PART I. The Emerging Church Movement
‘A new wave of confusion is systematically seducing many young adults into deception. Sincere young people whose hearts were once ablaze for Jesus are being allured into compromise on foundational biblical truths and practices, while at the same time they are increasing in works of compassion and justice…
Many young adult ministries are falling prey to this as they are seeking “relevance” that dulls the razor’s edge of truth for the sake of man’s approval. It is not enough to mention Jesus’ name if they deny foundational truths about Him. Our works of justice must flow from deep allegiance to Jesus and the Scripture.’
THE EMERGING CHURCH – AN OVERVIEW
These are the words of Mike Bickle of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City. Although written in November 2009, they address a subtle deception which has been growing in strength and influence in the body of Christ for over a decade: ‘subtle’ in that its proponents present themselves as ‘evangelicals’, profess loyalty to Jesus, teach about what they call ‘the Kingdom of God’, and seem to be successfully spearheading new models of church to reach a generation of young people who, they claim, have been alienated by the Christianity of their elders. This new movement is commonly known as the ‘Emerging’ or ‘Emergent’ Church.
The movement believes that every five hundred years a structural shift takes place in Christianity and a new spiritual era comes into being. The last of these, they say, was the Reformation in the 16th Century. Now, a few years into the new millenium, it is their claim that a new spirituality is emerging in Christendom – the Emerging Church movement – and that it will be the shape of the church of the future. It is a big claim.
By positioning themselves as evangelicals, concerned only to find ways to present the gospel to a new lost generation of post-moderns, this loose-knit group of church leaders has been given a hearing which would not be accorded to self-confessed theological liberals challenging the central truths of scripture. And yet, in the opinion of the (genuinely) evangelical theologian D.A. Carson, whose Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church is one of the most detailed studies of the movement, that is what they are. Carson believes they have ‘largely abandoned the gospel’.
It now seems that the Emerging Church is the new liberalism, skilfully packaged to appeal to young people as an authentic, radical, modern interpretation of Christianity, professing orthodoxy and using the language of evangelicalism but denying many its key doctrines. Initially, few people seem to have noticed a problem. It was a creeping process, drip feeding error into a movement which was birthed out of a genuine concern with the cultural and communication issues that faced the church in the new millennium. Those leaders who eventually went ‘off’ did not do so obviously straight away and some of the other young leaders were, and today still remain, orthodox evangelical Christians – though they have left the movement and now form its most articulate and educated critics.
Deception, by its very nature, is not easy to spot and the wider church was caught napping. Dazzled by an apparently penetrating analysis of post-modern culture and ways it could be reached for the gospel, older Christian leaders (some of whom had little idea what post-modernism actually was and were delighted to find anyone who even understood the term) abdicated the oversight and theological questioning which was their responsibility as elders in the body of Christ. That condition remains in some parts of the church today, especially in the United Kingdom where the most prominent emergent leader Brian McLaren has either taught or been promoted in the Evangelical Alliance, CWR, CMS, the Lambeth Conference, Spring Harvest, and parts of the Vineyard – and where British enthusiasts for McLaren’s emergent teaching now exercise a far wider (and unchecked) influence right into the heart of lively churches pioneering in British towns and cities.
Some of the questions emergents have asked have been appropriate; some of their challenges have been timely. As critics Kevin De Young and Ted Kluck, in their book Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be), say
(The Emergents) have many good deeds. They want to be relevant. They want to reach out. They want to be authentic. They want to include the marginalized. They want to be kingdom disciples. They want community and life transformation… (However) Emergent Christians need to catch Jesus’ broader vision for the church—His vision for a church that is intolerant of error, maintains moral boundaries, promotes doctrinal integrity, stands strong in times of trial, remains vibrant in times of prosperity, believes in certain judgment and certain reward, even as it engages the culture, reaches out, loves, and serves. We need a church that reflects the Master’s vision—one that is deeply theological, deeply ethical, deeply compassionate, and deeply doxological.
The real problems have arisen when Emergents have moved beyond new presentations of bible truths to new interpretations of them. Dr Sam Storms, former Visiting Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College puts it clearly:
My fear is that some, perhaps many, who are enamoured with the Emergent conversation simply haven’t wrestled with the far-reaching implications of (emergent leader Brian) McLaren’s theological convictions. Biblical inerrancy, substitutionary atonement, the existence of a personal devil, and the reality of eternal conscious punishment all come under criticism (if not outright denial) in his published works. He appears to embrace an evolutionary framework to account for the natural order, declines to identify homosexuality as sin or non-Christian religions as idolatry, and speaks approvingly of an inclusivist view on whether or not one must consciously believe in Jesus Christ in order to be saved.
The problem that now faces the church is not one of a dispute over those secondary aspects of belief which have divided Christians for centuries: the charismatic gifts, the faith movement, the second coming, adult vs. infant baptism, etc. The problems are over primary issues of the faith and are far deeper and far more serious – all the more so because it is too late for the evangelical church to raise the drawbridge while it decides how to respond to the Emerging Church movement.
As far as the penetration of the Emerging Church movement into British Christianity is concerned, the walls have already been breached; the castle is in the process of being overrun.
THE TEACHING OF THE EMERGING CHURCH
The Emerging Church movement (ECM) tries to avoid being defined. It says it is ‘a conversation’, not a movement. Reacting against the very certainty which conventional evangelicalism presents about being ‘born again’ (a phrase which elicits contempt from Emergents), it rejects notions of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a movement which it denies exists. Some of those who have written about it describe the process as being like trying to nail jelly to a door.
Five years ago the ECM may have been indefinable, like that jelly, but it is less so today. As those who have been troubled by the movement’s departure from orthodoxy have left it, its core identity as a heretical movement has become clearer. It has its key figures – men like Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Doug Pagitt. They appear in each others’ churches, on the same conference platforms, and endorse each other in their books. Their followers recognise and refer to them as leaders, and place links to their websites on their blogs. Emergent Christians unite on the web through a number of blogs and websites, and around the organisation which is the hub of the movement, Emergent Village (www.emergentvillage.com) , which is co-ordinated by Tony Jones, another leading figure in the movement.
And from these leaders, a body of teaching has emerged. While it cannot be said that every emergent leader subscribes to every tenet of this new liberal Christian thinking, there are enough features in common for us to be able to arrive at a broad picture of what the Emerging Church is all about. And what is certain is that those whose position on some key doctrinal issues is unclear still hold so lightly to the primacy of scripture and truth (though expressed in admirable terms like ‘choosing love over being right’) that they happily associate with and do not challenge those of their number whose view on the same issues are clearly heterodox.
1. Errors Of Practice & Argument (The Lesser Problem)
Emerging Church leaders have a number of practices, approaches, and responses which confuse the outsider and make it harder to identify where they stand and to reach an assessment of them. By their own admission this is partly deliberate. While these are causes for some concern, they are eclipsed by the Errors of Doctrine outlined in Section 2., following this one.
The Roman numeral after each of the following headings refers to the much more detailed selection (16 pages) of Emergent quotations, sorted in the same categories, in Appendix One. To illustrate each of the categories here, one or two brief quotes are given, but readers should refer to fuller excerpts in the Appendix.
Ambiguous/Misleading Language (i.) (i.e. see quotes in Appendix One, category i.) – using different meanings for accepted Christian terms. ‘Evangelical’ is used as a self-description by ECM people in spite of the fact that they are actually theological liberals and not evangelicals. In effect, they have tried to hijack the word. Describing themselves as evangelicals disarms many real evangelicals who welcome them and their teaching, believing they have the same basic beliefs about Christian fundamentals. They don’t. They have a different meaning for many Christian terms – e.g. ‘repentance’, ‘orthodox’, ‘save’ (salvation becomes joining a movement not being born again), ‘kingdom of God’, ‘hell’, and even ‘church’.
I am truly an evangelical Protestant in the sense that I believe we must go back and search the Scriptures and look at them afresh and see if there isn’t something better than what we have been taught. (Brian McLaren)
This is no description of an evangelical. A leader of a pseudo-Christian cult would say no different.
Evasion and Dissembling (ii.) – While a true evangelical, usually with reference to scripture, can be specific about the pillars of Christian faith, ECM leaders often dodge direct questions about their beliefs , either by answering another question or by insisting that the ECM is trying to avoid being straightjacketed by definitions and that they are unhelpful. See the Doug Pagitt interview on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0isqLRhClo&feature=PlayList&p=D677D8FA28998D9F&index=2
Denial that Christian certainty (over truth, doctrine and the scriptures) can be known (iii.). Claiming postmodern principles apply, they insist that postmodernism precludes all objective certainty about doctrine and faith.
The ultimate bible study or sermon in recent decades yielded clarity. That clarity unfortunately was also often boring and probably not that accurate, either, since reality is seldom clear but usually fuzzy mysticism, not black and white but in living colour … Arguments that pit absolutism versus relativism, and objectivism versus subjectivism, prove meaningless or absurd to postmodern people. (Brian McLaren)
Refusal to self-identify as a movement (iv.)
I generally don’t even use the term movement at this point… I think it’s more of a conversation. It’s a group of people who are talking about the Gospel and church and mission, especially in terms of changes going on in our culture that some people call a shift from modern to postmodern culture. (Brian McLaren)
Refusal to define a Christian in terms of being saved or not saved, ‘in’ or ‘out’ (v.)
We obsess on “who’s in” and “who’s out.” Jesus, however, seems to be asking the question, “How can the kingdom of God more fully come on earth as it is in heaven” (Brian McLaren)
For the vast majority of people outside the Church, the term [born again] has come to symbolise everything about Christianity they most despise and fear…a type of Christianity that is not only judgemental, bigoted, arrogant and narrow-minded but is also about a ‘them’ and ‘us’; ‘in’ or ‘out’, pharisaic approach to life. (Italics added) (Steve Chalke)
Mixing truth with error – some of their challenges are valid. Many of their conclusions are not.
Questioning/challenging doctrines (vi.) without actually denying them but doing it in such a way that their centrality within Christian orthodoxy is undermined.
What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? (Rob Bell)
False dichotomies/Exaggerated Stereotypes (vii.) – portraying Christians and their beliefs in exaggerated stereotypes and then presenting the ECM’s teaching as a necessary and justified response to that error:
- Stereotypes of the church – heartless, right-wing, introverted, inflexible, fundamentalist, wedded to violence in theology and politics, out of date and unwelcoming to the under 30s
- Stereotypes of the gospel message presented by the traditional church – all about going to heaven and nothing about changing the world for the better now.
The idea that the world is going down the toilet and that we should just abandon and prepare for evacuation, I think, creates horrible possibilities of injustice. [Emergents do not] stand on the edge with condemnation and judgment, because we’re always planning to depart. (Brian McLaren)
Internal contradictions (viii.) – the ECM’s contention that there are no absolutes (see Denial of Certainty, iii above), that truth cannot be known, especially in reference to interpreting the bible, is presented as an unchallengeable absolute.
Emergent doesn’t have a position on absolute truth, or on anything for that matter. Do you show up at a dinner party with your neighbors and ask, ‘What’s this dinner party’s position on absolute truth?’ No, you don’t, because it’s a nonsensical question. (Tony Jones)
2. Errors Of Doctrine (The Greater Problem)
Denial of original sin (ix.)
I have come to reject the notion of Original Sin. I consider it neither biblically, philosophically, nor scientifically tenable. (Tony Jones) … (Original sin is) biblically questionable, extreme, and profoundly unhelpful. (Dave Tomlinson)
Universalism (x.) – believing that all will go to heaven (because there is no judgement of sin and no eternal judgement of unrepentant sinners in hell)
The news that the Christian message is universally good news for Christians and non-Christians alike is, to some, unheard of, strange, and perhaps heretical. To me it has become natural and obvious. (Brian McLaren) … God is going to judge the life and repair, and restore and heal the life of everybody in the same way. (Doug Pagitt)
Denial of the inerrancy of the Bible (xi.) – Many don’t say this outright, but just say that the bible needs to be interpreted ‘in its historical context’, and that doctrine (not just church practice) needs to be re-written for today.
The inerrancy debate is based on the belief that the Bible is the word of God, that the Bible is true because God made it and gave it to us as a guide to truth. But that’s not what the Bible says. (Doug Pagitt) … We want the bible to be God’s answer book. The only people in Jesus’ day who would have had anything close to these expectations would have been the scribes and the Pharisees. (Brian, McLaren) … We must stop looking for some objective Truth that is available when we delve into the text of the Bible. (Tony Jones).
Added to this is the insistence that a postmodern perspective on the bible and truth means it cannot be relied upon to give us any sure doctrine or guidance for living.
Redefinition of the purpose of the Jesus’ first coming (xii.) – Instead of primarily to save sinners from hell (with the consequences of their salvation in this life being works of social justice, love, and community), emergents present it as pre-eminently to model good works in this life and all emphasis on the afterlife is downplayed and portrayed as a negative stereotype. (See vii.)
People often ask me what do I think is the way to heaven. I have a problem when they ask me this question because it assumes that the primary purpose of Jesus’ coming and the primary message of Jesus was a message about how to get to heaven. (Brian McLaren)
Denial of the existence of hell (xiii.)
The conventional doctrine of hell has too often engendered a view of a deity who suffers from a borderline personality disorder or some worse sociopathic diagnosis. (Brian McLaren), … The language of hell is not intended to provide literal or detailed fortune-telling or prognostication about the hereafter. (Brian McLaren)
Denial of the reality of Satan (xiv.)
Maybe it is no sin to think of Satan as a metaphor, a horribly real metaphor for a terribly real force in the universe. (Brian McLaren)
Denial that Jesus’ second coming will be to judge the earth (xv.)
Many, and perhaps even all of Jesus’ hell-fire or end-of-the-universe statements refer not to postmortem [after death] judgment but to the very historic consequences of rejecting his kingdom message of reconciliation and peacemaking. (Italics added) (Brian McLaren)
Dismissal of penal substitutionary atonement (xvi.) as ‘divine child abuse’ because to accept it would imply consent to the idea that God judges sin and condemns the unrepentant to hell, which is denied.
The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful father, punishing his son for an offence he has not even committed. (this is a ) twisted version of events (which is) morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith… If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and refuse to repay evil with evil. (Steve Chalke) … If God wants to forgive us, why doesn’t he just do it? How does punishing an innocent person make things better? That just sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse. (Brian McLaren)
Denial of, or downplaying, the need to be born again (xvii.) and reinterpreting conversion as joining a movement.
Doesn’t [emphasising] the very importance of my personal salvation pose a kind of temptation – to want heaven more than I want good; to want to escape hell more than I want reconciliation with my neighbours? (Brian McLaren) … The truth is that when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus… he was not using the term ‘born-again’ in the same sense we have come to do. Jesus was simply saying that entering into God’s Kingdom or Shalom is about seeing the world differently and adopting his new agenda. (Steve Chalke)
Pacifism (xviii.) based upon the abandonment of penal substitution. There can be no ‘just war’ if a central plank of the Emergents’ denial of the need to be born again to escape judgment is the insistence that a loving God could not punish and is incapable of ‘violence’. (This is not a criticism of Christian pacifism or pacifists, merely an observation that Emergents’ pacifism is a consequence of heterodox bible interpretation)
[The] view of God as vengeful torturer … has played a role, I believe, in horrible behavior on the part of Western Christians… if we can identify some people as God’s enemies, hated by God for all eternity, we can find ourselves directly disobeying Jesus’ clear teachings about loving our neighbors and our enemies. (Brian McLaren) … [The] eschatological understanding of a violent second coming leads us to believe (as we’ve said before) that in the end, even God finds it impossible to fix the world apart from violence and coercion; no one should be surprised when those shaped by this theology behave accordingly. (Brian McLaren)
Christianity just one of many ways to God (xix.), albeit the preferable one.
I don’t hope all Jews or Hindus will become members of the Christian religion. But I do hope all who feel so called will become Jewish or Hindu followers of Jesus. (Brian McLaren) … “No one comes to the Father except through me?” Clearly, taken in context, these words are not intended as an insult to followers of Mohammed, the Buddha, Lao Tsu, Enlightenment rationalism, or anybody or anything else. (Brian McLaren)
Elevating tolerance above truth and the denying the inerrancy of scripture means that many Emergents condone homosexual practice and support homosexual monogamy among Christians (xx.)
Anytime someone makes you feel guilty about how you are living, that is part of the old system (pre-Christ). (Rob Bell) …I now believe that GLBTQ [Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer & questioning] can live lives in accord with biblical Christianity (as least as much as any of us can!), and that their monogamy can and should be sanctioned and blessed by church and state. (Tony Jones)
There are many more quotations in APPENDIX ONE (Quotations From Emerging Church Leader . This contains a more detailed illustration of the thinking of key emergent thinkers, drawn from their speeches and writings, arranged in the same scheme as in this section, numbered with Roman numerals to match these categories.
 The theory is most clearly articulated in Phyllis Tickle’s book on the subject, The Great Emergence, (Baker Books 2008) which is endorsed by Emerging Church leaders Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and Jonny Baker (UK), as well as Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the American Episcopal Church. Tickle outlines the theory on You Tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LY83MF2HZcU&feature=channel
 D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005). He writes specifically in this context about Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke.
 Mark Driscoll is the most notable one – see Epilogue and his video clips referenced in the Preface.
 Not all failed to notice – Some Christian theologians and pastors have written and spoken at length about the dangers of liberal Emerging Church doctrine – see Carson and De Young/Kluck whose books are referenced in footnotes 8 and 12.
 The Appendix at the end of this paper goes into this in greater detail.
 Why We’re Not Emergent, Kevin De Young and Ted Kluck, 247-248.
 Dr Sam Storms, former Visiting Associate Professor of Theology, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL (Systematic Theology, Historical Theology) (2000-2004). Storms’ 27 page review of Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church is well worth reading if you cannot manage all 250 pages of Carson’s original. http://www.enjoyinggodministries.com/article/d-a-carson-critiques-the-emerging-church-part-i/
 ‘It has become the basis for one of the most confusing, misused and abused, misunderstood and despised ideas in the history of the Church’ – See Chalke, Steve in Part III (Emergent Influence in the British Church)
 ‘Emergent Village is a growing, generative friendship among missional Christians seeking to love our world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.’ (Its own definition)
 Adventures in Missing the Point, 84
 “The Broadened Gospel,” in “Emergent Evangelism,” Christianity Today 48 [Nov., 2004], p 43
 Out of Ur interview, May 8th 2006
 Velvet Elvis, p. 26
 The Post-Evangelical, 126
 A New Kind of Christian, p120
 Interview with Todd Friel on Way of the Master Radio http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0isqLRhClo&feature=PlayList&p=D677D8FA28998D9F&index=2
 A Christianity Worth Believing, p. 65
 A New Kind of Christian, p. 52
 Postmodern Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 201
 PBS special on the Emerging Church http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OH1yOmij7Q4&feature=related
 The Last Word and the Word After That, Introduction p. xix.
 The Last Word and the Word After That, pps.188-189
 The Story We Find Ourselves In , p.145. The remark is spoken by a fictitious character in the book, a common device McLaren uses to introduce ideas he clearly agrees with but which might be too controversial to come directly from his own lips or pen.
 The Lost Message of Jesus, p 182
 The Story We Find Ourselves In, p. 143
 A Generous Orthodoxy p.108
 Everything Must Change, p. 144
 A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 297
 A Reading of John 14:6, http://www.brianmclaren.net/ECM/archives/McLaren%20-%20John%2014.6.pdf
 Cited by Jesse Johnson, present at Bell’s presentation in the Wiltern Theatre, Hollywood, Nov 2007 http://www.sfpulpit.com/2007/11/21/rob-bell-the-gods-should-be-angry