Deep Church: A Third Way?
Ah yes, another book on the emergent church. I admit I both really wanted to read this book and really didn’t. The wanting is because, as you may know, I too wrote a book on the emerging church. So naturally I was curious what another author–one with blurbs from the likes of Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, Rob Bell, Scot McKnight, and Tony Jones–had to say about the movement.
But a big part of me didn’t want to read the book. Believe it or not, I don’t live for controversy and I don’t wake up in the morning hoping to jump back into emergenty thoughts. I spent a year of my life researching and writing about the emergent church and then another year teaching and doing interviews about it. That was enough for me. Besides, perhaps I’m naive, but I think most people can now see the emergent movement for what it is. There are enough resources out there now for people to make up their minds and decide whether this is a healthy reform movement or a conversation pushing the boundaries of evangelical faith and sometimes jumping the bounds of orthodoxy itself.
Keeping Up With the Conversation
But, alas, I feel some obligation to keep informed of the conversation. So it was with a feeling of apprehension and intrigue that I read Jim Belcher’s book Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. I was preparing for the worst when I read in the blurbs that this book “avoids the clamor for extremes” (Scot McKnight), is “the first to be truly gracious” and is great “for any who are tired of straw man arguments and polarizations” (Mark Oestreicher), and rises above “the usual shallow, facile critiques of the emergent church movement” (Tony Jones). I can’t help but assume that Why We’re Not Emergent is one of the “extreme”, “straw man”, “facile” critiques they’re thinking of. What would I be getting into with this book?
I am always skeptical of “third way” books anyways. Usually, the “third way” is basically the same as one of the other two ways, only a little nicer. In this case, I was expecting the third way to be emergent-lite with a less caustic attitude toward evangelicals. But actually Belcher was just the opposite. He is an evangelical–a traditional evangelical I would argue–who seems sound in his theology (he is a PCA minister after all), but wants to be non-traditional in a few ways. If I were titling the book I would call it “Why I’m Not Emergent, But I Like Many of the Emergent Folks and I Want to Do Church Differently Too.”
What is Deep Church?
The heart and soul of Deep Church is Belcher’s dream for traditional and emerging camps to find unity in the Great Tradition and not blast each other over second-tier differences (67-68). Chapter 3, “The Quest for Mere Christianity”, is the most important chapter in the book for understanding what Belcher is aiming for with his third way. On the one hand, Belcher wants to avoid the fundamentalist error of seeing every other kind of church as heretical and suspect. On the other hand, he also wants to avoid the liberal error of seeing theology as infinitely malleable. Belcher’s vision is for the traditional church and the emerging church to find common ground in the consensual tradition summed up in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed (54ff.).
Second-tier doctrines are not unimportant. Many of them are weighty, and individual churches will come down in different places relative to these doctrines. But binding all churches together is a tradition of orthodoxy. It’s the Great Tradition, then, that matters most, not our respective traditions. For the Great Tradition unifies us and ought to arouse our greatest passion. Belcher’s book is a winsome plea for a return to Mere Christianity and the humility and unity that goes with it.
What Are the Camps?
The traditional camp is not well-defined by Belcher (a weakness I’ll come back to later). At times it seems to be the same as fundamentalism (61). In other places, the traditional camp refers to anyone who has critiqued the emergent movement, including John MacArthur, Ron Gleason, Kevin DeYoung, Ted Kluck, and D.A. Carson. Belcher acknowledges the traditional camp is not monolithic. But he suggests “the groups comprising traditional evangelicalism share similar views of culture, epistemology and the church” (10). Still, in the end, I’m not sure what makes someone a part of the traditional camp in Belcher’s estimation, other than that they have been critical of the emergent camp.
Having said that, Belcher’s analysis of the emergent side is much more helpful. I won’t retell his own story, but Belcher has the advantage of having been an insider in the movement at its inception. He knows the journey of the emerging church well and he knows well many of the key players. This is what makes his book unique and why the emergents have received it more warmly. Carson was a total outsider in their minds. Ted and I were at least demographically similar and culturally conversant, but still outsiders. Jim is a true insider.
But also an outsider. He writes: “As much as I feel like an insider to the conversation, I also feel at times like an outsider because of some reservations I have with aspects of the emerging conversation” (28). Similar to what Ted and I said in Why We’re Not Emergent, Belcher feels like emerging voices are raising good questions, but their answers are often disturbing. Similar to Carson, Belcher defines the emerging movement (which he makes clear is not identical to Emergent Village) as a protest movement.
The emerging church is protesting against the traditional church on seven fronts: (1) Captivity to Enlightenment rationalism. (2) A narrow view of salvation. (3) Belief before belonging. (4) Uncontextualized worship. (5) Ineffective preaching. (6) Weak ecclesiology. (7) Tribalism.
Under the label “emerging” are three different camps: the relevants (e.g. Driscoll, Kimball, and some Young, Restless, and Reformed types) who are trying to contextualize ministry while still maintaining conservative theology; the reconstructionists (e.g., Cole, Hirsch, Barna, Viola) who are experimenting with organic house churches and monastic communities; and the revisionists (e.g., McLaren, Jones, Pagitt) who are questioning key evangelical doctrines on theology and culture (45-46). Belcher’s analysis focuses mostly on the reconstructionists and the revisionists because they have gotten the most attention and faced the most push back.
The bulk of the book deals with the seven areas of protest. Each chapter follows a similar pattern. Belcher usually begins with a personal experience that led him to see a problem with the traditional approach to church. Then Belcher explores the emerging solution, often interviewing key leaders in the movement and raising some possible objections along the way. Next, Belcher looks at the response of the traditional church to the emerging answers. And finally he proposes a third way that seeks to combine the best of both camps while avoiding the worst extremes.
Here’s a thumbnail sketch for each chapter/protest:
1. Deep Truth – Emergents reject classic foundationalism, which is good. But while they are right to reject self-evident truth, they are wrong to embrace a postmodern “constructivist” epistemology. “Even though I reject classical foundationalism,” Belcher writes, “I am not comfortable adopting a relational hermeneutic. I believe that God’s revelation in the Word tells us what is real and provides the authority for Christian community. We build our metaphysics on divine revelation. It gives us confidence that we substantially know ‘ready-made reality’” (82). In short, deep church rejects foundationalism built on reason, but accepts foundations built on belief.
Similarly, deep church is centered-set instead of bounded-set or relational-set. This means the church focuses on drawing people to the Well (Jesus Christ) instead of guarding all the fences (like the traditional church). It also means the church knows what it should be focusing on (the center), instead of allowing the community to determine truth for itself (like in the emerging church).
2. Deep Evangelism – The traditional church insists that belief must precede belonging. This has the effect of slamming the door on spiritual seekers. The emerging church insists on belonging before belief. But every community must have some standards and everyone in the church must be challenged to repentance, faith, and obedience at some point. So is there a third way? According to Belcher the third way understands that there are two circles around Jesus. There is an outer circle of seekers and an inner circle of committed disciples. Deep church welcomes everyone into the outer circle, regardless of their beliefs, but challenges them to become a part of the inner circle.
3. Deep Gospel - The traditional church has made salvation too personalized, too much like fire insurance. The message of individual salvation is important, but it must be balanced with Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom. We must avoided reductionist gospels and remember the gospel has a public dimension. We must not shrink the gospel to the forgiveness of sins. But, Belchers adds, penal substitution and justification must form the foundation for everything else we say about the gospel. The kingdom cannot be ignored, but it must be linked to the doctrines of atonement, justification, union with Christ, and our need to be forgiven (118).
4. Deep Worship – The emerging church tries to contextualize its worship, but in so doing it sometimes becomes untethered to history and too much a product of the culture around it. What is needed is not just a sampling of tradition, but a return to the Great Tradition. Belcher’s third way looks like this: “worship that embodies a genuine encounter with God, had depth and substance, included more frequent and meaningful Communion, was participatory, read more Scripture in worship, creatively used the senses provided more time for contemplation, and focused on the transcendence and otherness of God” (124).
5. Deep Preaching – Traditional preaching is often boring and uninspired. There is little drama to it. Most sermons boil down to two things: you suck; try harder (142). The emerging church tries to suggest a better way. In practice their “sermons” sound like sermons, except with a little more interaction from the congregation. But underneath the emergent view of preaching (at least that espoused by Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones) is a radical shift, a hermeneutic of community that says nothing is privileged, not even the Bible, over the community in discovering and living out truth (145). Belcher rejects this hermeneutic, seeing that it leads to a rejection of classical orthodoxy. So neither traditional nor emergent preaching will work. We need a third way that is not deductive and legalistic like traditional preaching, nor open-ended like emergent preaching. Instead, those who belong to deep church “preach Christ in every text, laying out and analyzing the human condition through Scriptures and experience, and exposing the radical, shocking grace of God that enters our situation, transforms us and empowers us to live differently” (157).
6. Deep Ecclesiology – Traditional church gets bogged down in meetings, paperwork, and organizational bureaucracy. This is bad. So the emerging church calls for a more organic, open-source model for church. But even organic churches cannot survive long without structure and accountability. What we need is a third way that calls the church to be both institution and organism, respects the offices of elder and deacon, celebrates worship as a means of grace, and cultivates and learns from tradition.
7. Deep Culture – The third way between traditional and emerging approaches to culture accepts Abraham Kuypers distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism. The church as an institution focuses primarily on preaching, sacraments, worship, and caring for the body. The church as organism works to train secret agents who go out into the world, work for the shalom of the city, and create culture. With this institution/organism approach, our churches can have a deep culture, one that is neither a copy-cat of culture nor irrelevant to it.
As you can see, there is much to affirm in these chapters. Belcher understands the issues well and clearly rejects the worst of the emerging movement. His church sounds like a good church, and Belcher (whom I never met) strikes me as an honest, thoughtful, irenic pastor. I agreed with much more in this book than I thought I would. As a part of the PCA, Belcher is not only tied to the Great Tradition, but to the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition. As such, I imagine our theology is quite similar. We are on the same team. My agreements with him outnumber my disagreements.
Nevertheless, I have a few critiques for Deep Church. Let me mention four, each in the form of a question.
1. What is the gospel?
Belcher makes clear that he affirms penal substitution. He thinks it is foundational to the other views of the atonement. He believes that Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins and take away our guilt. This is all wonderful. But I’m still a bit perplexed.
Belcher’s church holds to four core commitments: gospel, community, mission, and shalom. He admits that the church struggled the most to define the first of these four. “We had spent five years translating or contexualizing the gospel to the Orange County setting, and we wanted to be sure we had not reduced it any way” (120). First of all, I’m puzzled by the effort to translate the gospel. It seems to me that the news is still the same: Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and rose again on the third day. Ministries may need to contextualize, but the gospel?
More importantly, I’m puzzled by the definition of the gospel Belcher’s church came up with.
The “gospel” is the good news that through Jesus, the Messiah, the power of God’s kingdom has entered history to renew the whole world. Through the Savior God has established his reign. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, that kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us. We witness the radical new way of living by our renewed lives, beautiful community, social justice, and cultural transformation. This good news brings new life. The gospel motivates, guides, and empowers every aspect of our living and worship (121).
This is a fine statement of Christian theology, but is it the gospel? Surely, 1 Corinthians 15 gives us the best summary of the gospel and there we find no mention of cultural transformation or renewing the whole world. But we do here about sin, the cross, and the resurrection–three items given no specific mention in Belcher’s definition of the gospel. This is a problem.
2. Is unity possible?
Belcher’s dream is that traditional and emerging camps would find unity in the first-tier doctrines of the faith. But what if the Great Tradition is not a controlling tradition for the emergent church? “John and I,” Belcher writes speaking of John Armstrong and himself, “concluded that they [Jones and Pagitt] seemed to reject any commitments to the classical orthodoxy of the Great Tradition…I asked John, ‘If we are understanding them correctly, does this view put them outside of evangelical bounds as to many of their critics have been saying?’” (146). To which I wanted to reply, “Yes! And not just evangelical bounds, the bounds of orthodoxy too.” Belcher recognizes that Pagitt does not hold to the “rule of faith” or “classical orthodoxy.” The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed do not define mere Christianity for him (148). So why do people keep talking about Jones and Pagitt as if they are part of the evangelical conversation, when they aren’t even orthodox Christians?
In the end Belcher agrees that the traditional camp is not overstating its case when it comes to Pagitt’s views (152). So I don’t have a problem with Belcher’s theology on this point. In fact, I commend him for providing an honest assessment of the revisionist camp of the emerging movement. But I wish he would have stated more strongly and clearly that unity is not possible with those who reject the Great Tradition. True, Tony, Doug, and Brian are on the far left of the movement, but then at least let’s warn people about the far left of the movement. The hall of heterodoxy is not the same as the hall of Mere Christianity, and those standing in one hall cannot share spiritual unity with those standing in the other.
As much as Belcher doesn’t want to have a bounded-set church, if orthodoxy is to be a defining part of his church, it must have boundaries and those outside those boundaries are dangers to the sheep and the church’s shepherds should say so.
3. Is the Great Tradition enough?
I’m all for making the main things the main things. I’m all for differentiating between first- and second-tier issues. But is it enough to say the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed define orthodoxy, let alone evangelicalism? These creeds addressed certain pivotal issues that faced the church in its first few centuries. But what about other issues that have arise since then, like the atonement, justification, the authority of the Bible? I would say these are first-tier issues too, even though they were not specifically addressed by an early council or creed.
Along these lines. I was bothered by the references to “the version of the doctrine of the atonement that Piper holds dear” and “Pagitt and Jones don’t hold to Piper’s view of the atonement” (11, 12). Elsewhere Belcher explains that McLaren and others are not against “atonement theories” (111). This sort of language about the cross rubs me the wrong way. When evangelicals talk about Christ’s death in our place to propitiate the wrath of God as a “version of the atonement” or one favored theory, they give away too much.
True, there are different aspects to the atonement. But penal substitution is not a mere version. “So substitution is not a ‘theory of the atonement,’” writes John Stott. “Nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself.” Penal substitution is the plain truth of Scripture. I know that sounds hopelessly modern, but sometimes I just can’t help it. Christ dying in the place of guilty sinners deserves to be called more than “a view of the atonement that Piper holds dear.”
4. Is Deep Church a genuine third way?
In the end, the thing I liked most about the book is also my biggest criticism. Belcher’s way, despite is few differences in shape and tone (see critiques above), is not a genuine third way but the traditional way mediated through Tim Keller. Don’t get me wrong. I like that way. I love Tim Keller. I wasn’t disappointed to see that I agreed with Belcher on a lot. But if I’m traditional (which I am in the Deep Church taxonomy) then I think Belcher is too. Come to think of it, D.A. Carson is in the traditional camp too (in Deep Church) and he and Keller are very close friends. They started the Gospel Coalition together so I assume they agree on an awful lot. So is Carson another third way?
Deep church is essentially traditional doctrine with a softer edge and more cultural engagement. That’s not bad. It can be very good if done faithfully. But I don’t think it is a third way. Very few of the extremes of the traditional camp rejected by Belcher are footnoted or attributed to any leader in the traditional church. Consequently, I don’t think he is rejecting the traditional church as much as a bad experience of it.
Likewise, most of what Belcher offers as a third way are not new ideas to the traditional church. Almost all the conservative Christians I know reject classic foundationalism. Every conservative church I know of welcomes seekers and allows unbelievers to be a part of the church in the outer circle, even if they can’t be members until they believe certain things. Every good homiletics course teaches the difference between imperatives and indicatives and the need to preach Christ from all the Scriptures. In fact, I don’t think there is a single insight from the emergent church that cannot be gleaned from the best of the evangelical, and specifically the Reformed, tradition. We don’t need a third way between emergent and traditional. We need a revitalized, reformed evangelical church.
Deep Church confirms again that there are very serious problems with some of the theology coming out of the emerging church. It also confirms again that hide-bound, legalistic, unfriendly, uncaring traditionalism is not the way to go. If you need a refresher on either of these two points, this book will do the trick. Jim Belcher has given us an insider’s and outsider’s look at the most controversial church movement of the last decade. And though I have some disagreements with the book, in the end, he reaffirms the importance of the faith delivered once for all for the saints. And that’s a very good thing.