jump to navigation

My critique of emergent critics July 17, 2006

Posted by fajita in Christianity, emerging church/emergent, Post-restoration/Restoration Movement.

 Leaders call ‘

Church Movement’ a threat to Gospel

Mar 23, 2005
By David Roach
Baptist Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A recently developed way of envisioning church known as the “Emerging Church Movement Conversation” deals carelessly (if all you think scripture amounts to is propositional truth) with Scripture and compromises the philosophically modern Gospel, according to a prominent evangelical scholar and a Southern Baptist seminary president.

But Brian McLaren, one of the movement’s leaders conversation’s participants, told Baptist Press that such criticisms are unfounded and that the Emerging Church Movement conversation/friendship/relationship/dinner party is “seeking to be more faithful to Christ” in the current postmodern cultural context. McLaren is right here. When epistemology (ways of knowing) shifts form A to @, faithfulness to Christ will look like unfaithfulness – and it is – but only to the epistemology, but not to Christ.

In a book entitled “Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church,” which is scheduled to be published in June by Zondervan, theologian D.A. Carson defines the Emerging Church Movement friendship as a group of people who believe the church must use new modes of expressing the Gospel as western culture adopts a postmodern mindset. Too simplistic of a description. It’s not merely about new models. That’s modernity. It’s about being post-model, idiosyncratic, and sympathetic (though not rules by) the local micro-culture, which may be very diverse, or not.

“At the heart of the ‘movement’ (aha, “ “ he’s catching on)… lies the conviction that changes in the culture signal that a new church is ’emerging,'” Well, that’s not really what it means exactly, but it’ll do for a gloss over writes Carson, who serves as research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. “Christian leaders must therefore adapt to this emerging church. Those who fail to do so are blind to the cultural accretions that hide the gospel behind forms of thought and modes of expression that no longer communicate with the new generation.” Not all churches need to “emerge.” In fact, what I see is that churches don’t emerge, people do. Emerging churches seem better planted than converted from existing churches – unless of course that existing church has a high tolerance for change. Few churches do.  

According to Carson, the movement party arose as a protest against the institutional church maybe de facto, modernism not a protest but an understanding and awareness of cultural shifts and seeker-sensitive churches although some emergent types would scoff at what I am about to say, seeker-sensitive is pre-emergent, or is emergent post-seek-sensitive. Why does everything have to be a protest? Emerging people honor their historical roots without rejecting them and without being ruled by them. Why does a generous response to culture, an emerging awareness, an epistemological shift have to be overstated as a “protest?”

At times it is difficult to identify with precision the participants and parameters of the movement, he writes.
Carson shows his hand here. He requires the postmodern to be modern in order for it to make sense. This is the fatal flaw of almost every criticism I have ever heard about the emerging church. He judges through a modern lens the value and benefits of the postmodern incarnation of the church. It’s like he’s saying that “these carrots are not a good source of protein,” or that “this corn is not a good source of fuel for my car,” —or is it Mr. Carson?  

Carson acknowledges that the Emerging Church Movement festival has encouraged evangelicals to take note of cultural trends and has emphasized authenticity among believers.  This is good that he does at least glean something good in his critique.

He criticizes the movement gathering, however, for a reductionistic understanding of modernism maybe so, but not enough to warrant remaining modern and an inappropriate dismissal of confessional Christianity. I’m not sure what he means by dismissing confessional Christianity, but that sounds really bad. If he means jettisoning faith in Jesus, then he’s flat wrong. If he means something else, then who cares?

Carson asserts that some

Church leaders are “painfully reductionistic about modernism and the confessional Christianity that forged its way through the modernist period” and that they “give the impression of dismissing” Christianity. Giving the impression to modern Christians, sure, but not to people who don’t know God or who think they know God as bad or careless. It only appears to dismiss Christianity because modernity is so closely wed to Christianity that when you strip away the modernity, it feels like the Christianity is going with it. In any culture, when you challenge the dominant cultural syncretism, there is going to be resistance. The emerging church is doing just that, but generously, not protestingly. If and when the modernity is exorcized from the Christianity in the next 150 years, there has better be some there there. If not, then there really wasn’t Christianity in the first place.

Carson argues that many thinkers in the movement shy away from asserting that Christianity is true and authoritative according to the limited modern definition of the terms.

He also argues that the Emerging Church Movement frequently fails to use Scripture overstated as the normative standard of truth and instead also appeals to tradition and creativity and art and nature and experience and discovery and on and on and on.

In response to
Carson, McLaren told Baptist Press that “Dr. Carson doesn’t understand us.”

McLaren, who is the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church near Baltimore, Md., and was listed as one of 25 influential evangelicals by TIME magazine, said that he rejects the label “movement” to describe the Emerging Church.

“I generally don’t even use the term movement at this point,” he said. “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.”

In contrast to the cultural imperialism demonstrated by believers in the past, McLaren believes Christians should present Christianity through loving attitudes rather than logical arguments. When logic gets bumped off the throne and is replaced by love, evangelicals get really nervous. Love does not wield its power like logic does. Love is risky. Love is good. Logic can be right, but it has a hard time being good. Christian imperialism might smack as strange sounding. However, what many evangelicals have learned to do for the sake of Christian call and duty is to colonize, take over and create hierarchies in organizations and relationships. Rather than being like Jesus and meeting people in their situation and listening to them, many evangelicals spend all of their efforts trying to take over. Sometimes, believe it or not, people don’t like their lives to be “occupied” by an evangelical, even if they are willing to seek God and learn of Jesus.

“Those of us in the west now … realize that there were a lot of bad consequences of European and American people trying to tell everybody else how things are,” he said. “We feel that there’s got to be a lot more humility and a lot more gentleness and that the Gospel is made credible not by how we argue and make truth claims. But it’s made credible by the love and the good deeds that flow from our lives and our community.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in
Louisville, Ky., questions McLaren’s claim to be giving a credible witness for the Gospel. In an Internet commentary posted on crosswalk.com Mohler argues that McLaren’s claim to uphold historic Christian faith and simultaneously avoid articulating truth in propositional form is self-contradictory. It’s only a contradiction within the closed system of his definition of modern epistemology.

Responding to McLaren’s book, “A Generous Orthodoxy,” Mohler writes, “Embracing the worldview of the postmodern age, he embraces relativism at the cost of clarity in matters of truth and intends to redefine Christianity for this new age, largely in terms of an eccentric mixture of elements he would take from virtually every theological position and variant.” Mohler’s critique does not value that love is truth. Love is the truest way to be with people. Clarity is overrated and much too convenient, but that is what Mohler demands. Yes, clarity has its place, but Jesus created clarity through some pretty bizarre and unconventional ways. Weird stories about God that never mention God are not exactly the kind of propositional truth Mohler is looking for, but that is how Jesus began spreading his kingdom work.  

“… As a postmodernist (Oh yeah, well you’re a doo-doo head. –sigh- Now see, name calling isn’t effective), he considers himself free from any concern for propositional truthfulness, and simply wants the Christian community to embrace a pluriform understanding of truth as a way out of doctrinal conflict and impasse.” Is moving away from doctrinal conflicts such a bad thing? These conflicts seem to have created such a fractured and splintered religion in Christianity that it is unattractive to millions of people for that reason alone.

Mohler charges McLaren with speaking about clear-cut issues in an unbiblical and ambiguous manner. What he means is that they do not share the same rules ofr biblical interpretation, thus making McLaren’s interpretation ambiguous.

“When it comes to issues such as the exclusivity of the gospel, the identity of Jesus Christ as both fully human and fully divine, the authoritative character of Scripture as written revelation, and the clear teaching of Scripture concerning issues such as homosexuality, this movement simply refuses to answer the questions,” Mohler writes. These topics are not conversation starters, but rather they are litmus tests meant to define who is in and who is out. Not only that, these4 topics are so contaminated right now that sifting out where God’s love is in it all is going to be very, very difficult.

“A responsible theological argument must – be generous and kind in the way it communicates its message with the understanding that there is no clear difference between the message and the messenger. The messenger is part of the message – acknowledge that difficult questions demand to be answered. We are not faced with an endless array of doctrinal variants from which we can pick and choose.

“Homosexuality either will or will not be embraced as normative. The church either will or will not accept a radical revisioning of the missionary task. We will either see those who have not come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as persons to whom we should extend a clear gospel message and a call for decision, or we will simply come alongside them to tell our story as they tell their own.” What’s left out here is the most important thing: relationships. Flat theologies used to press down upon bumpy people wil only result in someone eventually getting hurt.

McLaren answers Mohler by saying that he is seeking to contextualize the Gospel as many Southern Baptists do. At times contextualizing the Gospel may mean encouraging people to become followers of Jesus without encouraging them to become a part of the institutional church, McLaren added.

“Dr. Albert Mohler is one of the people who have talked about this,” McLaren said. “But yet there are many Southern Baptists who are doing this very thing. … Many missionaries are … realizing that the issue isn’t whether a person identifies with a religion that now is seen as a western European religion. But the important thing is to help people identify with Jesus and become followers of Jesus.” Is that the kind of statement from McLaren that makes people think he is abandoning Christianity?

When asked whether a person must trust Christ as dying to make atonement for sin in order to be a Christian, McLaren replied, “I want to help people understand everything they can about the cross. … I wouldn’t say that having that understanding (Jesus dying as a substitute for sinful humanity) is all that it means to be a Christian. I think that some people might have that understanding and not be interested in following Jesus. They want Jesus’ blood to pay for their sins so they can go to heaven, but they aren’t really interested in following Jesus in this life.”

McLaren declined to give his opinion on the morality of homosexuality, saying that the issue has become inappropriately political. McLaren is going to have to come out of the closet on this one some day, but not now. I think there is a reason for McLaren’s avoidance besides discomfort. He is teaching us that this is not the most important issue that needs to be dealt with.

“I have my own opinions, but I don’t believe that the smartest thing for me to do is to go around and make those varying opinions a reason to separate myself from other Christians,” he said. “I fellowship with Christians who have a diversity of opinion of this (homosexuality).”

Because of his views on salvation and other issues, the Kentucky Baptist Convention recently withdrew an invitation for McLaren to speak at the convention’s evangelism conference Feb. 28-March 1.

“I respect Dr. McLaren greatly and have appreciated his insight on reaching people in today’s culture,” KBC executive director Bill Mackey said. “We try to bring dynamic speakers to the Evangelism Conference who will challenge and inspire their listeners. I felt that in this instance, however, Dr. Mr. McLaren’s position diverges too greatly to be appropriate for this conference.” Their loss.

Mohler concludes that McLaren and other leaders in the

Church represent “a significant challenge to modern biblical Christianity and American nationalism.”

“Unwilling to affirm that the Bible contains propositional truths overstated that form the framework for Christian belief (really? What about narrative truth, idiosyncratic truth, artistic truth, creative truth?), this movement motley gang of practical theologians and regulars schlepps argues that we can have Christian symbolism and substance without those thorny questions of truthfulness that have so vexed the modern mind,” Mohler writes. Uhm, they don’t really dot hat, by the way. It’s not theological illusionism. There is substance. But postmodern substance is often modern smoke.

“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 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.”What really is so aggravating about what the emeri9ng church is doing is that it is demoting propositional truth (PT) from its throne and setting it on a side bench for a while. PT is getting a time out. PT is for evangelical theologians what oil is for Americans: it is king. However, what is happening is that alternative truth forms and epistemologies are coming in and providing energy that is sometimes cleaner and more efficient than the oily tracks PT leaves behind. Oil will never be eliminated, but it will some day be only one of many forms of energy that make up the American energy mosaic. PT is going to be one of the many ways of knowing in the emerging church mosaic. Oh, and those random posit it notes – geez, what a lousy metaphor. That’s like saying an artist who worked on a million tile mosaic that up close means nothing, but from afar is a beautiful waterfall, is just randomly pasting together tiles with no sense to be made of it.


1. andrewtatum - July 18, 2006

Until very recently, I hadn’t realized just how much resistence there was to the emerging church. This entry was a breath of fresh air. Growing up in a very conservative Christian family, it was a hard road for me into postmodernity. But this new era we’re in has it’s positives. I’ve learned so much from emergent thinkers like McLaren, Sweet, and even from Neo-orthodoxy guys like Hauerwas and Yoder. This new “movement” (sorry, no other word) is an amalgam of influences and it makes me wonder how close we are to the kingdom – where there’ll be all different types of people, beliefs, and practices all worshiping God in peace with one another. This is all very exciting!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: