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Emerging I: The Church June 1, 2007

Posted by Matt in Church, emergent.

In order to understand the emergent movement, I think it necessary to first understand how they see the church as it exists today. Today is something of a slipper term given that the emergent movement saw its first rumblings in the 1980s. So this view of church today spreads from the late 70s through the present (think: Post-“Jesus Movement“). Continuing to disclaim a bit, this look will focus almost exclusively on church as it appears in America. (Not to be Ameri-centric, but I’ve never lived anywhere else.) Not to say that this approach wouldn’t be valid outside of the states, just that your milage may vary.

Since around the 1860s (the arrival of Pentecostalism),  there have been three rather distinct branches of Church. The first of these branches for discussion is the Catholic branch. The Catholic branch of the Church includes the Roman Rite, Orthodoxy, and certain members of the Anglican tradition. The Catholic branch of Christianity is largely concerned with eccessiology. (I use the term in a slightly irregular manner — Not only do I use it to refer to the structure and practice of Church, but also that Catholic activity is primarily centered on the church itself [in and of itself].) Highlights of the branch include a heavy emphasis on submission to the Church as a united whole as expressed through its tradition. The individual has little status in the eyes of the Church at large, excepting rare circumstances (“miracles”?) (ie: Fatima). Also characteristic of the Catholic branch is the equivalent reliance on tradition and Scripture. Catholic soteriology is Church-based: the individual receives salvation through the church. This places emphasis on the Church at large over the individual. There are, of course, significant theological differences between the Catholic branch and the rest of Christianity. However, it is beyond the scope of our present discussion to detail these explicitly, but anyone with a cursory knowledge of Christian doctrinal history will have passing familiarity.

The second major branch for discussion is  Pentecostalism. Pentecostals are by in large independent of any overhead leadership structure, leaving local churches to guide doctrine and provide pastoral leadership. Pentecostalism is primarily indicated by its heavy emphasis on the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit. In this tradition, worship is primarily concerned with the exercise of the gifts. This fact tends to highlight the individual over the church as a whole. Pentecostal soteriology is based upon the spirit providing affirmation of the individual to himself and to the community at large via the presentation of the gifts. Beyond this primary influence, there is little that is characteristic of the movement as a whole (not even Christian orthodoxy). This is due mainly to its decentralized nature and its loose view of ecclesiology. Parts of the Pentecostal branch overlap with the Evangelical branch (esp. in fundamentalism) and even (ever so slightly) the Catholic branch.

The final branch for consideration is Evangelicalism. Now, I will be presenting my own opinion of what constitutes an evangelical, being fully aware that this is a term that is still being debated. Evangelicalism is the largest branch in States (though it does depend on how you define the term). In my definition: there are three distinct groups within Evangelicalism: Mainline Protestants, Independents, and Fundamentalists. The reason for this division is primarily simplicity’s sake, though I think that there is more overlap between them than not. Conservative Mainliners, Independents, and Fundamentalists all share similar views of ecclesiology and soteriology as well as an emphasis in praxis. Liberal Mainliners are outliers for the present discussion (maybe, because many of them are ’emergent’?). Most Evangelicals have a lower view of ecclesiology. Mainliners (as a whole) have higher views of Church (still lower than that of the Catholic branch) which includes an emphasis on non-local leadership and a slightly higher view of the sacraments. Mainliners tend to be more politically liberal and yet less politically active. Mainliners are also typically more established in their communities than other and (perhaps, for that reason) their demographics tend older. In contrast, Independents tend to have lower views of church (even though some of them are even known to serve Communion from time to time). Independents usually have no formal overhead structure, but often belong in church conglomerates or collectives (such as the Southern Baptist convention) with similar views of doctrine and political issues. Independents tend to be more politically conservative and trend younger demographically then their Mainline brethren. Finally, contrasting even further with Mainliner are the Fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are characterized by an extreme commitment to orthodoxy (at least, in so much as the individual fundamentalist sees it). Characteristic of the fundamentalists is hard stances on the inerrancy of the Bible, Solo Scriptura (that first word isn’t a typo), and premillennial views of eschatology (esp. dispensationalism). Fundamentalists are almost exclusively politically conservative as the result of firm views on the issues such as abortion and homosexual practice. Fundamentalists tend to be very vocal in political activity. As a result of its radical doctrine, there is almost no place for ecclesiology within this sub-branch. Fundamentalist soteriology is characterized by extreme emphasis on a personal commitment to the gospel (as the local church would define it) and usually a ‘Once Saved, Always Saved’ view of perseverance. (How that fits within their praxis is a question for another day…) These three contrasting subtypes of Evangelical make trying to make overriding generalizations difficult, but there are couple of things that are probably worth noting of the movement as a whole. While not all of its constituents are political vocal, a majority of them are active in political causes that are primary a result of their personal beliefs on The State and moral issues. Most evangelicals, while having individualistic views of soteriology, maintain that local community is of value especially individual participant within that community.

Hopefully, this overview of the Church at present will give us enough of a basis to discuss the Emergent critique of Church as well as how Emergents define themselves apart from this overview.  Next up, we’ll take a look at the culture that we find ourselves in. Until then… :-)



1. studyhound - July 10, 2007

So when can we expect the rest of this look at the emergent church?



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