Jim Belcher’s recent book, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional, has generated a lot of helpful discussion on the church. While the reviews of Deep Church have been generally positive, there have been critics. In this interview, Jim answers the hard questions about his book in a way that we hope keeps the conversation going in a helpful direction.
What led you to write Deep Church?
Let me just say I am grateful for The Gospel Coalition blog for the chance to share the message of Deep Church with it’s readers. I appreciate TGC’s passion for the Gospel, the church, and her shepherds. I hope what I say strengthens the church and the unity of believers.
I wrote Deep Church because I was motivated to help heal the divisions in the church. As someone who has a foot in both the emerging and traditional camps, I hoped to call for an end to the rhetorical shouting match between them. This cease-fire is needed to create a space for dialogue that is not super-charged with distrust. My goal is unity, the kind that Jesus calls us to in John 17.
My desire was to lay out the areas we agree on before we jump to our disagreements. I wanted to eliminate some of the fear that is present and start listening to each other and possibly learning from each other. I think this is what love and Christian civility calls for.
What does the title, Deep Church, mean?
The phrase comes from an interview C.S. Lewis gave in 1952 when he talked about both the deep church and mere Christianity as the same thing. So the deep church is the mere Christian church. It is rooted in the Scriptures and The Great Tradition, the rule of faith, which has guided Christians and the church since the start. Others, like Tom Oden, have called it classical orthodoxy.
How do you define the emerging church?
The emerging church is a diverse movement. It can’t be characterized by one or two thinkers. In the book, I use Ed Stetzer’s description of the three camps that make up the emerging church—the relevants, reconstructionists and revisionists. The relevants have the most in common with the traditional church, sharing much of its theology but wanting to be more contextualized. The reconstructionists share similar theology but like to stress the need for ecclesiological reform, returning the church to look more like the first century church. The revisionists want to re-think and re-learn the very basis of Christianity anew in each community. They are the ones that have challenged the traditional church’s theology the most. Thus, they get the most pushback from the traditional church and receive most of the attention in the media. But as controversial as they are, they don’t represent the entire movement. I think they would agree with that statement. Many of them are just as critical of other segments of the emerging church as they are with the traditional church.
Over the last three months you have gotten some strong reviews from all sides of the spectrum. Has this surprised you?
The reviews have been amazingly positive. Of course, any writer wants positive reviews but I was bracing myself for some really negative reviews from the far ends of the spectrum. In fact, Tim Keller told me that I should be prepared for this. So to the extent that the far ends of the dialogue have been so positive, even when they disagree with certain parts of the book, has surprised me. One emerging reviewer, who did not think my vision of deep church was nearly deep enough, nonetheless called Deep Church “an exercise in theological peacemaking” and went on to recommend it heartily. Others on the traditional side have gone out of their way to praise and commend the book before they disagree with parts of it. I think the part that is resonating, even with critics, is the vision for Christian unity, civility, and the desire for the church to move beyond the in-fighting to powerful mission in the world. I have also heard from dozens of pastors and committed lay people who are discouraged, depressed and disillusioned with the ministry. Deep Church has really hit a nerve with these people. I am grateful it has.
Speaking of the traditional church, you have gotten some pushback on your definition of the Gospel. Some contend that you have expanded the definition too much. How do you respond?
I think they are right to point out that my definition of the Gospel includes more than justification. If they equate the gospel with justification then my definition is different; it is broader because the Bible’s view is broader. For example, for Jesus the Gospel is the announcement of the Kingdom and our call to be part of it.
What we see is that in the Scriptures atonement is connected to the Kingdom. What Jesus did on the cross is the “how” of getting into the Kingdom and the victory he accomplished over sin, death, and the principalities and powers. When we are born anew we are brought into God’s Kingdom and adopted into his covenant family.
In fact, the third way I describe in Deep Church safeguards the Cross—God’s judgment against sin (satisfying his justice by paying the penalty himself through Christ) and also his defeat of sin, death and evil—and sees this as the basis for life in fellowship with God and living under His Kingdom reign and experiencing the new creation. It is all part of the Good News!
Do you agree with some in the emerging church who say that the traditional church overemphasizes the legal categories of the atonement?
I certainly think it is a possibility for some in the traditional church. But not all. The temptation is always there. We have to be careful not to overemphasize the penal character of the cross so much that it overlooks or crowds out the message about the Kingdom of God and Christ’s victory over the principalities and powers—or even the good news about shalom between God and his people, between individuals, and his creation. My goal is to find a way to safeguard the doctrine of penal atonement, rightly understood, which is right in the middle of the New Testament while connecting it clearly to the message of the Kingdom, which is also at the heart of the Bible.
Does this third way make the traditional church uneasy?
I think it does. There is an uneasiness that this view will water down the Gospel. Some reviewers are worried about adding anything to the definition found in 1 Cor. 15. But what I am trying to make clear in the book and this interview is that Christ’s cross—which paid for our sins and took away our guilt, is also the foundation for Christ’s victory over evil and oppression—and, moreover, it is what allows us to join God’s family and his Kingdom reign. The Gospel includes both penal atonement, which rightly understood integrates the Christus Victor model, and the Kingdom of God and the beginning of God’s re-creation. They are tied together and can’t be separated. The Bible does not separate them.
I like the way Tim Keller defines the Gospel, including both the individual and corporate aspects: “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.”
What about the charge that you are adding the effects of the Gospel to the definition of the Gospel?
Again, I agree with Keller when he says, “I must admit that so many of us who revel in the classic gospel of ‘grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone’ largely ignore the eschatological implications of the gospel.” I think that is right. The Good News is not only the forgiveness of sins but the promise and hope for new-creation. It is not only a restored relationship with God but with ourselves, between people, and with his creation. The Gospel includes both justification and the imitatio Christi. We have to be able to preach a good news that not only promises the forgiveness of sins but the restoration of cracked ikons, as Scott McKnight says, partially in this age but completely in the world to come. This promise—new birth, the Kingdom, and new-creation—are all part of the Good News.
Isn’t this what Jesus means in Luke 4 when he says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Or, when Paul links the forgiveness of sin with the Kingdom of God in Colossians: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the Kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13). Now that is a robust definition of the Gospel.
But aren’t you confusing justification and sanctification in your definition?
I don’t think so. I, too, believe that justification needs to be distinguished from sanctification. The Reformers were helpful in this regard. We are saved by grace not by works. But once justification and sanctification are distinguished and we make clear that we are not saved by our sanctification or works but only by the free grace of Jesus and what he did on our behalf, we have to make sure that justification and sanctification are brought back together. We have to be clear that salvation in the Bible is not only justification, being declared righteous for Christ’s sake, but also sanctification, being renewed into the image of God. This is the good news: new life and new creation. Again as Paul says in Col. 1:29, “And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
You say in Deep Church that you work hard in your church to contextualize the Gospel to the culture of Orange County. But doesn’t this mean you change the very message of the Gospel?
Again, I don’t think that is true. The message does not change at its core but how it is communicated may. 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. Some in the traditional church seem to be saying that since salvation is by grace we need not make any effort to translate it into contemporary language. But as 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.
Thanks for the chance to share my thoughts. I hope it helps clarify some of the points I am making in Deep Church. It is my prayer that Deep Church is a blessing to those who read it and contributes to the unity of the church. I love the Bride of Christ and I want to see God’s people unified, missional, and faithful in all that God calls us to be.