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Spring 2010 · Vol. 39 No. 1 · pp. 3–18 

The Air is Not Quite Fresh: Emerging Church Ecclesiology

Paul Doerksen

If Scott McKnight is correct, the Emerging Church is one of the most controversial and misunderstood movements today, 2 thus seemingly making the description or definition of the movement a somewhat Sisyphean task. Even a cursory glance at the literature, much of it online, reveals unending discussions and disputes regarding terms (emerging vs. emergent), who might qualify as a legitimate representative or spokesperson, whether we should speak in terms of “movement” or “conversation” and so on. For the purposes of this paper, I want to bypass these kinds of discussions almost entirely, pursuing instead a very rudimentary description at the risk of oversimplification, focusing primarily on the writings of Brian McLaren, again recognizing the limits of such an approach. 3 My paper will proceed in three interrelated stages—first some brief and rather general description, followed by a sharper descriptive focus on the ecclesiology of the Emerging Church. Third, I will engage in a critical and constructive conversation regarding ecclesiological concerns in which I will argue that the Emerging Church’s concern with novelty, broadness, and “relevance” of ecclesiology carries in its train the ironic danger that the church will be incapable of being these very things. Therefore I will end with a call for the church to be the church so that it can exist for others.

The church is a human construct, but a construct in which God is at work in and by his Holy Spirit


Perhaps the least controversial definition of the Emerging Church simply claims that its central premise is that churches must respond to postmodern culture. 4 Scott McKnight’s description is offered in the form of identification of themes that characterize the movement, or put another way, he sees these themes as “streams flowing into the emerging lake. No one says the emerging movement is the only group of Christians doing these things, but together they crystallize into the emerging movement.” 5 He identifies these streams as: (a) prophetic or at least provocative rhetoric that tries to call the church to change; (b) a postmodern stance which seeks to minister either to postmoderns, with postmoderns or as postmoderns; (c) praxis-oriented, especially in terms of worship, orthopraxy and missional orientation; (d) post-evangelical in the sense that it is a protest against much of evangelicalism as currently practiced, including a suspicion of systematic theology, and “in-versus-out” mentality of evangelism; and (e) political, in the sense that the movement is attempting to move beyond conservative evangelical politics. 6

McKnight’s identification of the postmodern stream is important, in that much of the material coming from the Emerging Church is self-consciously postmodern, and the move from modern to postmodern along with all of its attendant issues as applied to the Christian faith occupies much of McLaren’s energy, introducing an emphasis on what is ostensibly a very sharp discontinuity between modern society and postmodern society. 7 This sharp discontinuity itself creates a kind of template for understanding the church, theology, and the entire Christian enterprise, a binary understanding that results in endless compare and contrast material—conventional versus emerging, existing versus emerging, solid versus liquid and so on. 8

Closely connected with the sharp discontinuity seen everywhere is an obsession with novelty, expressed in claims such as “If we have a new world we need a new church.” 9 It might be argued that this sentence is McLaren’s thesis every time he is handed a microphone or puts pen to paper. A common complaint about McLaren is that he proceeds as if the things bound up with postmodern culture should determine the understanding of a new kind of Christian. 10 So McLaren writes books that call Christians to enthusiastically and deliberately embrace what is explicitly new. In fact, just a glance at some of his titles brings this emphasis nicely to view—A New Kind of Christian, Reinventing Your Church, Everything Must Change. 11

At this point, I have tried to bring to view the connection of several ideas that animate McLaren’s thought—a focus on discontinuity between modern and postmodern leads to an obsession with novelty. In addition to exposing a deep desire to be innovative and often all too free from history 12 this kind of understanding is surely an intensified form of modernity itself, that form of society that McLaren is so keen to eschew. That is, to repeatedly juxtapose existing/emerging, old/new, modern/postmodern and so on reveals a modern sensibility that focuses on the new in ways that mark a decidedly Enlightenment cast of mind. 13


Here then is an entry point for my ecclesiological concerns. If it is accurate to describe McLaren as displaying a modern sensibility regarding novelty that parades as a desire to remake things in a postmodern cast, what implications exist for ecclesiology, for the shape of the church? This is an extremely important consideration, since “at its core, the emerging movement is an attempt to fashion a new ecclesiology.” 14 Given McLaren’s propensity to avoid systematization of any kind (I am sympathetic to McLaren’s concern here), it is of course not possible to provide any definitive picture of his ecclesiology, but again this observation should not prevent some basic description, to which I will add some critical and constructive comments.

McLaren seems eager to develop what he terms “deep ecclesiology,” on which it is difficult at times to gain much purchase. It is perhaps most accurate to say that deep ecclesiology entails the honoring of the church in all of its forms (except of course modern forms). 15 Certainly such ecclesiology involves an understanding of the church as a mixed body, 16 and one that embraces change, an ecclesiology that hopes for the emerging of catholic, missional, monastic communities. 17 More recently, McLaren has described the church as a “community that forms disciples who work for the liberation and healing of the world, based on Jesus and the good news of the gospel.” 18


At bottom, McLaren seems to be quite taken with the possibility of honoring all forms of church, a sensibility that is most clearly on display in his book entitled A Generous Orthodoxy. The seemingly endless subtitle of this book 19 itself speaks of a certain omnivorous character that he subsumes under the rubric of “generous orthodoxy.” Although it must be said that his descriptions of things he purports to be as part of his generosity are thin at best and sometimes unrecognizable, 20 in the end McLaren wonders why we can’t just celebrate them all. He then draws a curious parallel to the enjoyment of food. That is, just as many of us enjoy a variety of ethnic foods, why can’t we also enjoy all kinds of ecclesiologies? 21 But it is not at all clear how this can be done, or perhaps more importantly, from where we might practice this embracing and celebrating of so many ecclesiologies. McLaren and others within the Emerging Church conversation sometimes sound as if they have succeeded in embracing many things (however loosely) without being forthcoming about their own location within some tradition. The result is a certain free-floating quality to both the traditions that are ostensibly celebrated, as well as the ecclesiology within which this celebration takes place. Put another way, the Emerging Church has been described as expressing a “lingering, disincarnate rejection of time, history, and tradition.” 22 This propensity toward the ahistorical may also be an expression of the lingering affirmation of personal autonomy. That is, refusing to be pinned down to any one “solid” ecclesiology may be expressive of a laudable and theologically sound openness, but it may also be a grasping, a possession, of the radical individual choice that marked the modern era. If this is the case, then McLaren’s work, especially his ecclesiology, still embraces a dimension of modern evangelicalism that he might classify as part of the existing church from which he is so desperate to emerge. 23


McLaren’s “deep ecclesiology” also leaves him vulnerable to the charge that his notion of the church as counter-culture is not robust enough. As we will see below, the point here is not to focus on a counter-culture or practice for its own sake, but precisely as a way of being the church in and for the world. In McLaren’s zeal to resist old paradigms wherein some are “in” and some are “out,” where certain practices or beliefs are designated as litmus tests for one’s status as “saved” or “unsaved” and so on, it seems that the church as counter-culture is in danger of dropping from view. To be fair, McLaren makes mention of such a notion, 24 but a serious treatment of the church as an identifiable contrast-society is difficult to find, no doubt because of a legitimate concern regarding the temptation toward isolationism of the church, or any ecclesiology that serves as justification for selfish self-preservation. But the reality of the church as a contrast-society is surely one that is ignored to our peril. In his important book, Jesus and Community, Gerhard Lohfink argues that the existence of the people of God as understood in the Bible from Israel to the church is always a contrast-society. 25 Unfortunately, according to Lohfink (and, one must add, to many Anabaptist theologians), any proper sense of this has largely been lost over the last number of centuries, held or recovered only intermittently, and that by groups often considered as sectarian by the rest of the church. Lohfink concludes that “the entire New Testament sees the church as a contrast-society which stands in sharp contrast to the world,” which leads him to speculate that perhaps it is a blessing that any illusion of living in a Christian society has been definitively and thoroughly demolished. 26 Lohfink’s conclusion is worth quoting at some length:

What makes the church the divine contrast-society is not self-acquired holiness, not cramped efforts and moral achievements, but the saving deed of God, who justifies the godless, accepts failures and reconciles himself with the guilty. Only in this gift of reconciliation, in the miracle if life newly won against all expectation, does what is here termed as contrast-society flourish.

What is meant is not a church without guilt, but a church is which infinite hope emerges from forgiven guilt.

What is meant is not a church in which there are no divisions, but a church which finds reconciliation despite all gulfs.

What is meant is not a church without conflicts, but a church in which conflicts are settled in ways different from the rest of society.

What is meant, finally, is not a church without the cross and without passion narratives, but a church always able to celebrate Easter because it both dies and rises with Christ. 27


To my mind, this drive to embrace all forms of church expression, combined with a less than robust notion of church as contrast-society, is closely related to the Emerging Church failure to distinguish adequately between contextualization and correlation as these relate to the church’s relationship to the world. McLaren and other Emerging Church writers are good interpreters of culture and consistently grapple in important ways for the church to be relevant to the world, to resist insularity and isolationism. However, a fairly consistent note struck by McLaren is that the church must take many of its cues for change from the surrounding culture, especially as he understands surrounding postmodern culture, a concern evident both in his content and writing style. But to privilege culture while attempting to shape change is to engage too heartily in correlation. 28 Here D. A. Carson is helpful in his worry that the Emerging Church is so submerged in culture that it risks hopeless compromise—in large part because the call to reforming the church is found in cultural changes themselves. 29 After all, the ecclesiological point is not to be postmodern but to be the church.

My complaint about the propensity for correlation rather than contextualization is closely related to the observation that there needs to be more discontinuity between church and world in the work of the Emerging Church, rather than focusing on the discontinuity between the modern and postmodern noted above. It is important to emphasize that the church is sociologically unique because it is manifestly oriented toward a particular person—Jesus Christ. 30 I am deeply sympathetic to the Emerging Church’s desire to move into the world and to relativize some of the conventional distinctions often made by churches of whatever stripe—including those within the evangelical/fundamentalist tradition McLaren is so keen to challenge. But it is important to realize and acknowledge, following Rowan Williams, that the relevance of the church to the world in fact depends on the difference from existing patterns of human relations and power. In his essay, “Incarnation and the Renewal of Community,” Williams takes his own Anglican incarnational theological tradition to task, since, in his telling of the tale, such theology sees the church not as a special system of human relations but rather as a place where other relations become intelligible, and where the deepening and securing of such relations are made possible. The danger of such an understanding is that the social consequences include the embrace of human relations in the pattern they appear before us, whereby incarnational theology is needed only to place them on a firm base and prevent them from becoming idolatrous. But this way of seeing things carries the temptation that we all too often simply embrace the status quo, that we baptize our own particularities. Rather than proceeding along these lines, Williams argues for the church as a social community without foreordained boundaries, a church that, while suspicious of itself only as a distinctive institution, nonetheless must understand the nature of its distinctiveness and separateness, factors that always place the church at an angle to the world. The separateness he speaks of includes dimensions of Christian practice such as discipleship that may override the family, the witness of those committed to peace, and so on. Williams goes as far as to say that “a church which does not at least possess certain features of a ‘sect’ cannot act as an agent of transformation.” 31 It is essential to recognize that the uniqueness, the distinctiveness I refer to here is not for institutional purposes, for self-preservation, for solid identity, but precisely so that the church can be the church for others, a point I will return to below.

A robust sense of discontinuity between church and world can easily carry in its train a search for what has been termed a “blueprint ecclesiology,” a desire to identify an ecclesiological “supermodel” of the church. 32 It is important to resist this temptation. That is, an appropriate focus on sociological uniqueness must never succumb to the temptation to over-determine ecclesiology. Put yet another way, while the visibility of the church must never be in question, the kind of visibility the church is called to remains always open to (re)configuration. 33

In response to ecclesiologies that are too abstract and propositionally defined, McLaren is explicit about the fact that one distinguishing feature of the Emerging Church is a turn from doctrines to practices. 34 Fair enough, but it is important to recognize that a focus on church practice cannot proceed constructively without reference to how beliefs about the nature and function of the church bear upon these practices and in turn how the practices bear on belief. Put another way, whatever identity the church may have is constituted in action—a process or movement that is entirely theological in nature. 35 Put yet another way that seems at first blush to simply be circular reasoning, the ecclesiology of the Emerging Church is not ecclesiological enough. As Nicholas Healy puts it, “contextual ecclesial praxis informs ecclesiology, and ecclesiology informs contextual ecclesial praxis in a hermeneutical circle.” 36 Thus ecclesiology cannot be understood only as a move from doctrines to practices, since to do so would be to cut the church’s practices off from the kind of reasoning that is necessary to shape and sustain those very practices. Ecclesiology is a matter of practical reasoning and practice; it arises out of ecclesial practices and is ordered directly towards them. Therefore ecclesiology must deny any changes made only in order to fit the norms of some non-Christian view or another, since the church and the context in which she finds herself must be critically analyzed using all available tools but within a thoroughly theological horizon. “All ecclesiological judgments are made within an ecclesiological context, and all should serve the church’s work within that context.” 37 Ecclesiology must be ecclesiological!


In the final section of this paper, I want to begin to work toward an ecclesiology that eschews any obsession with novelty in favor of one that cultivates a robust contrast-society, not for its own sake, but in order to serve as a parable, a sign—a church that exists for others. 38 Thus while I am sympathetic to the Emerging Church’s desire to call into question some or many of the ways the church has proceeded, it seems to me that what is lacking is a perpetual focus on penitence, which is very different than a deep desire for novelty. The church always already exists in danger from all sides, the dangers of alienation on the one hand and self-glorification on the other. 39 It is in recognition of these incumbent dangers and our propensity to succumb to them that the church assumes a posture of perpetual penitence, a posture that in itself goes a long way toward preventing a static or stable posture. 40 One is reminded here of the deeply felt concerns of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the church in Nazi Germany. Not only was he concerned about the notorious German Church but also the Confessing Church, a situation in which “the air is not quite fresh,” 41 despite the deeply held conviction that the Confessing Church was a fresh approach. Here Bonhoeffer is clear that repentance is an essential component of the life of the church in extreme times. Since there is no way back from the adulthood of the world, the way forward is based on Matthew 18:3, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Bonhoeffer adds, “i.e. through repentance, through ultimate honesty.” 42 He connects this to “participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event . . .” 43 In other words, Bonhoeffer does not want even this theological notion of repentance to be turned into yet another instance of a religious error, that of turning something properly theological into something psychological. So the concept of metanoia is extended to refer not only to something subjective but also to this sharing of God’s suffering in this world. 44

The practice/posture of perpetual penitence does not in any way reduce the responsibility of the church to engage the world. But the church must avoid the kind of correlation referred to above, and move in and into the world by way of faithful contextualization. I turn here to the work of John Howard Yoder, who, in grappling with questions of how the particularity of the Jesus story must encounter the call of believers for a higher level of generality, looks at five New Testament passages (John’s Prologue [John 1:1–14], the Epistle to the Hebrews, Colossians, Revelation 4:1–5:4, and Philippians 2) and finds there what he calls a deep structure which involves a series of moves claiming that the Hebrew story had widened out to include everyone. The moves that Yoder discerns in these five biblical passages, which respond to the challenge of a previously formed cosmic vision which encounters the claim that Jesus is Lord, are: 1) the writer uses the language, questions of the new linguistic world; 2) instead of placing the Jesus message in the slots prepared for it by the newly encountered vision, the writer places Jesus above that cosmos; 3) there is a concentration on suffering and rejection in human form, beneath the cosmic hierarchy as that which “qualifies” Christ for his lordship; 4) we are not called to enter into a salvation system through ritual or initiation, but are called to enter the self-emptying and death of the Son; 5) behind the cosmic victory, enabling it, is the preexistence of the Son, co-essentiality with the Father, possession of the image of God, and the participation of the Son in creation and providence; 6) the writer and readers share by faith in all that the victory means. 45

For Yoder, regarding the church’s mission to the world, it is neither the world nor anything else that is the definitional category the church then proceeds to join up with, approve, or improve in some way. Rather, it is the rule of God as displayed in Christ that is the basic category, since the “rebellious but already (in principle) defeated cosmos is being brought to its knees by the Lamb. The development of a high Christology is the natural cultural ricochet of a missionary ecclesiology when it collides, as it must, with whatever cosmology explains and governs the world it invades.” 46 In other words, for Yoder the particularity of incarnation is the universality of the good. 47 To provide one example, in political theology Yoder makes a move that is parallel to his argument for the relationship of particularity and universality, or perhaps better put, it is part of the same argument. In order for the church to be involved in politics, followers of Christ will not be shaped by the definitional categories of conventional secular politics, or whatever regime they find themselves in, but will continue as part of the church to seize the categories of surrounding culture and hammer them into new shapes formed by Christology. “A handful of messianic Jews, moving beyond the defenses of their somewhat separate society to attack the intellectual bastions of majority culture, refused to contextualize their message by clothing it in the categories the world held ready. Instead, they seized the categories, hammered them into other shapes, and turned the cosmology on its head, with Jesus both at the bottom, crucified as a common criminal, and at the top, preexistent Son and creator, and the church his instrument in today’s battle.” 48

The implication of all of this is that the church needs to move by discrimination—ready to reject some things, accept others within limits, offer motivation and coherence to other dimensions of the world, strip others of claims to autonomous truth and value, and in some cases, create new aspects of culture that are missing. 49 This is Yoder’s call, not to withdrawal, but to authentic transformation—transformation that is both procedural (how?) and substantial (what?). At every point then, there is a call for the follower of Jesus to assume a stance of discernment—there is no appropriate monolithic response to the question of Christ and culture—Shall we go with this? Shall we oppose this? Shall we opt out? Shall we subvert matters? Shall we encourage change and transformation? 50

However, I also find that the church needs to embrace something that is perhaps more basic, if that is the right term. That is, the church needs to be rightly suspicious of an improper focus on itself as a distinctive institution, 51 and therefore the church as church is always on the move—a quiet and persistent movement that is at bottom a “living consideration of its Lord.” 52 Thus the church is only the church when it exists as the church for others. 53 This is an identity that is found precisely in the process of giving itself away, in spending itself in and for the world, a strategy that is no strategy, a visibility that joyfully embraces invisibility. The church that exists for others works hard at shaping that existence, at living at an angle to the world; the church that exists for others points not toward its own authentic existence, such as it may be, but pursues authentic existence in this world in order to point away from itself toward Christ. 54 And “it is precisely because the church does not exist for itself, but completely and exclusively for the world, it is necessary that the church not become the world, that it retains its own countenance.” 55 But this countenance becomes visible only as the power of the Holy Spirit shines out both in that which is traditional and customary, and in innovation and change. The church is a human construct, but not only that; it is the construct in which God is at work in and by his Holy Spirit. Thus the church will never try to be anything in and of itself, because exactly to the extent that it tries to be anything in itself it becomes a mere semblance of the church. Put another way, the church does not try to express itself, but it tries to express the divine operation by which it is constituted. 56


The Apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Ephesians, in a complex argument, addresses the cosmic powers of this world in relation to the church. Beginning with a moving description of the spiritual blessings made real by Christ (Ephesians 1:3–14), Paul continues with a prayer for the church at Ephesus in which he addresses the greatness of God’s power, a power that was put to work in Christ’s resurrection and the placing of Christ in the position of authority over all other principalities and powers (1:15–22). That is, Christ the head is principle of the church’s life and at the same time the ruler over all the cosmic powers. He fills the church with his blessing and pervades the entire universe with his power, and thus draws the world ever more into the sphere of his rule, a process that is not yet complete. In fact, Paul takes pains to show that the church itself has long been subject to the powers of the world and continues to be so (2:1–10), although he also makes clear that a space has been opened up by Christ for the expression of the freedom provided by the work of Christ. So, Paul teaches the Ephesians that “Christ rules over all powers and forces of society. But he cannot rule without his body, the church. The church is the place in which the freedom and reconciliation opened in principle by Christ must be lived in social concreteness.” 57

In the end, I too want to be part of an “emerging church,” not as part of anything like a “movement” or “conversation” but as part of the body of Christ that points away from itself toward Christ—a church that focuses on the Bible, struggles with tradition in intensive yet not stable or finally settled ways, a church that attempts to face the reality of the gospel as “a permanent source of unsettlement, discomfiture and renewal of vocation,” a church that is always “emerging from its own dissolution and reconstitution by the presence of the holy God.” 58


  1. This phrase is taken from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (London: SCM, 1971), 382. Bonhoeffer is referring to the situation in which the Confessing Church in Germany found itself—at the heart of resistance and entering territory heretofore unknown—and yet Bonhoeffer believed the Confessing Church was not as “fresh” as it seemed to think, a concern I share regarding the Emerging Church conversation.
  2. Scott McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” Christianity Today 51 (February 2007): 35.
  3. I am aware that McLaren is not the only or perhaps even primary spokesperson of the Emerging Church. Indeed, one gets the sense that many views, opinions, and positions could be found within the range of people classified as “emergent.” To provide focus for this paper, I focus on McLaren, and let that analysis and commentary be applied as might be appropriate to larger themes of the conversation. Nonetheless, it is the case that his is one of the strongest and most widely known voices of the Emerging Church conversation.
  4. John Hammett, “An Ecclesiological Assessment of the Emerging Church,” 5. Hammett does a fine job of showing how difficult the task of definition really is.
  5. McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” 36.
  6. Ibid., 36–39. McKnight focuses primarily on the American expression of the Emerging Church.
  7. See for example his popular trilogy: McLaren, A New Kind of Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001); McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003) and McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005). In one of McLaren’s earliest books, tellingly entitled Reinventing Your Church, his first strategy for this reinvention is to maximize the discontinuity of the postmodern and modern church. McLaren, Reinventing Your Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 17–26. McLaren later published a revised version of this book under a new title The Church on the Other Side (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003).
  8. For example, see McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 78–79; Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2006); Tim Condor, “The Existing Church/Emerging Church Matrix,” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, ed. Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker books, 2007), 103. See also Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (New York: Harper, 2004) for a similar binary explication of the contemporary situation.
  9. McLaren, Reinventing Your Church, 13.
  10. D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and its Implications (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2005), 29. McLaren disavows this kind of description, insisting that his understanding of the new also includes the old. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 22.
  11. I don’t know how much should be made of this, but McLaren’s title brings to mind the kinds of titles used by Bishop John Shelby Spong. For example, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile; A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith is Being Born; Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. At the very least, it seems that not all calls for novelty, rethinking, rescuing and so on are of a piece.
  12. David Fitch, The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church From Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism and Other Modern Maladies (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 25.
  13. In a recent study, Peter Gay argues that “Astonish me!” is a good modernist slogan, as is Ezra Pound’s summing up of the aspirations of modernists more generally, i.e., “Make it new!” Peter Gay, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008), 3, 4.
  14. McKnight, 37.
  15. McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In, 140, 141.
  16. Not everyone in the church is a faithful Christian, and so the church as we know it is a mixture of sinners and saints, wheat and tares. McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In, 140.
  17. McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In, 155. Chris Erdman describes McLaren as embracing a broad ecclesiology. As far as I can see, Erdman means by “broad” just what McLaren means by “deep.” Chris Erdman, “Digging Up the Past,” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, ed. Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 241.
  18. McLaren, Everything Must Change, 292.
  19. The subtitle is “Why I am a missional and evangelical and post/protestant and liberal/conservative and mystical/poetic and biblical and charismatic/contemplative and fundamentalist/calvinist and anabaptist/anglican and methodist and catholic and green and incarnational and depressed-yet-hopeful and emergent and unfinished Christian.”
  20. I am thinking especially of his description of the “Anabaptist Jesus” and his take on Anabaptist ecclesiology. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 61, 62.
  21. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 16. Michael Pollan has alerted us to some of the dangers involved with being omnivorous in our eating habits, especially if we have little or no tradition of eating. See Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2007).
  22. James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Books, 2006), 130.
  23. I am drawing here on the work of James K.A. Smith, 130ff. Smith is worried that the Emerging Church’s attempts to emerge from the “existing” church is akin to Chief’s escape from a mental institution into the “freedom” of the wilderness in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Smith, 99, 100.
  24. McLaren, Everything Must Change, 284.
  25. Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 122.
  26. Ibid., 132.
  27. Ibid., 147. James Smith also takes up this emphasis on the “counter” dimension in the context of church disciplines. Smith, 106.
  28. Smith, 126.
  29. Carson, 44, 57. James Smith, who is much more generous in his analysis of the Emerging Church than is Carson, also contends that the Emerging Church lets postmodernism set the agenda instead of letting it act as a catalyst for change. See Smith, 125.
  30. Nicholas Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 9. As John Howard Yoder notes, the Christian practice of evangelism is possible only if there is some sense of what constitutes the “world.” See Yoder, “The Prophetic Dissent of the Anabaptists,” in Guy Herschberger, ed., The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1957), 97, 98.
  31. Rowan Williams, “Incarnation and the Renewal of Community,” in Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 233. The longer argument of my paragraph is taken from p. 226–33.
  32. These are terms employed in Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life, especially in chapter 2.
  33. See John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 71.
  34. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 197.
  35. Healy, 1.
  36. Ibid., 46.
  37. Ibid., 52. The larger argument of this paragraph is taken from Healy, 46–52. Part of my complaint about the Emerging Church in this context is that one sees a paucity of the close reading of scriptural texts as the primary source for the shaping of ecclesiology. I am not saying the Bible is ignored, but rather that discussions of the shape of the church often seem to be driven by discussions of culture, which then leads to suggestions for change based on those cultural observations. I find this especially in the case of McLaren’s writing, where he sometimes makes a virtue out of his lack of formal theological or biblical training, suggesting that it is his training in literature and language that has helped him to interpret culture, texts, and so on. See McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 157. Fair enough, but as I am trying to argue, an essential dimension of ecclesiology needs to be generated from within a theological horizon, which is itself shaped and generated scripturally. The work of Gerhard Lohfink, Nicholas Healy, and Karl Barth that I use in this paper are fine examples of the pursuit of ecclesiology in this scriptural mode.
  38. To be fair to McLaren, his writing is beginning to include some encouraging hints along these lines. For example, he poses the question, “Can you imagine yourself and your community of faith as a living parable where the secret message of Jesus could be hidden today?” McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 102. This notion of the church as parable is one that warrants more attention. See for example, Harry Huebner and David Schroeder, The Church as Parable: Whatever Happened to Ethics? (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1993). I am grateful to Professor P. Travis Kroeker for a recent helpful conversation along these lines, as well as his presentation at a retirement symposium for Professor Harry Huebner, May 2008.
  39. Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Vol. IV/2, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, transl. G. W. Bromiley (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 661, 667.
  40. Nicholas Healy shares such concerns as well—see Healy, 185. “Sin and error, in short, are part of the church’s theological and concrete identity prior to the eschaton.” Healy, 11.
  41. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (London: SCM, 1971), 382.
  42. Ibid., 360.
  43. Ibid., 362–63.
  44. James Woelfel, Bonhoeffer’s Theology: Classical and Revolutionary (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970), 258–65. A similar point is made by Will Campbell, albeit in a different context. In discussing the American race problem, Campbell insists that the church has been asking the wrong questions. “Instead of demanding, What can the Christian do to improve race relations? we should be asking, What must the Christian be? As the body of Christ, the church first of all must be the redeemed community. Then it will be empowered to redeem the world and not before. The sin of the church is not that it has not reformed society, but that it has not realized self-renewal. Its sin is that it has not repented. Without repentance there cannot be renewal.” Will Campbell, Race and the Renewal of the Church (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 4.
  45. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 53. Yoder’s compressed description of these moves is on much fuller display in Preface to Theology, where he traces the “widening” of the Jesus story from the “kerygma,” through the Gospels, other New Testament writers, and the patristic period. Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider register concern regarding this notion of “kerygma,” if by this Yoder means some core message that is not already embedded in a rich theological matrix. Hauerwas and Sider, introduction to Preface to Theology, 24. This is a valid concern, since Yoder moves from the message of the apostles to the Gospel writers, whom he describes as developing the simple first message of the apostles in the book of Acts. He does not deny that some sifting or interpreting is going on, but claims that the Gospel writers simply reflect the faith of the church in which they live. Yoder, Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2002), 60–63.
  46. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 54. The essay being drawn on here is entitled “ ‘But We Do See Jesus’: The Particularity and the Universality of Truth.” Yoder covers somewhat similar territory albeit in a more formally philosophical mode in “On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism, and Validation,” Faith and Philosophy 9 (July 1992): 285–300.
  47. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 61.
  48. Ibid., 54.
  49. Yoder, “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned: A Critique of Christ and Culture,” in Glen Stassen and D.M. Yeager, eds., Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 69.
  50. Alan Kreider, “Christ, Culture, and Truth-Telling,” Conrad Grebel Review 15 (Fall 1997): 207–33.
  51. Williams, 233.
  52. Barth, x.
  53. Bonhoeffer, 382.
  54. Here again I acknowledge a helpful conversation with P. Travis Kroeker.
  55. Lohfink, 146.
  56. Barth, 616–20. Barth continues, “As such it will reveal itself, or be revealed, in glory at this goal; yet only as the Church which does not try to seek and express and glorify itself, but absolutely to subordinate itself and its witness, placing itself unreservedly in the service and under the control of what God wills for it and works within it.” Barth, 620.
  57. Lohfink, 145. I am relying in large part on Lohfink’s work for my understanding of these themes in Ephesians, 143–46. Karl Barth’s reading of Ephesians is parallel to Lohfink’s in many ways. For example, Barth also argues that the Christian community that is fitting for the provisional representation of the universal scope (concealed as yet) of the person and work of Christ. Thus any blessings or gifts given to the church are given not for identification but with a view to service in the world. Barth, 623–26.
  58. Webster, Holiness, 5. I am applying Webster’s understanding of theology to the church here. I am grateful to Rev. Mark Doerksen, Dr. Denny Smith, and Russ Snyder-Penner for their generous reading of earlier versions of this paper.
Paul Doerksen (Ph.D. McMaster University) teaches theology and ethics in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is the author of Beyond Suspicion: Post-Christendom Protestant Political Theology in Yoder and O’Donovan, published by Paternoster Press (2010).
*This essay is reprinted, with permission, from New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology, ed. Abe Dueck, Helmut Harder, and Karl Koop (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2010).

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