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The Coming Christian Divide

By the Rev. Howard Bess
January 8, 2011

Editor’s Note: Christianity is entering a new era of change – and possibly crisis – as young adherents increasingly question the disparity between Jesus’s scriptural messages, which emphasize peace and justice, and the political exploitation of Christianity by the powerful to justify wars, hatreds and the accumulation of vast wealth.

Which way Christianity heads, especially inside the United States, could steer the planet toward either a more peaceful future or one dominated by “the clash of civilizations” abroad and a “winner-take-all” society at home, a crossroads that the Rev. Howard Bess addresses in this guest essay:

Five years ago, we became aware that something significant was happening among Christian churches. Young people were leaving churches in huge numbers, most with no intention to ever return.

Many became associated with a new phrase, the emergent church, and formed themselves into small groups as house or home churches. The gatherings are marked by both worship and vigorous discussion, which are far-ranging but typically focus on Jesus, the rural rabbi from Nazareth.
At or near the top of the questions being debated by emergents is the meaning and significance of the death of Jesus from Nazareth, which is not a new debate but is one the emergents are taking in a new direction.

Students of theological history know that theories about the significance of the death of Jesus on a Roman cross were a major discussion point among the early Church Fathers in the centuries after Jesus’s death and among the leaders of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries.

While the meaning was debated, no one questioned that Jesus died for the sins of the world. Yet, neither the Apostles’ Creed nor the Nicene Creed from the early days of the Catholic Church make any mention of the meaning of the death of Jesus, stating simply that he died, was buried and rose from the dead. 

The subsequent debates that took place over the centuries were within the framework of these creeds and other church orthodoxies. But a dramatic change began to take place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America. 

As a reaction to liberalism, American Protestants began formulating the fundamentals of the Christian Faith. Defining the fundamentals was a tool to identify those who were in and those who were out.

Those arguments came to a head between 1910 and 1915 at Princeton Theological Seminary. Out of debates at Princeton five fundamentals were identified. One of the five was the substitutionary atonement of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

According to this understanding of the death of Jesus, all of humankind is under a death sentence because of sin. God himself has pronounced this death sentence and his holy integrity cannot be satisfied without executing the death penalty.

To give humankind a way out, God in his mercy sent his son into the world for the specific purpose of dying for the sins of the world as a substitute for us all.

While the Roman Catholic Mass and the Protestant Communion service are open to such an interpretation, the demand of God for a substitutionary atonement has never been stated in such rigid, unrelenting terms as it was in the Princeton statements.
The Princeton fundamentals became the basis of 20th century American Christian Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.
In the American emergent church there is a clear movement away from Fundamentalism. Yet, the emergents that I know do not want to be identified as liberals either. They see themselves as a movement to reform Evangelicalism.

Central to their pursuit is the desire to learn more about the life and teachings of Jesus, with a new motivation to study and understand the aphorisms and parables of Jesus.

The emergents are finding a Jesus that was fully engaged with everyday life, and who, in fact, was crucified by Roman authorities as an insurrectionist. In the study of the life of Jesus, people are finding a man of love, peace, reconciliation and service. THEY DO NOT FIND A SHRED OF VIOLENCE IN HIM.
The corollary of this is that in emergent churches, the participants are questioning the violent side of God that is part and parcel of substitutionary atonement. I strongly suspect that the meaning of the cross will become the battleground of Christian theology in the next decades.
Places of Christian worship are dominated by crosses. Indeed, the cross is the logo of the Christian church.

The Roman Catholic mass and the Protestant Communion celebration are vital and central to Christian worship. These are celebrations of the death of Jesus for the sins of the world. Our understanding of God is at stake as we discuss and argue the meaning of our Communion celebrations.

In our communications age, the younger generations are saying “we have to talk about this!” But Christian churches are seemingly not yet ready to discuss the meaning of our worship ceremonies, nor Christianity’s logo, nor the very nature of God.

Brian McLaren has become a significant voice in the emergent church. His most recent book is entitled A New Kind of Christianity. The subtitle of the book is “Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.” 

The reader can agree or disagree with McLaren’s conclusions, but rest assured, he is asking the vital questions raised by the emergent churches, which today are becoming statistically significant.

Emergents are sincere believers; they are also questioners.  

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is             

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