A Conversation about Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity
Responding to Brian McLaren’s Question # 4: The Jesus Question
Welcome: You’re reading “Part 6” of my blog series responding to Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity (read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5). Many have engaged Brian’s thinking by focusing on a systematic theology response (visit here for 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 asking: “What difference does our response to each question make for how we care like Christ (biblical counseling) and for how we live like Christ (spiritual formation)?”
Jesus: A Community Organizer
Early on, Brian asked, “What are the deep problems the original Christian story was trying to solve?” For Brian, the deepest problem is not original sin and relational separation from God. He says the “Fall” is not a fall into sin, depravity, and alienation. Rather, Genesis 3 narrates a “compassionate coming-of-age story” (p. 49). Specifically, Genesis depicts humanity’s movement from hunter-gathering to agriculturalist and city-dweller (p. 50).
It’s against this backdrop that Brian asks, “Who is Jesus and why is he important?” Brian’s clear on who Jesus is not. In the Gospel according to Brian, Jesus did not come to address and remedy the Fall so that we could avoid eternal condemnation due to original sin (p. 128). By eternal life, Jesus is not promising life after death or life in eternal heaven instead of eternal hell (p. 130).
In two chapters, covering sixteen pages, and using over 8,000 words, Brian never once calls Jesus God; never calls Him Savior, and never mentions His crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection in a salvation-from-sin context. However, Brian does save enough words to talk about “his loyal critics” eight times.
When Brian quotes John 1:29 about Jesus being the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, he interprets it to mean not the sacrificial lamb of Leviticus, but the lamb slain in Exodus to liberate people from oppression. The one time Brian mentions Jesus’ death and resurrection, he makes it mean liberation from physical oppression, not from spiritual condemnation. “Jesus and his message have everything to do with poverty, slavery, and a ‘social agenda’” (p. 135). Everything? Really?
For Brian, Jesus came to save us from the sin of oppression, not to save us from the oppression of sin. Read that again. Slowly.
In Brian’s new kind of Christianity, Jesus is our example who models the way of peace. He is a liberator of the oppressed. He is not our Savior from Sin. Jesus is…a community organizer.
Is this a new kind of Christianity or is it the old kind of liberalism? H. Richard Niebuhr aptly described it in 1959, explaining that liberals believe that, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Practical Implication # 1 for Biblical Counseling: Our Greatest Problem Is the Oppression of Sin, Not the Sin of Oppression
Of course, the ultimate practical implication is clear—we’re going to die in our sins with this “Jesus.” I’m struggling to write anything else in today’s blog post. What’s left to say? However, my self-chosen task is to respond with a biblical counseling perspective to Brian’s handling of each of his questions. So I shall continue.
In my book Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction, I quote ex-enslaved African American Pastor James W. C. Pennington. Reflecting on his conversion, he seamlessly expresses his understanding of suffering and of sin. Without minimizing for a moment the evils of slavery, he maximizes for all eternity the horrors of his own enslavement to sin and Satan.
“I was a lost sinner and a slave to Satan; and soon I saw that I must make another escape from another tyrant. I did not by any means forget my fellow-bondmen, of whom I had been sorrowing so deeply, and travailing in spirit so earnestly; but I now saw that while man had been injuring me, I had been offending God; and that unless I ceased to offend him, I could not expect to have his sympathy in my wrongs; and moreover, that I could not be instrumental in eliciting his powerful aid in behalf of those for whom I mourned so deeply.”
Our deepest problem is not our emotional woundedness for which we need a therapist. Our deepest problem is not our societal oppression for which we need a community organizer. Our deepest problem is sin—our personal, willful, relational, stubborn, spiritual rebellion against God for which we need a Savior.
Practical Implication # 2 for Biblical Counseling: Even in Facing Suffering (Being Sinned Against), Our Greatest Need is a Suffering Savior
Let’s be clear. Christians should be concerned about social issues, social justice, the needs of the poor and the oppressed. But that’s not the social gospel. The social gospel is no gospel at all—it removes the need for a Savior from sin because it removes sin. Christians practice a Gospel-Centered concern for social issues, believing that our ultimate problem is sin and that those rescued from the sin problem gratefully share the good news of salvation from sin and compassionately meet the needs of the hurting, suffering, wounded, and oppressed.
Let’s also be clear that truly biblical counseling deals both with the sins we have committed (practical implication # 1), and with the evils we have suffered (practical implication # 2). As I frequently say, we live in a fallen world and it often falls on us. That’s why I wrote God’s Healing for Life’s Losses: How to Find Hope When You’re Hurting.
However, even in a biblical sufferology (a biblical theology of suffering), our greatest need is a crucified, resurrected Savior. The Apostle Paul did not want the believers in Corinth to be ignorant of the suffering he endured in Asia Minor. So he candidly shared his heart, explaining that he despaired of life and felt the sentence of death (2 Corinthians 1:8-9a).
Paul doesn’t stop there. He continued. “But this happen to us so that we might not rely upon ourselves, but upon God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9b). The casket of suffering draws us to the empty tomb of our resurrected Savior.
Do we really want to help the oppressed? Do we have deep compassion and empathy for the suffering? Do we have hearts that long to comfort the hurting? Then for goodness sake, don’t practice identity theft on Jesus! Don’t make His eternal existence, life, crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, present intercession, and future return simply be about “Jesus meek and mild” the community organizer!
Rev. Pennington got it right. The enslaved, the hurting, the wounded, and the oppressed first and foremost need a Savior from sin. Then they can find healing hope by celebrating the resurrection of their loving, forgiving, reconciling, redeeming Savior. Biblical counseling deals thoroughly with suffering and with sin through a Christ-centered focused on Jesus the God-man. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
The Rest of the Story
In our next post, we explore the gospel question. Brian asks, “What is the gospel?” We’ll respond to his gospel presentation through the lens of biblical counseling and spiritual formation.
Join the Conversation
What difference does Jesus make for biblical counseling and spiritual formation?