One thing a believer quickly discovers when reading or listening to the emerging church leaders is their love of dichotomies, or dualities. They are keenly intent on setting out a whole bunch of polarities or antitheses. They claim that believers must choose between these sets of polarities. They argue that one set is the way believers should operate, and the other set is the way we should not.
The emergents let us know what they favour. They favour relationships over rules; conversation over preaching; doubt over certainty; postmodernism over modernism; discussion over theology; orthopraxis over orthodoxy; action over theory; embodiment over rationalism; journey over destination; and so on.
Now what are we to make of such polarities? Quite often, they are simply just false dilemmas. That is, the emergents are asking us to make a stark choice: we must choose just one, while rejecting the other. But many of these couplets clearly seem to be a case of both/and, not either/or. That is, in many of these dualities, a Biblical Christian would say both are needed, and it is quite unnecessary, even quite unbiblical, to demand that we pick one over the other. Why force believers into such unhelpful false dilemmas? This is both unscriptural and unwise.
Let me now explore in more detail one of these dichotomies. It is found time and again in the writings and talks of the emergents. I refer to the dichotomy between rules and relationship. Over and over we are told that a follower of Jesus can either live his life based on rules and regulations, or he can live it on the basis of an intimate love relationship with Jesus.
We must choose one or the other, they keep demanding. You can’t have both, they insist. Either we have loving relationships, or we are bound by legalism and rule-keeping. They seek to occupy the high moral ground by claiming they are into love, while non-emergents are somehow into legalism and regulations.
One pastor influenced by the emergents challenged me with these words: “You simply can’t legislate love.” Yet that seems to be exactly what Paul does, for example, when he commands husbands to love their wives (Eph. 5:25). He commands us to do this, for heaven’s sake! This is a rule, an obligation, a regulation if you will. Sure, love from the heart is what God – and Paul – are interested in, but they see no distinction between commanding something, and hoping for intimate, loving relationships.
Everywhere in the NT we are given orders, commands, instructions, admonitions, rules, regulations. The New Testament writers do not see this as being incompatible with love and intimacy. Indeed, they link the two. As I asked this pastor commentator, why cannot a follower of Jesus both have an intimate love relationship with him, and follow rules? Why must it be one or the other? Real love always involves boundaries, conditions, constraints and moral norms. It is exactly because I am intimate with my wife that I don’t commit adultery, and it is because I don’t commit adultery that I can be intimate with my wife. Both feed off each other. It is silly to seek to separate them.
As Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck rightly remind us – in Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) – relationships must be guarded and preserved by rules: “Try telling your wife after you’ve had an affair, ‘Come on, I thought our marriage was about the relationship, not all these do’s and don’ts’.” It simply will not do to say we must either have intimacy and loving relationships, or we can have obedience to rules. The two go together, and what God has brought together, let no man bring asunder.
Thomas Schreiner, in his brand new volume, New Testament Theology (Baker 2008), has some quite helpful things to say about this issue in general, and Pauline ethics in particular. Love, he tells us, “cannot be separated from moral norms. . . . For Paul, love does not float free of ethical norms but rather is expressed by such norms. . . . Paul does not merely say that the Spirit and love will certainly and inevitably direct believers to the right course of action. He gives specific admonitions so that they will not be deceived about the nature of love (Rom. 12:9-21; Eph. 4:25-5:6; Col. 3:5-17).”
Paul does not see commands to obedience as being either legalistic or somehow in opposition to love, the Spirit-led life, or the law of Christ. Neither should we therefore seek to make such a false polarity.
One way to get a handle on all this is to understand what is known as the indicative/imperative, especially as found in the writings of Paul.
In both English and Greek, there are various moods. The indicative mood indicates or expresses an objective fact, a reality. Biblically speaking, the indicative refers to what God has done for believers in Christ. It declares the reality of what Christ has done for us.
In contrast, the imperative mood expresses a command, an order, an entreaty, a request or exhortation. It is the mood of volition. In the Bible the imperative calls on believers to live in a certain way, for example, in a Godly manner.
The imperative is grounded in the indicative. That is, the biblical writers give us commands based on our reality in Christ. There are numerous examples of this, especially in the Pauline corpus. Consider just a few.
In Romans 6:4 Paul gives us an indicative, a statement about our reality in Christ: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
But in Romans 6:11-12 he takes this truth and turns it into an imperative: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.”
In other words, Paul tells the Roman believers that because they are already raised with Christ, they need to start living like that. They are commanded to do certain things, therefore. They are told to put off the old man, put on the new, to not obey evil desires, and so on.
Consider another example. In Gal. 3:27 Paul says that “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” This is the present reality. But in Romans 13:14 he gives the imperative of this truth: “Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Here we are commanded to do what we were previously told was already a truth about our relationship with Christ.
The idea of the indicative/imperative is this: God has done this, therefore you should do that. Or as James Dunn puts it, “What Christ has done is the basis for what the believer must do.” We are to become what we are. We are to live out in our actual state what is reflected in our standing in Christ.
Sometimes this is expressed in a single sentence: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). We are already set free in Christ, but we are commanded to stay free, and not return again to bondage.
Or as Col. 3:1 puts it, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God”. We have been raised with Christ. This is fact. So now start living like it, Paul says.
In other words Paul is telling us all the marvellous truths about our standing in Christ, all brought about by grace and a love relationship. But he then goes on to tell us about our actual state, and commands us to make sure our state corresponds with our standing. Relationships and rules go hand in glove for Paul.
Indeed, most of Paul’s books as a whole can be seen in this light. Usually in his opening chapters (eg., Eph. 1-3; Col. 1-2, etc.) Paul tells us about who and what we are in Christ. Then in the remaining chapters he gives exhortations, commands, and lists of rules to inform how that relationship should be expressed (eg., Eph. 4-6, Col. 3-4, etc).
We even find this in the Old Testament. Consider but one example. On the one hand, Yahweh tells Israel that Canaan is theirs. On the other hand, he commands them to go and take possession of it. “‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.’ So Joshua ordered the officers of the people: ‘Go through the camp and tell the people, “Get your supplies ready. Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the LORD your God is giving you for your own”.'” (Josh 1:9-11)
The indicative and the imperative run together throughout Scripture. So the false dilemma of either having a love relationship with Christ, or following rules and regulations is just that: a false dilemma. They are the two sides of the same coin. They are about the indicative/imperative which permeates the NT, especially the writings of Paul.
It is frustrating to me that so many church leaders and pastors who should know better continue to push these silly false dilemmas. They should be familiar enough with Scripture not to be making such unhelpful and mischievous claims. I can well sympathise with D.A. Carson, who, after discussing the same issues (in his book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church – Zondervan, 2005), utters these words of exasperation, which nicely conclude my piece:
“So which shall we choose? Experience or truth? The left wing of an airplane, or the right? Love or integrity? Study or service? Evangelism or discipleship? The front wheels of a car, or the rear? Subjective knowledge or objective knowledge? Faith or obedience? Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ”.