Rob Bell writes a book called Love Wins, describing a God of great patience and grace that would not willingly condemn people to hell, and Francis Chan responds with Erasing Hell, accusing Bell of being a Universalist and reminding readers that all of us deserve eternal punishment.
Brian McLaren continues to call for interfaith dialogue on his quest for an Emergent church, and Al Mohler cries Protestant Liberalism and charges the movement with Bultmannian-like "demythologizing" of scripture.
John Piper champions the fight for a penal substitutionary understanding of the gospel, and Tony Jones questions Piper's biblical literalism as he excommunicates his 19-year-old non-Christian son while holding onto his vast ministry empire.
The theological skirmishes and personal attacks go back-and-forth in an endless cycle. Many more stories could be told. Following the ongoing infighting of prominent Christian pastors and authors takes a pretty complicated score card. I've lost count. In the end, I'm not sure anyone comes out on top. But maybe that's the problem. Whether conservative or liberal, maybe this is simply a fight for control, power and orthodoxy, none of which are values of the kingdom.
Much of this bickering is pure sensationalism—the stuff that sells. John MacArthur's recent "Strange Fire" conference denounced Charismatics and promoted his new book (his previous book described the “hidden truth” of identity in Christ). Brian McLaren continues to proclaim a brand "new Christianity" or a "secret message of Jesus" that has never been heard before. Andy Stanley tries to convince the church that it's really a business and he has the steps to success.
But it's not enough that conservatives and liberals are battling it out. Now the conservatives are clobbering each other. Just this last weekend reformed pastor and cultural critic Mark Driscoll crashed MacArthur's conference. As a "continuationist" (believing that the Holy Spirit continues to work through miraculous gifts, but still having a very conservative theology), he went to give away his newest book at the doorstep of the "cessationist" crusade (a movement believing that miraculous gifts ceased with the New Testament church). The ensuing fight included accusations, name calling and general reprehensible behavior that descended into lies and subterfuge.
I've had it. I'm basically through with their books, their conferences and their trinkets. But what are the options? What could a believer do?
I have several points of advice:
- Believers who want a serious study of their faith need to read broadly and need to read beyond popular books often marketed through sensationalism. The most popular book is not necessarily the best. I can't emphasize this enough. To read only from one set of authors only works to reinforce what one already believes. Find books and articles that you don't agree with or haven't been exposed to and then be open to what can be learned. I was listening to an emeritus professor today, a brilliant philosopher and historian (some of you may remember Dr. Delbert Wiens from FPU), and I was stunned with his intellectual humility. In discussing the interpretation of a controversial section of scripture he noted, "I had to be willing to learn what I didn’t want to learn." That right there is the antidote to theological arrogance.
- Learn about traditions outside of your own. There are many ways to reflect on the history of the church, but every survey will reveal different periods, styles and practices of Christian faith. Richard Foster does an excellent job of identifying six historical traditions in his book Streams of Living Water. He discusses the contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical and incarnational models/influences of spirituality. Exposure to other traditions will lead to gracious embrace of those who are different.
- Talk to Christians from other cultures. Foster's book is good, but it lacks cultural perspective because it doesn't have much to say about non-western views. Cultural awareness is critical. Western theological arrogance has resulted in imperialism and colonization. In the new global village roles are now being reversed. Believers in Africa, Asia and South America have much to teach American Christians about the faith and we should be listening.
- Don't discuss theology without doing ministry. This is really a "bottom line" for me. Theory is devoid of meaning without practice. Theology will always inform practice but theology will also evolve as a result of what is learned through practice. Working in an urban context will change one's reading of scripture. Befriending a homeless person, mentoring an addict or walking with someone through divorce always influences interpretation. In a sense, the absolute worst place to study the Bible might be the sterile confines of four church walls on Sunday morning. Context matters.
As I contemplate the recent and relentless arguing and posturing between Christian leaders, I'm reminded of how much respect I have for Shane Claiborne. Shane remains above the fray because he commits himself primarily to incarnational ministry. He is doing theology on the run as he practices what he believes. Will he get some theology wrong? Sure, he'd be the first to admit that.
But, more importantly, he isn't afraid to act and to live out a life of discipleship as he understands it, while dwelling in community with other believers in urban Philadelphia. His goal isn't to publish more books, fill up his speaking calendar or grow his church. He’s not interested in grabbing headlines. He simply wants to serve the poor in the name of Jesus. Though he's capable enough, I don't think we'll see Shane turn into a rock star or a mega church celebrity any time soon. And that's a posture that's truly different than the current status quo.