10/10/2009 11:43:00 pm

A Day with a Heretic

Posted by Tom French |

I went to a World Vision event today where Tim Costello, Fuzz and Carolyn Kitto, and Brian McLaren spoke about the way the church can be relevantly engaging with the world.

I went because I wanted to see Brian McLaren. Probably because I'm a stickler for theological controversy. I knew that McLaren gets a bit of bashing from the conservative Christian crowd for his thoughts on scripture and his leadership within the emerging church. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I knew he was in Australia and I wasn't going get the chance to see him as I wasn't going to Stump. So I decided to go to this.

For a while before I forgot what the day was about. Seeing as it was a World Vision event I started to worry that I was going to spend the day being told to sponsor children, give money to World Vision, and get in small groups and discuss the Millennium Development goals. And while all of those are good things, I'm little bored by them.

However when I turned up they told me the day was about helping the church to engage relevantly with the world. They didn't even say "engage relevantly with the world so everyone can give more money to World Vision." I actually felt like it is probably some of the best work that World Vision can be doing in the west for long term change. They are educating people, church leaders in particular, at a fundamental level about why the church needs to shift its focus to the great issues of justice and compassion facing the world today. When you shift people's understanding and attitudes rather than just their money you'll achieve a lot more long term gain.

Tim Costello started off the day by giving an excellent overview of the need for the Church to express it's faith through dealing with the emergencies facing the world today. He showed us the historical underpinnings for Australia's relationship with the church and the churches relationship with society. I enjoyed it a lot.

Fuzz and Carolyn talked about the need for the church to have a missional focus.

And Brian talked about the need for the church to stop focusing on itself and start focusing on the world.

My experience of McLaren is not that he's a raging heretic, false prophet, spawn of Satan. He said a lot of stuff I really liked. He talked about the need for institutions to protect the gains of previous movements and movements to make the gains not being made by institutions. In other words he seemed to be saying the established church is needed to preserve the gains of the reformers of the past. And the emerging church need to make gains to be preserved by established church. So the emergers and reformers make gains in their movements and cement those gains in the the institutions who protect them. The church is always moving forward then with movements leapfrogging the the establishment.

People seemed to hear this as a call to abandon the institutional church and surge on ahead because they're too busy protecting the past. But I heard it as saying both parts of the church are need each other and the best situation is when the whole church can be working together to surge ahead to be growing and adapting to the ever changing contexts it exists in. I liked his optimism for the church.

He had a lot of criticism for the traditional view of salvation being "believe in Jesus, go to heaven." He said salvation isn't about agreeing with a set of doctrines and then getting eternal life, but he related salvation back to Abraham's call in Genesis 12, saying that salvation about being blessed to be a blessing. He wanted to emphasise that our faith is not just to secure us eternal life, or God's blessing, but to transform us to be people who bring God's kingdom to earth now.

I really liked his emphasis on the need for our faith to be outworked in our loving interaction with the world. We need to be people who are caught up in God's preference for justice and mercy. Like James says faith without deeds is dead. We definitely need to get the focus of salvation off being some scheme devised to meet our needs of eternal security.

I did feel however that he seemed to overemphasise the idea that the primary reason for our faith is to transform the world. The impression I got was that he was discounting the eternal nature of salvation to focus on the immediate implications. We need to affirm that God saves us to bless the world without forgetting that there is however more to it than just this world right now. I would want say that while we have a responsibility to be bringing the values of the Kingdom to bare on our communities, society and world right now, that's not the end point of the kingdom. Salvation is not ultimately about our happiness but God's glory. God saves us for his glory. When we are changed and transform the world, he is glorified. When the poor are helped he is glorified. And when his Kingdom comes he is glorified. At some point God will finish the Kingdom work that he started in Christ when Christ comes back and establishes God's just rule for eternity. We are called to be transforming the world now, but in the knowledge and hope that God is going to wholly transform this world in the future.

Another of McLaren's things was that we need to understand the narratives of the Old Testament to properly understand the life of Jesus. The narratives being those of Genesis (creation and reconciliation), Exodus (liberation and formation), and the Peaceable Kingdom (justice and mercy). I really liked the importance he placed on viewing Jesus in light of the stories that have come before. Jesus wasn't just some guy who arrived in Israel in 0 AD as an isolated event in the history of the world. He was the Jewish messiah, the culmination of years of God's self-revelation of his people through the great narratives of his redeeming work, he is the climax of God's story of his work with the world. I think that reading of the OT makes our understanding Jesus' life and work even richer. This is a pretty similar idea to what NT Wright is pushing when he talks about Jesus. I want to keep thinking about that.

So if I can sum up my McLaren thoughts, from everything I saw and heard yesterday he's not a dangerous heretic set to destroy the world as we know it. I know I disagree with him on a number of issues. His view of the Bible is less conservative than mine. (I reckon he and my Mum would get on.) I think he's got lot's of good stuff to say, and he has a lot to helpfully challenge the church on. If he continues to run around the world telling Christians to be blessed to be a blessing, I can't complain about that. Go McLaren.

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