Review of Jim Belcher’s ‘Deep Church’ – Part 3
Whenever a book review was assigned in seminary I would search for previously written book reviews to help me process the ideas presented in the book. Conversing with other thinkers on theological works has always been a high priority in my study habits, whether in conversation or in reading others thoughts. In preparation for presenting my thoughts on Deep Church I read reviews by Kevin DeYoung, Greg Gilbert, Steve McCoy, Scott Armstrong. I have posted some of their comments in the footnotes.
Let me start off by saying that the main desire that prompted Belcher to write this book is obvious, to see a ecumenical movement develop between those in the emerging church and those in the traditional camps, the vision is for “Christian unity, civility, and the desire for the church to move beyond the in-fighting to powerful mission in the world.” I appreciate Belcher’s honesty and thoughtfulness in considering the possibility of such unity. I am glad that Belcher makes it clear that he rejects the most tragic theological flaws of some of the leaders in the emerging movement. This is where I doubt whether or not such unity is possible. When it comes to the ‘emergent’ camp I cannot see unity as a possibility when some of them are abandoning the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Sure, some of these are hard doctrines but the implications of rejecting such biblical truths not only cross the line into heresy, but also have massive implications on these churches as a whole. Belcher’s account of the meeting between Piper, Jones, and Pagitt serves to illustrate the point.
With that said, I do think that Belcher offers some very helpful thoughts on ‘points of dialogue’ between the emerging and traditional camps. I agree with Belcher when he writes that we can learn from others even when we disagree with them. It’s funny, as I read blogs and reviews of the book I think Belcher has accomplished what he set out to do, which is provide conversation points for discussion.
Let me stick to the issues that have brought ‘controversy’ to discussions on this book. Belcher has caught some criticism on his definition of the ‘gospel.’ Here is his definition;
“The “gospel” is the good news that through Jesus, the Messiah, the power of God’s kingdom has entered history to renew the whole world. Through the Savior God has established his reign. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, that kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us. We witness the radical new way of living by our renewed lives, beautiful community, social justice, and cultural transformation. This good news brings new life. The gospel motivates, guides, and empowers every aspect of our living and worship (121).“
What I believe Belcher has done in his definition is attempt to ‘bridge the gap’ between the individual and corporate aspects of the gospel. In order to fully understand why Belcher expands his definition of the gospel beyond its individual aspects read Tim Keller’s article “The Gospel in All its Forms.” In this article Keller writes that many have focused too much on the “simple gospel.” (The ABC’s of salvation)
“There are today at least two criticisms of this simple formulation. Many say that it is too individualistic, that Christ’s salvation is not so much to bring individual happiness as to bring peace, justice, and a new creation. A second criticism is that there is no one “simple gospel” because “everything is contextual” and the Bible itself contains many gospel presentations that exist in tension with each other.”
This not only helps one understand why Belcher expands his definition of the gospel, that the Good News is not only the forgiveness of sins but the promise and hope for new-creation, but also why he writes of “contextualizing the gospel for his community.” I think Belcher is saying here that Christians are to live as ‘Kingdom people’ in their communities. Therefore, the community that one seeks to penetrate with the gospel often shapes how the gospel is presented in ‘word and deed’. It’s not that the gospel message is changed, but the message is contextualized for that specific place, time, and people. There are different nuances to how people communicate physically and verbally in different cultures; these factors must be considered when one wants to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Belcher recently wrote in an interview;
“When you study Paul’s missionary journeys in Acts you see that he preached the gospel very differently to the Jews than he did to Gentiles. He presented the message differently in the cities than the small towns. He was contextualizing the Gospel…my former professor John Frame says, “Should we, then, preach in Hebrew, or Greek, or Serbo-Croatian? Should we make the gospel as obscure as possible so as to avoid catering to fallen pride? Should we present it as something irrational, in order to maintain the offense of the cross? Perhaps we should not preach at all, in order to let God do the work.” Of course Frame is using some rhetorical hyperbole but the point is that Paul thought we needed to “translate” the message to each unique audience. I think that it is what we are called to do.”
Belcher is exactly right when he says that the deepest division between the emergent church and evangelicalism is about the gospel itself. The gospel is where we find unity as believers, but if different groups cannot agree on the essentials on that message – unity is not possible in the greater sense.
I am on the same page with Steve McCoy, he says that Deep Church resonated with him in a personal way. I encourage all pastors and church leaders to read this book. While you may not agree with every single detail or thought, its wonderful to ‘walk alongside’ Belcher as he wrestles with these issues himself.
Belcher provides an excellent analysis of the main issues being considered by the next generation of church leaders. While I doubt that the ideal ‘deep church’ Belcher longs for is possible theologically for the Church. I will say that this book could serve as a catalyst to help us as Christians have deeper dialogue among the Church as a whole. Also, many of these principles will challenge you to think different about ‘how’ you are doing ministry in your own context.
- I agree with Gilbert when he writes, “Piper is right: To reject the idea of Jesus dying in the place of sinners, taking their punishment on himself for their sins, is to reject the gospel” totally.
- DeYoung notes that Belcher leaves out sin, the cross, and the resurrection. These “three items give no specific mention in Belcher’s definition of the gospel. This is a problem.” I think he is right to point this out.
- In this article Tim Keller defines the gospel as follows; “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.”