Thinking again about Brian McLaren

This is a response to Rev Rachel Deigh’s previous article on Brian McLaren. In order to explain why I am replying, I need to start by quoting from the end of her article. She recommends we listen to Brian McLaren, stating “We need to get past a sense of self-righteousness which wants to stop other people reading things or hearing people that we don’t agree with and begin to engage with the debate from an informed place – a position of strength.” In her article she says that she dislikes when McLaren is quoted out of context or ‘proof texted’. I agree with her on this and have tried to speak in generalities about McLaren’s approach rather than directly quote him, as it is his ideas I want to engage with.

Rev Deigh names three ‘itches’ in her article and, again, I agree with all three. I too get frustrated with the way the church is so often inward looking, how unimaginative we can be in our evangelism and the way complex issues are so often over-simplified. My concern is that McLaren throws the baby out with the bathwater. I think the church has to change. We need to be bolder, more communal and more dedicated to making disciples of Christ than focussing on institutional maintenance. I hope to be part of that change within the church. I am looking for new ways to spread the Gospel, yet not to change the Gospel as, sadly, Brian McLaren seems to do.

I have been a member of the Methodist Church for about three years, and In that short time I have had my faith stretched and tested in many different ways. Therefore I would like to share with you a few of these personal discoveries, and why they lead me away from McLaren’s ideas.

Discovery #1 What we believe matters

I agree with Rev Deigh that we should listen to others. There are many groups and people I listen to. I listen to my local atheist student group, the Mormon missionaries at my door and the revolutionary Trotskyist activists who live in the flat across the landing. I have been open to what they have to say to me, chewed it over in my mind and rejected it. I harbour no ill will towards any of these people but I would not want to endorse what they believe or recommend their books to the members of my church. Neither would I want to be accused of self-righteousness or not being engaged in the debate for not inviting them as a speaker to a national event. Obviously I am not saying that Brian McLaren is an atheist, or a Mormon, just that there is a big difference between listening to and agreeing with him.

Brian McLaren’s ideas have taken shape over a decade, and his earlier works left plenty of room for people to accept some of his ideas and to reject others. However his latest works (such as A New Kind of Christianity) makes such bold claims, such as the idea that sections of the Bible present a misleading view of God and should not be believed; that Jesus did not die to pay for our sins or promise eternal life; and that the common evangelical understanding of sin, judgement and salvation comes from Ancient Greece and is foreign to the original faith of Jesus and the apostles. I know my own knowledge of God is imperfect and I pray the Lord would continue to grow and shape me but my conviction is that McLaren is wrong in what he says. One thing is sure: if these claims are true, they should entirely change our beliefs and how the church operates. They are incompatible with much of what we call evangelicalism today. That is why I would ask members of MET nevertheless to take McLaren seriously. The nature of his views means that it is not just one view point amongst many but a view point which, if true, excludes others.

A retired minister once told me one of the strengths of Methodism was that it did not have any doctrines, however when I became a member I had to agree with certain core beliefs. Since then I have heard a preacher say that God is something you experience, not someone you pray to, and had another member tell me it does not really matter if the resurrection happened or not, so I see where the retired minister was coming from. The Methodist Church may have formal positions on paper, but the reality is that you do not have to believe them to be a member or to preach. Despite this, I cannot help feeling it would be better if we did have a bit more unity in our faith for the simple reason that what you believe has a big impact on your life. If you view God as a Star Wars style force to be experienced rather than as personal and knowable, then you are never going to love God or be able to trust him as much as you would a human being. Similarly if the resurrection is not a reality for you, then you are not going to be able to fully appreciate who Christ is, trust him in what he promises, trust him in what he has done or a hundred and one other areas of Christian life.1 So I think it is always worth spending time thinking carefully about what we do or do not believe and what we want to teach and promote.

Discovery #2 The Current Evangelical Stereotype is false

There is a popular stereotype of evangelicals in our culture. They are uncaring to the poor, judgemental and only interested in denouncing LGBT people and abortion. In part, I became a Christian through hearing a talk by Tony Campolo so I already knew this stereotype was false. Yet within evangelicalism you sometimes get the feeling that Christians do not want to rebuff the stereotype, but to redirect it against those they disagree with. It is as though evangelicals can be split between the ‘nice’ progressive ones and the ‘nasty’ conservative ones. We might be appalled to hear someone pray “Thank you God that I am not like that tax collector”, but sometimes it feels like it is ok to pray “Thank you God that I am not like one of those conservatives.” I come from a left-wing, liberal background and generally consider myself to be pro-science and so I had prejudices against those who did not accept evolution in some form. When I was studying through the Open University I started going along to my local student Christian Union where I met evangelicals from a range of backgrounds. Loving them as friends changed my views. How does all this relate to Brian McLaren? Because in many of his works he criticises the judgemental, right-wing evangelical straw man in order to pose his ideas as a better alternative. For example, he implies that conservatives believe in life before birth but do not care for children born in slums. This is simply false and an ugly slur. In my own city it is many of the conservative evangelical churches who have got their hands dirty in care for poor, helping pregnant teenagers, doing outreach in the poorest estates, helping the homeless and being night-time street pastors. I wish all churches did likewise!

But McLaren does not stop at caricaturing people; he caricatures evangelical positions as well.2 He criticises people who believe that the Bible is infallible (or a “constitutional” reading as he calls it) by suggesting that this means people treat all Bible passages in the same way. For example, he suggests Leviticus and the Gospels are read in the same fashion. By the same logic Job becomes confusing because there are disagreeing viewpoints, so therefore how can these all competing voices all be true? If people did treat Scripture like this it would be a fair criticism, yet most who believe that the Bible is infallible do not do this. They agree that you should take into account the genre, who it was written for and why, when applying its message for today. People who hold to an Infallible Bible believe it can accurately record a lie: for example, many of the words of Satan are lies, yet those lies he tells are accurately recorded in the Bible. Once you realise McLaren is presenting a false dichotomy his alternatives appear a lot less compelling or indeed necessary.

Discovery #3 The Jesus of scripture is more radical than anyone expects

Even though McLaren caricatures the beliefs of conservative evangelicals, I agree with him and get equally frustrated when parts of Jesus teaching seem to be ignored by the politically right-wing. Jesus is not right-wing, yet neither is he left-wing. McLaren seems to push the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. The Jesus McLaren talks about never has a harsh word to say, except against the rich and powerful; He wants social action by the church and more welfare spending by the government; He is a pacifist and does not require people to leave another faith and become Christians. All this fits in nicely with my own left-wing prejudices but I want, (in fact I NEED), the real Jesus of Scripture. The Jesus of Scripture, the Word of God made flesh, does not fit easily into anyone’s politics and is far more radical. The Jesus of Scripture commands his followers to turn the other cheek3, but he also heals the servant of a Roman Centurion without challenging his military role or telling him to leave the army4. Jesus uses the news of a local building disaster to warn people that they must repent or similarly perish5; He eats with prostitutes and tax collectors6 and He saves an adulterous woman from stoning but then tells her to stop sinning7. He warns that He has come to bring divisions in households8; He is grieved by people’s lack of faith9. He violently clears the temple of money changers and animals10; He warns crowds of people that He will judge everyone and separate people as easily as separating sheep and goats, one group to eternal life, the other to eternal death11. There are times the Jesus of Scripture sounds more like a prophet from the Old Testament giving a terrifying warning to Israel than the cosy image most people have of Him. And if this disturbs you, then that is appropriate! It should disturb us and rattle us from complacency. Yet the “McLaren Jesus” appears to have had these sharp edges smoothed off. If you are already of a left-wing persuasion, he says nothing to challenge you. The problem only deepens when McLaren uses his own view of Jesus to decide which images of God in the Bible are true or not. Some may ask “why do you want a violent judgemental God?” I would answer: naturally I don’t, but I do want the real God as revealed in the Bible. If I were to worship a God of my own making, it would look very different. But the real Lord of the universe turns out to be much better than anything I could have imagined. Similarly, when I read God’s Word I need to be changed by it and become more Christ-like rather than seeking to change it to what I think is acceptable. That means I sometimes have to think carefully about how difficult passages apply to my life when I am confronted by them, but that is better than letting my own prejudices determine what I think is right for me. The truth is that the Jesus of the New Testament is much more shocking and judgemental than most people desire him to be, and the Yahweh of the Old Testament is much more merciful and loving than most people imagine. And this is how it should be: for they both describe the same God – a God who is consistent in his character at all times. Something has gone seriously wrong if we start using one to critique the other.

All this is just scratching the surface of the whole debate but it is my hope that what I have written will be helpful for people thinking through about of these issues. Our world needs the gospel. It needs direct evangelism and social justice. So wherever our churches are not fulfilling their mission, it is imperative that they change. However, I am concerned that if we accept every change McLaren wants to make, our gospel and evangelism will not present the real Jesus and message of the Bible.

May I conclude this article by suggesting some other Christian writers and their works that engage us further in the discussion whether we are McLaren supporters or detractors? These are people who are doing church in new ways and/or engaging our culture with the gospel and will help us think about our own future and outreach: writers such as Tim Chester, (Total Church, A Meal with Jesus and Delighting in the Trinity), Alison Morgan (The Wild Gospel and The Word on the Wind), Tim Keller (The Reason for God and Generous Justice), Francis Chan (Crazy Love and Forgotten God), Alan Hirsch (The Shaping of Things to Come and The Forgotten Ways) and John Dickson (Promoting the Gospel and Life of Jesus DVD). Let us hope and pray that the church continues to grow, to change and to follow, wherever the Lord may lead.