Armed Only with Vulnerability: Sean Palmer on the Mission of God

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Sean Palmer is Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston and a member of the Missio Alliance Writing Team. I recently sat down with him to discuss his new book Unarmed Empire.

Derek: Thanks for giving me and our readers a chance to see behind the scenes into Unarmed Empire! What compelled you to write this book?

Sean: I was raised in the church in Southern, conservative churches. It shaped my entire life and I love the church. But in my adult life I see the church behaving in ways that are antithetical to who Jesus was and what Paul talked about. Instead of the church being a place of fellowship and brotherhood, it has become a warehouse of division and exclusion.

I wanted to give people who had been hurt and shunned by the church a picture of God’s original intent.

Derek: Sometimes when Christians talk about “unity,” they really mean “unity with people like us,” while they exclude those who are different. And that is so sad. What is it about this cultural moment that makes Unarmed Empire such a crucial book?

Sean: Christians, American Christians in particular, have become hostage to cultural and political forces that don’t care about the mission of God. Rather, they use the church as a cudgel to enact social policies.

Right now, the church barely even questions who and what we are asked to support. Add to that the fact that social norms are changing rapidly and many Christians read their Bibles, but lack the nuance to think theologically.

I think the Christian church in America is at risk of losing a generation for Christ because of our posture towards people who are not already part of the church.

Derek: How would you describe the Church’s position in the mission of God?

Sean: The church are the people of God, the physical representation (hands and feet) of Jesus.

We are also to be a preview of God’s preferred future. That means we enter mission the same way Jesus did, as a servant. We are to serve, not to be served. There is no such thing as “servant-leader” in the vocabulary of the Lord.

This posture of service is where many contemporary Christians bristle. They want to “lead” everything. But Jesus has a particular rebuke for his disciples who yearned for power and the honor to sit on his right and left. We earn an audience and the ability to lead by serving others first.

Mission is service to neighbor, to be with and for our neighbors unto Christlikeness. But sadly, so much of what we call “mission” is really coercion and manipulation.

That’s not how Jesus did it. He sends us into the world armed only with vulnerability. He instructs his disciples (see Peter) to put away swords even if by yielding we are lead to the cross.

Jesus sends us into the world armed only with vulnerability. Click To Tweet

Derek: I appreciated how you build the case that we are ashamed of the gospel anytime we as followers of Jesus harbor any sense of superiority. Can you explain why this is so?

Sean: Paul’s argument throughout Romans is that Jews and Gentiles have access to God on the basis of faith. God has kept his promise to the Jews, but Paul needs to explain how. Jews of Paul’s day placed a great deal of emphasis on their “works of righteousness,” which didn’t save them, but did distinguish them. Part of being distinguished is being superior.

In the first chapter of Romans, Paul argues that he is not ashamed of the gospel, because the gospel is that through Jesus all (Jews and Gentiles) are saved through faith. This means the means of Jewish superiority—and our’s too for that matter—is destroyed. The dividing wall has been torn down. So any time we try to hold on to that sense of superiority over others, we are living as though we are ashamed of the gospel.

Derek: What are some of the subtle ways you see superiority creeping into the church?

Sean: The ways superiority are creeping into the church aren’t that subtle.

For one, many churches have the posture of empire. That is, they are willing to embrace others once they become “enough like us.” The mentality these churches carry is that the object of our mission is not to embody the love of God so much as it is to convert people—not to Christlikeness, but to the norms of the “Christian culture.”

For example, I believe when we deny openly available services we may offer in businesses because we dislike some people’s lifestyle, or when we build deliberately homogeneous churches, then we’ve embraced superiority.

Worse though is the hidden belief that sin has a hierarchy and that some sins are worse than others. Obviously, the consequences of sin are not all the same. I won’t pay the same penalty for an innocent lie to my co-worker as I might for an affair. The danger is when we believe that all or most of our sins are innocent and the sins of others, the sins we don’t struggle with, are the ones that are truly condemnable.

Derek: I resonated with this statement you wrote, “The first step of grace isn’t acceptance. It’s rejection!” What do we need to reject in order to experience God’s grace?

We need to reject everything. Religious, racial, gender, economic superiority, etc. We need to reject the ideas that our education, looks, abilities, etc. have earned us something or that we’re owed something. We have to reject the idea that we have some power in the universe or that others should follow us culturally or religiously. To be a grace-filled person means rejecting any and all notions that we are sustained by anything other than the pure grace of God.

To be a grace-filled person means rejecting we are sustained by anything other than God's grace. Click To Tweet

Derek: You make the claim that the church has rejected the way of peace because peacemaking isn’t always effective. How do you see pragmatism corrupting the mission of the church?

It all depends on what we mean when we say “pragmatism.” Pragmatism may be a wonderful strategy for a congregation’s parking team, but perhaps not best for the disciplining ministry. Our problem is a mix of pragmatism and its intersection with impatience. At the heart of American productivity is the assembly-line philosophy. We really believe that if we organize something effectively, it will produce the result we want and not only that, it’ll mass produce it. But the kingdom of God is not welcomed through an assembly-line mission.

Derek: And how does this affect the peacemaking mission of God through the church?

Sean: Peacemaking takes times and patience. What’s more, inherent to peacemaking is reconciliation—and inherent to reconciliation is the fact that no side gets everything they want. That’s why we think it’s not effective. Our contemporary imagination believes compromise means convincing the Other that they were wrong from the beginning.

The mission of God is transformative, which means we must always be open to transformation, which shockingly, may come from the people we least expect (see: Peter and Cornelius). We have to be patient with others and ourselves.

Derek: What is the greatest hope you can offer the church today?

Sean: As cliché as it sounds, God is still loving and active. I think of Daniel being carted off to Babylon—a culture much worse than our own—yet through dedication and wisdom he serves both a holy God and a pagan king without sacrificing his witness. Through a close connection to God and an insistence on the actual teachings of Jesus, we will be remembered as people of righteousness, just like Daniel.

Derek: Thanks Sean!

Check out Sean’s new book Unarmed Empire available on Amazon.com.

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14 responses to “The Emerging View of Salvation: Brian McLaren and the Danger of De-eschatologizing the Kingdom

  1. i like the 'de-eschatologizing'. while many churches have an over-realized eschatology, yes, it seems that many in the emerging church have a severely under-realized eschatology it is hard to know if God has really done anything, if God has really given himself to humanity, to the world, for the sake of the world, or if God still is hoping somehow to give himself.

  2. Excellence all around David. Thanks.Just a brief comment of what I've observed in the trend I"m seeing…

    The issue of de-eschatologizing has three levels:

    distancing justice from the Just One,
    distancing God's kingdom from God's Church,
    and distancing the "now" from the "now but not fully yet."

  3. Great post Dave, in both content and spirit. I especially resonate with and feel like I see the truth of your second point. I think giving up on the reality of the second coming and overemphasizing the "already" aspect of the kingdom at the expense of the "not yet" aspect easily leads us into a false utopian kind of thinking that believes that if we could just bring about the right set of circumstances through human effort, then the reality of the kingdom would arrive.
    I also see a parallel in my own life on a personal level. I grow impatient with God and the way he is working, and I want the answer or the solution NOW. I think this de-eschatologizing often arises from the same impatience. We think that God isn't doing enough, fast-enough, to bring about an end to evil and suffering in the world, so we decide to take matters into our own hands and make things happen. This is a temptation that plagues people across the theological and political spectrum, and, historically, attempts to bring about the kingdom through human effort have resulted in vast amounts of human suffering and oppression.

  4. Dave: Fine, insightful work. It seems to me that in trying to forge a new way, if your analysis is correct, that Brian McLaren and others are just continuing on a traditional evangelical trajectory. One of evangelicalism's most central themes, it seems to me, is a constant pendulumic, perhaps even Hegelianesque vacillation, from trend, to counter-trend, to new trend. Some people might even want to describe it as a constant dance from ditch to ditch. The challenge, and often the truth, however, is found not in the ditch but in staying on the road. Evangelicalism's current great eschatological test is the challenge of adequately granting the biblical message of both the kingdom that is at hand and the kingdom that is yet to come. Given human tendency and the human desire for surety and simplicity, this constant tension will often be compromised at the altar of one or the other. Now, how does one keep the appropriate weighting of one and the other?
    I look forward to hearing more from you on this.

    1. "It seems to me that in trying to forge a new way, if your analysis is correct, that Brian McLaren and others are just continuing on a traditional evangelical trajectory. One of evangelicalism's most central themes, it seems to me, is a constant pendulumic, perhaps even Hegelianesque vacillation, from trend, to counter-trend, to new trend."
      Agreed. I've thought this very thing for some time now; that much of the emerging movement displays a character that is typically evangelical in its reactionary swing away from more conservative views.

  5. This is exactly what I have been trying to say (poorly) in my current writing on the Sermon on the Mount, especially in respect to the second point. Jesus describes this in Matthew 5, culminating in the wholeness (perfection) of God in love. As our inner city community seeks to participate in the Kingdom that is breaking through, we have to resist primarily being defined by activism (though it can have its place), but instead be shaped by love. And as you mention, peace & hospitality have been central to that formation. This is really encouraging. Can't wait for the book.

  6. Question Dave: regarding your third point on the nuance between the "already there, but not yet" dimension of the kingdom — or what some have termed the "new heavens and new earth" — how does one faithfully articulate the latter dimension of the "not quite yet" aspect without falling into the ideological trap of your rough-and-ready term "de-eschatology?" If McLaren and co. fuzzily see this part as "Christ-the-guide" which de-emphasizes Christ's inbreaking gospel, then how do we articulate this without belittling the kingdom's presence here and now? What if the church emphasized a more creational theology? I realize the danger here too, but I wonder if a close reading of Scripture, aside from the usual theology which has been co-opted by the metaphysical, dualistic postulations of the West, supports such a cosmic claim.

  7. davidmdavid … I don't quite get the way you've described things. I see the issue being that we must maintain the tension .. stay within it … to over-realize or then agains to make the Kingdom entirely furture … is to make the classic mistakes of history … this is of course, to overuse the phrase, the logic of the incarnation again … I see either kataphatics or apophatics as cases of making the same error (over realizing or under realizing) what God has done by entering into humanity in Jesus Christ … am I hitting anywhere near around where you're throwing?

  8. I am not quite sure if the "already-there" and "not-yet" dimension of the kingdom is held together by a "tension," as you describe it. That logic sounds like a Western Hegelian antithesis/thesis gearing or rattling progressively and unilaterally toward synthesis. Instead of "tension," I wonder if "dialogue" is more like it; the interconnectedness of heaven and earth, and the interconnectedness of fall and redemption offers up an integral movement toward eschaton that is more complex and real to life — thus Paul's appeal that we can help "hasten" the eschaton which will "unveil" Christ. It is more complex and real because it stands on the solid footing of creational theology, and even amid sin and death's arrival on the scene of this "very good" creation human agency is comprimised but not crippled.
    — You describe the here-and-now of it as an "unjust world," but I wonder if it is a just world which is compromised by human acts of injustice?

  9. David,
    Nice piece. I want to circle back to that point you made concerning McLaren emphasizing the message of Jesus over the message about Jesus. One of the dangers of creating that dichotomy is that while the message of Jesus points you toward the right goals or desires, precious few resources are left to address HOW to seek those goals or desires. Incarnation, cross and resurrection among other things related to the person of Jesus, help keep us critical about the means offered to us for realizing the Kingdom. I find the question of means to be more theologically interesting than the desire to simply see the world 'become a better place.'

  10. dmd these are good questions for me …I don't agree that "tension" negates creation … I don't agree that the fall negates creation … just as a doctrine of the fall does not negate creation … there is now the reality of sin, evil, and of course death, and so the unfolding of history in Christ reveals an eschatological in breaking of God fulfilling his promises … … One can see the metaphsyics here in terms of an hegelian dialectic … but … but I don't … is this a process, a dialogue? between who? when Paul uses the word "unveil" is there a more eschatolgical Jewish allusion than that? just my initial reactions …
    Is your problem with "eschatological" that it presumes a fallen world, wherein God must intervene in Christ to fulfill all creation?
    Thanks for the dialogue …

  11. If one is to take the creation account in Genesis 1 as a bedrock theology which gives solid ground to the rest of the canonical sweep of fall and redemption, then suddenly the movement toward final eschatology is not so otherwordly. Creation is so profoundly wrought by the sound artistry of God that it can naturally withstand the historical presence of sin; it can thus make way for redemption/re-traction of its goodness in a more subtle fashion. This is why I do not see "tension" as the acting force between eschatology and the here-and-now, as the two realms of heaven and earth, of God and humankind, are drawn to each other naturally, even at times effortlessly so (hence "dialogue")…
    In this way, the message of/about Jesus via McLaren isn't so dichotomous, as JMorrow has pointed out. And now we can act out this idea in profound ways.

  12. Now, this has many implications for how we disciples practice, say, penology; are we really in need of degrees in architecture of maximum prisons? I wonder if the prison system today is bringing in people that are lost/confused and sending them out hardened criminals — nobody can deny that reoffense is a real problem. Restorative justice may be a more natural and sound alternative in a kingdom bound earth.
    Does this make sense?

    [Concerning creation theology, see A.M. Wolters "The Foundational Command: "Subdue the Earth!"; J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.]

  13. […] the theology of the emerging/missional church. As I said on the three previous posts here, here and here,  I’m currently winding down my book project  The End of Evangelicalism? by writing an epilogue […]

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