Are Emerging Church Critics too Critical
By Roger Oakland
Not every Christian is called to be a watchman. This is understandable. The body of Christ is made up of men, women and children with a variety of gifts and callings all important for the body of Christ to be healthy. The watchman is called by God to warn about the dangers of departing from the truth and being led astray.
This calling is not without problems and difficulties. The watchman, even though his voice may be biblical, is almost always considered by the majority to be too critical. This is especially true today when so many Christian leaders are embracing a Christianity that is more seeker-friendly and purpose-driven than God-fearing and Spirit-led. A person who attempts to exhort stray sheep back to the fold is considered negative, judgmental, and unloving.
Further, when someone has departed from the Word of God, they are not always grateful to someone who tells them they have departed. If a person knew they were being deceived, they wouldn’t have been seduced by the deception. It is also a fact there are many who profess to have faith in Christ but have very little faith in His Word.
It is God’s Word that must be our plumbline in bringing us back to the truth. Following a man and his ideas may well lead us astray, especially if his ideas do not line up with God’s revelation as recorded in God’s Word.
I have been attempting to sound a spiritual alarm by documenting facts associated with various ideas and trends that are sweeping the world in the name of Christ. We are living at a time in church history when a new reformation is supposedly underway and Christianity is being reinvented so that it will be more relevant for the twenty-first century, but a Christianity that is not consistent with the scriptures in not Christianity.
Answering the Critics
There are those who will read this and will not come to the conclusion that we are living in an age of apostasy before the return of our Lord. There will be those who accuse me of presenting an unbalanced view of the emerging church, in spite of the facts. There will be those who say that I concentrate only on the negative and that I have avoided all the good things about the Emerging Church. For example, I anticipate there will be statements similar to the following one made by Emerging Church supporter Darren King in an article he wrote titled “A Response to Reactionism Against the Emerging Church”:
It is clear that while those of us engaged in the Emerging Church conversation might find new perspectives a helpful thing, there are others, within the larger Christian community, who find these fresh perspectives not only unhelpful, but actually threatening. These people tend to operate under very circular, rigid belief systems. And for these people, any idea that infringes on any one corner of the “faith infrastructure” causes what amounts to a fight or flight response.
This statement illustrates how someone with a rigid perspective (biblical perspective) is perceived by someone with an Emerging Church perspective (“fresh perspective”). From Darren King’s viewpoint, if someone is not willing to abandon their “faith infrastructure,” (the Bible) for the “fresh perspective,” (ideas that are unbiblical or anti-biblical) the person is considered a dangerous crackpot.
Further, King, the editor of Precipice Magazine, states that he has a plan to deal with resistors who refuse to leave their “faith infrastructure” for the “fresh perspective”.
What I am interested in is a discussion of the knee-jerk reactions; the critical responses that arise out of a spirit of superiority, disdain, fear, etc. It is with that aim in mind that we at Precipice launch a new feature called: “A Critique of Criticism: A Response to Reactionism Against the Emerging Church”. Over the next few weeks we’ll be directly addressing these particularly ungracious, destructive and dismissive examples of criticism, one by one.
Following this article some examples of Emerging Church criticism were posted along with a response by Precipice Magazine. For example, as an answer to the criticism—“I feel like you can never pin down the Emerging Church on what they actually believe. That kind of slippery theology seems dangerous, cowardly, and way too convenient in our politically correct culture”—the following statement is made:
There is a very good reason why it’s difficult to pin the Emerging Church down on certain issues. Simply put, the Emerging Church is an evolving movement, a fluid conversation. It is not a denomination with an official doctrinal statement to refer to. In these kinds of conversations it’s usually helpful to differentiate Emergent, a specific group, from the larger Emerging Church conversation. Emergent is one community within the larger context of the Emerging Church…
The EC crowd is not nervous when grey areas linger. Mystery is newly embraced in the EC. And this shift away from a blind emphasis on propositional truth seems, to me anyway, much more in line with early Christian faith and practice. Faith is a process. The Christian experience is a journey. We would do well to remember that for the early followers of Christ, faith was commonly referred to as “the Way”—not the destination.
If Christianity is evolving, as this writer suggests, what is it evolving into? Whether or not one names this trend a “church” or a “conversation” is not the issue. What is important is whether or not the trend is based on sound Christian doctrine. As we have discussed in previous commentaries, faith in the Bible is not the basis for this “New Reformation”. Faith in the Bible is not being promoted; it is it under attack. Faith is being undone.
Yes, it is true that the early church was called “The Way”. However, the church was called “The Way” because the members of the church were following Jesus, who said He was “The Way”. Jesus also said the “Way” is a “narrow way” and the “only way” to get into heaven. The Emerging Church way or emergent conversation or whatever name is used to describe this so-called New Reformation, in my view is a wide way that many are travelling and heading in the wrong direction.
Defending the Emerging Church
It should now be apparent that critics of the Emerging Church or “conversation” are also being critiqued. The reason Darren King, chief editor of Precipice Magazine, launched a column for “critiquing the critics” was because of a number of negative comments about an article written by Scot McKnight titled “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” that appeared in the February 2007 issue of Christianity Today. According to King:
This issue (criticising those who are critical of the Emerging Church) took on a new significance following Scot McKnight’s “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” article that recently appeared in Christianity Today. As I mentioned in a previous entry, for every four positive responses to McKnight’s article, there was one that was not only negative, but actually scolding, dismissive, insulting.
Scot McKnight is a widely-recognised authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. He is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University, Chicago, Illinois. McKnight, the author of over twenty books, has given radio interviews across the nation, appeared on television, and is regularly asked to speak in local churches and educational events. Dr McKnight obtained his Ph.D at the University of Nottingham.
In the article written for Christianity Today, Dr McKnight took on the task of explaining what the Emerging Church is and what it is not. In the introductory portion of the article he wrote:
Along with unfair stereotypes of other traditions, such are the urban legends surrounding the emerging church—one of the most controversial and misunderstood movements today. As a theologian, I have studied the movement and interacted with its key leaders for years—even more, I happily consider myself part of this movement or “conversation.” As an evangelical, I’ve had my concerns, but overall I think what emerging Christians bring to the table is vital for the overall health of the church.
Scot McKnight claims the Emerging Church Movement is misunderstood by the critics. According to him, the Emerging Church is “vital for the overall health of the church.” As a “theologian” and someone who “happily” considers himself part of the movement, McKnight has “interacted with the key leaders of the movement.” In order to define the Emerging Church, McKnight made the following statement:
To define a movement, we must, as a courtesy, let it say what it is. Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, in their book, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Baker Academic, 2005) define emerging in this way: Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.
Few critics of the Emerging Movement would have a problem with the definition offered by Gibbs and Bolger if it adequately defined the Emerging Church movement. However, this definition falls short of defining the movement. Numerous serious heretical ideas, beliefs and practices promoted by the movement show that biblical faith is under attack. Rather than a “New Reformation” there is a potential to return to spiritual darkness.
Further, while Scot McKnight is critical of D.A. Carson’s criticism of the Emerging Church, he falls short of providing a complete and proper definition himself.
D.A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2005) is not alone in pointing to the problems in the emerging movement, and I shall point out a few myself in what follows. But as a description of the movement, Carson’s book lacks firsthand awareness and suffers from an overly narrow focus—on Brian McLaren and postmodern epistemology.
It is interesting how McKnight and others dismiss Brian McLaren and his unbiblical ideas by relegating him to the lunatic fringe when they want to point out the “good” in the Emerging Church movement. This is like saying it is possible to remove the arsenic that has been placed in a milkshake by selectively sucking through a straw. The movement is laced with ideas by McLaren and other leaders of the emerging movement. The so-called “generous orthodoxy” Brian McLaren writes about could also be understood as widespread apostasy.
In order to censor the movement or the “conversation” to make it “emergent safe” one would have to come up with a new name for the movement that does not have anything to do with the word emerging. The move away from the Word of God toward an experiential encounter with “God” by the practice of Eastern mysticism and Roman Catholicism is clearly part of the movement that is presently underway.
In addition, Scot McKnight attempts to nullify legitimate criticism of the Emerging Church by suggesting that the Emerging Church critics don’t understand Emerging Church terms. He wrote:
To prevent confusion, a distinction needs to be made between “emerging” and “Emergent”. Emerging is the wider, informal, global, ecclesial (church-centered) focus of the movement, while Emergent is an official organisation in the US and the UK Emergent Village, the organisation, is directed by Tony Jones, a Ph.D student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a world traveller on behalf of all things both Emergent and emerging. Other names connected with Emergent Village include Doug Pagitt, Chris Seay, Tim Keel, Karen Ward, Ivy Beckwith, Brian McLaren, and Mark Oestreicher. Emergent UK is directed by Jason Clark. While Emergent is the intellectual and philosophical network of the emerging movement, it is a mistake to narrow all of emerging to the Emergent Village. Emerging catches into one term the global reshaping of how to “do church” in postmodern culture. It has no central offices, and it is as varied as evangelicalism itself.
If emerging is the word used to describe “how to do church in a postmodern culture,” then the term needs to be defined with a warning label attached. In this day and age when we are being told that a “Christian can only be known for what they are for and not what they are against,” such a broad definition provides a pathway to spiritual disaster.
We are instructed in the scriptures to be like the Bereans, who searched the scriptures daily “to see if these things be so.” They were taught by Paul, the great apostle who was inspired by God. Today, as Christianity is “being re-invented” we are being taught by many individuals who have a very dim view of the scriptures. If Christians refuse to check out what is being proclaimed as Christian in reference with the scriptures, then the consequences are predictable.