Declarations vs. Discussions?
Most people either want declarations from on high, or endless discussions from within. Few desire to make real discernments leading forward.
Tony Jones totally misses the issue of discernment when he criticized Fitch about Rob Bell’s lack of accountability (see Fitch’s prompt). Jones immediately takes this to mean “moral accountability” regarding marital fidelity, as if Fitch were talking about emotional support vs. church discipline.
But the accountability I believe Fitch is talking about is much deeper than some sort of moral accountability or doctrinal control. Accountability requires relationships, deep mutually reciprocal relationships of openness and trust. It is within accountable relationship that we can discern the Spirit at work within the people of the Word (Jesus, not the Bible!).
(This picture is exactly not what I’m talking about! Heresy hunts are the opposite of communities of discernent. I.e. we should always assume we are all the wolves, but Jesus the Lamb is leading us anyway).
For those of you reading it, discernment is the Non-Signpost of every Signpost within Prodigal Christianity, something I’m afraid many will miss when reading the book. Our entire Western culture works against authentic Kingdom discernment by those united in Christ and filled by the Spirit.
Control vs. Freedom?
Often issues like these (gay marriage, evolution, women’s ordination) quickly degenerate into either ecclesial control or the freedom of independence. The unfortunate story of Pete Enns makes this clear, and the independence of Rob Bells does also. Ecclesial controllers issue declarations from on high, whether as an individual pastor or some committee. Independent individuals offer their opinions for an endless discussion, usually with the assumption that everyone is also an isolated individual protected with and by their own opinions.
People usually frame the idea as if the church were a totalitarian regime allowing for no opposing opinions, suppressing the freedom of the press. Independent individuals, i.e. like Rob Bell, are the freelance journalists and are the only ones speaking the truth. On the one hand is either identity politics of sub-cultural control. On the other is a suppose freedom of expression beyond all constraints. Neither escapes the logic of modernity seeking a foundation (whether in ideas or individuals). This is where people like Jones always fault the church. They say that people like Bell can only speak their minds, can only speak the truth, once they have left the suffocating control of backwards ecclesial control.
Discerning is not Controlling
I’m not saying that church abuse doesn’t happen, just that the solution is not total independence from local church bodies, but a transformation of local church to be able to discern God’s Kingdom rather than either merely declare or discuss. As the saying goes, the opposite of co-dependence is not independence, but inter-dependence.
Only discernment within a community truly opens us up to what God is doing because 1) we open ourselves to being wrong 2) by opening up ourselves to Scripture, 3) the Work of the Spirit, and 4) the People of the Spirit. This is perfectly exemplified in Acts 15 (which I will discuss in my next post).
The problem is hardly anyone actually risks enough to gather together and do this, or trust enough, or has faith enough to do this. “Really? I’m going to trust someone that has hurt me so that we can discern something together?” “Really, I as the pastor, have to slow down and talk with people?” “Really, I going to discern something with someone who doesn’t have the theology degree that I have?” “Really, I have to trust that God is at work, and that while others need to change, I might have to change also?” “Really, you want me to die to myself to discern God’s Kingdom in this situation?”
Yes, that is exactly it. And we do this because Jesus showed us how, and makes it possible through the giving of his Spirit.
Communal discernment of this sort is not covert play toward control. This is not passive-aggressive control, disguised as conversation. This is community in the Kingdom guided by the Spirit.