reform, we can’t be engaged in politics, we can’t ever take a social position that offends.

      Some, like Frank Viola (who I respect and have learned from in other contexts), even go so far as to deny or question the validity of the Great Commission – all apparently because they don’t want to have to engage the culture on issues which would require them to take unpopular propositional stands or detract from their “me and Jesus” and “it’s all about relationships” emphasis.

      I don’t believe we are all gifted and called to do the same things, and I can accept those who say they may not be inclined towards civic and cultural engagement. My Jesus is big enough to embrace them. But their Jesus does not seem to be big enough to embrace those who are so called.

      If you are not called to something, don’t discredit those who are just because they are not like you. That’s narcissism – a key characteristic of post-modernity – at its worst, and it is trying to create Jesus in one’s own image.

      What we so often want to ignore is that Jesus in you will be expressed, and look different, than Jesus in me. Same Jesus, but different gifts and expressions.

      My plea is that we stop creating these false dichotomies that want to say everything is either/or – and embrace the authentic Jesus who is so much more than our own sensibilities.

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  4. Thank you so much for those last 3 paragraphs (in particular) Jim.

    If one is called to something….. like David felt called to take on Goliath……… there will be criticisms levelled at you from people who are different, but who feel they are more right, or have more truth or revelation than you….. (especially if you’re a woman!) People tend to see things not as they really are, but as they themselves are.

    I’ve come to see everything, including Christ’s body on earth, in the form of a diamond – and we are each a facet of that diamond – a unique facet. “Every human comparison is necessarily diabolical” because God only makes individuals.

    It must be a human trait to want to label and categorise everything in order to make sense of it – but at what a cost! It’s in being willing to give grace to those we may not consider (in our arrogance??) as being “as right” as oneself (and this, we should not lose sight of, ever, is only by God’s grace and redeemptive healing to us by His mercy) that unity in diversity will become reality.

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  5. Jim, I like most of what you’re saying, but I need you to tell me what you mean by the word
    “propositionally”. Like someone said, ” A proposition, speaking grammatically and philosophically proposes something which can be either affirmed or denied. Thus not every sentence in the bible is a proposition; some are questions, commands, etc.; nevertheless all of God’s Word is TRUTH and all truth can be expressed propositionally. ” When you say things like..” If you embrace a solely relational Jesus, and deny or discount that He also relates to us and to His creation propositionally through objective truth that applies to and defines all reality, then you are not of Christ as He has authentically revealed Himself to be..” you are speaking ‘propositionally’ saying those folks “are not of Christ”… I guess I need to know what you mean “propositionally” .. thanks… Ron

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    • Ron, “propositional truth” is an emerging term used by postmodern thinkers and detractors. It means that which is objectively and universally true, and which imposes itself on us, regardless of one’s experience (or, for the “beyond” crowd, relationship).

      For Christians, we must never let go of a core foundation of our faith: Christ can speak propositional truth subjectively and relationally. But He also proclaims it objectively and authoritatively in Scripture.

      A purely subjective or relational focus on Jesus is fraught with error. Among the “beyond” crowd, I have run into weird doctrine and opinions galore. They have no anchor, other than their self-referential and self-reinforcing concept of how Jesus (they feel) wants to relate to them.

      We need both the subjective/relational and objective/propositional realities of Jesus – and to understand that in mature believers these both reinforce the other because they arise from the same Lord. After all, John at the beginning of his gospel calls Jesus the logos – a Greek concept which means logic and reason. Yet John also was the most relational of all the twelve disciples in how he knew Jesus.

      So, in answer to your concluding question, I would say that those who only know a subjective Jesus and deny His objective, authoritative propositional truths are pursing a Jesus who they’ve limited to their own sensitivities and thus they’ve created in their own image, and not the authentic creator and authoritative Lord of all who has objectively established truth, reality and morality.

      Here’s a good article I found by Chuck Colson called “Emerging Confusion”. Although he places the emphasis on propositional truth, his points are well taken: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/june/17.72.html.

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  7. Jim,

    Have you spoken personally with these brothers whom you feel are off course and leading others off course? What was the outcome of those conversations? If you feel it would be inappropriate to answer that question here feel free to email me at jlawson691@gmail.com. I’ve followed the ministry of a few of these guys and to be honest I’ve never read or heard from them the things you’ve mentioned here. Thanks.

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