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 author and so-called “apostolic worker” Frank Viola 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.
~ Jim Wright
Note 1: Milt Rodriquez at http://miltrodriguez.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/impaired-vision-through-filters-part-3-%E2%80%93-political-agenda/.
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. I’ve been seeing more and more that the “Beyond Evangelical” agenda is not very tolerant – like most post-modern ideology – of dissent or questioning dialog.
- An Existential Cliff (crossroadjunction.com)
Good thoughts my brother! The church needs to demonstrate what true tolerance is and not use the sick substitute the world gives us. As we embrace those with different viewpoints on a variety of issues, we truly move closer to the goal of unity that Jesus heartily prayed for in John 17.
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Jim, thank God for folks like you. Your gifting of analytical thought comes through again. I simply had to walk away from folks espousing these ideas, without completely realizing why. You have put words and analysis to theological ideas that seem to come from somewhere other than scripture. From an audience of one, please feel the support and gratitude. Applause, two hands clapping. Bruce
Based on our more private communications, I know we both share some of the same struggles and concerns over current trends within certain segments of the “organic” church community. I hope this series begins a larger, questioning dialog on those issues. Don’t be discouraged. God still sits on the throne!
I have been hearing these same concerns from other church planters, who like me are trying to let Jesus be FULLY expressed in us, among us, and through us. But they were timid about going public. Maybe now some of them will also start to speak up. I hope so. We need their voices to be added to this much needed debate.
Music to my ears, brother 🙂
“Sometimes our faith requires that we speak truth to power, even when it is not popular. And that’s not a distraction…from ‘the person of Christ Himself.’ Rather, it’s an expression of the life of Jesus in us…” Yes, absolutely, yes! Our first-through-fourth century brothers and sisters in the Lord would certainly agree: many of them suffered in very tangible ways and others had their lives ended for the ‘crime’ of speaking truth to power as the Lord led them. I cannot do all, nor even (specifically) pray for all, but I can refuse to deny my spiritual kinship with and personal support of any brother or sister who, acting in obedience to the Lord and His leading, boldly addresses societal ills, global issues, specific crimes, hidden abuses, ritual sacrifices, legal murder, slavery, torture, public fraud, etc. The Christ we are in and who expresses Himself in us changes things such as these, simply by His presence and expression.
Jesus loves his Bride very much. I get tired of the emergent types criticizing her. Thank you Jim for this excellent article!
Personally I don’t think the problem is with a focus on ‘relationship’ with Jesus so much as it comes down to the limitations and scope we impose on that relationship.
Relationship should not be watered down to merely conversing with god in prayer and receiving emotional and/or intellectual stimulation. As you have done to the least of these so you have done to me.
That said I’m just echoing what you’ve described above. Its all about making room for the fullness of Jesus and walking humbly towards one another.
I love Richard Fosters book Streams of Living Water… in it he reminds us of the essential practices and unique grace found in several prominent streams of the christian faith. Its constructive to critically examine all practices and beliefs, but its equally important to discover and celebrate unique expressions of Christ where they may be found.
Ultimately as far as being beyond evangelical or whatever streams I partially identify with goes,,, ultimately any of these labels are a distraction and often divisive. As usual it seems it is not enough to identify as just being a believer or follower of Christ.
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It is discouraging to find people that play one note so long they can’t hear anything else. I have come to believe there ARE a few things that are fundamental (the death, burial & resurrection of Jesus Christ, his divinity, and the authority of Scripture). Without these I cannot consider a person a brother (or sister) in Christ even though I could willingly have conversations on many topics including theology
The stretch for me comes when I find folks who DO hold those fundamentals but go off in all directions (or don’t go anywhere). They ARE my brothers in Christ even though they repudiate me and much of what I believe. But then, why should the servant be greater than his master? There is the place where we find our faith and can discover the grace to walk in love!
I followed your link and can’t for the life of me figure out what the ‘offensive terms’ and grave errors Frank is supposed to have used and made. Perhaps you could list them specifically. You seem to have missed the difference between the ‘doctrine’ of ” we have to all work to take back the culture” vs. following Christ first and seeing how the Hel does end up changing lives and thus culture. If you actually go deep in your relationship with the Lord and become transformed and ready for use ( a not unreasonable first step, even if it is pietistic) and then the Lord tells you to run for Senator or something, you should obey and the result will be amazing. But that is a very different thing from the frantic work in the flesh of trying to politically change America back to a ‘godly Christian nation,’ or making that the church’s major goal, forgetting that the reason America even has Christian roots is because of the very pietistically rooted 1st Great Awakening that mightily influenced our culture, because of a revival that did NOT have as it’s purpose ‘changing the culture,’ but rather introducing people to the Lord Jesus Christ. And from Pilgrims who were more concerned with running away with the culture of England and Holland than with “taking it back for the KIngdom.” Since most of the fruit of the Christian right has not been good, I strongly agree that their emphasis is wayoff. Daniel, Joseph, and Esther were mightily used in the political sphere, but it was through intense suffering and not at all of their own intention or out of a doctrine of dominion from their spiritual community. They were just trying to survive and walk godly in horrible situations. We can not make the results of our relationship with the Lord the goal of it. How would your wife like it if your main goal in your relationship with her was making as many babies as possible, or using her as free labor in your soup kitchen? I think this rebuke about the inappropriate emphasis on political/social action is terribly needed in our day. Our enemy is very subtle and will use many ‘good’ things to distract us from the Lord. It doesn’t mean Christians will never be involved in those things in any way. The problem is in what you are emphasizing. Is the goal ‘taking back the country,’ or is the goal building His Kingdom by taking Jesus to people and people to Jesus, and nurturing them in Jesus communities (the church), which requires you to truly know Him and be full of Him, and let Him decide how that ends up impacting the culture. It’s pretty self-evident to me which is the appropriate goal.
If our purpose and emphasis remain in the right place, i.e. the Person of Jesus Christ, the result will always be believers who take care of the sick and poor, and rescue slaves and preach against killing babies and abandoning wives, etc. Frank himself spent years in ministry to the poor and is emphasizing it personally this year in his ministry. My goodness! The most ‘world-changing’ Christians in history have been the most pietistic ones like the Moravians, Quakers, and Wesleyans, not to mention the Anabaptists. Their ‘social justice’ fruit was wonderful and remains today, whereas the fruit of the political part of the Reformation was awful and led to the killing of the real followers of Christ, and massacring peasants, and countless religious wars. But they didn’t set out with a goal of ‘taking the culture.’ Do you not believe the Lord who said that Mary had chosen the ‘best part.?’ Or that he chose the apostles to be ‘with HIm?’ (The main part of their training was to spend time with Jesus!) Did He not say, “Follow Me?” (Which doesn’t mean ‘what we think Jesus would do,’ but rather ‘getting our relationship right’ and watching Him to see what He’s doing, and joining Him.) I’ve been around the Christian scene a LONG time and can tell you the only believers who are any earthly good are the major heavenly- minded ones — by which I mean the ones who have spent large amouns of their time in the presence of the Lord, being filled with His life. I had a mother like that, and she had more effect on the church she was a part of than any of the official leadership — in fact the pastors all came to sit at her feet! Or Mark Buntain, who did more for Calcutta than Mother Theresa ever did, probably because he had a relationship with the real Jesus and prayed without ceasing, more or less out loud wherever he was all day. (I heard about his prayer life directly from people I know who spent time with him.) Not only did he build leper sanitariums and lead thousands to Christ, his own home over there was always full of homeless poeple they took in personally. Real pietism leads to major fruit. There must be abiding to have fruit. Moses and David spent vast amounts of time in the direct presence of God, which showed in their lives. You can’t ‘speak truth to power’ without sitting with the Lord learning HIs Wisdom first. Just quoting Bible verses is not the same. Those Bible verses came out of people’s relationship to God. Daniel didn’t have the visions he had because he was strategically planning how to impact Persian culture. He had them because he was on his face fasting and praying to the Lord for the chosen people. The early church had a huge impact on the Roman Empire, but they didn’t save it or it’s culture — it corrupted the institutional church of the day and then collapsed, leaving an ever more corrupted religion that made it its goal to politically take over the nations of Europe. Christlike people continued to have an impact on society but had to work against or fly under the radar of the politically active church which committed atrocity after atrocity. Those who haven’t spent enough time with the Lord, are not going to be ABLE to ‘speak truth’ to anyone, least of all those in power. Two people can say the same exact words which are technically true and right, but a have totally different impact because one is full of Christ, and the other is full of good intentions.
And Frank and Milt don’t believe the ‘Great Commission’ is invalid for today, they believe it is misunderstood — that is was the sending of 12 men at that time who had been carefully trained by the Lord himself, and is valid for today in that it laid down the pattern of the sending of apostolic workers who have been trained in the same way, mostly by sitting at the feet of the Lord, just as it was the pattern for Barnabas and Paul’s sending, and Timothy and Titus’ sending. But it is not valid as a ‘doctrine’ of “Jesus commands all believers to go preach to the lost in the same way the 12 did, or else we are disobedient,” when the NT clearly states that ‘not all are apostles…” The commission still is valid for the Church as a whole, but is not a burden each individual believer has to live up to.
You know, if Frank Viola and those who follow him said what you said, there likely would be no problem. But that’s not what they are saying. Maybe you have some private understanding what they are intending, but again, we are left with the words they use and the public blogs they write. In their public writings, Milt (who is in tight with Frank) says even praying for our nation is a distraction from Christ. Frank says he and is tribe are “beyond” all the rest of the Body of Christ, and uses offensive words like “fundamentalist” and “Christian Right” to paint with a broad brush anyone who feels the Lord call them to civic or political engagement.
(I can hear some say, “but those aren’t offensive words,” but then again, the bigoted white racist who only knew his own closed world never understood why “nigger” was offensive to blacks.)
In essence, Frank, Milt and other “beyond” folk say Christ is All. But what they really seem to be saying is that Christ is All (about their sensibilities), as evidenced by their words and criticisms of those who express Jesus outside Frank and Milt’s sensibilities – which in effect is denying that His is Lord of all.
They would do well to acknowledge that they are coming from the particular bias and post-modern attitudes of their own “tribe”, rather than trying to make those sensibilities normative for the entire Body of Christ.
They try to keep their blogs brief which sometimes leads to misunderstanding, but have both written many books that do a great job of clearly explaining the things their ministries emphasize. They also have websites where you can listen to some messages by clicking. I find you learn a lot more about the spirit of a man by listening to them talk than by reading their writings.
I do have an edge in understanding them because I know them both personally and they are very humble and gentle men, who practice what they preach, and I knew they wouldn’t deliberately use offensive terminology. I have visited with them extensively, read everything they wrote which gives a more complete picture of where they are at, heard many messages they have spoken, and have observed the fruit of their ministry, and pondered these things in my heart for a very long time. I am not however close friends with them or in a church they are working with, so I maintain a certain objectivity–and I had independently come to the exact same conclusion about politics before finding out they agreed with me! I’m sure Milt knew what a risk he was taking in bringing it up, and felt like he was supposed to address it. I have read books from many other streams that agree with them without being in any way connected to them, other than that Milt and Frank might have been influenced by them also. Also evangelicals are not the only members of the Body of Christ, and thinking that we need to move forward and onward following the Lord in the sense of climbing beyond where the evangelicals managed to get to in their heyday, is not saying we are superior to anyone, we are actually standing on their backs and wouldn’t be where we are without them. Most of the great evangelicals are dead now. They are like our parents and we honor them. There is a whole section of the Body of Christ in China and India that are probably vastly ahead of the organic church and Beyond Evangelicals here, and we have been directly influenced by them and honor them as well. It’s very post modern, actually, to not believe that one idea can be more true than another. We are all brothers, but it would be foolish to assume no one has more wisdom than another. Also at our age our natural bias is modern, not post-modern, with its denial of objective truth.( Post- modern is now a perjorative offensive term in some contexts too, and I feel mildly insulted — that’s a joke 🙂
I had drunk the Koolaid of the extreme political agenda (I’m not saying they are all extreme) and ‘seen the light’ so I freely admit my bias. It totally distracted me from Christ even though I wasn’t particularly involved. I have fellowshipped with widely divergent brands of Christians. I also study history and church history constantly and deeply ponder it. American Christians re -entered the political sphere with a vengeance a very long time ago, and we’ve had two large genuine revivals at least during that time of almost 100 years, and politically and culturally we are still sliding toward Sodom. It didn’t work, in other words. We now have a ‘taking back Hollywood’ movement that is producing some very encouraging Christian films, but not keeping Hollywood in general from getting more nasty. Those people may be making films because the Lord told them to, but their overall agenda needs to be just to exalt Christ with them, instead of worrying about ‘taking Hollywood.’
It’s a fine but needed distinction that maybe could be expressed more clearly, Written words are a difficult medium to express spiritual things in sometimes — look how much the Bible is misunderstood and misused. But words are all we have usually, and the words fundamentalist and Christian right and Christian left may be offensive if used perjoratively, but I know that both Frank and Milt are using them descriptively, because they are terms that refer to certain groups or forms of thought, not to insult anyone. Just reserve judgement, but keep your ears and eyes open to the fruit coming out of various agendas and you’ll come to know if we are totally wrong or if there might be a little bit of truth to the idea that political focus is an idol. We really are lovingly concerned about this, not trying to attack anyone.
As I said on Facebook, Milt is using ‘nation’ to mean the political nation of America, not the ethnos. Of course it is appropriate to pray for the PEOPLE of America, and the leaders, but that is a different thing than praying and working specifically for political change. Some dear friends pointed out long ago how hard we all prayed that Clinton would not be re-elected, yet he was anyway. But when the Russian believers prayed for deliverance from extermination, God took Stalin out with a heart attack. I’m not sure He would have listened if they’d been praying to take back the government– I’ve really come to believe that this is not how He works. What they were praying for was the Church, the Kingdom. The next leader was awful too, but he didn’t implement Stalin’s plan to systematically take out all the believers. Also communism didn’t fall for many more decades. And Russia is not a better place overall since it did, although there is more religious freedom for now.
I personally believe in voting or even helping a good candidate, because we have certain civic responsibilities in this country, but not being overly invested in the results or getting distracted from the real goal of ministering Christ. . I pray for God to have mercy on Americans, or for our leaders, and to revive His people here, but my sense is that he doesn’t want me to pray for the governmental man-made institution. I believe the world system is in total oppostion to God and is sentenced to destruction, and that HIs Kingdom is not of this world, but it IS here and now embodied in the church and that HIs kingdom is what we are dedicated to. We’re NOT saying stick your head in the sand and ignore the needs of people in our country. Extending HIs Kingdom rule through the Body of Christ will affect people in this country, because we all have to live and work and shop and play here and you cannot imagine the influence of just one person full of Christ living HIs life in their daily functions, not to mention those actively serving the poor and captives. Again, a fine distinction that I happen to believe is of critical importance. And many Christians from many different streams all throughout history have agreed with my theology here. It’s not just a couple of radical bloggers. But even if I am correct, you have to see these things for yourself, by illuminaton from God — it’s not something you just casually talk someone into changing their whole world view about.
Also, their friend Jon Zens, whose article you actually commented on, is a genuine credentialed Bible scholar who works with Frank and Milt in ministry, and comes from the Reformed stream of faith,which incidentally has lots of big promoters of political action. Jon is older than Frank, and emphasized most of the same things before these guys all knew each other.
Good comments. I may summarize my concerns, and tie things together, in a new blog. In the meantime:
One of the greatest challenges facing the “organic” church community in the U.S., I believe, is how to deal with self-described “apostolic” men (like Frank and Milt and others who are associated with them) who are not rooted in ongoing peer fellowship (except as the itinerant “apostle” transitionally relating to some young church – often having not even started that church).
Such “apostles” typically also have not been proven and sent out by – and are not accountable to – a functioning fellowship where they have peer level relationships.
They quickly fall into “on a pedestal” isolation. And without the checks and balances of accountability that comes from being rooted in and sent from a place of peer level fellowship in a real church, they tend to sink deeper and deeper into their own sensibilities.
Soon, they forget the lessons of Roman’s 14 and start insisting that their own sensibilities are normative for the entire Body of Christ. They also start vocally telling others what they can’t do or be in Christ. Under the mantra that “Christ is All”, they paradoxically start telling impressionable young believers what Christ is not and what they are not to be or do in Christ.
They are nice guys, even charming and affirming on a personal level. They even have very good insights into many things, and lots of helpful things to say. But they definitely become increasingly insular in their views and sensibilities.
If we allow such men to define us, out of their insular isolation which comes from the lack of any real roots in and active participation with dynamic peer level fellowship, we in turn will become insular, anemic and non-reproducing. In fact, this by and large is what we already see with such ministries.
The organic community in the U.S. has become stuck in the ruts created by so-called apostolic ministries that are limited to their own sensibilities because they themselves are isolated and detached from authentic, dynamic, healthy, peer-level, functioning fellowship. This breeds an ingrown and myopic perspective which is not healthy.
The validity of openly affirming the good that such men have done does not negate the need to be on guard about not also becoming stuck in their ruts.
Let me close by stating that this is not academic to us. In our fellowships, we are going into may different “cultures” in our own community and planting dynamic churches. We had to break out of the insular, post-modern sensibilities of the “organic” community to do this. We had to become open to who, and what, Christ is and looks like in others with very, very different gifts, callings and attitudes. We had to stop thinking of ourselves as “Beyond” anyone and everyone who did not share our sensibilities, and embrace the wonderful dynamic of a truly multifaceted Body of Christ.
This full, healthy expression of the Body of Christ is my passion.
I am really pleased to read what angconley has written, especially about the churches involvement with the state and that the only meaningful change comes through Christians full of Christ and His Holy Spirit. Just wanted to thank you for so eloquently explaining this position. Bless you.
Jim, how do you know that “Frank, Milt and others associated with them “are not in “ongoing peer fellowships”.
Of the main “Beyond” authors there has been no ongoing relationship or ongoing integration into any actual sending fellowship where they first proved themselves and where they still remain integrated and accountable between travels. You can talk to them – which I’ve done with two of them – and can also talk to those close to them – which I’ve done with the others who are less accessible. This blog, on “Modern Day Pauls?” describes the problem: https://crossroadjunction.com/2012/03/17/modern-day-pauls/.
I need to emphasize that our fellowships are not obsessed with these guy’s church relationships. Rather, in considering whether to follow through on some other communications and invite them to have some ongoing contact with us, we decided to do some background research first. After doing so, we declined. I talk more about this in my blog on “Organic Dead Ends” at https://crossroadjunction.com/2012/08/30/dead-ends/.
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