The Crisis of Authority in Christ’s Church (I)
In 1958, Martin Lloyd-Jones made the following comment: “It is not surprising…that the authority of the Scriptures has been from time to time a matter of dispute and debate.” That was then, this is now. Quite a few in the Emergent Church—not all, but certainly quite a few and quite a few leading figures—have problems with the authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture. What Lloyd-Jones lamented was that “the modern position amounts to this, this it is man’s reason that decides.”
What was true in what he said then is also true now even though some contemporary pastors would not call themselves moderns but postmoderns. Irrespective of the “tags” we attach to the phenomenon, the problem remains pretty much the same: a disregard for authority, even or especially the authority of the Word of God. That certainly is the case with a representative number of those who identify themselves with the Emergent or Emerging Church.
The material disregard for Scripture has—to my mind—been evident from the outset with the ECM. I began by reading Blue Like Jazz, Traveling Mercies, Plan B:, Velvet Elvis, and A Generous Orthodoxy at the popular level as well as more “scholarly” works by Franke, McClendon, Hauerwas, and Yoder, just to mention a few. Anne Lamott is phunny and tragically sad and must not, under any circumstances ever be taken seriously. The others, however, are another story—no metanarrative pun intended.
Miller, Bell, and McLaren all have a very deficient view of Scripture, even though they clamor that they hold the Word of God in high esteem. In order to point them out to you, I’m going to refer to the work on authority published in 1958. Lloyd-Jones presents us there with a litany of provocative questions that are highly germane to the issue of authority in general and biblical authority in particular. He writes, “For the questions that immediately arise are these: Who decides what is true? Who decides what is of value? How can you discriminate between the great facts which are true and those that are false? How can you differentiate between the facts and the teaching? How can you separate this essential message of the Bible from the background in which it is presented?”
These are key, essential principles of interpretation that can be easily answered by every student of the Bible. Where things go south is when pastors and theological teachers begin to equivocate, and that is precisely what the ECM crowd/tribe has been doing from the outset. As I have read blogs, books, and articles, clear texts have been put forth from Scripture about various doctrinal and ethical topics. The answers and attitudes from the ECM crowd has been generally a smug, arrogant, “That’s your interpretation” with the implications of 1) we’re more intelligent than you and 2) shut up and listen to us because we’re right, even though we say repeatedly that we could be wrong.
In the final analysis the whole thing does not boil down to a highly sophisticated academic debate, but to a practical, spiritual question of the material authority of the Word of God in our lives. The renowned pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said the following about the authority of Scripture: There is no need for you to defend a lion when he is being attacked. All you need to do is to open the gate and let him out.
Books, articles, and blogs have ably demonstrated how bereft of an appropriate view of Scripture the ECM in general is. McLaren is adding fuel to the fire with his latest equivocations about the matter of homosexuality. We might add that Rob Bell did precisely the same thing in Velvet Elvis. Donald Miller also saw no problem whatsoever with eating food that he knew was stolen by his hippy friends. Several years ago, Roger Nicole wrote, “In ethics, as in everything else, supreme authority is vested in God, the creator and ruler of heaven and earth, who has established the universe to conform to his will and to function in accordance with his law.”
It is becoming increasingly clear—and this should come as no surprise—that the ECM only gives lip service to supreme authority being vested in God. In order for the universe to conform to his will, there must be a revealed will from the Almighty, which there is. Furthermore, that revealed will from God must be clear and authoritative, which it also is. Even what we call General Revelation (cf. Ps. 19; Rom. 1:18ff.) is sufficient to render the non-believer inexcusable in its face (Rom. 1:18-23). The ECM, by and large, refuses to acknowledge this and wants us to look beyond the Bible to other disciplines. Allow me to explain what I mean.
We can also add Doug Pagitt to our list of ECM leaders, since he too has been around since the outset. Robert Webber (got any kids at Wheaton? That’s where Webber teaches) is editing a book due out this spring entitled Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Churches. Here is what Pagitt wrote and will appear in the book: “The question of humanity is inexorably linked to sexuality and gender. Issues of sexuality can be among the most complex and convoluted we need to deal with. It seems to me that the theology of our history does not deal sufficiently with these issues for our day. I do not mean this as a critique, but as an acknowledgment that our times are different. I do not mean that we are a more or less sexual culture, but one that knows more about genetic, social, and cultural issues surrounding sexuality and gender than any previous culture. Christianity will be impotent to lead a conversation on sexuality and gender if we do not boldly integrate our current understandings of humanity with our theology. This will require us to not only draw new conclusions about sexuality but will force us to consider new ways of being sexual.”
Let me break this down into some integral component parts. First, Pagitt states that the question of humanity is linked to sexuality and gender. This qualifies as the profound thought of the day. Amazing! It took us this long to discover that humanity is linked to sexuality and gender. Eureka! Mr .Pagitt does not explain in any detail—in fact he doesn’t explain at all—why the theology of our day is insufficient to deal with sexuality and gender. This is tantamount to saying that all of the books on sexuality and gender that have been handed down to us through the history of the Church are useless. The theology we now have that stands on the shoulders of the “giants” from the past has nothing to say about sexuality and gender. Of course, Mr. Pagitt is merely pointing us to the indisputable fact that our times are different from, say, four or five hundred years ago. Second profound thought of the day.
Pagitt has not convinced me that the front-end of the 21st century knows more about social and cultural issues. That needs to be clearly demonstrated. If Pagitt means that we know differently then perhaps I concur, but different is a far cry from better. It’s a cute play on words to believe that Christianity will be impotent to lead a conversation on sexuality and gender, if we don’t incorporate the findings of our glorious social engineers into our theology. Brilliant! We can now allow (neo)-pagan philosophers and geneticists tell us about anthropology. Of course, folks, this “anthropology from below” approach has been tried many times. Foolishly, Christianity has, from time to time, allowed the secularists to “correct” the Bible and it has been with devastating results. Pagitt ought to know that. In fact, I believe that he does.
We should keep in mind here that what Pagitt is saying is not some flight of fantasy, but I believe he is spelling out the ECM agenda for the coming time. What will be the primary issues in that agenda? Sexuality and gender. The ECM will explore—and expect the Christian Church to follow it in this—what is valid and invalid sexuality. Of course, biblical Christians already know because God gave it to them in Scripture. For the ECMers, it’s not that simple. The other issue that they will put before us is the time-worn discussion about the ordination of women.
Already we are seeing more and more women clamoring for ordination. If they are not doing that, they are participating as “praise leaders,” whatever that is. One of the things that I am hearing in my PCA circles is that women should be able to do whatever an unordained man can do. I’ve heard everyone from theological professors to pastors to the man and woman in the pew say this and it is simply wrong. Why? Because taken at face value, it is little more than an egalitarian statement that eradicates roles and gender distinctions.
Bruce Ware of Southern Baptist Seminary is also aware of this coming agenda. He writes, “Today…the primary areas in which Christianity is pressured to conform are on issues of gender and sexuality. Postmoderns and ethical relativists care little about doctrinal truth claims; these seem to them innocuous, archaic, and irrelevant to life. What they do care about, and care about with a vengeance, is whether their feminist agenda and sexual perversions are tolerated, endorsed, and expanded in an increasingly neo-pagan landscape.” Ware continues, “I find it instructive that when Paul warns about departures from the faith in the latter days, he lists ethical compromises and the searing of the conscience as the prelude to a full-scale doctrinal apostasy (1 Tim 4:1-5).”
Orthodox Christians had better be prepared for the onslaught from the ECM and from other quarters of ill-equipped, poorly-taught Christianity on the matters of gender and sexuality
Pagitt’s last statement is unbelievable, but highly instructive. He declares, “This will require us to not only draw new conclusions about sexuality but will force us to consider new ways of being sexual.” What, pray tell are the “new conclusions” we will be required to draw? What new ways of “being sexual” is Pagitt referring to? Allow me to point out two ways that ECM typically writes.
First, it shrouds its apodictic claims in ways that will never permit anyone pinning them down for an answer. For example, Pagitt might have provided some concrete examples of new ways of being sexual, but refuses—intentionally, I think—to supply us with any. He has an agenda but he’s not showing his hand yet. He’s just throwing it out there and those who are in churches that do not equip the saints will get the “deer in the headlights” look and go for some more Kool-Aid.
Second, the “requirements” that Pagitt speaks of have no substantial backing—say, from Scripture—to require us to understand that we are dealing with a divine “ought” in this circumstance. Our society is already giving us a number of ways that we might be sexual and they are all biblically unacceptable. New York magazine ran a recent article about pansexual, bi-queer, metroflexible New York teens. We are offered these “new” ways of being sexual according to the article: polysexual, ambisexual, pansensual, polyfide, bi-curious, fluid, heteroflexible, and heterosexual with lesbian tendencies. Does this help, Mr. Pagitt? Is this is what the Church of Jesus Christ is supposed to gearing up for?We don’t know and Pagitt, Miller, and McLaren won’t tell us. They only say that it has to be different than it is now. What should be crystal clear to any discerning Christian is that McLaren, Pagitt, Miller, and the ECM in general are deying and twisting the Bible’s clear teachings on essential doctrinal and ethical matters and that is one of the central ways that biblical authority is being undermined in our times. As Dorothy Sayers once quipped, “It is not the business of the church to conform Christ to men, but men to Christ.” In the next issue I’ll allow McLaren to show his true colors again as he responds to his critics on the homosexuality issue.
 Martin Lloyd-Jones, Authority, (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1958), p. 33.
 Ibid., 35.
 Roger R. Nicole, “Authority,” in Carl F.H. Henry (ed.), Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), p. 47.
 http://blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur/archives/2006/01/. Italics mine.
 Bruce Ware, “Ethics in a New Millennium,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 4, No. 1 (Spring 2000), pp. 91-92. Italics his.
 Ibid., 92.
 Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 19962), pp. 24-25.