PART II.  In Their Own Words

Reading Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy, Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis, and Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution, parts of their other books, and watching them on video left me really disturbed. However, being ‘disturbed’ is not sufficient for a research paper written to delve into the teaching the Emerging Church and identify reasons why it is misleading and dangerous.  I have to look deeper.

At first it was hard to say why I felt so uncomfortable with A Generous Orthodoxy but when I had got some way into the books I realised that it was because McLaren really seemed to have it in for the church. And I’d noticed the same thing when I read Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution. That was one of the first alarm bells that rang. I was always taught to speak with love about my Christian brethren, even when I disagreed with them. The constant theme of criticism in A Generous OrthodoxyIrresistible Revolution and Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis makes you begin to wonder if these guys actually like their fellow Christians.

So I got a highlighter out and I ticked the margin each time McLaren said something about Christians being, judgemental, arrogant, narrow-minded and bigoted, boring, or irrelevant. These were all words he used, but which, typically, he often put in the mouths of others, rather than owning up to himself (Claiborne adopts the same technique if there’s something he sympathises with but which he knows he would get pilloried for saying openly).

I managed to keep ticking the margin until page 100 of A Generous Orthodoxy; at that point I gave up. I reckoned one third of the book was enough of a representative sample.

As McLaren’s text didn’t actually begin until page 19, that made a total of 81 pages. In 81 pages Brian McLaren made 99 critical or unpleasant asides and accusations about the historic and present Christian church or Christians themselves. Yes – 99.

That’s quite something. As I read on, I found that the rest of the book continued in that vein. One extract towards the end of the book is typical, if more explicit than most of what he writes. It comes after almost 300 pages of similar snipes and accusations:

We Christians cannot continue to avoid knowing what we already know: that there is something rotten in the state of our religion. We must not separate ourselves from past and present Christian failures and atrocities in a holier than thou schism, suggesting that ‘they’ did it – Catholics, medievalists, fundamentalists, liberals, whoever – not us. We must not indulge in naïve-and-arrogant protest, denouncing the failures of our forebears with sufficient vehemence to exonerate ourselves.[1]

Because a reader would normally be read straight through a chapter and not stop to analyse what he or she read in depth, they wouldn’t stop long enough to question the validity of that assertion: McLaren says that nothing we can do can exonerate us from the guilt of what others have done in the name of Christianity in the past. No amount of ‘vehemently denouncing the failures’ (actually sins, not failures) of our forebears.


Assuming that a particular group or nation has committed some historic sin against others (and some would says it is debatable that we should actually take personal responsibility to repent for the sins of others in the first place), McLaren says we cannot be forgiven, no repentance is enough, no matter how ‘vehemently’ we ‘denounce’ the sins of our forebears. In McLaren’s book we are left feeling permanently guilty and apologetic for being a Christian – not for believing in Jesus but for being associated with almost any part of the worldwide church.

Why? The reason soon becomes clear. The subliminal decimation of our confidence in the mainstream church is to persuade his readers that existing (particularly evangelical) Christianity is worthless, and needs to be transformed into his new model of church in the postmodern era – the emergent church.

This becomes even clearer when McLaren turns to his analysis of history. He says that human history is defined by five epochs: prehistoric, ancient, medieval, modern, post modern. At the end of each stage there is an amalgamation, consolidation, and a move forward into a new era.  He then traces a parallel history (which he defines as ‘a God-given thirst for emergence’) which caused the first-Century church to emerge from Judaism. In time, Celtic Christians began to ‘emerge’ from Roman Christianity and so on until modern Christianity emerged from late-Medieval Christianity. Linking these phases of Christianity to the phases of his historical schema, McLaren says that today we are at the end of the ‘modern’ era of the church and entering the ‘post-modern’ era of the church, just as modernism is giving way to post-modernism:

(The God given thirst for emergence) is causing new forms of Christianity, spirituality and mission to emerge from Modern Christianity[2]

So there we have it. Emergent Christianity is not just a critique of the traditional, a challenge to us to return to our roots, but it is its replacement for the New Age – the Christianity of the new post-modern era.

This is hugely contentious. For a start, it requires us to accept that post-modernism is not a short philosophically defined period of first-world cultural doubt and crisis-of-confidence (which many think it is) but an era of human history of similar length and significance to three centuries of what McLaren calls ‘modernism’ and that future historians will look back on it as such. I doubt it.

Students of Marxism will also recognise distinct resonances between McLaren’s and Marx’s interpretation of history. Both are evolutionary. Marx also had five phases – primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, and communism (a sixth, socialism, was an intermediate phase between capitalism and communism). Each phase arose out of internal conflict, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old. The final utopian end would be communism, heaven on earth. McLaren’s equivalent is the post-modern emergent church, though he has the common sense to ward off inevitable criticism by adding that there may be many periods of history to follow after this. As in Marx’s view of history, where each ruling class fights to prevent the evolution of history, to protect its self interest, but is eventually overthrown on the path to utopia, McLaren’s  ruling class, the obstructive capitalist landlords of theological modernity who must inevitably fall to progress, are the followers (and writers) of

Systematic theologies that claim (overtly, covertly, or unconsciously) to have the final orthodoxy nailed down, freeze-dried, and shrink-wrapped, forever… [who hold a] modern, exclusivist, absolutist, colonial version of Christianity.[3]

McLaren even manages that Marxian smear against capitalist repressors (in his writing, pre-postmodern Christians) – ‘colonial’. McLaren is emphatically not a Marxist but one who, like most emergents, is openly left politically rather than right. He (and Shane) are anti-capitalists. Republican Christians get regular tongue lashings in their books. It is probably no coincidence that McLaren adopts an evolutionary perspective on the historical process which is similar to the one that socialist political theorists consciously derive from Marx.

The fault lines in McLaren’s view of the progression of the spiritual history of mankind become more evident when we consider the enormous contrast between this evolutionary model and the standard Christian model of history – that God revisits each generation anew to reveal himself, to renew their vision of him, to bring revival; and that the recurrent problem of man’s inclination to sin means that progress in human history remains, under the blessing of God through the creativity he has given mankind, technological and not moral. From Genghis Khan to the Holocaust, the only progress has been in mankind’s ability to murder more efficiently and better doctor the wounds of those it fails to kill.


McLaren is not alone in suggesting that we stand at the beginning of a historic spiritual new age. Phyllis Tickle is a regular on the emergent conference circuit and is considered a leading emergent writer.  In her book The Great Emergence.[4] Tickle maintains that massive transitions in the church happen about every 500 years and we live in such a time now. She compares ‘The Great Emergence’ to other ‘Greats’ in the history of Christianity, including the coming of Jesus, the time of Gregory the Great (600AD) , the Great Schism (1054, and the Great Reformation (1517 onwards). Now, 500 years after the reformation, Tickle postulates that we stand at the beginning of a movement that will dominate the next 500 years.

She repeats the assertion in this three minute YouTube video clip

This is an extraordinary claim and one cannot but wonder if Tickle is not shoehorning history to suit her theory. Legitimate historical analysis or not, leading emergents share it, as is made quite clear from the cover endorsements by Brian McLaren, Tony Jones (national coordinator, Emergent Village), Andrew Jones, (of the emergent blog, and Jonny Baker.

Brian McLaren says:

The Great Emergence offers a sweeping overview of church history and locates us in a moment of great opportunity and challenge. To some, this analysis will come as a rude awakening, and to others, as a dream coming true. My hunch is that this will be one of the most important books of the year, and will shape the conversation among a wide range of Christians for years to come.

Over this side of the Atlantic there is similar enthusiasm for this millennial vision. Jonny Baker, another endorser of the book, is National Youth Coordinator for the Church Mission Society and coordinator of worship for Greenbelt. He shares Tickle’s interpretation of unfolding of history:

Phyllis Tickle weaves a story of change in the wider culture and church that she terms ‘the Great Emergence.’ She argues that this change is huge. It’s one of those changes that only happens every 500 years or so and causes the structures of society to crumble and be reborn. I found her story of societal change original and compelling. As someone who has lived and breathed on the inside of this emergence in the church, advocating and encouraging change at the centre and the edge, to have someone like Phyllis so utterly convinced of the enormity of the change and the newness that is emerging is amazing. It’s a hopeful and challenging wake-up call both to the inherited and emerging church

Baker trains ordinands for (Anglican) Ordained Pioneer Ministry and will no doubt be encouraging them in the same perspective.


Velvet Elvis and Irresistible Revolution contain many of the themes of McLaren’s writing. What unites these emergents is that they appear to be offering some new understanding about the world and about the nature of faith. There is a seductiveness about their teaching which has something of the lure of a new Gnosticism[5] – “We have found out something new which has not been revealed before, some mystical anti-intellectual understanding which other people haven’t seen, and this is the answer to Christianity in the new millennium” – and that those who don’t see are fossils, locked in the past; this is the new revelation, the real thing.[6]

While the fashionably and contemporarily spectacled Rob Bell presents his new Christianity in the DVD Bullhorn (American for ‘megaphone’), the street preacher he criticises is portrayed as the representative of the old out-of-touch Christianity is middle aged, dressed in boring old-fashioned clothes, slightly overweight and a social misfit. The whole film presents an extreme as a norm before knocking it down. Morally, it is a dubious slur on fellow Christians. It also smacks of ageism and the very elitism that emergents allege (and so decry) that evangelicals adopt towards emergents.

The power of the emergent message lies in the fact that most believers are humble and open to self-examination. It is part of their faith to work out their salvation ‘with fear and trembling’, and to ‘not think of themselves more highly than they ought’. They are hungry to know more of God. A Christian wants to be open to the Holy Spirit to challenge and correct him. It can often be deeply rewarding to have God reveal a new area in our lives which he wishes to change. He reveals sin, we respond in repentance, we experience him afresh. That, paradoxical though it may seem outsiders, is one of the joys of the Christian life.

This is what the emergents play upon.  But what they offer is false analysis, packaged with partial and half-truth. It triggers a response, a catharsis. Christians and unbelievers, particularly younger people, hungry for truth, greet this as divine revelation. But it isn’t.


It would matter less if Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt, and Shane Claiborne were fringe characters in the church. They are not. McLaren has been cited by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. He appeared on the cover of Christianity Today and Christian Century in the same month. Claiborne recently featured in an article in Esquire magazine (where he also sniped at open air evangelists). McLaren has spoken at the Australian World Vision conference and been a platform speaker at Willow Creek on a number of occasions – a ‘small groups’ conference in 2005, an arts conference in June 2008 and their annual ‘Shift’ youth conference in April 2008, where McLaren and Shane Claiborne were two of the three platform speakers. In 2009, McLaren was a co-editor of a book called The Justice Project, which included contributions by leading emergents and Lynne Hybels, the wife of Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels. And Willow Creek’s welcome of McLaren to the Shift conference could not have been more approving:

Acclaimed author and theologian Brian McLaren will inspire us to envision our world transformed through an insurgence of hope, justice, and compassion. […] Brian McLaren is an author, speaker, pastor, and networker among innovative Christian leaders, whose teaching is stirring people all over the world to think in fresh ways about Christian life and faith.

When challenged over their choice of McLaren to be a lead speaker at Shift 2008, Willow Creek’s defence was lame:

The Shift conference is about innovation. This unique event is designed to stretch the minds and hearts of innovative thinkers and leaders in student ministries.

To achieve this goal, we invite speakers who’ve made significant contributions in a particular arena related to youth ministry and culture. Most of these speakers are well-known individuals whose views on any number of subjects are widely available. While we may not agree with all of their ideas, we strongly believe that there is much to learn from their expertise and experiences. Inviting experts in key fields has proved to provide powerful opportunities for growth and life change at our events.

For this year’s Shift Conference, we have invited Brian McLaren as our opening keynote speaker. Brian is a highly-acclaimed author, pastor, and speaker, and has been called a “paradigm shifter” by TIME Magazine in their list of “25 Most Influential Evangelicals”. McLaren has recently spoken at Willow Creek conferences and has always been thought provoking and well received.

We are confident that Brian McLaren’s session—as well as those of Mark Yaconelli, Shane Claiborne, Dan Kimball, and Kara Powell—will stretch and challenge those of us who serve in student ministries and across the world to reach a shifting culture of students with the love of Jesus Christ.[7]

The statement was given to Ingrid Schleuter of the influential American Christian radio talk show ‘Crosstalk’[8].  Schleuter’s response to the Willow Creek reply represents a growing attitude in American Christianity towards the Emerging Church and those in authority who uncritically condone the more wayward aspects of it:

So ‘stretching minds’ beyond the bounds of biblical orthodoxy is OK, because you’re at least stretching minds, right?…That’s exactly why we’re protesting, Mr. Hybels. We know McLaren’s heretical views are widely available. So why do you need a conference at your evangelical church to spread them further?

McLaren is acclaimed by unrepentant homosexuals, theological liberals and those who also deny the substitutionary atonement and the doctrine of hell…What does it say that a man who denies that Jesus took the wrath of God the Father for our sins is “well-received” at Willow Creek?

Note to Hybels staff: …How can you reach students with the love of Jesus Christ when your keynote speaker blasphemously says there is no such thing as a literal hell from which He saved us? …

There is no biblical justification for what you are doing, Mr. Hybels. None. By bringing someone like Brian McLaren to your church who denies the basic doctrines of God’s Word, including the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross, you are spitting in the face of Christ and making mockery of the deaths of the martyrs throughout history who died for those precious truths. Your statement does not contain even one attempt to use Scripture to justify what you are doing. That’s because there is no justification from God’s Word. That, friends, says it all.


Just over the other side of Lake Michigan from Chicago’s Willow Creek, Rob Bell’s Mars Hill Church has been one of the fastest growing churches in America and today numbers around 10,000. Bell and Claiborne do sell-out national tours where they get standing ovations. All three are highly successful authors, feted by Christian publishers. In short, these people are very influential figures in the Christian world.

So how is it, one is forced to ask, that McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy so impressed Rowan Williams that he decided to invite him to the Lambeth Conference in 2008?  Williams personally introduced McLaren to the 800+ bishops with these words:

Three or four years ago, I spied a book with an interesting title in a bookstore. It had the longest subtitle I’ve ever seen [It was A Generous Orthodoxy]. After I finished his book, I knew he was someone I wanted to speak to us here tonight.

In Anglicanism, you cannot get a higher endorsement than that.

And how could Steve Chalke, the controversy about whom is discussed elsewhere in this paper, say of Brian McLaren that ‘Brian’s writing is brave and honest, vulnerable and courageous, disturbing and unsettling, reassuring and hopeful.’[9] The two endorse each others’ books and Chalke has invited McLaren to be a keynote speaker at Oasis’s Faithworks conference in Feb 2010 – where Brian McLaren will launch his latest title.


Why is it that people who read the writings of men like McLaren, Bell and Claiborne become so enthusiastic about the ideas of the Emerging Church? Aren’t they put off by the constant refrain of negativity? The answer to the last question is ‘No’-  they don’t notice that it is so pervasive. The answer to the first is more complex, but there is an answer.

It you read that number of criticisms, presented by a man who seems winsome, self-effacing, and doesn’t seem to claim too much for himself other than being a seeker like you, a bit further along the path than you, you believe what he says. And that’s what people do with liberal emergents – believe what they say, even though it may not be justified or true, because of the way it is said.

Reading their books, I began to see in more detail how Emerging Church speakers presented their case; how it was that they seemed so persuasive. I started to notice a pattern and the picture became clearer. So here is the typical process of an emergent presentation. Of course it doesn’t always happen like this, but it does often enough for you to notice it once you have been alerted to it.

(1)   Say something critical about the church or Christians which is either

  1. true in extreme cases,  or
  2. part of the false stereotype that non-Christians have about the church.

(2)   Second, state it as a fact about the whole church, without any specific examples or evidence for such a broad generalisation

(3)   Repeat it often enough for it to become sub-current of your chapter, book or talk, and often enough for readers not to have time to stop to question the truth of each assertion as you make it

(4)   Then talk about what is wrong with the world – things that everyone agrees with: war, famine, injustice, violence, global warming, selfishness, lack of community

(5)   State the obvious: ‘This must change. We must live life differently for our sakes, for the sake of the planet and following generations’

(6)   Perhaps add a few self-deprecating remarks which show that you are not claiming to know all the answers
By this stage your listeners will be on your side. They will feel that you are not from that part of the church which rattles them because it insists they have to change/repent/be born again before they can become a Christian. You will appear to be sympathetic, wise, and to speak with authority.

(7)   Now you talk about Jesus. You:

  1. Say that his primary message was not to tell us how to get to heaven when we die but to offer us a way of living differentlynow.
  2. Say that Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God coming was about community – with God and with each other.
  3. Present becoming a Christian as joining a movement and a community
  4. Don’t mention being born again from above by the Holy Spirit.

(8)   You probably don’t say anything about the greatest wonders, after salvation, in the modern church which would tempt people to believe that it still offers great hope – contemporary worship and the explosion of physical and emotional healing and deliverance – because you don’t see much, if any, in your church.

(9)   At various points in (1) and (6) say that the parts of the bible have been misinterpreted in the past and don’t mean what many Christians say they do.

Your readers/listeners will be believe you because they yearn for the things you have already talked about (peace, community, friendship, purpose). They will join your church or one that preaches the same message. They will believe they have become Christians. The problem is that they may not have been born again and now may not see that they have to.


To check this out:

Watch Brian McLaren on (3m45s) or Rob Bell’s Nooma ‘Bullhorn’ DVD which can be seen in two short parts on and .[10]

If you have a more time read A Generous Orthodoxy.

In the McLaren’s clip he says

A lot of us think the purpose Jesus came was to try to get us to heaven after we die. I’d like to raise some serious questions about that based on the New Testament. I’d like to suggest Jesus didn’t come here to tell us how to get to heaven after we die, primarily – he came to  talk to us about how the kingdom of heaven can happen here on earth while we are here and when our children and our grandchildren are here.

Rob Bell’s opposition to the street preacher in Bullhorn adopts a similar theme – the gospel is not so much about eternal salvation as present-day good works.

[1] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 304

[2] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 322-323

[3] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 325. Systematic theology come into for a lot of stick from emergents: Shane Claiborne makes frequent derogatory references to it.

[4] The Great Emergence, Baker Books, 2008.

[5] In the 1st Century church, the Gnostics maintained there was hidden, mystic knowledge about God which others had not seen, revealed to them, which was the real secret of the faith.

[6] One major aspect of the New Age was a mystical understanding of the cosmos which had antecedents in Hinduism and Buddhism. Beyond the scope of this paper is a further area of research into the ideas of people such a Ken Wilbur, a pseudo Buddhist, whose book A Theory of Everything is recommended by Rob Bell in Velvet Elvis. (Page 192, Endnote 143), and their influence in the ECM. Bell says everyone should take three months off to study the book. I think not.




[10] Perhaps the best response to Rob Bell’s Nooma ‘Bullhorn’ DVD is Todd Friel’s reply videos , continued on


One Response to “Part II. In their own words”

  1. kesh Says:

    The Gospel is about salvation which leads to good works i.e. both. To ignore this is to ignore Jesus.

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