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A New Kind of Gospel

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François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, is credited with the famous saying about man creating God in his own image. He worded it this way: “If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.” Many variations of this quotation have been used by various authors over the years to communicate the idea that man has a natural predisposition—the Bible calls it sin—to think of himself as the center of the universe. It was pointed out to me in a sermon I heard in my early days of becoming a Christian that man employs two methods of making more of himself than he ought. The first is fairly obvious: man makes much of himself. But the second is less obvious and more difficult to deal with: man makes little of God.

While it should be quickly stated that what generally happens is something of a combination of these two methods, it is nevertheless a fact that man has a difficult time being truly honest and forthright with himself about his position in the hierarchy of life. Saint Augustine understood this point well and expressed it quite clearly in his Confessions as part of his answer to the question of where (and what) evil comes from. [1]) Man is a creature by definition; he is not autonomous. Man was created by the Creator and therefore is dependent upon the Creator in order to properly understand himself. Sin arises when man begins to determine reality for himself, rather than listening to the Words of the Creator. When God delivered Adam’s death sentence in the Garden, He prefaced it with these words: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it'” (Genesis 3:17). Adam elevated himself to the position of judge; choosing to listen to the voice of his wife, rather than to the voice of God.

In the New Testament, Paul picks up on this idea and warns his readers to not be deceived as was Eve (2 Corinthians 11:3 and 1 Timothy 2:14). In 1 Timothy Paul is implicitly making the case for the woman’s position within the creational hierarchy: “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:11-12). Interestingly, part of the judgment that God placed on Eve in the Garden was that she would “desire for [her] husband, but he will rule over [her]” (Gen. 3:16). A woman’s sinful tendency is to desire to rule over her husband, yet she is commanded to submit to him. Likewise, a man’s tendency, like Adam, is to allow his wife to rule over him (“because you have listened to the voice of your wife…”). To complicate matters, Paul tells us in 1 Timothy that Eve was deceived, not Adam. Eve was passive in her sin, but Adam was active. Adam willfully disobeyed his position in the hierarchy and chose to heed the voice of his wife. Both sinned, yet Adam received the greater judgment.

This is probably nothing new to most readers and if you have been following the earlier articles in this series, you may be wondering what this short lesson in creational hierarchy has to do with Brian McLaren and his new book, A New Kind of Christianity. The reason is quite simple really: the apostle Paul chose to illustrate apostasy from the true faith with a backwards-looking allusion to the Adam and Eve event. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul writes:

I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness; but you are already doing that. I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.

Paul is warning the Corinthian church that they are too passive in their faith. He reveals to them that they are too permissive and too willing to listen to anyone who happens to come along and tell them something about Jesus. He is cautioning them about being easily misled—easily deceived—just as Eve was by the serpent. Paul is saying that the Corinthians have a propensity to try and get along with every one. They don’t like making waves; they want everybody to have their own version of Jesus and retain their autonomy too. In other words, Paul accuses the Corinthians of being theologically spineless: “For you, being so wise, tolerate the foolish gladly. For you tolerate it if anyone enslaves you, anyone devours you, anyone takes advantage of you, anyone exalts himself, anyone hits you in the face” (11:19-20). Unfortunately, much of modern evangelicalism has become like the Corinthians: unwilling to rock the boat of theological political-correctness so that everyone can find a seat in the all-inclusive, ecumenical ship of fools. It is this very situation of evangelical niceness and non-confrontation that Brian McLaren is taking advantage of and using to smuggle his liberal political views into the church.

In the fifth question of his “ten questions that are transforming the faith,” McLaren takes up the question of “what is the gospel?”. I actually expected to have far more of a problem with how McLaren answered this question than I actually did, but once again, McLaren hides much of his true agenda in the footnotes, safely out of the notice of most casual readers. In the first chapter of this two-chapter section, McLaren makes the observation that “the kingdom of God is not some distant reality to wait for someday, Jesus proclaims; the kingdom is at hand, within reach, near, here, now (Mark 1:15).” I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I really agree with what he write a few sentences later: “No wonder Jesus called people to repent: if the kingdom is at hand, we need to adjust our way of life and join in the joyful, painful mission of reconciliation right now, ASAP!” (p. 140). I almost couldn’t help shouting at the book as I read this sentence: “Amen, Brian. Welcome to biblical Christianity. Ain’t it grand?” McLaren writes this in his book as if this should be some amazing revelation (and I suppose it probably is to many who have shut their eyes and ears to the truth and to the demands placed on God’s people throughout the entire Bible), but I would hope it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to readers of this website. I think the biblical view is summed up very well by 19th century German theologian, Johann Christoph Blumhardt, who often said that a person must be “twice converted, first from the natural to the spiritual life, and then from the spiritual to the natural.” [2] What Blumhardt is saying is that a Christian has the privilege and obligation, once he is given the proper perspective (i.e., his true place in the hierarchy) by God, to make a difference in the world around him. McLaren may be surprised to find out that Christians even two hundred years ago (not to mention two thousand) understood this basic fact.

Of course, I am being overly facetious here. McLaren himself recognizes that his understanding of the kingdom of God is really nothing new. He admits that it is simply “following the best Christian tradition of going back to Jesus and the Scriptures, so [that] our quest for a new kind of Christianity is, in fact, a most conservative quest” (p. 141). This is true, but then again, it is not true. If McLaren was really willing to let the Bible speak for itself using the “best tradition of going back to Jesus and the Scriptures,” then why does he feel the need to reinvent the plain words of the Bible when they do not suit his 21st century liberal political sensibilities? In the second of his two chapters on the gospel question, McLaren takes his readers through the book of Romans. Apparently, McLaren was under the (mistaken) impression that Jesus and Paul were saying two different things. He speaks of “getting up [his] courage up to re-read Romans now that [he’d] begun to reorient [his] faith around Jesus’s gospel of the kingdom of God” (p. 142). He anticipated he’d find a contradiction in this famous letter of Paul, but after many re-readings of Romans, he “became convinced that Paul never intended his letter to be an exposition on the gospel,” but instead it was written to teach

Jews and Gentiles in their untamed diversity [how to] come and remain together as peers in the kingdom of God without having first- and second-class Christians, on the one hand, and, on the other, without being homogenized like a McDonald’s franchise with the same menu, same pricing, same bathroom soap. (p. 143-144)

As McLaren moves through his brief exposition of Paul’s letter, he makes a lot of sense and his interpretation isn’t as far off-base as it may sound at first. The problem is not what McLaren leaves in the book of Romans, it’s what he leaves out. I was immediately suspicious when he made the admission that he read and reread the book looking for its meaning. To me this indicates that McLaren was looking for a grand narrative that would enable him to read the book the way he wanted. Now, I am not saying that Christians shouldn’t read and reread books of the Bible, but I am saying that McLaren’s modus operandi so far throughout A New Kind of Christianity has been to pick and choose certain portions of the Bible that allow him to make his case, while ignoring the rest that don’t quite fit his “New Christianity.” It’s not that his “Jew and Gentile” interpretation of the book of Romans doesn’t work, it’s just that it’s not the whole story that Paul is attempting to tell.

I would venture to guess that McLaren knows this, mainly due to several of the footnotes that he includes in this chapter (“Jesus and the Kingdom of God”). While he doesn’t directly address the issue of homosexuality in the chapter, he writes this in a footnote on Romans 1:26-27:

Much is made of Paul reference to homosexuality in this passage, but Paul doesn’t refer to people who have an inborn sexual orientation toward the same sex. The whole idea of sexual orientation would probably have been inconceivable to Paul as a man of his times. He explicitly refers to people who have an inborn attraction to the opposite sex and then choose to engage in homosexual behavior, probably as part of orgies or as expressions of domination, both of which were common in Roman culture. (p. 276)

If you can read the preceding paragraph without your mouth falling open in disbelief, you should probably read it again (read and reread if you must). Essentially, McLaren is saying that Paul was writing against homosexuality as a “chosen” lifestyle, but not as one that was “inborn.” Forget for a minute that this is exactly what modern conservatives say homosexuality is—a chosen lifestyle. If what McLaren is saying Paul is saying is really true, then how can McLaren possibly defend homosexuality, whether inborn or chosen? Aside from the fact that he reveals his “chronological snobbery” again by implying that Paul couldn’t possibly have understood what modern science has “proven” for us highly sophisticated denizens of the 21st century, McLaren makes the unbelievable leap that inborn behavior is somehow not in the same category as chosen behavior. This should make rapists, kleptomaniacs, and serial killers very happy to know that they don’t need to modify their behavior, they just need to claim that it is inborn. Since the Bible claims that all men are born sinful, I suppose McLaren would have to say that they are no longer in need of a savior, seeing as how inborn behavior is off-limits. This is not only irrational, it is heretical. Matthew 1:21 says that Jesus “will save His people from their sins,” but with one liberal-politics driven footnote, McLaren has just eliminated the need for Jesus to save anyone.

Which leads to the second issue. In another footnote, McLaren takes a shot at systematic theologies that attempt to find (shudder) doctrinal application in the book of Romans. He writes:

Thousands of pages have been written trying to derive from the details of this passage (Romans 7-8) coherent doctrines of sin and sanctification and perhaps anthropology too, oblivious to the larger rhetorical structure and aim we have been tracing. Again, too often we treat a personal letter—dictated to a scribe, full of semisuccessful metaphors that require frequent qualifications, imaginatively fertile though at times logically frustrating—as if it were a technical dissertation written by a mechanical engineer, a material finding written by an accountant, a work of scholarship written by a senior theologian at an Ivy League seminary, or…a legal opinion written by a constitutional lawyer. (p. 276-277)

Lest one forget that the Bible claims to be the very Word of God, superintended and actually “breathed out” by God Himself (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21) and not simply the words of some first-century simpleton, McLaren indicates that Paul isn’t really capable of communicating what he wants to. McLaren wants to have it both ways. He makes numerous appeals to the fact that he believes that the Holy Spirit “guided” Paul’s writing, but we are never given any real definition of what that means. He says that he believes Paul’s flow of writing is “being carried along in a very real way by the Spirit. But that doesn’t mean that the Spirit’s inspiration turns Paul into a human DVR (digital voice recognition) device or transforms Paul’s words into articles and sections and clauses in a constitution” (p. 146). Granted. We now know what McLaren doesn’t believe inspiration by the Spirit to be, but we are still left with no answer to what he does believe it to be. McLaren wants his readers to believe that the Bible must only be read one way—his way. He believes it must be read as literature written by semi-intelligent beings from a long, superstitious time ago (guided by the Holy Spirit of course). McLaren has such a problem with a “constitutional” reading of the Bible, that one is left wondering if he believes the Bible can ever say anything that even smacks of a “thou shalt not” or “thou shalt.”

One doesn’t need to wonder long though, because McLaren closes the deal with his final footnote to this chapter. Regarding Jesus’ use of the phrase “kingdom of God,” McLaren amazingly has the gall to write this:

In two of my earlier books, I proposed that Jesus would almost certainly not use the term “kingdom of God” if he were here today. Today the term is an anachronism; in his day it named the dominant social, political, cultural, and economic reality. I propose a variety of possible “translations” into our context, including peace revolution, new love economy, sacred ecosystem, beloved community or society, dream, dance, and movement. (p. 277)

No, I am not making this up. I couldn’t string a series of hippie, flower-child nonsense like this together no matter how long I tried. I would have felt like I had delivered a low-blow to McLaren if I had actually written that he wants to turn modern Christianity into a “new love economy,” but ironically, McLaren says it for me. If there was any doubt that McLaren’s “new kind of Christianity” is politically-motivated, this footnote should end it. McLaren seems to be able to read Jesus’ mind (which is worrisome enough), but he seems to miss the point that the kingdom of God means today exactly the same as it meant when Jesus first used it. The kingdom of God today is an upheaval of the social, political, cultural, and economic realities, just as it was in the first century. God’s ways are 180 degrees out of phase with our own. God’s hierarchy is the true “reality;” our pathetic little kingdom-building is the problem. Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God wasn’t the first-century equivalent of a “peace revolution” or a “sacred ecosystem” or even a “dream” or a “dance” (whatever that means). McLaren wants the Bible to say what he wants it to say, and he is bound and determined to find it.

Paul’s message is not unique; it’s exactly the message of Jesus. Don’t judge one another. On these controversial matters, he says, individuals should do two things: first, be convinced in their own mind, and second, keep their convictions to themselves. (p. 155)

We already discussed the impossibility of “not judging” in a previous article, but McLaren keeps bringing it to the table. For someone that is convinced that the “kingdom of God” has serious ramifications for this world, right now—fighting poverty, ending hunger, curing AIDS—McLaren doesn’t seem interested in actually administering the REAL cure to the hurting world. Poverty, hunger, AIDS, and every other problem in the world is a result of man’s sinful and selfish commandeering of God’s divinely ordained hierarchy. Sin puts us first, but Jesus said that we come last (God, neighbor, self). He died and lived again, so that we might die to self and live again to others. We need to twice converted. McLaren’s gospel is only half a gospel, which is really no gospel. McLaren’s Jesus is, like Paul warned the Corinthian church it would be, a Jesus other than the Jesus that Paul preached. But come to think of it, in McLaren’s world, Paul probably didn’t mean what we think he meant anyway.

To be continued…

  1. “Augustine’s special contribution to theology was to show us that evil arises when something gets out of its God-ordained place in the created order. When it tries to rise higher than it ought, it is the sin of pride. When it tries to sink lower than it ought, it is the sin of sensuality. Everything God has created is good in its place. Anything God has created can become an occasion for sin when it is removed from its proper place.” (Brian Carpenter, In Praise of Hierarchy.[]
  2. Quoted in Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), xii.[]

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