The Emerging Church – Part 2

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(May 2006 – Volume 12, Issue 5) 

Our worldview will determine how we process information and in turn what we believe. In theory, at least, Christians should possess a biblical worldview shaped by the study of Scripture. In actuality, too often our philosophy of living (worldview) is formed by other forces around us including our culture. This is an accusation often cast at the evangelical church by the emerging church leaders. They say that evangelicalism has been shaped by modernity – that what we believe is not drawn so much from Scripture as it is from the Enlightenment. This indictment should not be cast aside too quickly; there is some truth to it. We must ever be careful that we trace our beliefs to Scripture and not take detours constructed by men. But having read the specific allegations coming from the emerging camp, I find that most do not hold water and are thrown out more to put us on the defensive and justify their beliefs than to accurately portray the teachings of the conservative church. When the smoke has cleared we discover that our fundamental doctrines find their basis in Scripture after all. But the same cannot be said for emergent teachings. Their doctrines have been more than tainted; they have been fashioned by postmodernity. Let’s take a look through the lens of emergent philosophy at some of the major doctrines.

Emergent Doctrine

In General

Al Mohler, theologian and president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, provides this scathing comment:

The worldview of postmodernism – complete with an epistemology that denies the possibility of or need for propositional truth – affords the movement an opportunity to hop, skip and jump throughout the Bible and the history of Christian thought in order to take whatever pieces they want from one theology and attach them, like doctrinal post-it notes, to whatever picture they would want to draw.[1]

Most emergent church leaders claim fidelity to the Scriptures as well as the historic doctrines and even creeds of the church. Sounds good on the surface – but then they force these things through the filter of postmodern deconstruction and what comes out are distorted and unrecognizable understandings of theology. Dan Kimball says that the church must “deconstruct, reconstruct, and redefine biblical terms.”[2] Brian McLaren would agree, saying that our old theological systems are flawed and something new is needed.

I meet people along the way who model for me, each in a different way, what a new kind of Christian might look like. They differ in many ways, but they generally agree that the old show is over, the modern jig is up, and it’s time for something radically new…. Either Christianity itself is flawed, failing, untrue, or our modern, Western, commercialized, industrial strength version is in need of a fresh look, a serious revision.[3]

Rob Bell chips in to make certain we understand that these men are talking about more than methodology, “By this I do not mean cosmetic, superficial changes like better lights and music, sharper graphics, and new methods with easy-to-follow steps. I mean theology: the beliefs about God, Jesus, the Bible, salvation, the future. We must keep reforming the way the Christian faith is defined, lived and explained.”[4]

How far is Bell willing to take all of this? Which doctrines can be changed, altered or even eliminated before we no longer have the Christian faith? Apparently nothing is off limits. While personally claiming to affirm historic Christian theology, Bell writes that it would not bother him to discover that we have been wrong all along concerning the basic elements of the faith. For example, if it could be proven “that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry… and that the virgin birth was just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in…. Could you still be a Christian?” [5] Bell doesn’t see a problem. As a matter of fact, if our faith depends on such doctrines “then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it?”[6]

What doctrines does Bell regard as dispensable? In this brief statement alone he sees as superfluous the virgin birth, the incarnation, the hypostatic union of Christ and the inspiration of Scripture (since the Gospel writers lied about the person of Christ). Of course, like dominos, as these doctrines fall they take others with them, not the least of which would be the substitutionary atonement since a mere man could not die for our sins. In one stroke of the pen Bell has undermined the whole Christian faith, but he sees it as a non-issue. To Bell, and other emergent leaders, Jesus is not the way and the truth, if by that we mean He is the embodiment of truth and the only way to God. No, to these men the “way of Jesus is the best possible way to live.”[7] We could continue to live the “Christian life” without the truth of Scripture. We could still love God and be a Christian, because what we believe is not important. The only question is, “Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to life?”[8] It is not about what we believe, Bell would insist. “Perhaps a better question than who’s right, is who’s living rightly?”[9]

McLaren reinforces this major tenant of emergent “theology:” “We place less emphasis on whose lineage, rites, doctrines, structures, and terminology are right and more emphasis on whose actions, service, outreach, kindness, and effectiveness are good.”[10] “A turn from doctrines to practices”[11] is one of the four major legs that the emerging church stands on, according to McLaren. Being, rather than believing, is a major component in the emergent philosophy. The New Testament, on the other hand, does not sacrifice one for the other. We are called in Scripture to live godly lives, but first we must believe (John 1:12; Roman 10:9-10; Ephesians 2:8-9). Christlike living is a fruit of salvation, not the cause. We can “be” moral and decent people and not be Christians, but we cannot deny or ignore the true historic, biblical person and work of Jesus Christ and be saved. The emergent church has turned this truth on its head. Mark Oestreicher, president of Youth Specialties, makes these comments in The Emerging Church which are not only dangerously close to a denial of the gospel itself but actually cross the line:

Does a little dose of Buddhism thrown into a belief system somehow kill off the Christian part? My Buddhist cousin, except for her unfortunate inability to embrace Jesus, is a better “Christian” (based on Jesus’ descriptions of what a Christian does) than almost every Christian I know. If we are using Matthew 26 as a guide, she’d be a sheep; and almost every Christian I know personally would be a goat.[12]

A Few Specifics

The doctrine of God: Even though Jesus has come to reveal and explain the Father (John 1:14, 18), “God,” McLaren insists, “can’t ever really be an object to be studied.”[13] To emergent leaders theology is not a matter of knowing God but a quest for beauty and truth.

The doctrine of original sin: McLaren writes, “Many of us have grown uneasy with this understanding of ‘the fall’ (and with it an exaggerated understanding of the doctrine of ‘original sin’). We are suspicious that it has become a kind of Western Neo-Platonic invasive species that ravages the harmonious balance inherent in the enduring Jewish concepts of creation as God’s world.”[14]

The substitutionary atonement: One of the characters in McLaren’s book The Story We Find Ourselves In goes beyond questioning the purpose and need of Christ’s death for us, or even the unfairness of one dying for others. “That just sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse. You know?”[15]

The TULIP: You don’t have to be a Calvinist to find McLaren’s deconstruction of the famous TULIP ridiculous. The acronym has historically stood for total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. McLaren says he too is a Calvinist but he comes up with his own TULIP: Triune love, unselfish election, limitless reconciliation, inspiring grace and passionate, persistent saints.[16]

When deconstructing and reconstructing takes place at this level it is not hard to understand the difficulty involved in communication. As Al Mohler wrote recently on his blog,

McLaren claims to uphold “consistently, unequivocally and unapologetically” the historic creeds of the church, specifically the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. At the same time, however, he denies that truth should be articulated in propositional form, and thus undercuts his own “unequivocal” affirmation.[17]

The doctrine of hell

So odious is the doctrine of hell to the emergent community that McLaren devoted his latest book, The Last Word and the Word After That,to the subject. McLaren introduces his subject with an exaggerated distortion of the evangelical position,

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, and if you don’t love God back and cooperate with God’s plans in exactly the prescribed way, God will torture you with unimaginable abuse, forever – that sort of thing. Human parents who ‘love’ their children with these kinds of implied ultimatums tend to produce the most dysfunctional families…[18] (emphasis his).

If the idea of hell is so ridiculous then why did Jesus teach it? McLaren concocts a fanciful view that the Jews during the intertestamental period wove together the mythological views of the Mesopotamian, the Egyptian, the Zoroastrian and Persian religions and created hell. When Jesus came on the scene the Pharisees were using hell as a club to keep the people in line. Through the threat of hell the Pharisees could motivate sinners to stop sinning and then perhaps God would send the Messiah along with His kingdom. Jesus takes the Pharisees’ club and turns it on them. Jesus didn’t really believe in or endorse hell, as we understand it; He just used it as a “truth-depicting model.”[19] Jesus used hell “to threaten those who excluded sinners and other undesirables, showing that God’s righteousness was compassionate and merciful, that God’s kingdom welcomed the undeserving, that for God there was no out-group.”[20]

This convoluted argumentation leads to there being “no out-group.” If there is no out-group, does that mean McLaren is a universalist? While he flirts with this possibility stating, “Universalism is not as bankrupt of biblical support as some suggest,”[21] he never firmly lights on it.[22] But without question McLaren does hold to the doctrine of inclusivism which teaches that while salvation has been made possible by Jesus Christ, it is not necessary to know who Jesus is or the precise nature of what He has done.[23] Emergent church leaders follow the reasoning of missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin’s position concerning Christ and salvation which runs along these lines: Exclusive in the sense of affirming the unique truth of the revelation of Jesus Christ, but not in the sense of denying the possibility of salvation to those outside the Christian faith; inclusive in the sense of refusing to limit the saving grace of God to Christian, but not in the sense of viewing other religions as salvific.[24] In other words, salvation is not exclusively found in the gospel, therefore there are saved Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and so forth. Soon hell becomes a mute issue because no one seems to be going there anyway.

The doctrine of salvation

The doctrine of hell is determined to a large degree by the all-important understanding of the gospel. The emergent leaders see a wide gate opening to eternal life. “It bothers me to use exclusive and Jesus in the same sentence. Everything about Jesus’ life and message seemed to be about inclusion, not exclusion,”[25] writes McLaren (emphasis his). He adds later in his discussion, “Maybe God’s plan is an opt-out plan, not an opt-in one. If you want to stay out of the party, you can. But it’s hard for me to imagine somebody being more stubbornly ornery than God is gracious.”[26] The clear implication is that we are all “in” unless we want “out.” But the next question is (and this is where it gets tricky) in or out of what? The short answer is “the kingdom of God.” But the short answer leads to a long explanation that leaves us scratching our heads (which is appropriate since the emergent people prize mystery over clarity).

The gospel, according to the emergent thinkers, is not about individual conversion. It is not about how to get people “in.” It is about “how the world will be saved from human sin and all that goes with it…”[27] This sounds close to the mark until we examine more thoroughly what is meant by the terminology. Their concept of “world” does not simply involve humans who don’t believe in Christ. The emergent gospel is not just bringing unbelievers to the Savior for the forgiveness of sin and the imputation of God’s righteousness. There is more, as Rob Bell informs us,

Salvation is the entire universe being brought back into harmony with its maker. This has huge implications for how people present the message of Jesus. Yes, Jesus can come into our hearts. But we can join a movement that is as wide and as big as the universe itself. Rocks and trees and birds and swamps and ecosystems. God’s desire is to restore all of it.[28]

McLaren continues the thought: “Is getting individual souls into heaven the focal point of the gospel? I’d have to say no, for any number of reasons. Don’t you think that God is concerned about saving the whole world?… It is the redemption of the world, the stars, the animals, the planets, the whole show.”[29] You see, “The church exists for the world – to be God’s catalyst so that the world can receive and enter God’s kingdom more and more.”[30] When asked to define the gospel, Neo (the main philosophical character in McLaren’s novels) replies that it could not be reduced to a little formula, other than “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”[31] Narrowing this definition is not easy, but McLaren gives some insight when he writes,

I am a Christian because I believe that, in all these ways, Jesus is saving the world. By the “world” I mean planet Earth and all life on it, because left to ourselves, un-judged, un-forgiven, and un-taught, we will certainly destroy this planet and its residents.[32]

As we are discovering, the emerging church is very concerned with the planet, with the ecosystems, pollution and the environment; so much so that apparently in some sense Christ died for the physical planet and it is the job of the follower of Christ to help restore and protect this world. He is also troubled with injustice. McLaren asks, “And could our preoccupation with individual salvation from hell after death distract us from speaking prophetically about injustice in our world today?”[33] Emergent leaders have a deep concern that if we are preoccupied with who is “in” and who is “out,” who is going to heaven and who is not, we will ignore present physical needs of the planet and social issues like injustice, poverty and AIDS.

McLaren argues, “When Matthew, Mark, and Luke talk about the Kingdom of God, it’s always closely related to social justice…. The gospel of the kingdom is about God’s will being done on earth for everybody, but we’re interested in getting away from earth entirely as individuals, and into heaven instead.”[34] Martin Luther King is given by McLaren as an example of one who had the right gospel emphasis.[35] They fault the evangelical church for being too wrapped up in eternity to care about what is happening right now on planet earth and with being too anxious over who is saved from sin to notice who is suffering from man’s inhumanity to man.

It does not seem to be an option to the emergent church that both social injustices and eternal redemption can be and have been attended to by God’s people. But, despite opinions to the contrary, the priority of Scripture is on man’s relationship to God. It is because men are alienated from God that they mistreat one another. The spiritually redeemed and transformed person should and will care about social sins. But, again, the gospel is about man’s alienation from God and what He has done through Christ to reconcile us to Himself (Romans 5:6-11), not about the ozone layer and elimination of poverty. Neither Jesus nor the apostles made these latter things the focus of their ministries; it was the reconciliation of souls to God that was at the heart of their message. Once we begin to draw our gospel from the culture, no matter what culture that might be, we have altered the true gospel. Emergent leaders are not wrong to be concerned about the environment and social injustice; they are wrong to confuse it with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 


[1]Quoted by David Roach, “Leaders Call ‘Emerging Church Movement’ a Threat to Gospel,” BP News, March 23, 2005, (http://www.svchapel.info/www.ews.net/bpnews.asp?id=20420).

[2] Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church, ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 178.

[3] Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, ( San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), pp. XIV-XV.

[4] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, ( Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2005), p. 12.

[5] Ibid., p. 26.

[6] Ibid., p. 27.

[7] Ibid., p. 20 (cf. p. 21).

[8] Ibid., p. 27.

[9] Ibid., p. 21.

[10] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, ( Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004), p. 223.

[11] Ibid., p. 197.

[12] Kimball, p. 53.

[13] McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, p. 161.

[14] McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 235.

[15] Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In, ( San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), p. 102.

[16] McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, pp. 195-197.

[17] Al Mohler, (http://www.svchapel.info/www.crosswalk.com/news/weblogs/mohler/?adate=2/16/2005#1313087).

[18] Brian McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That, ( San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), p. XII.

[19] Ibid., pp. 61-64, 71-79.

[20] Ibid., p. 74.

[21] Ibid., pp. 103 (cf. pp. 182-183).

[22] McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 37.

[23] McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That, p. 182.

[24] Ibid., p. 183.

[25] Ibid., p. 35.

[26] Ibid., p. 138.

[27] Ibid., p. 69.

[28] Bell, pp. 109-110.

[29] McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, p. 129.

[30] Ibid., p. 84.

[31] Ibid., p. 106.

[32] McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 97.

[33] McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That, p. 84.

[34] Ibid., p. 149. McLaren has adopted N.T. Wright’s understanding of the gospel which is termed the New Perspective. The New Perspective says that we have misunderstood the New Testament and that the real issue of such books as Romans is not to explain the gospel but how to bring Jews and Gentile together in the Kingdom of God (see pp. 149-153).

[35] Ibid., p. 153.

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