Saturday, October 15, 2016

Lesson 4: Elect for Service, Not Privilege (Part 5 of 8—Seven Lessons Evangelicals Can Learn from Brian McLaren)

This blog series is considering seven lessons that evangelicals can learn from Brian McLaren, who has been unofficially excommunicated from the evangelical community (see "Evangelicals and Hannibal Lecter"). The first lesson focused on relational fidelity in the midst of our differences. The second lesson centered on the need to employ multiple intelligences in our quest to present a holistic Christian apologetic. The third lesson discussed the importance of using moral intelligence when interpreting and applying the Bible in our current cultural setting. Today, we will explore a proper understanding of the doctrine of election.

With the U.S. presidential election only a few weeks away, it seems appropriate that today's blog should focus on the word "election." But we aren't going to discuss the presidential election that will be decided on November 8, but rather the concept of divine election as taught in the Christian sacred text.

According to Brian McLaren, the term "election" is widely misunderstood in Christian circles. In fact, McLaren believes (following in the footsteps of British missiologist Lesslie Newbigin) that the greatest heresy in the history of monotheism is the idea that some people are elect by God for elite privilege rather than for missional responsibility and service.

Where did this profound misunderstanding of election originate? While some think they find this concept in a few biblical passages, McLaren traces the misappropriation of this doctrine during the modern era to the theology of five-point Calvinism, which continues to exert a strong influence in contemporary Evangelicalism.

The contents of the famous Calvinist TULIP emerged at the Synod of Dort (1618-19), which encapsulated the Calvinist understanding of human salvation in the following five points: 1. Total Depravity, 2. Unconditional Election, 3. Limited Atonement, 4. Irresistible Grace, and 5. Perseverance of the Saints.

Let's look more closely at the second point, unconditional election, which claims that God determines the eternal destiny of every person. John Calvin, in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, made it clear that this doctrine includes both those whom God elects for heaven, as well as those He hand-selects for hell. Calvin wrote, "By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wishes to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or the other of these ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or to death."

In A Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren argues that Calvin's doctrine of unconditional election has led to "all kinds of mischief and hostility," as well as "a legacy of horrible mistakes, misjudgments, and even atrocities." While researching my new book, Brian McLaren in Focus, McLaren told me that he began to notice all the way back in the early 1990s that "'God' [had become] the product of the Religious Right. I started to see that the slaughter/land left/apartheid of the Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, segregation in the Deep South, Apartheid in South Africa, and now the anti-gay, anti-Muslim, we're gunning-for-world-war-3, culture war-mentality of American Evangelicals all had something in common...and it was the hyper-confidence of Calvinism."

Now, we should be clear to point out that McLaren does not deny the biblical doctrine of election. Instead, he seeks to redeem it as a doctrine of inclusion rather than exclusion. In this quest, he relies heavily upon Newbigin, who points out that Abraham and his descendents were chosen as "bearers—not exclusive beneficiaries. There lay the constant temptation. Again and again, it had to be said that election is for responsibility, not for privilege." 

McLaren characterizes God's calling of Abraham as a pilgrimage to "become other." Abraham leaves the security of his homeland, which includes the familiarity and comforts of his ethnic, political, and religious affiliations, and sets out on an uncertain journey into a foreign territory. It is within this context of "otherness" that "God promises to make of Abraham's descendents 'a great nation' with a great name." In Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?, McLaren elucidates this point as follows:

"But that great or strong identity isn't cast in hostility to other nations. Abraham's identity is not greatness exploiting others (domination), greatness overwhelming others (revolution), greatness absorbing others (assimilation), greatness excluding others (purification), greatness resenting others (victimization), greatness separated from others (isolation), or greatness at the expense of others (competition). Abraham's greatness is for the sake of others: And all nations on earth will be blessed through you."

McLaren believes reorienting one's perspective regarding the doctrine of election "gets us beyond the us-them and in-grouping and out-grouping that lead to prejudice, exclusion, and ultimately to religious wars." This goes directly to the heart of McLaren's project, which asserts that the gospel of Jesus Christ is fundamentally about breaking down walls between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, etc. In short, the gospel is about the radical inclusion of God, whose indiscriminate love extends to both the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:38-48) and enables Christ-followers to love not only family and friends, but enemies, as well.

So, the fourth lesson that evangelicals can learn from Brian McLaren is the importance of understanding election as a call to missional responsibility and service rather than exclusive privilege. Reorienting around this faithful, inclusive vision of God's heart for the entire world is critical if we are to successfully build bridges to the "other" in our own lives.

But how do we do this? That's the topic we will explore in the fifth lesson evangelicals can learn from Brian McLaren, namely, how can we build bridges rather than walls. Stay tuned.

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