A Note to Tony

November 13, 2004 — Leave a comment

Tony Jones threw down the gauntlet at his site the other day. I agree with much that he said, but wanted to offer a bit of a response.

Dear Tony,

I read over your recent post on what Emergent is doing with interest. Of course, we’ve talked about some of this in the past, so I wasn’t completely surprised to hear your comments. And I write this note in response not to engage in a pissing match over who is right and who is wrong, for much of what you write is true. Besides, I know who would get the better of an intellectual dual, and I don’t like pain that much. But as I continue to reflect on your comments, I feel the need to offer my perspective on why I continue to labor in the midst of the powers and principalities that are a mainline denomination.

First of all, I need to say that I do think that what we’ve been talking about in Emerging Church circles is something new. It is not a new reformation — the reformation is over. If anything it may be a counter to the reformation, wanting to move from the division that the reformation led to toward a regaining of the holistic community of God.

The difficulty of course is that our institutions are structured to maintain the status quo rather than to flow with the movement of God. In that sense, you are right in suggesting that the powers and principalities have co-opted our denominational structures, holding them back from the guidance of the Holy Spirit toward a faithful response in a new land. They have forgotten the scripture that says “Behold, I am making all things new” and far too often languish in the past rather than groaning and leaning toward the future.

There are many ways to respond to this. One way is the one that you and Doug and others have taken — to suggest that the systems are beyond redemption and must be cast aside so that the new can arise. The other, the road I have taken, is to live in the hope that nothing is beyond the redemption of God and to work in some small way toward that redemption.

In a sense, this IS consistent with the history of the reformation. The great reformers — Luther, Calvin, and I will throw in the Wesley brothers from my tribe, never intended to start new churches. Some did when the existing institutions gave them no choice. They Wesleys from my tradition never did — they remained life long Anglicans — and were pretty ticked off when those whipper-snappers in the fledgling America formed a new denomination. Thus, the reformation included both impulses — the desire to reform from the inside, combined with those who said that something new was needed.

And yet, the old forms didn’t die. Roman Catholicism went through its own transformation along the way, hearing the message of the reformers and moving in new ways. It was a slow change for sure, taking hundreds of years, but change happened and these forms of faith continued to speak and minister to those along the way.

I think the hardest thing to face is this balance between the need for an immediate response and the desire to change a culture which takes an eternity. I’m reminded of King’s writings to the white ministers in Birmingham on “Why We Can’t Wait,” and thus agree that maybe trying to change a culture from the inside might continue systems of oppression. You and Doug and others have taken the route of King, suggesting that we can’t wait and that it is time to start something new to reflect where God is calling us today. I admire you for that prophetic stance. My hope is that there is still room for prophecy within the denominational tradition that I reside in, leading me and others to continue the call to faithfulness.

You are right in suggesting that we need to be involved in providing support for those who question the status quo, both those who attempt to remain within the fold and those who feel the need to leave. Both spaces are spaces of loneliness and alienation, and we have the responsibility (if I am reading scripture the right way) to bear the burdens of one another.

The gospel of Jesus is indeed a radical call to liberation. It calls us to reject the “powers that be” (to use Walter Wink’s book title). Yet, as Wink suggests, Jesus did that both as an insider and an outsider. Jesus preached in synagogues. He used the language of the religious tradition to suggest that the message of liberation had been at the heart of the story from the beginning. At the same time, he hung out with those who had been placed on the margins of society by the religious leaders of the day. In a very real sense, Jesus models both ways of being – outsider and insider – as he announces the reign of a new kingdom. And the story of the church that followed continued that understanding. The story of faith in Acts reminds us that there was both a Paul and a James, both who were called to speak the gospel of truth, but one to the outsiders and one to the insiders in Jerusalem.

The table of God is huge. There is room for both of us, as you and I both know. Neither of us is marginalized, for we worship the same God and follow the radical call of Christ.

 

 

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