The Compromises of the Emergent Church

Danny E. Olinger writes perceptively about Brian McLaren as a prime example of the Emergent Church movement:


McLaren’s goal is to deconstruct Christianity and to rebuild it in a fashion amenable to our postmodern culture—a kinder, less heaven-looking, more socially transforming faith. The church must lower its voice about absolute truth and certainty and follow the example of Jesus in dealing with man’s most pressing problems (hunger, climate change, communicable disease, consumerism). (New Horizons, Vol.30, No.1, 8)



Of course the Emergent Church is also very selective regarding which examples of Jesus that they will implement. Forget the bit about driving money changers out of the Temple with whip in hand; forget about His destroying a fig tree; also forget about some of that harsh language like calling the pillars of the religious community “hypocrites!” Why then pin their reason-for-being on Jesus’ life if they are going to be very selective about it? Simply this—the Emergent Church is dogmatic about being undogmatic. Beliefs have to be hidden away into the locked closet:


The church must drop its dogmatic tone and cease proclaiming doctrines that are fearful (heaven/hell) or abusive (substitutionary atonement). The church must embrace all, regardless of belief…or lifestyle (homosexuality). The church must rid itself of certainty (inerrant Bible) and self-imposed boundaries (confessions), which have caused division and disunity. (Olinger, 8) 


Nevertheless, the Emergent Church doesn’t want to dispense with the Bible, at least not yet, but it’s already nibbling away at the way we use the Bible. In Christianity Today, Skye Jethani approvingly reviews Emergent scholar Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking how you read the Bible. In this review we find that it’s no longer legitimate to understand the Bible as a “book of rules,” at least in some respect. Why not?


The problem with this approach is not only the legalism it fosters, but also the fact that no one really obeys—or even tries to obey—every commandment. (Spring 2009, R3).


Of course, the Bible is more than a rule book, but it does contain a wealth of teachings or rules on all areas of life, which shouldn’t be disparaged. Each teaching is, in a sense, a rule for how we should think and speak. Should we disregard Paul’s teaching that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), because it serves as a rule of faith? Should we likewise dismiss the Sermon on the Mount and the entire corpus of Jesus’ teachings because they too serve as “rules” of the faith?


Even more absurdly, should we disregard the rules because “no one really obeys…every commandment?” Nowhere in Scripture do we find such authorization. Instead, James assures us that any misstep is damnable (James 2:10). Let us rather repent of this failure! This disregard violates the very fabric of Scripture, which gives us no excuse for violating any law (Mat. 5:21-23; Gal. 3:10).


If this is what McKnight understands as legalism—something illegitimate in terms of the Gospel—he fails to grasp Scripture. It’s our destitution resulting from the failure to keep the rules that leads us to Christ (Gal. 3:24) and continues to remind us of His mercy. Even though we are no longer under the Law, the Law remains good and holy (Romans 7:12). Legalists obey laws or teachings to prove that they’re righteous. Instead, the laws prove that we’re unrighteous, that God alone is righteous, and that we desperately need a Savior. By minimizing the glory of the law, disparaging all law-keeping, McKnight diminishes our appreciation of grace.


McKnight also disparages the “Systematic Theology Approach” through which we attempt to harmonize the various teaching of the Bible into a coherent whole. Well, what’s the matter with that? According to McKnight, this just doesn’t work. Every group comes up with its own theology and “No one’s puzzle is perfect” (R6). Indeed, this is true. In addition to this, we are assured that we only understand in part (1 John 3:2), but this shouldn’t become an excuse to dismiss systematic theology as illegitimate—an attempt to treat the Bible as a puzzle. In a previous article in Christianity Today, McKnight writes:


The emerging movement tends to be suspicious of systematic theology. Why? Not because we don’t read systematics, but because the diversity of theologies alarms us, no genuine consensus has been achieved, God didn’t reveal a systematic theology but a storied narrative, and no language is capable of capturing the Absolute Truth who is God alone.


To apply this reasoning elsewhere, why put our hope in Christ if there is “no genuine consensus” about Christ being the Messiah. Why uphold any truth if there is “no genuine consensus.” Even more problematic, if we are utterly incapable of “capturing the Absolute Truth” or even God in our understanding in some respect, what truth then is McKnight communicating when he writes His books? If no language is capable of “capturing the Absolute Truth,” what is he trying to capture? Falsehood? Skepticism? Why then do the various Emergents have so much to say, even as they claim that we can’t really be sure of anything?


Instead, Scripture uniformly asserts that it is about Absolute Truth and that we can know and understand it:


· This is what the Lord says: "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," declares the Lord. Jeremiah 9:23-24


· He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel: Psalm 103:7


· For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.


According to Jethani, McKnight’s motto is, “Let the Bible be the Bible.” Ideally, this should be our marching orders. The Bible claims to be the very Word of God and therefore must judge all of our theologies and interpretations. However, McKnight also seems to be imposing his own theology on the Bible, limiting it to a “storied narrative.” Jethani reinforces this perception:


But encouraging the Bible as a story is…a strategy for transformation leading to a spiritual makeover from head to toe. McKnight says the Bible isn’t just a story that we read, it is a story that we live. “We must let the Bible’s story become our story,” he says, “so that it becomes us, and we become it.” Any method for engaging Scripture that “doesn’t lead to that kind of transformation is how not to read the Bible. (R6)


There are several problems with this. We don’t want to have to wait until we see if we’re transformed in order to know if we’ve used the right interpretive approach. Also, I certainly love the Bible narratives, but I’m equally glad that the Bible contains other forms of literature. McKnight and Jethani do not seem to recognize this. They also don’t seem to appreciate the fact that we must do systematics in order to understand the narratives. Perhaps they believe that the narratives work magically within us apart from understanding.


However, if we fail to do systematics and approach Jesus’ parables in isolation from the context of the entire Bible, we will come up with erroneous conclusions, as we are likely to do when we extract any message from its context. In the Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16), the manager is praised for his theft. If we lift this parable from its Biblical context, we might wrongly conclude that theft, rather than foresight, is being commended. Also, I had struggled with Jesus’ command to “give to the one who asks you” (Matthew 5:42), until I understood this command within the context of Jesus’ entire life and saw that He didn’t give to everyone who asked.


Jethani and McKnight claim that the narratives, in particular, transform. However, it doesn’t seem likely that any misunderstood verses will transform in a positive way. Edification requires understanding (2 Peter 1:2-3). Paul warned that without understanding, speaking in tongues wouldn’t edify anyone in the church (1 Cor. 14:6). Although the Spirit works supernaturally through the Word, He seems to only work in conjunction with understanding the Word.


Sadly, the Emergents seem to be abandoning the historical faith, and they’re taking many with them.

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