Listening to “emergent” Christians talk about their ideas on the internet is not very easy.
For me, that has proven especially true in the past couple of weeks, for at least three reasons.
The first is that they keep saying things about God that are not too Biblical, or imbalanced, even if they aren’t strictly heretical (i.e., something that keeps you from being a real Christian).
The second is that they keep assuming other Christians, such as myself, mainly believe as they do for certain reasons — they want to preserve power, they want to shoot homosexuals in the streets for sport, they’re all legalists, fundies, etc. They don’t give much leeway to those who believe “traditional” Christianity, and live their faith in love, because they really believe the Bible teaches this and God wants it.
The third reason is because these are not just philosophical issues that can be talked about over (insert trendy drink of your choice) while tapping out notes on your (insert i-Something of your choice).1 I keep getting that impression from a lot of “emergent” advocates — and to be fair, from some “traditional” Christians too — that all this is just a bookish discussion.
Instead, this stuff is vital. It affects people’s lives. Believing wrongly about spiritual realities ruins marriages, families, churches. False doctrine (no matter which doctrines you believe are false) corrupts how one views God, morality, salvation, how to interact with the world.
And what if it’s true that Christians who still hold to the Biblical framework of man’s personal sin against God2), and eternal consequences for failure to repent and believe Christ? If so, those who claim or act otherwise are in a lot of trouble. Why? Because in their efforts to help the world, heal its hurts, etc., they’re stepping right over dead bodies — ignoring man’s true problem, deadness in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 1-2), in order to treat flesh wounds.
One month ago I addressed this issue in Part 1. It started with a fantasy-world analogy3 and actually dared to finish with a surface evaluation of the civil rights era. Now I’ll finally finish up, with some thoughts on Christians and others who could seem to prefer moral zeal but without Biblical knowledge, following a certain earthquake.
Do your paperwork
More than a month has passed since the earthquake that tore through the half-island nation of Haiti. Already afflicted with disease, death and poverty, the island is still suffering the aftermath of that near-apocalypse. The blighted country’s existing population of orphans undoubtedly swelled, and charity workers, Christian or not, are trying to figure out what to do.
They want to help the suffering people, they really do. They have great hearts, those charity workers. But what they also need to make sure they have is, um, the right paperwork.
This also goes for a certain group of Baptists.4 In early February, ten members of an Idaho church were trying to get into the Dominican Republic, crossing the border with multiple Haitian orphans in tow. Instead they were arrested and charged with child kidnapping.
More recently, eight of the Baptists were freed and returned to the U.S. in time for some to get on the Oprah show.5 But two of their leaders, Laura Silsby and Charisa Coulter, are still jailed in Port-au-Prince. They hadn’t had the right documents, Haiti authorities said, and oh, by the way: some of the children weren’t really orphans. A World magazine story (on Feb. 4) further describes:
[Silsby] told reporters last week: “Our hearts were in the right place.”
[. . .]
The Americans, members of a group called New Life Children’s Refuge, said they planned to establish an orphanage for children in the Dominican Republic. CNN reported that the group has no experience running an orphanage, and that the group’s headquarters are listed as Silsby’s now-foreclosed home.
What I hope is that the missionaries (or missionary wannabes?) are not now thinking this is simple anti-Christian persecution. I hope they aren’t claiming “this was God’s will” for something that just wasn’t very good sense. I hope good intentions aren’t being held up over God-glorifying wisdom.
I also hope other Christians won’t pick on them too much. Rather, we should seek to encourage good-hearted Christians who could use some, well, wisdom too.
In Romans 10:2, Paul refers to non-Christian Jews who have “zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” They don’t “submit to God’s righteousness,” the apostle says. In their case, having a “heart in the right place” was not enough.
The same is true of not only the Baptists in Haiti, or the social-gospel “emergent” folks, but any Christian. We should also be Biblical. We need to do the right paperwork. Otherwise, we risk making Jesus look bad, or else, have all these great intentions to help people but instead miss the real problems. 6
Rejecting society-prosperity “gospels”
Not having an actual orphanage to take the “orphans” to is a bad enough problem. Far worse is the issue described in Part 1: if you had a God-given “power” to give resurrection from death to some victims (though you don’t know who), why would you ignore it in favor of only treating not-quite-dead-yet people for surface wounds?
Yet many Christians, “emergent” or not, do this all the time.7
We get wrapped up in things like Natural Disaster Recovery, and Man’s Inhumanity to Man, and Addressing Injustice, and tend to neglect the far worse problems in man: the natural disaster of the Fall, man’s inhumanity to God, and the worse injustice of not constantly giving Him glory.
Many know the health-wealth-and-prosperity “gospel” teachers are an easy and rightful target for Christians who point out their heresies and/or greed.
But how is a society-prosperity “gospel” much different? It turns the Christian religion, or missionary work, primarily into trying to heal a society’s wounds, without the “secret power” of the Gospel that God uses to raise someone from spiritual death!
Though it sounds cliché, John 3 remains clear: Jesus told Nicodemus that unless anyone is personally, supernaturally, “born again,” he cannot even “see” the Kingdom of God. The Gospel, personal and life-transforming, powered by Christ’s divinity, sacrificial death and resurrection, is what raises people to life. It’s the secret power. It’s the only ultimate hope for humanity.
No one is saying all Christians should end their Haiti relief work, or any civil-rights work, so we can all only yell John 3:16 all over the place. Rather, Scripture is clear that helping the poor, feeding the hungry, addressing injustice, defending life, etc., are part of Christians’ Gospel-powered presence in the world. However, in combating civil-rights evils, or caring for the poor or orphans after the Haiti earthquake, shouldn’t Christians at least also spread the Gospel that Christ died to save sinners from their own spiritual deadness?
The choice is not “either we preach the Gospel, or we help the poor or fight injustice.” Christians throughout history haven’t seen this as a dichotomy (though a lot of people nowadays seem to force it into a black-and-white issue). Neither does the Bible.
By rooting everything we do not in our own society-prosperity work, but in that secret power of God to replace hearts of stone with living hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), we stay truly humble. We work out of gratitude to God, not confidence in our own morality or intentions. We still have zeal, but with Biblical knowledge. We do our paperwork — and hopefully have a little more common sense and hearts in the right place. Best of all, God, and not us, will get the glory.
- Insider meme traders’ note: i-Stuff and all the cultic crazes about it is going to sound as bizarre in 20 years as headbands, “boom boxes” and “Walkmans” do to us now. Tell your children. ↩
- That’s as opposed to focusing on man’s sin against man, the kind of sin that Christians of all stripes or permutations emphasize. ↩
- I think I should use those more often. ↩
- And you thought I was going to pick on “emergent” advocates again, didn’t you? ↩
- “Americans describe jail, worry over Haiti,” Idaho Press-Tribune, Feb. 20, 2010. ↩
- I am resisting temptation to write further about this issue here based on the doctrine of Christian vocation — that is, doing all one’s work with excellence. That’s because another article I found did some muckraking about one of the women arrested, including a quote from a former employer who said the woman was not very disciplined. But I’ll avoid it for now, first, because it could be based on nothing but gossip, and secondly, the topic deserves a completely separate column. ↩
- Yes, I can’t help but pick on the “emergents” a little more. That’s because they’re the ones who, like their intellectual ancestors the mainline denomination leaders, keep codifying the “heal people’s wounds” approach at the expense of “preach the Gospel that can raise the dead” approach. But it seems evangelicals drift into this thinking by naïveté and ignorance, and contrary to what they claim to believe. ↩