I have read Deep Church by Jim Belcher, twice—once in pieces and once from start to finish. The reason for this is that I immediately found chapters so intriguing I read them first, isolated from the rest of the book. I was actually shocked by some of the chapters conclusions, so I felt to fully understand the book I needed to start at the beginning and read it all the way through before I could really form an opinion of the book, so I did. It turns out that this exercise helped me to understand what Belcher was saying, and yet I found that my initial concerns were confirmed.
What got my attention was his bold embrace of tradition to define church as deeper. While many of us are trying to break from tradition, Belcher espouses that we need to get back to it in order to find a peaceful way to get along. But his idea of tradition is quite specific (or is it? more later on this).
The title of the book comes from a phrase C.S. Lewis coined in his book Mere Christianity. It is a Christianity that holds to the Great Traditions of the original creeds—The Apostles Creed, The Nicene Creed and The Athanasian Creed to be specific and this is what Lewis calls “Deep Church.” Honestly, after reading the entire book I still think that the title comes off as sounding arrogant even after all the explanation, as if those who do church this way are truly in the deep end of the pool while the rest struggle in the shallows. I must say, though, that Belcher himself does not come across as arrogant, for the most part.
First, I want to share some of the things I liked and then in my next post I will share a couple of things that I didn’t.
In an attempt to find a third way rather than be in either the emerging church camp or the traditional church side, Belcher takes a kind, respective and honest look at both sides. This is one of the things I greatly appreciate about the book and is quite frankly rare. In these days full of people shouting across the aisle at one another without ever really hearing what is being said this is refreshing. Belcher not only listens, but he is fairly articulate at espousing what each is saying before he offers his “deeper” alternative. He would actually make a good marriage counselor. In each chapter he begins with writing about what the emerging church is protesting over the traditional church, then covers how the traditional church counters before he finally settles the issue with his own alternative, which he refers to as Deep Church. He looks at truth, evangelism, the gospel, worship, preaching, ecclesiology and culture in this way.
When it comes to understanding the emerging church, he uses Ed Stetzer’s categories of Relevants, Reconstructionists and Revisionists. Relevants are those who are not changing how church is formed or structured and definitely not changing the doctrinal stance but merely working to make the church relevant to the postmodern world. Mark Drischoll and Dan Kimbal are offered as leaders of this type of church. Reconstructionists are questioning the old systems and structures of church but not the doctrines as much and Alan Hirsch, Mike Frost and Myself are offered as the type of leaders found in this camp. Revisionists are questioning our epistemology—how we understand and believe what is true/real. Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt are cited as leaders among this group.
Belcher also uses Hirsch’s and Frost’s idea of “bounded-set” verses “centered-set” to help forge a way of peacefully working together. A bounded-set is where those who are in and who are out are clearly defined by a well-established list of beliefs and practices. Only those who subscribe to the boundaries are allowed into the camp, everyone else remains outside. He thinks it is far healthier (and I agree) that we function in a centered-set manner where there is no in or out but we simply stay in close proximity to a central set of doctrines—core beliefs that we can all agree on—and allow open hands and discussions on the views that are not part of this core set. With this in mind, he offers a two-tier view of doctrines, the essentials and the nonessentials, as a means to be centered and get along.
We (CMA) have done this consistently within our own movement defining the core doctrines as “bullet doctrines”—those that we would rather take a bullet for than renounce. The non-bullet doctrines are those that we believe but will not take a bullet for (or shoot anyone over). With this in mind, we want unity in the essentials (bullets), liberty in the non-essentials (non-bullets) and love in everything (even for those who would pull the trigger). I find it interesting, and perhaps slightly inconsistent, that he suggests a centered-set approach but clearly defines the boundaries of the emerging church, dividing the whole thing into three camps with people that are in each one. Nevertheless, I can understand that he needed to make the book coherent to the reader and there is much confusion over what is emerging, what is emergent and who is doing what. So overall, this is helpful and makes the conversation more reasonable.
I found myself liking Belcher as I read, even though I often disagreed with his final suggestions. He is definitely likable and thoughtful. He has done his homework and I can tell he is a real thinker who enjoys learning. He actually comes across child-like in the way he enjoys discovery. His child-likeness is also evident in the somewhat naive way he believes that he will find a viable third way that will bring us all together to sing Kumbaya around the campfire of the Great Tradition. I can’t help but love the guy because he is so endearing in this child-like enthusiasm, idealism and optimism. I am confident that I would enjoy his company and we would have some great discussions around that campfire even if we do not agree on some of the non-essentials, so maybe he is not as naive as I first thought.
Another thing I liked about the book was Belcher’s honesty. He not only fairly treated both sides, but he was bold in his own embrace of tradition in order to maintain his church view, in spite of the fact that it is not always clearly taught in the Scriptures. Let me explain what I mean by this. In Christendom it is common for people on all sides to claim that their view is the “biblical view,” thus informing everyone that disagrees that they are not biblical. We even put scripture verses in parenthesis next to our comments to make sure everyone knows we are Biblical. Belcher is too smart to buy or sell this. In order for him to hold to a traditional view of what church is, and yet honestly deal with the arguments from the emerging side, he has brazenly chosen to appeal to tradition for his authority. In other words he doesn’t defend tradition against the attacks, instead he dives “deeper” into it by appealing to the more ancient traditions for the authority that the Bible does not provide for his church practices. Honest, yet dangerous. People think that my approach (non-hierarchical, non-controlling leadership) has dangerous implications should carefully evaluate what Belcher is appealing to for authority in his ecclesiology.
Belcher is unapologetically reformed. He is one of the many Neo-Reformed leaders that are increasing in the US. There are some great doctrines in the reformed tradition. Many of my closest brothers and coworkers are reformed, and my own denomination (Grace Brethren) has a strong and growing reformed influence over it. The reformed church however is full of structures, systems and ideas that are solid and inflexible practices, treated as doctrine but not really found in the Bible. In order to be truly reformed and also be honest, one has to deal with the many practices that are not found prescribed in the Scriptures. Okay, I will let you reformers fume a second and then I’ll give you a few examples. Are you ready yet? Whew, okay. The clergy and laity separation is a good first example. Lets stay with that one for a bit. Granted, the reformation brought the “priesthood of believers” back to the doctrinal round table, the practice established in the reformed church tradition has yet to actually release this important doctrine. Now, as I walk down this theological aisle you will see how more and more of what is dogma in the reformed church comes from tradition rather than Scripture. Watch: Ordination of pastoral leaders and presbytery is a very core doctrine in the reformed tradition and is hard to find in Scripture without some heavy handed manipulation. To say you cannot be ordained as a pastor without at least a Masters of Divinity degree from a specific reformed seminary is not a biblical idea, it comes from tradition, nevertheless it is carved in stone for most reformed denominations. The idea that only ordained pastors can perform baptism or communion is found nowhere in the bible, it is a tradition that has been well established and passed on as doctrine. Am I right? Is this making sense now? Be honest. Within the reformed tradition, church offices are established doctrine, though the idea of “offices,” in my opinion, must be imported into the Bible to make it stand upright. Elders and deacons and the fivefold gifts of Eph 4:11 are all found in the NT but to call them “offices” forces upon the biblical text ideas that are foreign to the inspired scriptures. If I were to ask for Biblical support for "offices" rather than functional roles, Van Til, Owen, Edwards and even Calvin himself would have a hard time doing so.
Belcher is an honest reformed theologian, so it is not a surprise that he appeals to what he calls the Great Tradition for authority for church practices and polity, which the New Testament does not provide.
In my next post I will look at a few of the more troubling concepts in the book.