Last week I received a double epiphany. It resulted from the overlap of a Bible study and a short errand that turned into a conversation. At the request of a church member, I led a Bible study on the Epistle of James. We noted similarities and differences between James and Paul, and wondered to what degree their differences were real or contrived by later interpretations.
I left the Bible study with my mind already on my next task. I had to deliver a check from the ministerial alliance to another church in town. I like the pastor of the church where I made the delivery. We may be from very different traditions, but we get along really well. When I noticed aloud that he had Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy among his books, we entered into a discussion about the Emerging Church Movement. I’m 43 and my colleague is probably only ten years older. We both expressed the same concern: we’re out of our depth when it comes to the emerging culture. We commiserated that, no matter what we do to keep up with innovations in technology and culture, we know we’re falling behind. That’s when my friend spoke the first half of the epiphany. He said, “When I went to seminary, the emphasis was on exegesis of scripture. I think that’s very important and seminaries should continue to do that. But I wish someone would have taught us how to exegete culture.” What a marvelous way to put the need in terms “classically” trained clergy can understand: Would someone please teach us how to exegete culture?
The conversation continued as we discussed what our two congregations think about the ECM. My input was brief because the ECM isn’t on the radar of most of the congregants I serve, no matter how often I raise the issue. We’re too rooted in institutional Presbyterianism to do much but grumble about “the loss of loyalty and respect for the Church.” My friend’s congregation, however, has many members deeply interested in — and concerned about — the ECM. They met with him, studied current literature (like McLaren), and discussed emerging issues. When it came down to it, they were comfortable with missional emphasis to a point, but were nervous about relativism.
After comparing notes, we confirmed that we each have a fair number of members who believe that converting to the Christian faith includes converting to the dominant culture of the congregation. That means that outsiders are required to do most, if not all, of the work, while the congregation critiques the results. “It’s their job to change, not ours.” That’s when I spoke the second half of the epiphany. I said, “It’s Paul and James all over again. Paul was willing to reach outside the tradition to include people in the gospel. James was willing to include others, as long as ‘we remain true to the faith’.” The Church has never been a monolith. I now think of the emerging movement as Paul to the conventional Church’s James. Is the Church willing to accept that the tension currently experienced between conventional and emerging perspectives has been with us since the early Church? I ask, as someone who lurks on the margins of Presbymergent, if the “loyal radicals” can and will teach people like me to exegete culture? Perhaps with proper training we could help the Church learn to recognize and balance the tension between James and Paul.