Sunday, April 05, 2009

Where does the authority come from?

This was a question that was repeated many times throughout the Emergent conference in Albuquerque a few weekends ago. It was the central question of a talk given by Phyllis Tickle as she shared ideas from her book The Great Emergence. Her basic premise was that every 500 years or so, the church (universal) goes through a rummage sale of sorts because the institutions of Christianity become overly bogged down with themselves. Then "reformations" happen, when everything goes on the table, and the church must look again at where its authority comes from.

Everyone had thoughts on this throughout the weekend and it was interesting to hear the different perspectives. Most agreed that Luther's assertion of Sola Scriptura had the unintended consequence of forming a myriad of schisms... as different groups took away different priorities and interpretations from said scripture.

The central problem with schisms, according to Brian McLaren, were not the schisms themselves; but rather that each schism tried de-legitimatize every group above it (or below it).

The question of authority still remains, but here is my take on it. Any authority other than yourself is always going to be problematic. The minute you start relying on statements like "What my church teaches is...." then you have outsourced your discernment to someone else. You have removed yourself from accountability (or at least tried to). That is why, I believe, Peter set a standard of a priesthood of ALL believers. Hebrews concurs "in the past, God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets... but in these last days, He has spoken to us by his Son."

In the end, I will stand before God to give an account (Hebrews 4:13). I think the awareness of personal accountability is what is causing house churches and spiritual communities to catch on more. For many Christians, the days of being dependent on a Pastor are growing old. I think there will always be a need for an administrative authority in churches, but the assumption of spiritual authority has developed a generation who's discernment has atrophied. They didn't need it.... the pastor/bishop/priest told them what to think. That era, I believe, is coming to a close. I may harness my carriage to a teacher like McLaren or Claiborne at times, but I will always hold the reigns.

I think the upcoming generation will differ in that, rather than trying to de-legitimatize the paths of others, we will be looking to garner something from their view of life, scripture, and God. We will not feel the need to abandon the traditions we grew up in (though we will have the freedom to do so), rather we can view them as a sanctuary, but no longer the destination.


Steve H. said...


One of the strengths of Emergents is the sincere desire to "bring everyone to the table" so to speak. Their efforts to be more inclusive than perhaps the church has been is certainly welcome...

However (and there is ALWAYS a however) in their effort not to de-legitimize some groups they end up giving defacto endorsement, either intentionally or not, to some very suspect "streams" of thought.

Which leads into my other point...besides the "noble" desire to avoid schisims that seek to delegitimize others, might it be fair to say that the Emergent Movement is increasingly endorsing or rejecting positions and teachings that the Bible takes a very vocal opposing view to?

If I'm playing a game and I keep wanting to make a move that I think will make the game "fairer" or more enjoyable, and someone keeps telling me it goes against the rules, pretty soon I'm going to organize a conference where we can have a conversation on whether the rulebook is really valid in the first place.

Redlefty said...

Your last paragraph perfectly sums up how my wife and I see our church today, and its role in our lives.

Couldn't have said it better ourselves!

Andrew said...

"might it be fair to say that the Emergent Movement is increasingly endorsing or rejecting positions and teachings that the Bible takes a very vocal opposing view to?"

Steve - Any Christian schism can (and often does) say that of any other Christian schism. Each group accuses the other of "Cafeteria Christianity" (pick and choose). I thought it was interesting that the guy who wrote "The Year of Living Biblically" (rightly) said that we ALL do that, but we only see it in everyone else.

This is why I think it is necessary to not de-legit folks. When you do that, you start developing naturally self selective communities of very homogeneous thought. Then every argument within the group starts to sound correct, because the counter point is never uttered (Proverbs) or as Paul would say, "When they judge themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise"

I think ultimately, we all have the scriptures we "like". Someone close to you and I recently said, "The two main markers of a Christian are where they stand on homosexuality and abortion." I think this says a lot about this person's view of God, but says very little about God. I think the scriptures we cling to and decide to be pivotal speaks more about us than it does about the scriptures. I mean, none of us takes ALL of it seriously. How many Christians have two coats? Still have both eyes? Short haired women? Long haired men? Surf and Turf for dinner? Which items is the Bible being very vocal about and who decides the markers?

We tend to relegate to metaphor and culture that which would interfere with our lifestyle; while literalness comes easier when we can apply it to others.

That is why none of this is ever settled. I think the interpretation of scripture requires endless negotiation and dialogue. Every schism is made when a group walks away from the table, it gets too complicated, and the human tendency is to want things to be settled.

Dialogue takes into account that there is more than one viable opinion, and that each of us feels strongly about our conviction. To me, that is typical of the many tensions that Christ calls us to live between.

Personally, that is why I am comfortable with contradictions in scripture. Different voices with different perspectives and priorities, speaking of their encounter with the true God. How could it be seamless?

So to answer your question - Yes and No. I guess it depends on which scriptures you tend to focus on.

WES ELLIS said...

Good stuff! I think you're on to something... I also think that within evangelicalism, future generations will learn more and more from their "main-line" brothers and sisters, and will find creative ways of integrating those lessons with their passion for the bible.

Steve H. said...


Using the word "schisim" tends to make any difference Christians have with each other to be unnecessarily combative. Different denominations have sprung up because of different interpretations or emphasis of different scriptures but for the most part they live at harmony with their fellow Christian brothers.

Usually these difference spring up from interpretations on areas where the Bible is silent or a little nebulous. Yes, there are some pretty vocal people in all groups but I have learned to ignore them and focus on the commonality with all of those who call Christ "Lord".

Now I can get along with and respect the beliefs of others who do not call Christ, "Lord" but the amount they will be allowed to input into my lives will be limited. A science teacher who believes the earth is flat may have somethings to teach me in other areas of Science, but since the whole foundation of that teacher is skewed (IMHO) then I would limit their imput into my life.

Once I had a neighbor whose wife was a believer in Shinto. Her husband said to me, "That what I like about you Steve, just because you have your belief, you don't believe others, like Shinto followers to be wrong." "Oh, I believe they're wrong." I responded to his surprised expression, "if I didn't then I would be Shinto."

That's been one of my issues with Emergent. I don't see them declaring anyone to be wrong...except evangelicals, which makes me suspicious when, by my guess, about 99.9% of those who label themselves Emergent are ex-evangelicals.

Bob said...

I work near an Episcopal church that has noon services during Lent. They have a wide variety of speakers. One of them this year spoke on the passage in Matthew where the woman asks Jesus to heal her son. He ignores her at first, seems to imply that she is equal to a "dog" (not a Jew) and she says even dogs can get crumbs from the table (I'm paraprasing, obviously).

This is a difficult, troubling passage, but the end result is that Jesus affirms her faith and uses her as an example to his followers.

I have heard this passage taught and explained many different ways but this woman, speaking in this Lenten service, said that Jesus was guilty of the sin of prejudice and sexism and the woman in the passage helped heal him!

Say what?!

I shook my head in disbelief and said under my breath, 'You have got to be kidding me.'

I'll stay in the room and debate over abortion, homosexuality or some of the other hot button issues. But the deity of Christ? Is that really up for discussion?????

My point is that, as much as I am about being inclusive rather than exclusive, are there not some absolute truths that are non-negotiable?

Andrew said...

Wes - I grew up believing that all main line churches were second class Christianity. It has been like finding hidden treasure to discover all of the wonderful things they have.

Steve - I only use schism to indicate separation... nothing more than that. I believe there is nothing inherently wrong with people grouping. People are always going to do that. I can appreciate a good liturgy, but I probably wouldn't want to do it each week. But I think it is beyond pride to think that out of 34,000 different Christian groups, my take just happens to be top banana.

Some differences are vague... but sometimes the bible holds to loud and contradictory positions. One church grabs one, and another grabs the other & round and round we go... fun...

I know we will disagree on the whole "wrong" thing. I have just have had too many instances where I knew I was right... then found out otherwise, to be all too strong on that typically. The most I would say is that I presently disagree with this or that point. I think judging someone's wrongness is a matter left to God - who knows which way the wind of God will blow? I don't want to find myself on the wrong side of His call.

99.9% of folks who swim in the emergent stream are ex-evangelicals?? Steve, it really make me wonder wether you disagree with emergent thought, or just have an axe to grind over something. ;)

Bob - Heh, I heard that take on that scripture once and I think I almost used the same phrase in my reaction.

But on your broader point, I think it depends on what one means by divinity. If by that you mean trinity, I think there is plenty of room under the Christian umbrella for those who don't go there. I am a bit agnostic on the point myself.

And I think that there should be truths that are non-negotiable (though my personal advice is that one hold them loosely). However, I think Romans 14 is clear that when we use our non-negotiable truth to judge and look down on someone, we have gone off the rail.

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