The “You Can’t” Crowd
What I find most bizarre among emerging “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 go and disciple the nations, we can’t be engaged in politics, we can’t ever take a social position that offends, we can’t this, and we can’t that.
Sometimes, it gets so bad that you can only laugh.
For example, one of those authors, Milt Rodriquez, openly rebukes Christians engaged in:
“praying and working toward … bringing this nation back to God” because political and civic engagement “is just another distraction from the person of Christ Himself.” (See Note 1 below)
Others, like Frank Viola (whom I respect and have learned from in other contexts), continue those attacks. Recent blogs by him repeatedly use derogatory and highly offensive names, along with gross mischaracterizations and historical distortions, to describe brothers and sisters in Christ who have been engaged in the political and civic arena. (See Note 2 below)
And their apparent offenses? They cared enough to fight for life and oppose abortion, limit the reach of government and protect liberty, and stand for propositional truths in the midst of the great political and social debates of the last several decades.
Frank is so bent on perpetuating the alarming “Beyond Evangelical” retreat into post-modern sensibilities, that he even questions the general validity of the “so-called” (to use his own words) Great Commission:
“The so-called ‘Great Commission’ was an apostolic commission that Jesus gave to the 12 apostles – the men whom He lived with for 3.5 years, trained, and then sent out to the apostolic work. It is a huge assumption, therefore, to hang this commission around the necks of all of God’s people.” (See Note 3 below)
My point is not to defend civic, cultural or political engagement. Some are so called by the Lord, and others are not.
Rather, my issue is the common theme that unites these and other “Beyond Evangelical” authors: They are advocates for a new existential or pietistic mindset that is mired in the post-modern sensibilities of our age, which makes them squeamish – if not outright hostile – towards the objective, propositional and extra-relational side of Jesus.
In essence, they are now seeking to discredit and marginalize other elements of the Body of Christ who dare transcend their own narrow, insular and anemic view of Jesus. See my critique of Frank Viola’s new book, “Beyond Evangelical“.
It’s post-modern sensibilities run amuck, pure and simple. And if they succeed, it will only speed the ongoing and destructive rush towards an introverted, insular and purely subjective irrelevance within the Church – especially among organic, missional and other parts of the Body of Christ which naively buy into their fringe theology.
A Bigger Jesus
Yes, I acknowledge that some of my “Beyond Evangelical” brethren want to help the poor, reach out to the hurting, and the like. I appreciate that, because my own life is very focused on those issues.
But when you read their very general and mainly aspirational (but not very well thought out ) pronouncements on such outreaches, it sounds like the same old pietistic refrain: If the Church can just get all the relationship issues right (me and Jesus, you and Jesus, me and you and Jesus, etc.), then all problems will be solved and the world will beat a path to our door as they trip over themselves to accept Jesus. But you know, as important as a relationship with Jesus is, we can’t always limit our faith to some touchy-feely personal Jesus who only supports popular causes that win praise from the prevailing secular press.
Sometimes our faith requires that we speak truth to power, even when it is not popular. And that’s not a distraction, as Milt Rodriquez claims, from “the person of Christ Himself” (that’s the most blatant example of post-modern Christian existentialism – and it’s core instance on cultural retreat – that I’ve yet seen). Rather, speaking truth to power can be a valid expression of the life of Jesus in us (or at least, in some of us!).
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 prophetically inclined towards civic and cultural engagement, addressing unjust laws and institutions, discipling the nations, or standing in the gap as we rebuild a society’s moral and ethical walls.
Unlike my “Beyond Evangelical” brethren, I also have no problems with (and in fact encourage) other elements of the Body of Christ who focus on seeking a systematic framework for propositionally expressing Christ’s sovereignty in all areas of life – whether in economics, ethics, public policy, government, education, science, the arts, business, or whatever.
Here, however, is the rub: The Jesus I know is big enough to embrace my “Beyond Evangelical” brethren who want only a subjective, personal Jesus – because that’s part of who He is.
But the Jesus they tout from their post-modern, existential or pietistic mindset apparently is not big enough to embrace those who are called to more than their limited view of Jesus would allow.
If we accept their limited view of Jesus, we will fall prey to the historic fruit of all movements rooted in pietism or existentialism: we will become insular, introspective and anemic.
My Challenge to “Beyond Evangelical”
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-modern existentialism – at its worst. In essence, it’s trying impose on others a Jesus created in your own (and in this case, post-modern) 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, callings 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 your own sensibilities.
Yes, Jesus is subjective, personal and relational. But He is also objective, cultural and propositional. And true fellowship – organic, missional, or whatever – must permit folks to express all of Jesus, no matter what our gifts, our callings, or our sensibilities.
Note 2: Frank Viola at http://frankviola.org/2012/02/13/evangelicalism5/ and http://frankviola.org/2012/01/18/evangelicalism2/. In private communications to Frank, I repeatedly urged him to correct some of the gross inaccuracies and to retract some of the demeaning descriptions used in these posts, based on my own personal experience and eye-witness accounts about the true motives and true theological perspective of those he was discrediting. I even offered to put him in touch with other eye-witness participants and leaders who could speak the truth based on their personal involvement, but to no avail.
Note 3: Frank Viola at http://frankviola.org/2010/10/13/rethinking-evangelism/. When doing research for this series, I noted on Facebook that Frank Viola had questioned the current validity of the Great Commission. He reacted angrily, stating that the group moderator would be removing my comment (which subsequently did happen) – even though I was simply restating his own writings. Again, I respect Frank and he’s been a great influence on many other issues. But I’m discovering that the “Beyond Evangelical” agenda is not very tolerant – like most post-modern ideology – of dissent or questioning dialog.
- An Existential Cliff (crossroadjunction.com)