The Kingdom of Emergent Theology – Part 1

(September 2007 – Volume 13, Issue 9) 

It has been claimed that Sigmund Freud enjoyed telling his followers a story of a pastor who visited an atheist insurance agent who was on his death bed. The family had asked the pastor to share the gospel with their dying loved one as they waited in another room. As the conversation continued longer than expected there was hope that the pastor was being successful in his mission. When the pastor finally emerged from the bedroom it was discovered that the agent had not converted to Christ but he had been able to sell the pastor an insurance policy.

While Freud used the illustration to warn his fellow psychoanalysts to stay true to their beliefs, Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, from whom I obtained this account, has another application to offer. While a most unlikely source (in my opinion) to offer the following warning, Mouw writes,

In rejecting the very real defects of fundamentalism during the past few decades, evangelicals have begun to take very seriously their responsibilities to the larger culture – and with some obvious signs of success. The questions we must face honestly are these: Have we sold a new policy to the culture – or has the culture sold us a policy (emphasis mine).[1]

This is a most thought-worthy question in light of the emergent church movement’s recent inroads into evangelicalism, and in some cases even fundamentalism. The emergent church is a movement deeply concerned with impacting the culture. But evidence is mounting to the effect that culture is having more impact on the emergent movement than the other way around. As a matter of fact emergent seems to be chasing culture, even imitating culture, rather than changing it. The reason this is true has to do with its understanding of the kingdom of God.

Mark Driscoll defines the emerging church as “a growing, loosely-connected movement of primarily young pastors who are glad to see the end of modernity and are seeking to function as missionaries who bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to emerging and postmodern cultures.”[2]

Thus defined, the emergent church sounds like a welcome addition to the Christian community. However, all is not as it seems. Whatever the intentions of the original founders of the movement (or conversation, as they call it), it has rapidly morphed into a serious threat to the faith. Today, while the emergent community is barely a decade old it has permeated churches, Bible colleges, seminaries, and parachurch organizations throughout the world. It is a movement that is difficult to define because it is not monolithic or static. However, at least two basic wings have become discernable. One wing calls itself “emerging,” claiming to have solid theological credentials, having only adopted methods more in tune with postmodern mindsets. The other wing is termed “emergent” and is composed of those who not only are adopting new methodologies but who also challenge the most sacred of doctrines. This wing is obviously the most concerning to us and is even under fire from the emerging wing. For example, Driscoll, who was one of the originators of the conversation, but has since distanced himself from emergent leaders such as Brian McLaren, writes,

The emergent church is part of the Emerging Church Movement but does not embrace the dominant ideology of the movement. Rather the emergent church is the latest version of liberalism. The only difference is that the old liberalism accommodated modernity and the new liberalism accommodates postmodernity.[3]

I have written extensively on the emergent church movement in other venues and will not rehash that information here.[4] I would mention that, while the “emergent” movement is far more disturbing, the “emerging” element is not without its doctrinal and philosophical problems. Both, for instance, embrace errant views of the kingdom of God which in turn lead to a misunderstanding of the role of the church (a role emerging leaders call missional), which in turn has a distorting affect on the gospel message. Since both emerging and emergent camps have the same view of the kingdom, I will be using the term “emergent” throughout this discussion to refer to both wings.

Emergent Eschatology

Emergent and emerging leaders may differ over any number of issues but they present a united front when it comes to the kingdom of God—and the kingdom of God plays the pivotal role in their theology and purpose. At a recent conference in Baltimore – The Big Event 2007, Imagine a World…a New Vision for God’s Kingdom on Earth – the PowerPoint presentation assures us “the kingdom of God is here now.” [5]

The idea that the kingdom is here now is the one doctrinally unifying factor in emergent theology, yet some in the “conversation” have been honest enough to admit that even they are not always sure what is meant by the term. Mark Scandrette confesses,

A central and reoccurring theme of conversation has been a renewed fascination with the present availability of the kingdom of God… [Yet] the term kingdom of God has become so popular, and its usage so varied, that it is difficult to know if we are even talking about the same thing… There is a tendency to see the kingdom of God as whatever is progressive, exotic, foreign, and obscure (emphasis in the original). [6]

Nevertheless a consensus by both emerging and emergent leaders is expressed by Sherry and Geoff Maddock: “Our principle (sic) desire is to see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. We believe this happens when God’s people are renewed around God’s mission of love and justice in the world.”[7] The conversation apparently views the kingdom as being on earth now but progressively becoming like the kingdom in heaven as Christians live missionally on earth.

Such an understanding of the kingdom of God is obviously at odds with premillennialism, yet the Maddocks’ view is reflected by many in or on the fringes of the movement. Tony Campolo represents many emergent thinkers as he contrasts dispensationalism with emergent theology,

This is a theology that – with its implicit threat of being left behind, of time running out – is used by Dispensational preachers to great evangelistic effect. It has been a very effective goad to conversion… To the contrary, the history of the world is infused with the presence of God, who is guiding the world toward becoming the kind of world God willed for it to be when it was created. Human history is going somewhere wonderful.[8]

N. T. Wright, the primary link between the “New Perspective on Paul” (which claims we have misunderstood Paul and, in turn, the gospel, since the foundation of the church) and evangelicalism, has the same eschatological underpinnings, “[Paul] was to declare to the pagan world that YHWH, the God of Israel, was the one true God of the whole world, and that in Jesus of Nazareth he had overcome evil and was creating a new world in which justice and peace would reign supreme (emphasis mine).”[9]

Jim Henderson, co-author of Jim and Casper Go to Church, is also interested in bringing the kingdom of God to earth. “I want to make this world a better place. I want to see Jesus’ prayer answered that his Kingdom would come on Earth as it is in heaven. I want to see kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God and his Christ.”[10]

To Brian McLaren, the most prolific emergent writer, the ultimate goal of Jesus (and God) is the kingdom of God, brought to earth.[11] Just how is the kingdom brought to earth? Through our good works. McLaren states, “I hope that they [his neighbors] and I will become better people, transformed by God’s Spirit, more pleasing to God, more of a blessing to the world so that God’s kingdom (which I seek, but cannot manipulate) comes on earth as in heaven (emphasis mine).”[12]

What does this kingdom that we are to bring through our good works look like? Rob Bell has some thoughts:

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.[13]


For Jesus, the question wasn’t how do I get into Heaven? but how do I bring heaven here?… The goal isn’t escaping this world but making this world the kind of place God can come to. And God is remaking us into the kind of people who can do this kind of work.[14]

Emergent theology sees the kingdom of God as present now with future culmination as we (the subjects of the kingdom) restore justice, eliminate poverty, clean up the ecosystem, tame global warming and the like. Of course the issue is not whether Christians ought to be involved in finding solutions to these earth-related concerns (we should be and have been and are), but whether this is the mission of the church and whether doing so will more quickly bring in the kingdom.

I do not believe Scripture teaches either, but Robert Webber, in his very influential book Ancient-Future Faith, differs, “[The] result of the cosmic work of Christ is that the kingdom of God, God’s rule over all things, is now manifest.”[15] By Christ’s “cosmic work” Webber means, among other things, that “Christ has bound Satan and all demonic powers.”[16] While Webber admits to a future in which a more complete binding of demonic forces will prevail, demons are limited enough at this time to allow for a “secular salvation” (that is the salvation of the planet and culture) within society. Webber is confident that due to the present binding of demonic forces, and God’s kingdom rule now, believers can and should expedite massive social and cultural changes. As a matter of fact it is the mandate of the followers of Christ to be focused on this “secular salvation.” He writes,

Faith in Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate ruler over all of life, can break the twisting of political, economic, social, and moral structures into secular salvation. Because those structures that promise secular salvation are disarmed, they can no longer exercise ultimate power in our lives. The powers have been dethroned by the power of the cross.[17]

The church, given this paradigm, becomes the change agent in society. “The church,” writes Webber, “as a transforming presence in the world stands in the tradition of those Scripture passages that emphasize the power of the gospel to change not only the life of an individual but also the life of culture.”[18]

It is thought within emergent circles that when the church operates as this type of change agent the world can’t help but get better. Carla Barnhill, former editor of Christian Parenting Today magazine, assures us that emergent style parenting, a style in which it is more important to teach creativity than obedience, “is about celebrating the goodness of life with God, a life that looks more like the kingdom with every generation.”[19] Prominent emergent leader Tony Jones, in the process of poking fun at the dispensational understanding of this age and the one to come, states, “But those of us represented in this book take the contrary view. God’s promised future is good, and it awaits us, beckoning us forward.”[20] To both Barnhill and Jones the world is becoming a better place to live as time goes by, and it is our job to hasten its rejuvenation.

If there is one thing the emergent conversation has closed ranks around it is that the kingdom of God is on earth now, but it will progressively resemble God’s kingdom in heaven as Christians understand their true mission, which is to make this world a better place for all. The emerging movement sees itself as a wakeup call to those who would follow Jesus. It is our task to bring the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven by aggressively challenging injustice, fighting poverty, aiding the sick, working on ecological concerns and, in general, saving this planet and everything on it. Emergent leaders believe that people are catching on to this new vision of the kingdom, and as a result, are optimistic about the future. No doomsday tribulation period is on their radar screen nor is Jesus coming in judgment upon the wicked. The kingdom, while already here, will progressively become like heaven as we attend to the social ills and needs around us. Tomorrow looks bright and the day after that looks brighter still.

We Have Heard This Before

All of this stirs hope within our hearts. Maybe the emergent leaders are right, maybe the world is getting better and better and, if we Christians would just get more involved, eventually earth will be like heaven. Sounds great, but is it biblical?

It is helpful to know that the Christian community has been down this trail before. Emergent eschatology is by-and-large identical to liberal postmillennialism which flourished prior to the mid-twentieth century. In general postmillennialism is the view that Christ will return after the millennium, or the kingdom age, which is presently on earth. Conservative postmillennialists believe that “through the proclamation of the gospel in the present age, an unprecedented number of people in the world – in fact, the vast majority – will turn to Christ and be saved.”[21] The focus of God’s people in this kingdom age then is to expand the kingdom through the preaching of the gospel. As the world is increasingly evangelized it will become a place of “spiritual prosperity, universal peace and righteousness, and economic well-being.”[22] In conjunction with the spread of the gospel is the progressive binding of Satan. As the world is Christianized Satan will gradually lose his hold over its inhabitants. Loraine Boettner, a postmillennial theologian, summarizes,

Postmillennialism is that view of the last things which holds that the kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of individuals, that the world eventually is to be Christianized and that the return of Christ is to occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace commonly called the millennium.[23]

Theological liberal postmillennialism shares some of the same optimism as its conservative counterparts but directs its attention to social enhancement of the planet.

Liberal postmillennialism focuses on societal transformation rather than personal conversion. Their “social gospel” sees the saving of society from social evil as the great purpose of the church. The mission of the church is not to preach the gospel to sinners in need of God’s great salvation, but rather, to liberate mankind from poverty, racism, disease, war and all kinds of injustice.[24]

The similarity between liberal postmillennialism and emergent philosophy is striking. It is worth noting that the postmillennial system, which was nonexistent in the early days of church history, was originally systematized by liberal Unitarian minister Daniel Whitby (1638-1726). His system grew legs due partly to the optimism of the age, but lost steam when the two world wars of the twentieth century shattered dreams of the world progressively improving. Since that time a more realistic understanding of human development has set in and most recognize that the earth is not only not moving toward utopia but is more likely closer to annihilation.

Emergent kingdom theology, like its liberal postmillennial predecessor, is based not so much on the observation of an improving world but on feelings of desperation. McLaren admits that many might see his kingdom views as a mere pipe dream, but if that is so, “what do [we] have to look forward to if they are right? Simply more of the same in human history…”[25]

But truth does not emerge from groundless optimism or “what if” desperation; it emerges from the Scriptures. What God says about life now, the future and the kingdom is what matters. In answer to McLaren’s question, we have much to look forward to, for Christ will one day bring His kingdom to earth, at which time the very social and earthly issues that concern emergent people will be corrected and made right. But this kingdom will come through the power of Christ, not the good deeds of men. It will come when He returns, not as a prelude to it. It will not only remedy societal wrongs it will usher in the world-wide righteousness and justice of Christ. We have much to look forward to when the kingdom comes, but it will come about because of God’s actions, not ours. It is right that we seek to correct social ills, but our actions do not usher in Christ’s kingdom.

Next issue we will discuss the effect of emergent theology on the gospel.


[1] Richard J. Mouw, The Smell of Sawdust ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 64.

[2] Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev. ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), p. 22.

[3] Ibid., p. 21.

[4] See Gary E. Gilley, This Little Church Stayed Home ( Darlington, England : Evangelical Press, 2006).


[6] Mark Scandrette, “Growing Pains” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, ed. Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones ( Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007) pp. 26, 29.

[7] Sherry Maddock and Geoff Maddock, “An Ever-Renewed Adventure of Faith, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, p. 80.

[8] Tony Campolo, in Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point ( El Cajon, Calif,: Youth Specialties, 2003), p. 59.

[9] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), p. 37.

[10] Jim Henderson and Matt Casper, Jim and Casper Go to Church (2007), p. 168.

[11] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy,( Cajon, CA: Youth Specialties Books, 2004), p. 267.

[12] Ibid., p. 263.

[13] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), pp.109-110.

[14] Ibid., pp. 147,150.

[15] Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, ( Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004) p. 53.

[16] Ibid., p. 49.

[17] Ibid., p. 51.

[18] Ibid., p. 169.

[19] Carla Barnhill, “The Postmodern Parent,” An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, p. 58.

[20] Tony Jones, “A Hopeful Faith,” An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, p. 130.

[21] Matthew Waymeyer, Revelation 20 and the Millennial Debate ( TheWoodlands, TX: Kress Christian Publications, 2004), p. 3.

[22] Ibid., p. 4.

[23] Loraine Boettner, “Postmillennialism,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. R. Clouse (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity, 1977), p. 117.

[24] Paul N. Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy ( Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2006), p. 144.

[25] Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus p. 128.


More Articles

Famine for the Word

Volume 30, Issue 4, May 2024 by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/Teacher Southern View Chapel From general observation to suffocating surveys, theological drift and biblical illiteracy

Copyright 2024 © All rights Reserved. a ministry of Southern View Chapel