Letters to Emerging Christians
What you tell me about your older brother doesn’t surprise me, but I agree with you that it is really sad. It’s not very often that things like this are so clear — your brother is working in an evangelical church, he has some emerging leanings because he’s a youth pastor, he and some friends decide to have a group study comparing Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis and Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy …
… and then they compose a notebook of all their observations, a few elders get nervous and the pastor and elders make a decision to ban all study of Bell’s and McLaren’s books. (By the way, Holly, did you ever observe that there are about 220 reviews of Bell’s book at Amazon? and 113 of McLaren’s book.)
You ask me the big one: “What should I tell my brother?” Here are my suggestions:
First, pray for him and for his church. Pray for yourself.
Second, your brother “accepts” (you said you thought it was really “capitulating to”) his pastor’s authority and the decision of the elders, but you think he’ll be miserable. When a group study had done what you say they did — compare key doctrines and show differences between these two thinkers and then chart out all the things everyone liked and disliked — you know they’ve vested serious interest in one of the most important things Christians can do: think critically together about current trends in light of biblical theology. For the life of me … I wonder if the elders might have been better off participating with that study group.
Pastoral authority is a double-edged sword, sometimes used to help and other times improperly to divide the body. But I don’t like that pastors or elders would put some books on a ban when at least (you didn’t mention others) one of them (your brother) was a pastoral leader in the church — and the group was thinking critically and not naively about the books. And the minute you ban a book you’ve got yourself a problem — you increase interest in the book and you drive some folks away. (Which you say the pastor thinks is a “sign of election,” or non-election — which I’m guessing is what you meant.)
I think the way to deal with Rob Bell and Brian McLaren is to read them, look them in the eye, assess their eyes against the Bible, and render evaluation. Tell me, Holly, if you could “ban” one thing for Christians what would it be? Would it be Rob Bell or Brian McLaren or something or someone else? (I’ll be interested in your answer if you take this on as a serious question — and if you do I know you’ll have lots of interesting things to say.)
What I’m saying is this: the pastor and the elders, probably for pastoral reasons, have overstepped their limits. Leaders pastor and guide. The only way for lay folks to grow into their gifts with responsibility is to learn to think biblically for themselves — and banning doesn’t allow it.
Third, now here’s what I suggest you do: I suggest you ask your brother to spend some time in prayer and then meet with a mentor (outside that church) and then figure out how to raise the issue of banning books with the pastor and the elder board in a non-threatening (if firm) way. It could be a weekend retreat where he shares with them what they learned, where they differed, and how he thinks this is actually training Christians for critical engagement in our world.
And I suggest this: that you ask your brother to figure out a way to get the pastor and elders to think about this question: Why in the world is Rob Bell so attractive to so many young Christians? (In other words, get them to think critically about Rob Bell.) And then get them to do the same with McLaren. It has probably occurred to you that, if they do read Bell and McLaren, they just might come up with the same observations your brother’s group came up with. Now I’m getting mischievous: if that happens, you might get your brother to suggest to the pastor that he is doing a good job teaching the lay folks if they are coming to such similar results.
I’ve got to leave; Kris and I are about to go to the airport.
You know what I know: my suggestions are ideal. There is a real chance that this could lead to a breakdown in relationships. I hope they can pursue working together, getting beyond differences, but sometimes these things don’t work out. New wine often bursts the old wineskins. It should. Empowering lay folk through good teaching and critical thinking skills is a good thing.
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