Monday, April 16, 2007

Meredith Kline dies

From Christian Observer:

It is with great sadness and heavy heart that we say goodbye to Dr. Meredith G. Kline, who passed away on Friday night, April 13, 2007. Dr. Kline greatly influenced me personally through his writings, which constantly led me back to our precious Savior, Jesus Christ. Yet, even in the midst of the sadness at our loss, there is also rejoicing that Meredith has now been joined with the crucified and risen Lamb of God in Heaven. Heaven was one of the major themes in Meredith's writings and it is a great comfort to us all that what was once his by faith is now his by sight. May our dear brother now rest from his labors in his sabbath rest in Christ as he has already entered glory through the first resurrection and as he awaits with anticipation the even more glorious second resurrection to come. For over half a century, Dr. Meredith G. Kline, an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, served as a professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary (in Philadelphia), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Seminary California. He received his B.D. and Th.M. degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and his Ph.D. degree in Assyriology and Egyptology from Dropsie College.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A New Troelstchian Typology?

Ernest Troelstch, in his classic book The Social Teaching of Christian Churches (1912), suggested a basic typology that has framed the way many religion scholars view the development of Christian churches. Troelstch argued that at their most radical, Christians tend to group themselves together in sects. These serve as antithetical groupings that stand against established churches, challenging these churches in order to bring about reform. Over time, however, these sects become more regularized, loose some of their radical nature, become institutionalzied, and finally end up as established churches themselves.

The most obvious example of this process in American religious history is the Methodists. Starting as a sect within the Anglican Church, Methodism had a radical edge to it, trying to bring about a holiness reform within the structures of Anglicanism. When that was no longer possible, they set up their own structures and eventually became the largest Protestant denomination during the 19th century. Another, late 19th century example is the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which banded together in a loose network around A. B. Simpson's "four-fold" Gospel.

I wonder, though, if a new typology is "emerging"--instead of sects, I wonder if the new grouping is one called "network." At the beginning, these networks feel free and somewhat radical, people who gather across denominational (or non-denominational) boundaries in order to form like-minded partnerships for mission. However, over time as these networks formalized beliefs, practices, and stories, they take on identities that foster denomination-like existences.

One example of this might be the Willow Creek Association. Shaped by the ministry philosophy of Bill Hybels, the Willow Creek Association serves as a network of churches that share denomination-like beliefs, practices, and stories, all of which cohere around Hybels own successful ministry. Another example might be the Calvary Chapel network (which according to the March 2007 Christianity Today is experiencing a great deal of difficulty). These networks are denomination-like, but they experience a great deal of difficulty when the original charismatic figure leaves. They tend to lose purpose, fail to transition generationally, and ultimately do not sustain themselves.

Some of our current generation of seminarians seem to prefer to think about joining "networks" instead of "denominations." The line of conversation often goes something like, "Well, all denominations do is fight over doctrine; I'm about mission. The way to foster mission is to bring like-minded people together; but in my denomination, there are extreme ____ [fill in the blank] who prevent mission from happening. Hence, I should join a 'network' out of a position of independency in order to pursue mission."

The problem comes from the fact that the networks do not inculcate an identity that shapes the group, its purpose, or its dynamics. For example, there are often no real accountability structures in networks, no doctrinal standards that have stood the test of time (or have been developed by and subscribed to by the group itself), no stories of long faithful pastors, missionaries, or church planters. Instead, what ties these networks together are common practices (contemporary worship music, aggressive evangelism and discipleship, small group ministries) and some common doctrines (often doctrines of grace). But there doesn't appear to be a binding identity for the network itself, other than it stands against "the denomination" or some other structure.

In this way, perhaps these networks play the role of Troelstch's "sects" in his typology. If so, then they will either become new denominations themselves or dissolve after the original founders/visionaries pass from the scene. And if that is the case, perhaps it might be better to find a "denomination" of which to be a part, with all of its flaws and infighting and imperfections, but also with all of its common stories, practices, and beliefs. In this way, one might find an identity not only for oneself and the emerging culture, but for one's children, grandchildren, and generations afterward.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Monday, April 02, 2007

Missouri Baptists, Culture War, and the Gospel

There was a very interesting article on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this morning, titled omniously, "Missouri's most powerful Baptist takes on the 'emerging church'." In some ways, it was a follow-up to an earlier article that the P-D had run on The Journey, a very successful Acts 29 network church in our city that was (unfortunately) titled "The Bible and Beer" (that article had highlighted the church's "Theology on Tap" conversation held at Schafly's Brewery).

The article this morning focused on Roger Moran, one of the leaders of SBC conservatives here in this state. And admist some of the silliness, there were some very interesting quotes that moved beyond the "issue" to the real issues.

First, it appears that Moran lumps together "emerging" churches such as The Journey with the SBC moderates that he defeated earlier. But the reason for doing this was that these emerging churches are places "where you can drink beer in the bar, you can talk about rock 'n' roll, you can watch R-rated movies on film night." In Moran's mind, these were the moral excesses of the SBC progressives in the 1980s (and when I was in Louisville, stories of SBTS keggers were legendary and probably a little overblown); these cultural and moral markers that characterized the progressives are the same as the emerging church; hence, the Acts 29 network must be moderate.

But this line of reasoning is an uneasy fit, even for Moran. Though he doesn't acknowledge it in the P-D article, there are major theological differences between SBC progressives and the Acts 29 folks like the leaders of The Journey. Chief among them is that the Acts 29 network actually believes the Gospel (in its classic and Calvinistic formulations), holds to the inerrancy of Scripture, and is passionate about evangelism and discipleship. As a result, the identification of the emerging church leaders and SBC "moderates" is an uneasy one at best.

Even more striking, Moran identifies the nature of the church (and its Christianity) based on external practices--drinking, rock music, and movies--that were the bellweather issues for Baptist conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s. And yet, those issues don't seem to resonate as much as they used to do. In fact, many younger evangelical Christians view those issues as matters of indifference compared to the "weighter" matters of love, justice, and mercy to the poor or the need for sustainable care for the creation. While Moran's issues may have "worked" during the early days of the SBC conservative resurgence, they may not work as well now--because they seem to be culturally as opposed to biblically derived.

Second, I thought it was interesting how Bill Leonard, a Baptist scholar, characterized the state of the current SBC: "The Southern Baptist Convention is growing increasingly terrified that they've spent all this time recreating the denomination in this (conservative) image, and now nobody cares. Young seminarians are challenging them on issues and saying, 'Your vision of reality is not ours.'" It does seem that the Gen X generation that is moving into pastoral leadership--both in the SBC and in my own denomination--struggles with viewing the church in the same terms as some leaders might.

For example, if the church (or a particular denomination) is meant to stand for "conservative evangelicalism" and that means standing for certain political or cultural positions, or standing for those positions in a harsh or insensitive manner, then the "emerging" generation will have none of it. As Darrin Patrick, the pastor of The Journey, put it in the article, "When you're stricter than God about what he commands and permits, younger pastors are not going to play ball. They're not going to take one for the denomination" (emphasis mine). I actually think this stance of "not taking one for the denomination" could be a good thing--if it forces church leaders to reorient themselves to Gospel priorities and attitudes.

And yet, to forsake denominations for "networks" doesn't necessarily solve the problem. Because there will be times when the "network" will prove to move in directions that feel denomination-like and could illegitimately bind the conscience as well. Thus, the goal is not necessarily to cop the attitude that "if you don't play ball the way I want you to, I'm taking my ball and going home" or to independency or whatever. The goal is biblical reformation of church mission and structures so that the church to which we belong evidences to a greater degree the reign of God.

And so, the article provide a great deal of food for thought--about the Gospel, the nature of the church, and the future of evangelical Christianity.