THE EMERGENT CHURCH MOVEMENT, Part I of Several Parts
January 10, 2010
Looking out of the windows of our homes we respond indifferently to the presence of dirt on the ground. Should that dirt makes its way into our homes, however, our feelings change and we proceed to sweep it out because it does not belong there. In John 2:14-16, after passing passively through the streets of Jerusalem, Jesus’ passivity gave way to angry expression as he proceeded to sweep clean the house of God. John says in verse 15 that when Jesus saw the money changers “He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple.” It seems that while God opposes all error and sin, he is especially passionate about expressing this opposition when error and sin come into his house and when his children are affected. In Galatians 5:12 Paul models the heart and actions of a servant of God responding to an internal corruption of the church as he says “I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves.” The intensity of his response is dictated by his zeal for God and his love of the Church. Servants of God feel the inappropriateness of God’s house being defiled. God’s shepherds feel responsible for guarding the flock. This divinely inspired, holy passion compels an appropriate response when God’s house is trashed and his people are deceived.
Unfortunately, many evangelical shepherds, who have passed from a prophetic to a professional model of ministry too readily welcome wolves into God’s flock if those wolves are decked out in the latest, trendiest garb. The cutting-edge heresy that is being welcomed by many Evangelicals today is known as the Emerging Church movement. While many participants in this movement undoubtedly know and love Christ, and while many of their criticisms of evangelical tendencies are well founded, their concessions to relativism inevitably lead them downward to serious doctrinal and moral deviations that they bring into the household of God.
The Emerging Church movement consists of a diverse group of people who identify with Christianity, but who feel that reaching the postmodern world requires us to radically reshape the church’s beliefs and practices to conform to postmodernism. Postmodernism is a term that has been dissected and broken down into various schemes of subcategories and there is not absolute unanimity among postmodern thinkers. Nevertheless, there are certain defining characteristics of this phenomenon that grew in the late twentieth century out of some elements that always existed in modernism. Grenz and Franke summarize postmodernism as “…the rejection of certain central features of the modern project, such as its quest for certain, objective, and universal knowledge, along with its dualism and its assumption of the goodness of knowledge. It is this critical agenda, rather than any proposed constructive paradigm to replace the modern vision that unites postmodern thinkers.”
Postmodernism rejects the basic premises of modern epistemology. In modernist thought perception corresponds to truth and language refers to an independent referent. Douglas Groothuis describes the correspondence theory of truth as the assumption that “A belief or statement is true only if it matches with, reflects, or corresponds to the reality to which it refers. For a statement to be true it must be factual. Facts determine the truth or falsity of a belief or statement.” For Groothuis, this theory harmonizes with the presuppositions he finds clearly implied and presupposed in Scripture: “The Bible does not relate a technical view of truth, but it does implicitly and consistently advance the correspondence view in both testaments.”
The referential theory of language is the view that language refers to something objectively real in the mind of the one who communicates. Communication is not seen as ambiguous verbalizations that can have various private meanings for each hearer independent of the author or speaker’s original intent. Just as Groothuis finds the correspondence theory of truth presupposed in the Bible, Justin Taylor finds the referential theory of language similarly presumed in Scripture:
Nothing could be clearer from the New Testament, it seems to me, than the idea that God has given us universally true doctrinal revelation that can be understood, shared, defended and contextualized. ‘The faith’ has been once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). We are to guard the ‘good deposit’ entrusted to us (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14), instructing in ‘sound doctrine’ and rebuking contrary doctrine (Titus 1:9; 2:1). False doctrine is associated with conceit and ignorance (1 Tim 6:3-4), and we are commanded not to be tossed to and fro by its winds (Eph. 4:14).
Postmodern rejection of these two principles causes them to “deconstruct” the language of texts (including Scripture), redefining the words and reinterpreting the texts to mean whatever they feel as they have an encounter with the text’s language.
Although many aspects of modernism cannot blend with Christian faith, the correspondence theory of truth and referential theory of language harmonize with the presuppositions of Scripture. God intended real, objective meaning in the Bible. Scripture has no real value to us beyond subjective moments of “inspiration” if we do not believe its narratives and propositions connect with reality or that each author’s original intent is the ground and goal of our interpretation. Contemporary, biblical scholars who adopt these elements of “modern” epistemology, embracing the correspondence and referential theories and incorporating them into their hermeneutics, are not thereby embracing a wholesale adherence to all of the beliefs of secular modernism. Although Emerging Church leaders accuse Evangelicals of being culture-bound to modernism, Evangelicalism has in many ways been a countercultural movement rejecting, for example, modernism’s strict empiricism that disallows miracles or revelation. Only classic, theological liberals have accommodated modernism in all of its views.
Postmodern epistemology has serious practical consequences as it leaves no foundation for objective beliefs – a position called “postfoundationalism.” In spite of the ingenious efforts of skilled, postfoundationalist theologians to construct a theology that “has universal implications,” all postfoundational thought eventually succumbs to some form of skepticism or relativism. Thus, within postmodern thought no truth or morality can be “normative.” That is, no person or “scripture” can authoritatively tell postmoderns what is true or right for them. “Truth” and “morals” are found in the context of a specific community and they vary from one community to another.
Thus, while generic “spirituality” is more acceptable to postmoderns than it has been to moderns (partly because the absolutist claims of science are losing ground everywhere but college science departments) any exclusive claim to revelation-based truth or morals is now thought to be arrogant and philosophically untenable. Postmoderns believe espousal of absolutes is an illegitimate attempt to manipulate others and exercise power over them. No one who embraces this epistemology has any room for others’ proclamation of an ahistorical, objective, universally authoritative meaning of a scriptural text.
It is not an oversimplification to say that postmodernism is hostile to the objective and exclusive claims of biblical Christianity. While Christians must be sensitive to the culture they find themselves in, and while we must contextualize our methods to reach those in that culture, we must never alter the Gospel itself to fit the prevalent worldview of any given culture. Postmodernized Christianity is a seriously compromised “Christianity.”
I contend that the Emerging Church movement is guilty of this kind of compromise through embracing postmodern epistemology and accepting this epistemology’s practical implications. Emergents’ efforts to accommodate postmodernism by shaping theology to suit culture (as opposed to merely adapting methods to reach culture) have been every bit as disastrous as liberal scholars’ accommodation to modernism. This accommodation follows the removal of a theological foundation (an objective basis for faith) with the rejection of “bounded-set” theology (borders for orthodoxy). With no foundation or boundaries it becomes practically impossible to say what is or is not Christian truth or conduct as there are no objective definitions or limits to faith or practice. Culturally arbitrary opinions are all that remain. Any belief or standard may then be questioned or changed. In a postmodernized faith all beliefs are valid to those who hold them. Brian McLaren, for example, says
I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish contexts … rather than resolving the paradox via pronouncements on the eternal destiny of people more convinced by or loyal to other religions than ours, we simply move on … To help Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and everyone else experience life to the full in the way of Jesus (while learning it better myself), I would gladly become one of them whoever they are, to whatever degree I can, to embrace them, to join them, to enter into their world without judgment but with saving love as mine has been entered by the Lord.
Any thoughtful consideration of the removal of the foundation and the boundaries for Christian faith must conclude that this postmodernization is fatal to biblical faith, stripping the term “faith” of any real meaning and opening the door to substantial change in fundamental beliefs. These changes can be found most prominently in the soteriology and eschatology of emergents. After they have undergone emergent accommodation to postmodernism, doctrines such as atonement and judgment no longer resemble the biblical teachings Evangelicals believe are non-negotiable. The collection of quotations from emergents found later in this article should give the reader an idea of the extent to which heresies have been entertained in the movement.
The effect of the emergent movement’s presence in the body of Christ is equivalent to both an autoimmune disease (such as multiple sclerosis, in which the body attacks itself with harmful consequences) and an immunocompromising disease (such as AIDS, in which the body lowers its defenses to external pathogens). The Emerging Church movement acts like an autoimmune disease, stripping Christian terminology of its biblical meanings, and it acts like an immunocompromising disease, disarming the body’s defenses against foreign invasion. The result is that this movement represents a deadly influence within the Church which requires a decisive response from those who recognize it as such.
While many participants in this movement such as Dan Kimball acknowledge that the terms “emergent” and “emerging” are essentially synonymous in popular understanding, and while many scholars such as D. A. Carson use them interchangeably, some participants in the movement see a distinction in meaning between the two. Mark Driscoll and many of the churches listed on the Acts 29 Network website (http://www.acts29network.org/index.html) consider themselves “emerging” but not “emergent” because they associate “emergent” with the more liberal and antinomian positions of Brian McLaren and Emergentvillage. This more conservative minority may be characterized by some but not all of the criticisms offered in this article. An even smaller minority of “emerging” bloggers consider the “emergent stream” too conservative and structured.
Just as there is diversity in postmodernism at large there is diversity in the Emerging Church movement and there are many things within it that are in themselves good. To isolate the essence of emergent we will disregard the diverse elements they do not necessarily hold in common with each other. Emergents differ on many peripheral theological and practical issues. Thus, these issues do not help define the movement in spite of their being a real part of the movement. We will also disregard those elements emergents do hold in common with Evangelicals outside of the movement. Emergents share many things with non-emergents such as a belief in contextualization, caring for the needy, friendship evangelism, and fellowship. Consequently, these commendable elements are not part of the distinctive essence of emergent regardless of the legitimate place they have in the movement. This leaves us with the distinctive teachings and goals elaborated below.
If we think of this distinctive essence of emergent as a lake, we can observe that some people, such as Brian McLaren, are swimming in its deepest spot, while others, such as Scott McKnight, are wading in the lake at a shallower depth. Still others (perhaps John Ortberg and Rick Warren fit this description), seem to enjoy boating on the lake and occasionally drinking its water, enjoying friendship with the movement while maintaining a distinctly Evangelical identity.
Next week, I will address the distinctive teachings and goals of the Emergent Church Movement.
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