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Stuck between Mohler and McLaren: The Incarnational Approach to Leading in Our Disagreements

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We’re in the middle of some conflicts at our church. Isn’t everybody? Conflict/differences are part of everyday life.  I am a pastor alongside other pastors trying to lead a church amidst a post Christendom which isn’t entirely here yet. When we have conflicts, we view them as the point at which God works in the community to make his truth incarnate.  The epistemology (assumptions about how we know truth) I follow makes me post-foundationalist post-Christendom incarnational missional Anabaptist.  This means I seek to ground myself/ourselves in the ongoing incarnation of Christ in His community via Scripture, the Table and the “gifts of the Spirit.” Of course we submit to received orthodoxy. Yet this ongoing incarnational process of discerning truth contextually continues and extends orthodoxy. This extending does not happen through a few professional clergy deciding how we should discern the issues disagreed upon from the top down. This extending happens in the concrete lives of real communities discerning real issues. This is how our faith extends into the real lives of people. And so we must enter into disputes carefully discerning, listening to each other, studying Scripture, discerning sin, until we all “together discern the mind of Christ”(1 Cor 2;16). At Life on the Vine, we take seriously, that “whenever two or three gather and agree on a anything in my name, there am I in the midst. What ever is bound on earth is bound in heaven. What ever is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.” God inhabits conflict as if it were a sacrament – incarnating his truth further into the lives of a people living in the world (Matt 18:20).
This goes against  two kinds of leadership so prominent in American church today. I call them autocratic and democratic. I reject both of these forms of leadership for the church in Mission.

images-1THE AUTOCRATIC APPROACH TO LEADERSHIP (typically) puts authority in one (usually a man) senior pastor figure in the church to solve conflicts. For this approach – truth is always obvious, clear and perspicuous, it just takes an expert to explain it. And so, in the midst of church conflict, the senior pastor’s job as expert is to ascend to Mt Sinai, pray, read his Bible, hear from God and then descend to the church to tell them “this is the way it will be.” Those who agree stay, and (in America) those who disagree leave to start another church. This way of truth shapes people for arrogance and exclusion instead of openness to what God is doing. We get no where in God’s Mission and where he is taking us.

This conception of truth/leadership is sometimes typified by Al Mohler – blogger and president of So Baptist Theo Seminary. For Dr Mohler – truth is absolute. It is revealed. There are some things we know because God told us. Now of course there is “truth” to this, but this fails to take into account the way God reveals truth in history via the incarnation and the ongoing work of the Spirit in the church. It cannot be that simple when the disputable matters of the church are at stake (as opposed to the core orthodox established matters of doctrine). For instance, when Dr. Mohler says here “The Bible presents the knowledge of hell just as it presents the knowledge of sin and judgment: these are things we had better know. God reveals these things to us for our good and for our redemption. In this light, the knowledge of these things is grace to us,” does he get the varied ways these doctrinal matters have worked themselves out differently in various histories? say between the Reformed, Luthern and Wesleyan? That it is not self evident that sin, hell, judgement etc. mean and function the same for all historical expressions of the church. There is history in context at work here. From reading this here, it appears Mohler is resistant to the idea that truth needs to be worked out in a context. He could often be accused of  a version of “Absolute Truth” that is devoid of a contextual hermeneutic (although I think he could ably defend himself).

images-2THE DEMOCRATIC APPROACH TO LEADERSHIP seeks to solve conflicts by a community accepting many (all?) “voices”, tolerating disagreements and letting the conversation continue. There is a core orthodoxy around which we gather, but we must tolerate the many differences around the core. There are two weaknesses to this kind of leadership. FIRST – Real conversation is not fostered because an enforced tolerance minimizes our disagreements (says they are not important) because we have already agreed that we must accept them. Since any real substance in our disagreements has been diminished, we have little to do but talk about these issues (not discern them). It should not then be surprising that people contend these conversations also go nowhere.  The SECOND weakness is that this form of democratic leadership in essence decides where the “line in the sand is”. Someone has to decide what disagreements are central to the community’s commitments and which disagreements are sufficiently benign for us all to tolerate. Someone determines that these tolerable disagreements are simply not important enough to discern. They do not hurt anyone sufficiently (a democratic value if there ever was one) to get into serious discernment over for the future of the gospel. This itself is a form of autocratic leadership. In the end, there is little difference between the autocratic and democratic because some singular leader/leader group is basically making uniteral judgements as to what affirmations and truths we will be lead by, and which disagreements we will tolerate as part of us.

Brian McLaren’s recent statement on homosexuality here falls into this category of democratic leadership. He claims that we must learn to disapprove of homosexuality while at the same time accepting it (I think he means in the church). This only other option is divisiveness in the church.

This does not really help the pastoral situation however. There are many people who see the gay/lesbian peoples as hurting, vulnerable and victumized in their sexuality. We need to invite them in the life of uncovering hurt and seeking healing and renewal that we all desire for our sexuality. Democratic tolerance covers over these issues disabling these kind of cinversations. There are people who see all desire, especially sexual desire, as the place of spiritual formation. For these folk,. not only what we accept but what place we give gay and lesbian life in the church will have profound effect on how we see the shaping of all desire (especially consumerist desire). These people argue, “to accept gay and lesbian life as “OK” within the Christian community is in essence to make a decision to allow this understanding of sexual formation to shape our kids.” In essence then, an approach that appears benign and innocent to Brian, refusing to cut off and divide, is a blatant pronoucement in a Christian community as anything the autocrat would do.

Democratic tolerance shapes the conversation to be one-sided. Perhaps this is what is happening to Brian and the launch of his new book where he is seriously getting taken to task on such matters here and here (HT Bill Kinnon). Read brad/futurist guy’s comments on this blog post. Does Brian then, as much as I like and appreciate him, end up (innocently?) making Mohler-like  pronouncements in the name of “generosity,” “inclusion” and “love.” Is he assuming an epistemology as individualistic and violent as Al Mohler. I give both Al and Brian the benefit of the doubt because of their track records in the ministry of the KIngdom of God. Yet I think they may have forgotten what it means to work out disagreements and  doctrine in a live real incarnate community (a church body) where these things matter and require contextual engagement. Of course not much of this kind of discernment actually goes on much in churches anymore. We need then to push for an incarnational approach to leadership.

THE INCARNATIONAL APPROACH TO LEADERSHIP I propose the incarnational way of leading through coflict where God works in conflict as the means to push us forward into our context for Mission. Here we do not depend on a divinely appointed hierarchical figure to ascend to the mountain and pronounce from above the way it shall be. Neither do we depend on a leader or leaders to arbitrate which issues shall be declared  “tolerable.” Instead we allow the community where God is at work to determine when a disagreement is important enought to discern for the will of God among us. When such a disagreement has occured, the pastors invite those offended or in disagreement to go to the person – one on one. If there is not an agreementhere they bring thr disagreement to a third and/or fourth person. If still no agreement, take it to the church, which at Life on the Vine means the shepherd board, those recognized leaders of the community. If after several sessions, this issue remains unresolved proving it is too important for who we are and the people/problems we are engaging, we call a “Council” of all the people in the church interested in this issue, to pray, listen, to hear those recognized in the study of Scripture, to submit to one another, to die to ourselves and recognize our own sin, and out this discern together for a common agreement – so that we can say to the church ..”It seems good to Holy Spirit and to us ……”(Acts 15:28). In this way, the community of the Spirit where He is Lord determines the issues concretely that need to be discerned, because they perculate organicly to the surface becoming an issue for the whole body. Here orthodoxy cannot be defied only extended into new terrotory – new orthodoxy. Here the gifts are listened to, those who are gifted in wisdom, reading Scripture, teaching etc.. And  with prayer and charity and courage we discern what God is calling us into. And wherever two or more agree on anything in His name, there He is in the midst of us. What is bound here is bound in hevane, loosed here, also in heaven (Matt 18:15-20).

Conflict is crucial to the community in Mission. Because Mission pushes us into new territory, new things we’ve never faced, there will be new conflicts. As we all submit to each other in prayer we resolve to do this or that into the world. Jesus inhabits thee conflict (“there am i” Matt 18:17) Their resolution pushes the community forward into Mission. We who come together to live as Christian incarnational community in the world should therefore welcome conflict as the place where God works to incarnate us into new territory, to discern what Christ looks like here anew. And if we have no conflicts, no differences and no disagreements, we have become stagnent.

All of this requires real relationships and concrete communities living our disagreements, not only talking/writing about them.

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