Tuesday, August 29, 2006

My reactions to the Erwin McManus talk

This post goes mainly to my friends on the Front Porch, the young adult church ministry of which I’m I part.

Many people in the group asked me what my reaction was of the videotaped lecture of Erwin McManus that we watched last Thursday. (For those who weren’t there or don’t know about this fellow, he is one of the major leaders of a movement within American Evangelicalism called the Emerging Church Movement (or ECM for short). So what I’ve done here is identified several main problem areas I recognized in his talk, and then followed them up with my response. Feel free to add your comments at the bottom of my post.

To encourage you towards greater learning, I've additionally listed at the bottom of my post some related online resources. These should be helpful to you in acquiring greater discernment on these important issues.

“We can’t know for sure our way is right!”

McManus would contend that confidence from a Christian leader is mostly a charade. They learn to exude confidence when they really don’t know for sure. Bottom-line, it appears to me that what he’s really saying is that “dogmatic church leaders are just big fat liars!” He advocates instead that we should be more honest and admit when we just don’t know things. He even seems to hint that he holds – as some emergent leaders do – that we can’t know for sure much of anything.

This brings to mind an occasion when I was sharing my faith with someone I met one Saturday evening on my way to the top floor of the Sears Tower in Chicago a number of years ago. This new friend’s name was Thomas. He was an impressive young man. A German fellow in his late 20’s who already had his PhD in accounting. Thomas and I had a most enjoyable and invigorating conversation that lasted several hours up there, carried on over dinner, and finished on a downtown street corner at 2:45 in the morning. Before hugging goodbye with plans to continue our new friendship over the phone and via email, he shared with me with the best of intentions what he felt would benefit my future conversation with others like him who were open to examining the claims of Christianity. Thomas said, “I appreciate your heart and your confidence in what you believe. But you can’t know for sure your way is right.” He suggested, “Let people know that you could be wrong.” At the time, I could not agree with his advice and I respectfully told him that. I said, “I may know a lot about some things, and a little about a few more things, and nothing about a whole bunch more things, but I can not deny what I do know for sure – as sure as I knew I was standing on two feet – and that is, I personally know Jesus, and I know He is God, and I know He loves me more than I love myself.” While I believed my words, I think I now know what Thomas was getting at with his recommendation.

Now, I would argue my confidence is based on the reasons I have and the evidence that exists. I must concede, however, to the possibility I could be wrong – that is, about the whole Christianity thing being true. That’s because my knowledge is contingent on what I was exposed to. For example, my knowledge of the gospel was largely contingent on my exposure to it. Even the gospel itself is considered contingent knowledge. This knowledge was supposedly communicated by God and was not revealed until God made it known. God in His perfect justice could have left us in our sins by never providing redemption to humanity. Keep in mind, ultimately, people go to hell not for rejecting Jesus, but because they are spiritual lawbreakers who will not escape the judgment of the good Judge who will execute His perfect justice one day.

So are we being overly confident in what we know? Well, it all depends on what we can know, and what we do know. I don’t think you would want your oncologist, for example, to hold to the view he or she can’t know anything when you’re going in for an analysis to determine if you had cancer. The following is another illustration that makes the point, which I heard from Pastor Alistair Begg at a conference held at Cedarville a few years ago:

Imagine if you were sitting in 36H in deep, dark clouds as the pilot is in communication with air traffic control. How would you feel if you heard from the cockpit, “they’ve told me we’re at 4,000 feet. But how can the air traffic controller be sure? Maybe we’re at 6,000 feet. There’s no way those guys can be sure they’re right.” Could that pilot’s views possibly lead to catastrophic consequences? Would you want to be on that plane? If it were I, I’d be looking for a parachute and the nearest exit!
I agree with McManus that people need to be humble and honestly admit their level of ignorance on a particular topic. If they are unsure about something, then they should admit it. But the converse is also true; if one is fairly confident about something, one should admit that too. Otherwise, the admission is a false lack of confidence. Just because there are things we don’t know about, or can’t know about, does not mean we can’t have confidence about certain things.

Is all knowledge contingent? The answer is no. Knowledge that is not contingent is necessary. In other words, it is not dependent on anything. The essence and nature of God would be considered an example of knowledge, which is necessary. God exists eternally and is outside of everything that is created. He is determined by nothing. God is necessary knowledge.

The evidence is what leads one to a conclusion or even a conviction. Regarding the plane analogy, the instrument panels were indicating the plane was flying at 4,000 feet, and the tower was saying the plane was at 4,000 feet, and the co-pilot was saying the plane was at 4,000 feet. It would seem reasonable, therefore, to fly the plane with the confidence the plane was at 4,000 feet. And it would not seem pompous of the pilot to display surety in announcing to the passengers that the plane was flying at 4,000 feet. Likewise, to believe in claims of Christianity is neither arrogant nor irrational. The claims of Christianity are rooted in an overwhelming supply of historic and scientific evidence that leads a believer to possess confidence in that belief.

I can be sure, as I am sure I am standing on two legs that Christianity is true. But I must also say that I could be wrong. The evidence seems to be strongly on my side in both cases though – that is, that Christianity is true and that I am indeed standing on two legs. I must however concede I could be wrong. The subjective acts of my faith and reason could be faulty – as I am certainly a faulty human being. But while my perceptions can be inaccurate, the evidence grounded in philosophy, reason, science, and history indubitably shows that the object of my faith and reason – namely the God of the Bible – is credible in His own right. While my faith is contingent, it is contingent on the object of my faith, which is the necessary knowledge of God Himself. Since my faith is not fastened to a changing thing like me, but God, this brings me surety.

Backwards thinking on doing church

How should we do church? Well, in order to answer this question, we first need to properly define what church is. Then, we need to understand what the Bible tells us about the purpose of church. And it is on these two points I think McManus is confused.

The Bible defines the Church as the assembly of believers. That’s believers, not a mixture of believers and unbelievers. Granted, the Bible tells us there will be both saved and unsaved in our ranks. But the intended assembly is that of believers.

When we look in the Bible, we also find that in addition to worshiping the Lord in special corporate ways, the church was designed by God for believers’ mutual edification. We get equipped in order to then engage the culture through our life and through our lips. Here is another area where I’m afraid McManus doesn’t get it. He advocates we should emphasize looking for greater opportunities for non-believers to be welcomed and assimilated into our community. It is his intention and hope that they will eventually come to faith in Christ. Now I don’t mind being welcoming of unbelievers who visit our church. But it should never distract us from doing what the Church is all about: equipping and edifying fellow believers so they can then go outside the church walls and transform their communities for the glory of God.

God designed the institution of the church a certain way. Incidently, He also designed the institutions of the family and the institution of government a certain way as well. When we depart from these institutional designs in any way, we suffer the consequences.

I’ve been in a church where the mission to reach the lost inside the church walls started to supercede the priorities to train, teach, and equip the saints for service. It became apparent when on one particular occasion the pastor decided to avoid teaching the congregation how to look at the moral issues of the day from a Christian worldview because of the risk we might offend those coming to our church that were not saved. The cost was that the believers remained undiscerning on some significant issues leading up to a very important election. When this type of decision is made, a church moves from being a seeker-sensitive church to becoming a seeker-centered church.

evangelism & discipleship: putting the cart in front of the horse

McManus also advocated we change from a biblical model of evangelism followed by discipleship, to an unbiblical model of discipleship followed by evangelism. He tries to defend this position by first confabulating the biblical differences between these two enterprises. And then, in an incredible leap of logic, he tried to justify his chronological position biblically by citing the Great Commission in the following syllogism:
The Bible says for us to go and make disciples of the entire world. The world is those outside the church. Therefore, we should actually be discipling unbelievers.

Not only does he begin with a category mistake, but it appears to me he also arrives at this faulty conclusion by mistakenly assuming that discipleship is not only the end goal, but the only step involved. But this is too narrow of a view in which McManus is holding. Actually, when we read this imperative in light of the rest of Scripture, we find that evangelism precedes discipleship. We can just look at the early church in the book of Acts as proof-text for this position. Non-Christians believed the message and became believers, and then they became part of a local church, not the other way around.

One danger with this backwards approach to evangelism and discipleship lies not only with a failure to train up the body of believers to maturity in the Lord, but also in the increased likelihood of making false converts. Take for example the story of Wes that McManus shared. Wes was an unbeliever who became a regular attendee within the church. Wes really wanted to feel more like he belonged in this community, so he wanted to get baptized. It appeared more or less as a way to jump through the hoop so he can fit in more within the community of people there. Notice his motivation for wanting to be baptized. He wanted to fit into the community more. Hello! The community does not make one a Christian any more than hanging out with a heard of horses makes you a horse! Only Christ can make someone a Christian. I’m afraid Wes fell more in love with other human beings instead of falling in love with God. It seems to me that Wes wanted to be accepted by man more than he wanted to be accepted by God. True baptism is when you realize you don’t measure up to God’s standards as outlined in the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20). You realize Christ fulfilled in Himself what you could not fulfill in yourself. You then receive His righteousness in exchange for your unrighteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). The Christian life is not a changed life, it’s an exchanged life: your life for Christ’s life! The act of true baptism, therefore – like all acts of obedience – is simply a natural, outward reaction and reflection of what God has already done in you and for you through the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration.

conforming vs. transforming

It seems to me that McManus believes that transformation takes place in someone’s life as they interact with each other within the community. He mentioned that every new person changes the group forever. We are changed, he contends, by each other. While there is a sense of truth in that, we need to be careful not to go too far and enter into a wrong way of looking at it. And I’m afraid he does just that. It sounded like Wes was conformed, not transformed. What we need is an ultimate transformation. And that can only come from God. People are changed from oldness of life to newness of life when the Word of God confronts men’s souls.

As the Church, who should we be?

McManus says that we should spend less time and energy trying to communicate on behalf of God, but instead, we should put more time and energy understanding where the people are. In effect, he is saying we should be spokespersons for the people to God, instead of spokespersons for God to the people. But the Bible says the exact opposite. 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 reads:

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

And we also read in Romans 10:14-15:

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

McManus does what a lot of emergent leaders do: he attacks actions that are anti-Christian and advocates actions that are also anti-Christian, while making them sound as if they are Christian. Basically, for the most part, he is advocating away from something bad towards something else that’s bad. I saw that with his punk angel. He says we should reject the philosophy where man is the center. He condemns those who have a man-focused Christianity (and rightfully so). But then he replaces it with a nuanced type of another man-focused form of pseudo-Christianity. How about giving people what they need? How about extending them the opportunity to have God?

For more information on the EMC, go to any of the following:

  • Stand To Reason MP3 downloads* dealing with The ECM:
  • 042306.mp3 - Koukl delivers talk on the ECM
  • 073105.mp3 - Dr. Mike Horton: The Emergent Movement
  • 022606.mp3 - Discerning the Emergent Movement
  • 082105.mp3 - Assessing the Emergent Movement
  • 101605.mp3 - 3rd segment: discussion about Doug Pagitt’s teaching
  • 052106.mp3 - last segment: What is the Emerging Church?
  • 071005.mp3 - 3rd segment: The Emergent Church
  • 041705.mp3 - Concerns about The Emergent Church
  • 022705.mp3 - 7th segment: Should the emergent church be considered a cult?

* To download a particular MP3 file to your computer, right-click (PC) or control-click (Mac) on it and select "Save Target As."

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