A Conversation about Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity
A Biblical Counseling Response to Brian McLaren
Welcome: You’re reading “Part 2” of my blog series responding to Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity (visit here for Part 1). Many have engaged Brian’s thinking by focusing on a systematic theology response (visit here to see a boatload of links). My focus is on “pastoral theology” or “practical theology.” As a pastor, counselor, and professor who equips the church for biblical counseling and spiritual formation, I’m accepting Brian’s invitation to interact about the implications of his views for the everyday life of one-another Christianity—“the personal ministry of the Word.”
What’s Biblical Counseling Got to Do with It?
Brian talks about his quest throughout A New Kind of Christianity. I’ve been on a quest also. I’ve spent the past quarter-century developing a theology of the spiritual life. As a pastor, professional counselor, and seminary professor, I’ve relentlessly sought to understand how to change lives with Christ’s changeless truth.
In my preaching and teaching ministry, I’ve called it “the pulpit ministry of the Word.” How do we proclaim Christ’s changeless truth for our changing times in order to change lives?
In my one another ministry to people, I’ve called it “the personal ministry of the Word.” How do we engage in spiritual conversations with people using Christ’s changeless truth for our changing times in order to change lives?
I also call this personal ministry of the Word “biblical counseling and spiritual formation.” So that you know what I mean by these terms, I offer my summary definition:
Christ-centered, comprehensive, compassionate, and culturally-informed biblical counseling and spiritual formation depend upon the Holy Spirit to relate God’s inspired truth about people, problems, and solutions to human suffering (through the Christian soul care arts of sustaining and healing) and sin (through the Christian spiritual direction arts of reconciling and guiding) to empower people to exalt and enjoy God and to love others (Matthew 22:35-40) by cultivating conformity to Christ and communion with Christ and the Body of Christ.
People sometimes ask why I would relate and equate biblical counseling and spiritual formation. To me, that’s a no-brainer. The goal, the end game, of biblical counseling is to form us increasingly into the image of Christ—spiritual formation (how we live like Christ). The personal process of helping others in their spiritual formation involves loving relationships that connect the Bible to daily life—biblical counseling (how we care like Christ).
As Adrian Monk would say, “Here’s the thing.” I’m responding to Brian McLaren’s book through the lens of biblical counseling and spiritual formation. For each of his ten questions, I’ll be asking and pondering:
“What difference does our response to this question make for how we care like Christ (biblical counseling) and for how we live like Christ (spiritual formation)?”
Seems like a vital quest and an important question to me. If you agree, then please keep reading.
Biblical Counseling and the Sufficiency of Scripture
A good friend and colleague in ministry asked me an insightful question yesterday. “What is Brian saying that is persuasive to so many? What can we learn?”
I think people are attracted to what Brian is saying because he’s asking honest questions. He’s asking how we relate the words of the Bible written centuries ago from a very different cultural perspective to our changing culture today. He’s also saying that there’s something wrong with the way many people are trying to do this today.
Brian is attempting to understand and “exegete” Scripture, soul, and society. He’s spot on regarding the need to do all three of these.
Unfortunately, in some Evangelical circles, we’ve done great work in exegeting and studying Scripture, but we’ve done lesser work in understanding people and culture. So we end up answering questions no one is asking. We end up listening to God’s story but ignoring or only half listening to the human story of suffering, sin, struggle, and sanctification. We end up giving people Scripture but not our souls, truth apart from relationship, content apart from community.
Into this void steps Brian McLaren.
Sadly, in my opinion, Brian’s exegesis of Scripture is off target. More specifically, I think he lacks confidence in the sufficiency, authority, relevancy, and profundity of God’s Word (strong words, I know—and I’ll engage each of his ten questions in detail to explain why I would make this claim).
So where does this leave people? Either with Scripture or soul/society. They either receive God’s truth unrelated to real life, or they receive human reason related to real life.
This is where biblical counseling and the sufficiency of Scripture comes into play. In true biblical counseling, truth and love kiss. The biblical counselor’s prayer is the Apostle Paul’s prayer: “that our love would abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Philippians 1:9). The biblical counselor’s model is the Apostle Paul: “I loved you so much that I gave you not only the Scriptures, but my own soul, because you were dear to me” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). The biblical counselor’s method is the Apostle Paul’s method in Acts 17 where Paul studied the Athenian culture, engaged them in culturally-aware spiritual conversations, and shared with them the sufficient, authoritative truth of Scripture.
In my opinion, even some biblical counselors have gotten this wrong over the years. We’ve believed in the sufficiency and the authority of Scripture, but in practice we’ve minimized the relevancy and profundity (profound depth of relational insight) of Scripture. We’ve engaged, at times, in the non-relational giving of simplistic answers, rather than engaging in the intimate sharing of robust spiritual conversations that seek to change lives with Christ’s changeless truth. It’s not enough to believe in the sufficiency of Scripture if we do not equally believe in the relevancy of Scripture. It’s not enough to believe in the authority of Scripture, if we do not equally believe in the profundity of Scripture. (I think this is equally true in the pulpit ministry of the Word, but that’s a conversation for another blog series.)
Again, into this void steps Brian McLaren.
His answer, as he steps in, as I see it, is to offer people changing truth for changing times. Re-read that sentence. Let it sink in.
The biblical counseling and sufficiency of Scripture answer is to offer changeless truth for changing time. Throughout this blog series, I’ll respond to Brian’s ten questions and I’ll compare and contrast his responses to a biblical counseling response.
Spiritual Formation and Progressive Sanctification
Brian launches his book by saying that there’s something wrong and something real. Part of the something wrong in Brian’s mind is the fact that the church is out of touch with the culture—we’re not asking the soul/society questions. The something real in Brian’s mind is a new kind of Christianity. Brian wants this Christianity to be a Christ-centered Christianity.
This is where spiritual formation and progressive sanctification come into play. Progressive sanctification is the process by which, over time, through the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and the people of God, we increasingly reflect the inner life of the Son of God and we increasingly impact our society for Christ.
In Brian’s mind, too much so-called biblical preaching has focused on doctrine apart from life. And, too much so-called biblical ministry (including biblical counseling) has focused on simplistic proclamations and exhortations apart from the mess and muck of real and raw life and apart from a Christ-like concern for society.
To whatever extent these charges are true…we preachers and counselors ought to repent.
If we don’t…then into this void steps Brian McLaren. He steps in saying “we need not a new set of beliefs, but a new way of believing” (p. 18). He’s on a quest for “new ways to live and serve faithfully in the way of Jesus” (p. 18).
Rather than simply criticizing his way of stepping in, we need to step in with true spiritual formation that enters the mess and muck of life with real and raw relating that combines Scripture, soul, and society to relate changeless truth to change lives to be more like Christ and to change our world for Christ.
Brian’s goal—a Christ-centered Christianity with Christ-like Christians—is totally laudable. Throughout this series we’ll probe whether or not Brian’s ten responses to his ten questions get us there.
The Rest of the Story
I know…kinda’ a long introduction. I know…you want to get to the ten questions. It’s coming. But if I’m going to tackle A New Kind of Christianity through the lens of biblical counseling and spiritual formation, then you deserve to know what in the world I mean by those terms and how I intend to relate them to Brian’s book. So, in our next post, we’ll get to Brian’s first question, the narrative question. What is the overarching story line of the Bible? We’ll respond to his response by exploring the Bible’s meta-narrative through the lens of biblical counseling and spiritual formation.
Join the Conversation
How would you answer my friend’s penetrating question: What is Brian saying that is persuasive to so many? What can we learn?”