As I indicated on my Facebook page, I’m participating in Ken Howard’s blog tour for his book “Paradoxy: Creating a Christian Community Beyond Us and Them.” There are other blogs that have covered this and I encourage you to read their reviews in addition to my own.
My review is going to be split into two parts. Because I wanted to be as fair as I could in doing this review (since the author was kind enough to ask me to do this review after he and I disagreed on some things), I have split my review into two parts. The first part is a bare-boned review that covers the chapter as it is. No commentary is given, no evaluations, no judgments. This is done to encourage the reader to go read the book themselves. The second part is a critical review, giving commentary, praise, and critiques. Even there I seek to be as fair as possible, for those looking for a ‘hit piece’ against what will undoubtedly be labeled an “Emergent Book” are in for a disappointment. While I certainly do disagree with portions of the chapter (and the book), it is still a worthy read and there is a lot to gain from reading it. I fully intend to do an entire book review after the blog tour is over. But for now, the chapter will suffice.
REVIEW OF CHAPTER SIX: “THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME”
Sometimes there is simply no getting around it – the Church, as a whole, feels like it’s failing or has failed. After all, we’ve moved from what was once considered a “Christian society” to what is now being called a “post-Christian era.” What is the Church to do in the shifting sands of modern culture? That is the question Ken Howard attempts to answer in his book Paradoxy: Creating a Christian Culture Beyond Us and Them.
In the chapters leading up to Chapter Six, Howard proposes that we are enduring a paradigm shift in the Church and that the Church is in a culture that is moving away (and becoming hostile to) Christendom and absolutism, the two staples of Church theology for the past 2,000 years. In light of this, we must look to Christianities that could have been and extrapolate what made them successful in their time and place, and then make the move toward applying such principles to the modern church. Chapter Six is Howard’s attempt at giving a brief overview of how a modern church would function.
The thesis of the chapter is quite simple – all churches need to live in the love of Christ (the Incarnational Christ from the Trinitarian God) as the center of their community. Everything else is peripheral. Anticipating that both conservatives and liberals would find difficulty in such a way of thinking, he implores Liberals to see that such a shift in thinking is a progressive paradigm while explaining to Conservatives that what they see as “God’s Truth” that needs to be defended doesn’t in fact need to be defended. That is, if they fear putting Christ as the center of their church community because it would abdicate progressive ideas or conservative apologetics, neither side should be afraid; Christ is progressive and capable of defending His doctrines without our help.
The most challenging aspect of the chapter is attempting to imagine a church where disagreement is not only acknowledged, but is also welcomed and encouraged. He uses his own congregation as an example of a church attempting to live with Christ’s love as the centerpiece. He shares multiple examples of how this has worked (and sometimes failed), such as pointing out that a former CIA member who’s political view is self-described as, “To the right of Genghis Khan” has befriended and works with a disabled homosexual man. He points to a husband and wife, one conservative and the other liberal, who haven’t been able to worship together for quite some time until they discovered Howard’s’ church. Such examples serve to aid in silencing the critics who say that such an idea could never work; of course it can work because it’s working right now.
The justification for his ecumenical vision comes from the fact that Jesus claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life and not to point to the way, the truth, and the life. If we take Jesus’ claims at face value, then the local church should be more organic than organizational, more adaptable than academic. Too often our pursuit of right doctrine comes at the expense of right living, Howard argues. Concerning our Bible studies, Howard writes:
One might think that his [Jesus’] followers would want to virtually live in the Gospels, immersing themselves in Christ’s life, appropriating his story, and making it their own, living into and incarnating (lit., “putting meat on the bones of”) it. But we are so tempted to turn our attention elsewhere: to searching the New Testament epistles or the books of the law in the Hebrew Scriptures for rules and formulas by which to live our lives, or to limiting our time in the Gospels to sifting Jesus’ teachings for their ethical implications so that we might make more ethical choices.
In other words, we become so concerned with what the Bible says that we forget how to live within the Biblical narrative. While many conservatives might have an adverse reaction to such a statement at first (as I did), these words echo those of conservative theologian J. Gresham Machen, when he said, “Read the Gospels for yourselves, my friends. Do not study them this time. Just read them; just let the stupendous figure of Jesus stand before your eyes…accept him essentially as he is presented to us by the Evangelists and by Paul.” Howard (like Machen) is not arguing that we forgo the ethical implications of Scripture or doctrine completely, but rather that we allow Christ to become the centerpiece for all of our doctrine; but even more so, we should live Christ first before trying to use Him as a foundation for doctrine. The solution to our “over-indoctrination” is to immerse ourselves in the narrative of Scripture and to live as though we were a part of the story.
In living out the Scriptures, Howard hopes that those who consider themselves progressive will progress in the love of Christ first before looking to their ideals, and the fundamentalists will become more fundamental about Christ before becoming fundamental about doctrines. Both sides, according to Howard, need to recognize that all of Scripture rests on the two greatest commandments (love your God and love your neighbor) and that everything else is commentary on those two commandments.
If we truly live in a community that lives out the greatest commandments, then disagreements shouldn’t be an issue according to Howard. He implores us not to put our disagreements or theological leanings under wraps, but rather to express our differences so long as we recognize Christ as the centering force in our community; so long as we recognize Christ as our unifier, nothing should divide us. Even on controversial issues, such as homosexuality, Howard asks us to approach the issue with the assumption that the other side has Christ in common with us. When doing so (as Howard’s church did on the issue of homosexuality), even if an agreement cannot be reached, at the very least we can be friendly with the other side and not ascribe the disagreement to the other side’s nefarious intentions; we can see their disagreement as legitimate, even if misguided.
The idea of getting along with the other side and treating secondary issues as secondary issues comes from the idea that we are not following a set of rules, but instead are following a person. God did not lay down a list for us to follow, but rather sent a Person into the world for us to follow. It is no accident that God did not give His full revelation in a book, through a prophet, or in a Pod Cast. Rather, He sent a Person to be the full revelation of His will. Howard points out that it is the Christian’s ‘job’ to follow this Person.
If we adopt such a paradoxical approach to living the Christian life, Howard argues that our evangelism will change as well. Rather than having the end goal of our encounters with people be that they accept Christ, we will start accepting and embracing these people as people. Evangelism will take place through our actions rather than our words. Rather than setting up rules on keeping people out, we should instead work on accepting people and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide them to truth; our job is simply to show them the love of Christ.
When we do set up rules and regulations on what it is to be “in” or “out,” we open ourselves up to schisms and church splits. Sometimes it might be over a major issue, such as should homosexuals serve as pastors or is the Bible fully inspired, but other times it might be over where to put a light in the church parking lot or what color the sanctuary carpet should be. When we live by the rule of who’s in and who’s out, it becomes much easier to create schisms.
In living a true community, people must belong before they become; that is, people must feel a part of the Christian community before we start to call them Christians. Howard points to the fact that Baptism was something people worked up to in the early days of Christianity, that they already belonged long before they were baptized. They partook in Communion before baptism, before they necessarily agreed with all the precepts of the Church.
Under such a view, the church’s leadership should be set on gifts and talents and not on a hierarchy structure. By setting it on the gifts and talents of the members involved, we eradicate the many rules for hierarchy that often stagnate the growth of the Church (e.g. “We can’t do it this way because we’ve never done it that way before!”).
In the end, Howard is not calling for an anarchical approach to Church, where there is no leadership, no doctrine, no standards, or nothing that would identify the Church as the Church; but neither is he calling for a church with a set hierarchy, doctrines, and a black and white line of who’s in and who’s out. Instead, Howard is calling for a middle-way approach to the church, one who has a foundation in the Person of Jesus Christ, but is open enough not to forbid people from coming based upon their doctrinal leanings. The church shouldn’t be a place where we hide our disagreements, but it shouldn’t be a place where we abdicate simply because of our disagreements. In Howard’s view, so long as Christ is the center of the Church there should be little to no reason we split apart.
There is much more in this chapter (as it is one of the longer chapters of the book) that I simply did not cover for the sake of brevity. I would highly encourage you to read the book (regardless of if you’re conservative or liberal) so you can work through what Howard has to say. This chapter contains much more information than I have covered and it’s good information that is helpful to Christian growth. You would only be hurting yourself if you turned away from reading this book.
This chapter provides quite a bit to reflect on and does a good job of pointing to the ideal and attempting to explain how we should live the ideal in the practical. There is much in this chapter that many conservative Christians need to pay attention to, even if the chapter tends to take more of a liberal bent (though my description of it as taking a liberal bent might be based on the fact that I’m a theological conservative). At the same time, Howard falls short of providing a true view of how the church should act, especially in his view of communion, membership, and doctrine. Where he falls short, he more than makes up for in his view of Christ’s center of the local church, how to deal with non-Christians, and the like.
More specifically to what Howard gets right, I think the biggest and most important thing is his view of Christ as the center of the local church, specifically in trying to live out the two greatest commandments. I have stated with much fervor in the past (though not necessarily on this site) that all of Christian living comes down to the two greatest commandments. How we love God and how we love our neighbors is generally what Christianity boils down to.
More often than not, however, churches miss the point of living for love. They become what I call “niche” churches. There are churches that appeal to different demographics and make those demographics their main focus. Some are more subtle in their approach (i.e. churches that tend to be more contemporary often do so in order to draw in a younger, more energetic crowd) while others are blatant in their demographical approach (i.e. some churches label themselves “Cowboy Churches” or the like, so they make it clear that they are appealing to a specific demographic). While such churches do have their advantages, they generally fail the community because they fail to live up to the two greatest commandments. How can you love your neighbor if you limit who your neighbor is?
Howard then draws from this “Christocentric” view of Church and concludes that we should be careful who we label as “in” and who we label as “out.” Certainly we must be careful because there are many drawbacks when we become more concerned with who belongs and who doesn’t. From my own experience I have seen the dangers of deciding who is in and who is out. Some churches will split over seemingly insignificant issues, such as when and how Christ will return, so the point that fellowship is broken and in some cases, one side begins to accuse the other side of not even being a Christian (I myself have faced this; I have no real view on the how behind Christ’s return, to which some say that unless I align with their view, I’m not really a Christian). Such divides have split denominations or are currently splitting denominations; one can look to the Southern Baptist Convention and see how the conservative resurgence (though necessary in my opinion, but wrongly handled) nearly split the SBC, but even more importantly how the absolutism on the “either/or” paradigm is now leading to a confrontation between Calvinists and non-Calvinists. This recent conflict has escalated to the point where some SBC seminaries will no longer hire Calvinists and where Calvinist students are chastised for their beliefs.
Such schisms are horrible and without warrant. After all, if we are the body of Christ then we must act as the body would; this would indicate that divides should not occur unless we truly know the other side to not be Christian. We’ve become so busy separating over petty differences that we’ve missed the bigger picture; we’re called to impact our culture and help them to experience the love of Christ. Such an action cannot be done when we’re busy debating when Christ will return or how exactly salvation is issued (predestined or free-will).
At the same time, there needs to be a standard beyond the Trinity and the Incarnation. These two dogmas, while foundational, are not exclusive grounds for who’s “in” and who’s “out.” There are doctrines that are inextricably tied to these two dogmas and help inform these dogmas. For instance, what sense does the Incarnation make outside of a person’s soteriology? Was Jesus incarnated solely as a moral example or was He incarnated to die for our sins? If for our sins, did He take our sins with Him on the cross or did He ransom us from our sins? While the second division of doctrine isn’t as important (to some), the first one is. Thus, even when the Trinity and Incarnation function as the foundational point in a church, there are other doctrines that are simply come attached; such doctrines make it extremely difficult to find unity within the local church. While I am not calling for uniformity in all matters, I am calling for some type of basic uniformity.
Even with the Incarnation itself we have problems because there are multiple doctrines surrounding what the Incarnation means. Was it a literal Incarnation? Were Jesus and Christ two separate persons? Does it ultimately matter? Did He abdicate His Divine nature in order to assume a human nature? Did He change in the Incarnation? Did the Trinity participate in the Incarnation, that is, did the Father and Spirit suffer on the cross with Christ? All of these questions have to be answered when we use the term “Incarnation.” The problem is that if we take the orthodox view of the Incarnation then we have to adhere to other doctrines as well, because many tenets of the Incarnation are based on other doctrines. We believe that Christ took on the full nature of man because if He did not we would not be saved (the ancient Christian adage of, “That which is not assumed is not redeemed”). Thus, early Christian soteriology and what it means to be saved informed our view of the Incarnation; if we lower the view of salvation then we lose justification for the Incarnation.
Such problems only become worse when it comes to church government. In terms of church government, while I agree that our gifts and talents should guide us into our roles in the church, such thinking doesn’t exclude hierarchy. If anything it would only prove that we need a hierarchy within the Church, but that the hierarchy should be based upon the gifts and callings of those involved. Unfortunately, when Howard claims that the early Church was more organic and lacked a hierarchy he puts himself in a bit of a bind; what do we do with the pastoral epistles of Paul? If Howard claims that Paul did not write the epistles then he is guilty of liberal higher criticism and loses any hope of winning over the theologically conservative crowd. If he says that Paul did write the epistles, but they’re not inspired, then he still loses conservatives. If he says that Paul wrote the epistles and the epistles are inspired, then he loses his claim that there is no hierarchy in the Church.
At best his view of church government lacks a nuanced understanding of Church history. The Apostolic Fathers were adamant that local churches submit to the authority of their priests and bishops. These men did not write centuries after the Disciples, but were disciples of the Disciples. It is believed that Clement of Rome took over after Peter as Bishop of Rome (though some have Clement as 4th in line); but almost all texts agree that Peter trained Clement. Almost all history teaches that both Polycarp and Ignatius studied and learned under John the Apostle. All three of these men (Polycarp, Ignatius, and Clement) were bishops and wrote with authority, calling on church members to submit to the authority of the priests and bishops. While they did not grant such leaders absolute authority (indicating that it was still more organic than organized), there was an established hierarchy from very early on in Church history; one would think that if Jesus were against hierarchies or if the Church was an “accident” as Howard claims the Disciples would have instructed their followers as such. Instead, they took leadership positions (one can look to Acts to see the formation of the hierarchies).
Finally, what is the local church supposed to do on moral issues? Homosexuality is the perfect example. Some will say it’s not a sin while others will say it is a sin. Paul says not to associate with believers who unrepentantly engage in sexual sins. Thus, if homosexuality is a sexual sin then the church, in order to be true to God’s word, must keep unrepentant Christians out the outskirts of fellowship. How does a church engaged in “paradoxy” handle such a situation? Say Paul was wrong (which loses the conservatives) or embrace what Paul had to say (which loses the liberals)? The fact is, on many moral issues simply believing in the Trinity and Incarnation isn’t enough; at some point there is a diving line on what is and is not morally acceptable in a church.
Now, none of the above disproves anything Howard claimed, but rather shows that a more nuanced approach would be appropriate. Simply saying, “We believe in the Trinity and we believe in the Incarnation” isn’t enough for church membership or to partake in communion. There’s a reason early Christians were creedal and that was to establish who believed in the true Christ and who didn’t. While churches often go too far in establishing who’s in and who’s out, if we’re too lax in our standards (as I believe Howard is) then we begin to lose the meaning of the terms “Trinity” and “Incarnation.” Or perhaps I’m completely missing the point, which is entirely possible.
None of this negates the fact that this book should be read or attempts to trample the heart of the issue. Howard is not attempting to subvert conservative Christianity or find a way to tame it so liberalism might thrive; rather, Howard is a brother in Christ who is tired of the fighting and trying to find a solution. I just disagree with some of the specifics of his solution, but agree with the broad approach. The broad approach is that we may need to narrow down our doctrinal stances a little bit and see what is truly important. I simply think that the level to which Howard narrows that doctrine is too low and puts the foundational doctrines at risk, but I admit that I wouldn’t go much further than Howard goes in adding doctrines. Though his list is short, mine wouldn’t be much longer, but I would argue that my list is more inline with Scripture and Church teachings than Howard’s is.
But the good thing about Howard is that he would allow the discussion and debate that I would bring to the table. After all, he asked me to write this review AFTER he and I disagreed on some things. If nothing else, I would encourage people to purchase and read this book to support a man who is consistent with what he believes. Such men are rare and when we find one, even if we disagree with him, we should support him and befriend him. So agree or disagree with my review, you owe it to yourself to read the book; even if you disagree with some aspects of the book, there is still much truth to be had in its pages.
 J. Gresham Machen. J. Gresham Machen’s The Gospel and the Modern World: And Other Short Writings. Ed. Stephen J. Nichols. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2005). p 24-25
This is part of the Paradoxy Blog Tour. Here is a list of other participants:
Chapter 1 (The End of the World as We Know It: Collapsing Paradigms) – Bosco Peters
Chapter 2 (Constantine’s Ghost: Christendom) – Amy Motiff
Chapter 3 (Reality Aint What it Used to Be: Foundationalism) – Jana Reiss
Chapter 4 (Hanging By A Thread: Christianity as a Religion) – Tom Brackett
Chapter 5 (O God, Our Help in Ages Past: Christianities That Might Have Been) – Sarah Bylan Breuer
Chapter 6 (The Shape of Things to Come: Promising Principles for a New Way of Church) – Joel Borofsky
Chapter 7 (A New Middle Way? Characteristics of an Incarnational Orthodoxy) – Andy MacBeth
Chapter 8 (Paradigm Pathways: Which Reality is Your Church Living Into?) – Mike Morell
Conclusion (Alpha and Omega – Beginning and End (and Beginning)) – Paul Zaul and Ken Howard