Radical Love Project

Old-school Christianity Sux Eggs

Jonathan Brink’s post, Just Tell Me How to Think, got me thinking. In it, he quoted some old-school Christian guy as saying this:

“On the outside, it can sometimes appear that these “emerging churches” are just as orthodox as any other Bible-believing church. Online doctrinal statements and many sermons will sound no different from a Bible-based church. But more often than not when the outer layers are peeled back from these “emerging churches,” a mystical-based, kingdom-now, panentheistic view of “God” is revealed.

And I have to say it looks to me much like it looks to these guys: Churches do try to hide the truth of what they believe in an effort not to offend old-school Christians. They *do* put up statements of faith that imply that they’re just regular old-fashioned “Bible-believing” Christians. And I think it’s sad.

I keep hearing leaders say “I’m not saying I don’t agree with substitutionary atonement, I’m just asking…” or “Of course I affirm the Nicene Creed, I’m just saying…” They are dancing around the truth because they don’t want to push away fellow Christians. But what about the rest of the world?

The secular world is my world, an I am telling y’all that they are not going to come to Christianity as long as they think it’s about a God who longs to burn people for all eternity, or any other weird, illogical theology.

I am deeply in love with the emergent church, and grateful to Jonathan Brink, and to Tony Jones, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and others for the honest things they’ve said.

But you’re all still only seeing Christians. You’re not speaking to the rest of us, for whom the dogma is just silliness. Those doctrines kept me away for so long. And when I was finally able to see the possibilities, it was because I dug and dug, and overlooked weird things like “I’m not saying substitutionary atonement is wrong…”

Just for the record OF COURSE IT’S WRONG. The idea that God demanded blood as payment for our sins is silly, and any God that worked that way would be unworthy of worship. There. I said it.

Jesus didn’t come here to die as payment for anything. I could go on all day about how that makes no sense at all, but I won’t. Because what’s much more interesting is why he did come here.

Jesus came here to LIVE with us, to BE among us, and to SHARE the good news of God’s love and God’s kingdom with us. Why did he have to die? Because that’s what it means to be human. We all die. Some earlier, some later. Some by “natural causes” and some because of the stupidity of other humans. But we all die.

The reason he died the way he did is because that the most loving thing he could do right then, with those people. He gave himself to show us the way.

Posted by Angela under ideas
Wednesday, June 3, 2009


  1. Jim Marks says:

    This is a pretty unfair assessment of what’s going on in emergence. Tony has done extensive blog series on both original sin and substitutionary atonement in which he made it explicitly clear he found little value in either one.

    And yes, many emergents are only seeing Christians. Because the focus of their call is internal reformation. Because the church desperately needs to be reformed (again).

    The goal is not to reform Christianity into something we can -sell- to nonChristians. The goal is to reform Christianity to reflect as near as possible the message that was brought to us by Jesus and which was witnessed to by the apostles. If the world doesn’t want what that message turns out to be, we can’t fake it, distort it or re-write it to make it more appealing.

    I 100% agree that penal substitution is an incredibly suspect doctrine. But there is 500 years (possibly more) of extremely well crafted philosophy and theology behind that doctrine and you can’t simply dismiss it out of hand as nonsense with nothing to back that up. It is intellectually untenable.

    The message Jesus brought made a lot of people angry, upset, uncomfortable and disturbed. He didn’t win over everyone. In fact, he angered some people so much they decided to kill him. It would be a radical betrayal of his example to measure all of our doctrines against how attractive they are to other people.

    _YES_ we need to speak into the context in which we find people and we need to shape the message so that we are speaking their language. But that is _NOT_ the same thing as abandoning the critical examination of doctrine and theology when we find that it meets resistance in certain contexts.

    Also, in the end, doctrine is not the bottom line. Fruit is. If there are people who believe in penal substitution who live lives that are overflowing with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self control, goodness and faithfulness, then we cannot condemn their doctrine!

  2. Becca Clark says:

    rock on. your last four paragraphs– yeah. exactly. I think I’ve said many times before that substitutionary attonement is so wrong it’s foul; any God who works that way is not, in fact, God, but a monster. (I have a post about a lot of these ideas, which takes a half an hour to read, probably, but here it is if you’re interested: http://pastorbecca.wordpress.com/2007/11/13/borg-lewis-and-attonement/)
    And again, amen to your statement that why Jesus *didn’t* come here is not what matters; what matters is why he *did*. That’s it; I’m linking to you!


  3. Angela says:

    @jim Ok, so I’m noticing that something here hurt you. And I’m sad about that. I’m wondering I can learn something here, about how to talk about this stuff in a way that meets my needs for openness, for honoring God, being welcoming, and also my needs for kindness and compassion.

    Any idea how I can help with those later things, to make a better connection with you, Jim?

    @Becca Thanks so much. Helps me feel a little better. :)

  4. Jim, you said, “Also, in the end, doctrine is not the bottom line. Fruit is. If there are people who believe in penal substitution who live lives that are overflowing with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self control, goodness and faithfulness, then we cannot condemn their doctrine!”

    I would suggest that it is not the doctrine that produces the fruit but the Holy Spirit working in them that does.

  5. Courageous and very true. Thanks. I stand convicted – I do this too. But the old school christianity not only sux eggs, they are scary and mean. Not that that is an excuse. I’m just sayin’.

  6. Jim Marks says:

    @Angela: No, nothing hurt, at least nothing hurt me. But you excoriate a collection of leaders for not doing something, and some of them are doing just that! And you’re basically advocating that we abandon any dialog with our fellow believers in favor of a dialog with nonbelievers. One at the expense of the other. I think we’re all struggling to find a way to stay in dialog with both. We can’t abandon the church as it exists. If we do, we’re just one more schismatic sect off doing our own supposedly better version of church. Just the next link in a two millennia long chain. We keep insisting that what we’re doing is different from that. And at the core of that is learning to forget about “this is right” and “that is wrong” and learn to understand “this has some truth to it” and “that also has some other truth to it”. For better or for worse, penal substitution resonates for a lot of people and is at the core of their very real, very vibrant, very fruitful faith. We can’t come along and smash that and declare it bankrupt and replace it. We just can’t. If we do we’ve learned nothing from what post-modernism is trying to teach us about the imperial nature of truth claims. Also, I personally find it troubling when someone makes a truth claim, and asserts that they -could- refute their opposition, but doesn’t. It is intellectually problematic. There are people who write entire books trying to accurately and defensibly refute penal substitution. It isn’t something we can casually cast aside without at least some exposed effort to demonstrate how we justify that.

    @Jonathan I agree. The Spirit gives our faith life, and then works flow from our faith. And from that outpouring of works from faith the fruit grows. What I was trying to illustrate is that our doctrines and theologies shape our faith. They shape the relationship we are attempting to have with G-d because they shape our understanding of what G-d is. There are many people for whom doctrines of original sin and penal substitution twist them into very angry, hateful people who think all non-believers are fit for nothing but contempt. That’s a problem and that’s definitely something we all need to be addressing to correct. But that doesn’t provide a validation for dismissing these doctrines out of hand. Because there are also people, oddly enough, for whom these doctrines form an understanding of G-d and of The Gospel that brings them into a very right and righteous relationship which is then very fruitful. And so long as one such example exists, that is a doctrine we must tolerate, and learn to find the “good” and the “truth” which it contains.

    • Tracy says:

      J. Marks wrote:

      > [Penal substitution] isn’t something we can casually cast
      > aside without at least some exposed effort to demonstrate how
      > we justify that.

      I’m particularly interested in how the justification you propose here fits with your understanding of postmodernist critiques of truth-claims.


      • Jim Marks says:

        It fits in the sense that if you’re going to take two millennia of well intentioned, intelligent, conscientious thinking and [truth] claim that it -must- be abandoned, you owe the people who’s understanding of reality you just trampled all over at least -some- explanation as to why your understanding trumps theirs.

        If the advocacy of this post were “we need to remove penal substitution from the cat bird seat and situate it appropriately along side other understandings so that each can be accorded appropriate due consideration” I wouldn’t be flapping about it. But this business about how the old skool sucks and we have to replace it utterly with something new isn’t post-modern in the slightest. It is decidedly [old skool] imperialist.

  7. Jim Marks says:

    short version:

    There are non-scary, good, loving, old skool Christians out there. If we are dedicated to love and to a more generous understanding of The Gospel (with the hopes this will resonate with more people than the old skool message does), we cannot smash the things which are at the core of their faith while we build something new.

  8. Angela says:

    @jim I’m not advocating smashing them. And I’m *definitely* not “advocating that we abandon any dialog with our fellow believers”. I’m suggesting that we be open about how things look to us, and welcome them to dialog on those terms. That we stop trying to hide how we really feel so that they’ll be willing to talk to us.

    They’re the ones trapped in dogma. If they want to talk, let them take a deep breath, say a prayer, and enter into a conversation with me, “mystical-based, kingdom-now, panentheistic view of ‘God’”* and all.

    *That’s another quote from the same article. See Jonathan’s blog for more of that.

    • Jim Marks says:

      I guess I’m not as prepared as you are to claim that there are people being disingenuous about their point of view, who are acting as though they have a foot in both camps when they really don’t?

      I have strong feelings about this particular doctrine and a lot of others. But I am also not so full of hubris that I’m ready to stand up boldly and say “I know better than two millennia of great thinkers, if you want to talk about it, be prepared for the risk you’re proven wrong”.

      For all I know I’m neck deep in the woods and the Southern Baptists have it right.

    • Jim Marks says:

      Also, your post is asserting, flat out, unequivocally, that penal substitution -is- -wrong- (without any defense of justification). That’s a pretty dogmatic statement to make. And to someone else for whom that doctrine has genuine meaning and value, it can feel pretty violent to hear that. I’m genuinely concerned that we may become too eager and we end up replacing the old rigidity with a new one.

  9. Josh says:

    I’m not sure it’s fair to point the finger at “old school christians” (whatever that may mean) and say that they’re the ones trapped in dogma. I think we hold some beliefs that could be described as “dogmatic”.

    I think by wholly discounting substitutionary atonement (based on what seems to be a sense of revulsion on your part) you reveal something that may be dogmatic to you.

    If your premise that “The idea that God demanded blood as payment for our sins is silly, and any God that worked that way would be unworthy of worship. ” is held without questions, I think it qualifies as dogma. Am I off in my assesment?

    • Tracy says:

      There could be a dogmatic claim along those lines. What I think I see here, instead, is primarily an absence of a claim. The absence of preference toward an idea cannot be, per se, dogmatic. (Unless, that is, we say all people are dogmatically attached to all ideas they might prefer, but don’t.)

      If I hear her right, Angela’s saying that on this point many leaders in the emergent church are in agreement with her, but they dissemble. She either does not understand why they do this, or she does understand and wishes they would not. In any event it’s not something she wants to avoid discussing; it’s an idea for which she’s heard no engaging criticism of its absence. Most importantly, it’s an idea she sees as (thankfully) absent from the most moving writings within today’s church.

      • Jim Marks says:

        While she hasn’t necessarily made a claim that some particular thing is true, she has made a definitive claim that some particular thing is false. She made it forcefully and without defense. Dogma can exist in the rejection of something just as much as it can exist in the affirmation of something.

        • Tracy says:

          If Angela is correct in seeing this idea as absent from the substantive works of those she’s talking about, why would she need to defend the claim that this idea is best omitted? Such an effort seems peripheral to the thing she hoped to communicate.

      • Jim Marks says:

        We’ve been talking about two different things, I think. Please refer to my comments throughout this conversation, most particularly the very short one at the bottom.

  10. Liz says:

    Angela – I have to agree with Jim – my experience of people in the emergent conversation is that they are open and honest about what they believe, do not hide what they believe or ride the fence in order to fool anyone. However, I also don’t think they are quick to throw out a belief because it does not resonate with them – I think they are careful to listen, study, think, pray and take their time – sometimes that means they don’t believe a particular thing about something. Doctrine is not the number one priority – probably not even in the top 5 priorities. What I appreciate about the emergent conversation is that it promotes an environment where unity does not mean conformity. I like the generous orthodoxy, the chastened epistemology, the belief that God may show up even in someone you disagree with and I find these things in the emergent conversation.

    I personally have problems with the theory of penal substitution and I especially have a problem with the idea that so much emphasis is put on it in so many Christian circles/denominations – I think there is much more to Jesus death on the cross than we have been able to comprehend, but I do think it is more than just the simple fact that we all die – but I could be wrong. But whatever one believes about the atonement I agree with Jim that it is difficult to accept that penal substitution is invalid based on the fact that it doesn’t seem to fit or doesn’t feel right. I understand those feelings because I have them too, but we need to base our beliefs on more than that.

    You asked what you could do to “talk about this stuff in a way that meets my needs for openness, for honoring God, being welcoming, and also my needs for kindness and compassion.” I suggest that you be a little more generous towards people who believe differently than you do and also keep in mind that there is always a good chance that we are wrong in what we believe. I believe that a good place to live is in the tension of being compassionate enough about our beliefs to embody them and humble enough about our beliefs to be able to say “I may be wrong”. When you say “ofcourse its wrong” it doesn’t sound generous or humble.

    Thank for giving me the opportunity to respond to your post. I really admire and respect the work you have been doing in the radical love project.

  11. Angela, I love you so hear me knowing I am speaking to you from my heart as a friend, not talking “at” you in any way. I see two things coming through in your writing that I want to address. One is the fact that you are getting tired of hearing us all talk to the people who are perpetuating institutionalism, exclusion and dogma, crying out to them for change. You came to Christ through this movement and thus this is a huge facet of it that doesn’t even resonate with you. To that I would offer this. Although you may not feel led to partake in this one (one of many) aspect of Emergent, and I don’t blame you at all, you can learn from it as it carries with it exhortation about how we might be followers in the way of Jesus. And your life is so fruitful in that way! You stand as an example of what that looks like! We, in this way, are honored to have you along with us as we seek to see the change God is initiating in the Kingdom. Many are out doing the stuff, and you are thankfully one of them! Perhaps a perception change might help. Feel free to skip certain parts of the “conversation” as there is so much variety to be had anyway. I do.

    The other thing is that if you are interested in the roots of blood-atonement theory it might surprise you to hear the way my brother-in-law has laid it out to me. Starting with the stories of Moses and the Passover, and Abraham’s covenant with God, moving into the feasts and festivals and sacrifices, and finally ending up in the sacrifice being made uncannily in relation to the Passover feast, it makes sense that God indeed desires death as payment for sin. This has a lot of merit to it, but still does not mean God is cruel or blood-thirsty. He’s not. It is a mystery, and there is much to learn before taking a stand. Be careful. I don’t want you to get hurt either. :-)

    • Theresa, you said, “it makes sense that God indeed desires death as payment for sin”

      I would offer that I have studied the atonement theory deeply and find no such evidence.

      The primary purpose of the atonement was for us, not for God. It is always we who needed the atonement because we were the one’s who were dealing with guilt. It was always humanity that tried and killed Jesus.

      • This is a subject I would be interested in studying further with you. Like I said, with the way it was taught to me it makes a lot of sense. You know, the historicity of those certain events and the way it all played out with the feasts, festivals and sacrifices. He was slain when the passover lamb was being slain and all. I don’t see another way but that is because I have not been shown one. I still think God is nothing but loving, and have never concluded that he is demanding our blood in anger, as many presume who see the atonement as I am describing.

  12. You also have to take into account the fact that many Christians claim “Emergent” is a cult. A lot of conversation goes into sharing Christ with Christians because they refuse to see what Jesus is doing in our lives.

  13. Angela! Have we told you lately that we love you, that no amount of ranting will change that? I see you are speaking from your heart, and I know you are strong and can withstand some disagreement. Don’t let yourself think we are upset with you k? Debate gets lively, it is not personal. We love you! And nobody here claims to have all the answers. Thank you for the place to discuss these things. You are a safe hostess. We know that. I pray we are safe for you too emotionally. Let us always remember the tender heart of a woman when we engage in this way. Especially here. ‘Cuz we’re friends. :-)

    • Jim Marks says:

      Agreed. We’re all dancing a very fine line between being passionate about our beliefs and that place where our passion gets away from us.

      If I didn’t have some insight into where your heart is at I wouldn’t bother to offer up the suggestions I am, here.

  14. Angela says:

    Holding an opinion, even strongly, is not the same as holding it dogmatically. I am open to discussion about the substitutionary atonement theory. I’m open to discussion about all kinds of things I think are false.

    But that wasn’t the topic. The topic was emergent leaders being reluctant to stand up and say what they really believe…

    [Edit: removed whiny crap.]

    I am feeling sad, empty inside. I think it’s about wanting connection, to be seen for who I am. I’m gonna go work on getting that need met. Doesn’t seem likely it will be met here, so I’m not going to reply any further. If anybody really wants more engagement on this, let me know, and we’ll work on heart-connection, on really hearing each other.

    • Jim Marks says:

      Now I feel as though I must have offended you. And that’s unfortunate. You wrote:

      “Just for the record OF COURSE IT’S WRONG.”

      And it was to that, and really only to that, I have been responding.

      I know where you heart is and I affirm that. Completely.

      I just wanted to caution against that kind of statement. I don’t think it is likely to create conversation with much of anyone, because it -sounds- dogmatic. It sounds like your mind is made up, and you’re fed up with everyone who hasn’t figured that out, yet.

      I’m sorry if the way I expressed that came off as overly harsh.

  15. Rebeca says:

    I found your site through the WAPF forum and have been interested in checking out who you are. :> How could I resist something called the Radical Love Project?
    First off, let me just say that I’m coming from a completely old-skool Christianity, but possibly not what you are familiar with. We’re talking OLD-skool! I’m a recovering Protestant who now finds a home and roots in the Eastern Church. I thought it might interest you that Orthodox Christians have a different view of this topic than do Western (Protestant and Roman Catholic.) Fairly early on the Church was geographically divided into East and West, Rome being the West and the rest of Christendom the East. Theologies began to diverge; in Rome theology was formed in a very “judicial” way. In the East theology grew up out of worship. Protestantism, for whatever break it made from Rome, is still a child of the West, and resembles Roman doctrine in it’s “judicial” understanding of salvation. In the Christian East we see God as a loving Father and salvation as a product of our loving and obedient childlike response to Him. It is holistic, reaching all areas of life, understanding the inherent connection between our body and soul. Sin is viewed more as a “sickness” than a “crime”; thus what we are in need of is healing. And our Father, through Christ the Son, through the Work of the Holy Spirit, and through the mystical sacraments of the Church, longs to heal us, to restore us to the original “image and likeness” of God in which He created us.
    Anyway, I come not to argue, but simply to throw in another perspective; that if you go far enough back in Christian history you will find what the early church believed about what Jesus did on the cross. We chant at Pascha (the feast of the Resurrection) “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” We view his surrender to death as, like you said, the ultimate participation in our humanity, and by His resurrection, His triumph over the curse of death and the restoration of all humankind to Himself.
    So, what you are referring to as “old-skool” Christian doctrine is really fairly new on the scene. :>
    I offer you this, the words of Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green. If you are interested in the rest of the article you can find it here: http://www.frederica.com/writings/sin-infection-or-infraction.html
    “Orthodox, of course, have a completely different understanding of Christ’s saving work. We hold to the view of the early church, that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Our sins made us captives of Death, and God in Christ went into Hades to set us free. The penalty of sin is not a debt we owe the Father; it is the soul-death that is the immediate and inevitable consequence of sin. We need healing and rescue, not someone to step in and square the bill. The early Christians always saw the Father pursuing and loving every sinner, doing everything to bring us back, not waiting with arms folded for a debt to be paid. When the Prodigal Son came home, the Father didn’t say, “I’d love to take you back, but who’s going to pay this Visa bill?….We would say that Western Christians, Protestant and Catholic, have mixed up two Scriptural concepts: “sacrifice/offering” and “ransom/payment.” Jesus couldn’t have paid the “ransom” for our sins to the Father; you pay a ransom to a kidnapper, and the Father wasn’t holding us hostage. No, it was the Evil One who had captured us, due to our voluntary involvement in sin. It cost Jesus his blood to enter Hades and set us free. That’s the payment, or ransom, but it obviously isn’t paid *to* the Father. Yet it is a sacrifice or offering to the Father, as a brave soldier might offer a dangerous act of courage to his beloved General.”
    Many blessings,

  16. Rebeca says:

    Hey, I just went back and read some of the previous comments, and hope I didn’t contribute further to you feeling sad. That was not my intent at all. Obviously I was jumping in late in the conversation, and I don’t know you at all, so wasn’t wanting to cause further discord or anything. Blessings!

  17. Angela says:

    @rebeca Thanks for your comments. I love that about the Orthodox church. I appreciate your sharing! :)

    @everybody Sorry for taking so long to respond. Been thinking… One lesson I keep having to learn over and over is that it’s our own insides we work on (God works on) when we follow this path. I forget, and get reminded, and forget again.

    I’m grateful to get to learn it again. :) I love you (all) and I’m sorry for pushing back in this way. I’m also really joyful about the reminder that I have to own this. Instead of asking other people to speak up, I can just… speak up.

    Prepare yourselves for a more vocal but less blaming version of Angela. :)

    Thanks, everybody, for the conversation.

  18. home says:


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  1. [...] substitution is bunk! Posted on June 3, 2009 by Becca Clark You really should check out this post by Angela on the Radical Love Project. It’s a super-good read on Jesus, attonement, and what [...]

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