Over the years John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopalian Bishop and member of the Jesus Seminar has come out with a number of books such as Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile, and, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes among others. His basic views are that we have misread the Bible by taking it in its historical, grammatical context and as a result misunderstood the Bible. It isn’t about sin which resulted in separation from God and redemption which He provided through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. No, according to Spong, it is about Jesus being a political revolutionary and the Apostle Paul being a closet homosexual. Since Spong and the others in the Jesus Seminar operate outside of biblically sound churches most have paid little attention to them. However, emerging church leaders have similar views and recruit from within the Evangelical church. A case in point is Mike Gorman’s de-privatization on the “Reclaiming Paul the Apostle of the Emerging World” blog site.
In much interpretation of Paul there has been a very strong, and sometimes nearly exclusive, emphasis on Paul’s message as one of individual justification or salvation or union with Christ.
It is true the church has problems but then it has always been true that the church has had problems. Most of the New Testament was written to address and correct problems, false teaching and bad behavior in the church in the first century. I am not sure that the emphasis on individual salvation was considered to be a bad thing to the Apostles or to Jesus. It was Jesus who told Nicodemus that he (an individual) must be born again (John 3:3). That would certainly be “individual justification or salvation or union with Christ.” In Romans 10:9-13 Paul talks about what one (an individual) must believe and confess to be saved. Again, that would be “individual justification or salvation or union with Christ.” There are other passages we could look at but we will move along to what Gorman states in the next paragraph:
Paul’s understanding of justification is incredibly communal and relational.
This really sets up a false dichotomy as many emerging church writers tend to do. Because churches proclaim individual salvation doesn’t mean they don’t view the outworking of individual salvation as something that is revealed in and works itself out through communal and relational experiences and practices. That is the point of discipleship, corporate worship and sharing in the lives of fellow believers. We even see this working itself out in Paul’s writings. In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle talks about how believers should act and participate with one another as a believing community. In chapter 13 he talks about how love manifests itself in this community of believers. Some might argue that this is how love manifests itself to all, believers and non-believers alike. There may be some indirect application there but as we follow the context this is specifically talking about life within the community of believers. The letter is written to the community of believers in Corinth. Chapter 12 describes how they are to act and relate to one another within that community. He carries this discussion into chapter 14 as he addresses the use of particular gifts within the community of believers and says something that is very revealing. In discussing the use of tongues vs. prophesy he makes a statement not once but twice which shows that he did not this communal and relational interactions and normally including unbelievers:
Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all;
If an “unbeliever enter” assumes that unbelievers are not normally there. Individuals were born again, became a part of the community of believers and developed relationships within that community. Ah, but therein lies the problem for emergents for they, like Spong, essentially hold the view that Jesus came as a political radical who was attempting to set up a socialist society and Paul was continuing this political movement. Gorman continues on to Paul’s outline of the “Fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5 and writes:
makes it clear that Spirit-filled living is not merely a matter of personal piety but an ongoing project of reconciliation.
But Paul ends that section with 5:26 which says:
Let us not become boastful, challenging one another [that would be individuals], envying one another [again individuals].
Lastly, Gorman claims:
Finally, Paul’s spirituality is thoroughly political.
I have to admit I had to reread this several times. It is an interesting assertion without substance. One must primarily appeal to John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan and other Jesus Seminar types to come to this conclusion. Does the gospel have transformative power? Absolutely! Does the outworking of the gospel transform cultures? Assuredly it does but it does so one heart at a time not through some political vehicle and most often in spite of politics. Can the church do better at interacting with and challenging culture? Yes but it must begin with a clear cut understanding of what is more important and that is, according to the Apostle Paul, the gospel:
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 NASB)
That which was of “first importance” to the Apostle Paul was the death, burial and physical resurrection of the savior, Jesus Christ Who secured individual salvation which would then be worked out by those saved individuals through relationships that are built within the community of faith. The emergent church might benefit by being reacquainted with the gospel and allow that to shape their mission to an unbelieving world.