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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Responding to Hirsch & Catchim: Did I miss the point?

My essay in Books and Culture has resulted in a number of letters to the editor of the publication, two of which have been published and are now up online here. At that same link I have a 500-word response with particular attention being given to Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim’s (from here on, “H & C”) lengthy letter. In my response I mention that I will be responding further at my blog to these three specific charges made against my essay by H & C:

1) They claim my article “engages in an injurious attempt of guilt by association” with respect to the New Apostolic Reformation.
2) They assert that I demonstrated “scholastic obfuscation” and “completely” miss “the point of their book” in order to defend “an outworn status quo” and ignore “the distinctively missional significance of our material”.
3) They label me a “reactionary” meaning someone who “opposes political or social liberalization or reform.”

I have responded to point #3 here, and in this post I will respond to point #2.

H & C worked very hard on The Permanent Revolution and it is a text brimming with ideas and interpretations on a variety of topics making it understandable that they would be frustrated by the choices a reviewer makes. Any essay engaging with their book is going to be incomplete and choices for focus are always debatable. But H & C claim that my choices are uniquely unfair because they miss the real point of their book and are a reflection of my predilection for defense of the “status quo.”


H & C believe that I ignore “the distinctively missional significance” of their book, but anyone who reads the essay can see that I frame the entire essay around the missional movement and how significant it would be if the movement were to adopt H & C’s ecclesiological proposal. Here are the first three paragraphs of the essay:

The ecclesiological challenges facing the church in the West are the subject of intense debate across confessional and denominational lines. In what sense is there a crisis of church identity and leadership? What are the roots of the crisis? How do categories like "postmodern" and "post-Christian" affect Christian mission in the West? These are the kinds of questions being addressed in a steady stream of books and conferences. The missional church movement has made a major contribution to this discussion through leaders like Timothy Keller and scholars like Christopher Wright. In one of his reflections on the missional movement, Keller identified five key elements of the missional movement. One of these elements is to "practice Christian unity as much as possible on the local level."[1] This instinct for what John H. Armstrong has called "missional-ecumenism"[2] is part of what has made the missional movement such a strong influence on the church catholic—to be "missional" has meant, in part, to "not spend our time bashing and criticizing other kinds of churches," as Keller puts it. To put it another way, the missional movement has seen itself working within a number of ecclesiological contexts and helping to transform, not overturn, denominational structures. That is why missional organizations such as the Gospel and Our Culture Network[3] draw on membership from a wide range of Christian traditions—Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist, Mainline Protestant, Pentecostal, emergent, independent evangelical, and so on.
The humble ecclesiology of the missional movement is fitting given the ecclesial career of the man widely considered the father of the movement, Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin served in a leadership capacity in a number of Protestant denominations and was a key figure in ecumenical organizations, including the World Council of Churches, which he served for a time as Associate General Secretary. Of course, Newbigin was not a "progressive" churchman in the sense evangelicals typically associate with the World Council of Churches, but he was a man steeped in the Great Tradition of the church, deeply conversant with it and profoundly respectful of those church bodies that were birthed by classical orthodox Christianity. Newbigin's profound critique of what are often called "Christendom models of ministry" was tempered by his respect for the ecclesial offices and structures of the historic Christian bodies.
Given the historically ecumenical character of the missional movement and the humble ecclesiological claims of its leading thinkers, it is surprising to see a number of missional leaders being drawn to the radical ecclesiology of Alan Hirsch. The center point of his proposal is the notion, increasingly popular in "third wave"[4] charismatic circles, that the five roles mentioned by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4—"apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers (APEST)"—are all meant for the church in all places and times.

While it is true from these paragraphs, as well as the review as a whole, that I would think it would be a mistake for the missional movement to adopt H & C’s vision of and justification for 5-fold practice, I certainly do not miss the significance of their proposal for the missional movement.


On pages 4-5 of their book, H & C say something that I think well sums up the reason I focused my review the way that I did. Here is their words:

It stands to reason that to mess with the DNA of the church (that is, its original design and function) means to seriously damage our capacity to actually be ecclesia. In fact, this is exactly how all genetic mutations occur. If we believe that the New Testament codes are authoritative and function in the same way genetics does in biological systems, then we must be sure to align with those codes. We believe that the church’s lack of adherence to the teaching of Ephesians 4 is a clear case of how we have altered the genetic codes and paid the price. It is to time to correct this egregious flaw in our ecclesiology…
In presenting Ephesians 4:1-16, we are tempted to say that it is one of those rare things—a silver bullet: a simple, guaranteed solution for a difficult problem. Of course we do not believe that, but over time we have come to think that it is almost a silver bullet. We believe that a full appreciation and application of Ephesians 4 typology will unleash enormous energies that will awaken now-dormant potentials in the church that Jesus built.

It is in response to these extraordinarily strong claims that I spent the time in the review addressing the exegetical, historical and contemporary questions raised by their book’s explanation of and defense of the above paragraphs. What H & C view as “scholastic obfuscation” I see as analysis and reflection worthy of the serious claims they are making for their understandings of Scripture, Church history and contemporary trends. The questions is, “was my analysis correct” not “does it somehow or other ‘defend an outworn status quo’”? On that score, their letter indicates that they have nothing to say in response to my essay.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your review of the book in Books and Culture. No, you did not miss the point. The thesis of the book is that the Western church is in decline and only apostles can turn it around. Apparently the authors found that the cause of this decline dates back to the late first century when Clement (ordained by Peter and a martyr) and Ignatius (a student of the Apostle John and also a martyr) conspired to exile the apostles, prophets, and evangelists in order to put the pastors and teachers in full control of the Church.

    The evidence for this conspiracy is not found in historical documents, or in Scripture. The evidence is found in organizational behavior principles which the authors use to interpret Church history. Confusingly the authors draw from a rich heritage of church planters and innovative leaders from the history of the Western church through the ages which they say we need again today. Wait, if the Western church has been held hostage by the hegemony of pastors and teachers, then from where did these innovative leaders come from who continued the mission of the church through the perilous persecutions that killed Clement and Ignatius, and many others, and continues to modern times?

    The root cause of this decline however is best summed up by the book, “Yet in the many millions of theological books that have ever been written, we cannot find serious explorations of the topic of fivefold ministry as a living and vital piece of the church’s genetic coding…The only conclusion we can reach is that this must ultimately be the work of the Devil.”

    The only conclusion I can make from this quote is that the authors are convinced the Holy Spirit has been inept in His leading of the Church and that the gates of hell have prevailed against it since the first century. Maybe the reason why no serious explorations of the continuing fivefold ministry were found, in the many millions of theological books the authors read, was because it isn’t Biblical. It is not in the DNA of the Church. Maybe there are other reasons for the decline of the “Western Church” like assimilation with the society around us. It could be that the early church fathers faithfully passed on what they learned firsthand from the Apostles and were not under the influence of the Devil. It could be that on their way to their deaths for the Savior and the Church they dearly loved Clement and Ignatius were praying for those they had sent out to start new churches.

    The authors equate the Western pastors and teachers with the Pharisees and Scribes. I find that interesting because Jesus’ strongest accusation against the Pharisees was when they associated the power to caste out demons to Satan. Jesus said this was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and the only unpardonable sin. Yet, it’s the authors who are attributing the early Church’s ecclesiastical structure to the “work of the Devil” and not to the power of the Spirit. So, who are the real Pharisees here?

    Much credit for the early Church’s growth is rightly given to the Apostles. However, it was the Baptism of the Holy Spirit that turned the eleven floundering disciples pre-Pentecost into the post-Pentecost world changing Apostles. Are we to credit the Apostles’ strong entrepreneurial character qualities for this, or are we to credit the work of the Holy Spirit? The smart money is on the Holy Spirit. The authors, however, come down on the side of entrepreneurialism otherwise their solution to the Western church’s decline problem would not be current day entrepreneurs with the title apostle.

    Ephesians chapter 4 is the basis for the fivefold ministry promoted by these authors and those in the Apostolic Movement. But what does Jesus say to the Ephesian church about apostles? He commends the Ephesian church in Rev 2:2: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” (NIV) I think we should listen to what the Spirit is saying to churches in this verse.