I've been involved in a discussion on Facebook and Belief.net over the weekend that I want to share with you. Tony Jones is a leader in the Emergent church movement and the author of several books, most significantly 'The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier.' If you've visited my site for any amount of time, you'll notice that I've recommended his book for almost a year now.
Full disclosure: Tony and I have known each other for almost 20 years, as you'll see in my letter below. Our ministry and academic paths have gone in different directions during that time: I'm ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA, and my doctoral work was in history. Tony was ordained in a Congregational church but now participates in a house church called Solomon's Porch. His current doctoral studies are, I believe, in the area of practical theology.
Tony has much to offer the Body of Christ. His work within and among Emergent Christians is, on balance, a net positive for the future of Christianity. He loves Jesus and wants to make the gospel known to those who have rejected him in the past.
But Tony has a serious blind spot when it comes to those of us who serve in Christian denominations. He distrusts institutions, as many of us have come to do, and believes that the bureaucracy of denominations can get in the way of the passionate and effective communcation of the gospel to a hungry world. I don't disagree with any of that. But Tony usually includes in his attacks (inappropriately, in my view) some mention of the health plans and pension provisions offered by some denominations, making the argument that ministers are sucked in to ineffectual ministry by the promise of medical benefits and a comfy retirement.
The problem is that Tony takes that data and reduces it into an equation that looks something like this:
Church+health plan+pension = Evil Enemy of Christ
Not surprisingly, I think Tony is wrong about this, and have told him that personally. But he keeps making that argument, as he has every right to do, and in the process he brings a measure of shame and misinformation on those of us who choose to serve in historic churches.
What historians know but Tony doesn't seem to understand is that he is following precisely the path of the American Fundamentalists of the 1900s. In their zeal to create a purer, more faithful church, they ended up attacking fellow believers and crippling what should have been a golden age of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am calling on Tony and others to stop this destructive behavior now, before it's too late.
I offer the exchange below as an example of how this discussion is going. Tony posted his piece (which I have included here) last Friday at http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2009/05/lets-ordain-adam.html, and I posted the response below over the weekend. My hope is not to attack or score rhetorical points, but rather to shift the discussion in a different direction and to focus Tony's enormous potential toward a more positive goal.
Please give these posts a careful read, and let me know what you think.
Let's Ordain Adam
Friday May 8, 2009
My friend, Adam Walker-Cleaveland, has once again been thwarted in his attempt to be ordained as a "minister of word and sacrament" in the Presbyterian Church (USA). First it was because his presbytery in Idaho objected that he asked his best friend, who happens to be gay, to preach at his ordination service. Now it's because his new presbytery in California says that his M.Div. degree from Princeton Theological Seminary -- a PC(USA) seminary!!! -- isn't good enough.
Few things piss me off as much as the sinful bureaucratic systems of denominational Christianity. When rules and regulations trump common sense, then the shark has officially been jumped.
But what gets to me even more is that bright, competent, and pastorally experienced persons like Adam continue to submit themselves to these sinful systems. They assure me that it's not for the health insurance or the pension. They do it cuz they feel "called." And if I hear another person tell me that they're sticking with their abusive denomination because, "They're my tribe," I'm gonna go postal.
So, it's time for us to do something. It's time for us, the body of Christ, to ordain Adam. To that end, I've started a petition, beseeching Adam to quit the PC(USA) ordination circus and to accept our ordination of him.
May 9th, 2009
I’m writing as a guy who loves you and admires your work, as a fellow seminary student from almost 20 years ago, and also as a PCUSA minister. Incidentally, given the context of your posting, I’m also the guy who preached at your own ordination service back in 1997.
It’s through all that history and affection that I need to tell you publicly that you’re wrong.
Not about the injustice surrounding your friend’s ordination. Allowing that you’ve communicated all the relevant facts, it doesn’t seem fair that he couldn’t invite a friend of faith to participate in his ordination service. You attended my ordination five years before yours, and you saw that I had the freedom to include a broad range of people who were significant in my development as a minister. You did the same in yours.
On the other hand, your friend may have erred in being unwilling to demonstrate that he could take direction and counsel from a governing body—something that I believe has a place in the context of the American religious free market. In the PCUSA, the process of becoming ordained is partly an exercise in learning healthy submission to peer authority (I can see the eyes rolling back in your head). Now setting aside the not-nearly-rare-enough instances where the submission required is unhealthy, it’s not a bad lesson to learn. More importantly, once candidates have completed (survived?) that process, we have enormous freedom to live and serve as our own calling leads us. It’s OK with me that we disagree on this point. That’s not the problem.
What gets me is that you have demonstrated a rash and bitter level of dismissiveness to those of us who choose this path. In your anger at the bureaucracy of large denominations and institutions, you’ve lashed out not only at them but also at the men and women of faith and calling who participate freely in the opportunities for ministry that they offer.
You sneer at it as simply being loyal to the tribe, and you rarely pass up a chance to mention the availability of health insurance or pensions. Shame on you for not being able—or worse, willing—to understand another person’s experience. You grew up in a very wealthy family and your financial security has never been a hindrance or worry to you—not through Dartmouth, Fuller, Princeton or beyond. What if there’s nothing wrong with trying to be a good steward of a family’s health, whether physical or financial? What if, for example, serving Christ in a denomination that provides a health plan isn’t a sin or a ‘sell-out’ at all, but rather a prudent way to be a good steward?
If I might paraphrase the sense of Jesus’ teaching about the splinter and the log, I suggest this: Swear off or return everything you’ve received from your family before saying another word about how the rest of us provide for ours.
But setting aside the pension issue, what keeps me, and possibly your friend Adam, in the PCUSA isn’t blind servitude or tribalism or even the paltry retirement plan it offers. What keeps me loyal—and I use that term as a virtue, not a punch line—has little to do with whether I think my tradition is best (I don’t). It’s simply that it was in a Presbyterian church that I met Jesus in a life-changing way. And when I felt Christ’s call to ministry in his church, it was that same congregation who helped train me, who prayed for me, and who gave me the chance to test my call in service. I love those people, and yes, I do feel loyal to them.
Tony, the biggest problem I see is that your hatred of denominations gets in the way of the truly important, truly inspired work that you do. It seems to me that rather than attack the weaknesses of denominations (which, frankly, is too easy a target for a man of your intellect), you should be proposing new agendas (as you do) and helping the rest of us reform existing structures from within. As a minister in a radically secular city with enormous ethnic and religious diversity, I don’t have time to re-invent many wheels. But I have learned from the things you’ve written and taught, once I get past the discordant attack on my choice of employer, and I’ve applied them in my teaching, preaching and leadership.
The truest thing I’ve said in this piece is in the first line. I love you and I honestly admire the work that you do within and among a new generation of Christian disciples. What I’m asking is this: get off my back and the backs of the rest of us who do it differently than you. The real problem in the world isn’t the church—it’s the sin and brokenness and injustice that clouds our chance to get a glimpse of Jesus. Help us—help me—to communicate that message in fresher, more authentic ways. Leave the ‘fixing’ of the denominations to those of us who care about them.