Monday, May 11, 2009

An Emergent Discussion

I've been involved in a discussion on Facebook and 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, 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
Tony Jones

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.


  1. Thank you for your very articulate, passionate, and thoughtful response.

  2. Thank you!

  3. Thanks, John. We need to be reminded that our pride can blind us.

  4. Thank you for your comments and insight. I'm having a tough time with denominations right now, and really appreciate your insight. I'm trying to look past the 'denominational' label, and find out what a true Christian is. I'm going to add you to my behind the scenes blogroll and keep following this discussion. BTW, my hubby has switched denominations since graduation/ordination. He is now on one of those committees NOT PCUSA...that decides, (controls?) the outcomes of candidates going the process of becoming a recognized leader within his chosen denomination. I see it from the other side. He and the committee are overseeing approximately 100+ people as they work their way this year through the process. When a situation comes up like this, he'll be the first to say, what's the WHOLE story. Do we as readers of these posts have the full picture. Maybe, just maybe, someone saw something in his file, that prompted a red or yellow flag, and is questioning that. On other issues, candidates are denied often by his committee and told to come back the next year, because they often have personal work on issues that may involve counseling or whatever to better equip them to be ministers.

    Then, there's the flip side that I"M dealing with..what about all the emphasis on ordination. Yes we need to have recognized leaders, but we also need to have the laypeople to step up so that we all can be a 'priesthood of all believers.'

    I'm dealing with all of this on my blog, and may use this as fodder for upcoming posts. thanks for your insight.

  5. Thanks for engaging in this discussion. I think your response is important and very truthfully and well said. However, what do you think Tony's friend Adam should do? Do you think there's a time when submitting to the denominational authority goes against what you believe and you should stand up to it?

    I personally hate the idea of buying into one denomination by becoming a member when we are all the body of Christ. Still, I did eventually join the church as you know, because I wanted to vote, and I understand that being organized can be useful. But I don't hold it tightly, and I'm saddened when institutions do use their clout to create barriers rather empowering the people of God for service. In which case pensions and health plans are a tangible way in which denominations enable service and you are right not to take those lightly. I don't in our secular work lives!

    Ultimately though, you are right -- Let's stop pointing fingers and start embracing what we care about together.

    Although I personally think we enjoy a little of the argument. Check out the internet monk blog (and his commenters) to see some of that.

  6. However, what do you think Tony's friend Adam should do? Do you think there's a time when submitting to the denominational authority goes against what you believe and you should stand up to it?

    This was asked by the commenter below me. I would like to get back into the discussion, and say that in my honest opinion, I think Tony's friend Adam should go back to the committee, (in some cases an appeal is often permitted, or even a clarification meeting), bringing along with him an advocate, a friend, a colleague. He can humbly go back and say/ask, why did you see that these courses are necessary for my ordination? Is this standard policy? Or is there something lacking in my file that you feel these courese will benefit? You are right, by beginning the road to ordination it is a process of submission to people who have your life in their hands. Many times, these people are secluded in chapel services and prayer times before making these decisions. These behind the scends prayer times are not always visible, but most often are present.

    BUT, if there is something that goes against the Bible, and the fundamentals/basic Christian teachings that the denomination is supporting THEN by all means, stand up, and be against those things. Ok, getting off of my soapbox.

  7. Okay, posted about this on my blog, and quoted your last sentence of your post. VERY POWERFUL...thanks for giving me food for thought, will follow up with more posts on this subject.

  8. Anonymous12:50 PM

    thank you. you voiced my own sentiments beautifully and articulately and i'm really glad Tony posted your response. thank you Tony for giving voice to a different perspective.

  9. Anonymous12:58 PM

    Another area of privilege that you (appropriately) didn't mention is Tony's gender. For many women, the mainline denominations have provided the same kind of nurture and validation that you received from the PCUSA growing up. My church experience was outside the PCUSA but I chose it because it was a place willing to give me space and freedom to grow in confidence, to give me experience, and to provide structure to support me throughout my ministry. I couldn't find that in emergent churches who are usually filled with men who don't have a grasp on the gender gap and what is needed to support and care for women.

  10. I'm so grateful for all of your responses to my letter. I've added an apology to Tony for a comment I made which was outside the bounds for a discussion like this one.

    Having been through the process myself I agree that there must be more the Adam story than is being shared. It's possible that what appears to be an unjust exercise of power on the part of the SF presbytery might actually be an appropriate 'keeping of the gate.'

  11. Wonderful, reminds of two other 'lovers', Wesley and Whitfield as they disagreed, jabbed and swung hard, but loved at the same time.

    There's more to learn in the manner of your debate than the substance for me.

    Ordination is a religiopolitical somethingorother dreamed up somewhere along the way, hard to find anything about it in God's Word, unless you read alot between the Holy lines.

    Love the debate though. And the heart of the debaters.

  12. Love this post. Being in the process of ordination inside the PC(USA) I know it can be frustrating and some times tedious, but in my case all of that frustration led to some serious growth.

    I thank God that the committee that I worked with had the guts to say "No" and then helped me to work on my own issues.

    Also, I love the polity of the PC(USA) even if sometimes it makes me want to pull my hair out. I find the Holy Spirit working through the many hills and valleys of the ordination process.

    I also believe that not everyone should be ordained. There are standards, actually the standards that I hold up are not the same standards that get all the attention on the media and blogs, but that's something completely different.

    Thank you for your post.

    One last thing...@Bobby Capps, the idea of ordination (being set apart) is definitely Biblical, Aaron (Moses' brother, Exodus 29) and his family were set apart to be the priests of the Isrealite community. There is even a outline for ther service. It includes sacrifice of a lamb and placing the blood on the right ear, right thumb, and right big toe. We could get into a discussion of that, but I just want to sit with that image for a while. I think that would be sweet, but probably a little messy.


  13. @Greg Bolt RT@bobbycapps unless you read alot between the Holy lines.

    Dear friend, Do you really think that what these guys are talking about has any close example/principle/guidance/prescription in the scriptures? Please!

    Your example IS my point.

    Keep reading,

  14. Anonymous1:21 PM

    what i find interesting about much of the emerging church movement, is that at its core a deconstructionist movement.

    similar to the way marxism provides a good critique of capitalism, and there is some truth it its observations, its prescriptive value (as we saw in the USSR) is of little merit.

    Once the emerging movement has deconstructed everything, church structure, pensions, pastor healthcare, buildings, entire ministries, what is left?

    The God we worship was in the PAST, present, and future. While it is good to correct a lot of the insular culture and mis-guided policies that entered the church through the decades, do not think god was not working in the mainline denominations who happened to be wealthy with nice buildings, in the same way he is working with the street children ministries now....

  15. @Bobby Capps
    while I was mostly attempting to be funny with my reference to Exodus 29 regarding the ordination ritual it lays out.

    I believe that the ordination process (PCUSA) much like it's polity is very biblical, I often liken it to the scripture on community discipline and accountability. If you see a brother or sister slip, you talk to them (particular church), if they don't listen bring one or two elders (presbytery), if they still do not listen take it to the whole community (general assembly) The reference escapes me at the moment but you get the idea.

    I also would point you to Ephesians 4 for a biblical interpretation of being set apart.

    I am not arguing that the processes themselves strictly conform to the words of Scriptures but at least in the PCUSA's case I believe the process is based on the bible and it's interpretation.

    Wouldn't it be great if everything we did conformed to scripture and the example of God Incarnate on this earth? Unfortunately, we are broken and sinful people in a broken and sinful world just trying to get by.



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