We've all heard the term "emergent church", but what is it and what does it mean for the Christian today? If you are not familiar with this movement, it is the latest liberal movement that has been around since the early 1990s and has been building momentum ever since.
In this article, we will explore some of the Emergent Church’s theology and why I think that it is spiritually dangerous to the Orthodox teaching and understanding of Christianity today.
Before I get into what the Emergent Church is and why it is dangerous to the body of Christ, let’s look at a warning from Peter on the subject that we are about to explore:
"But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves."
(2 Peter 2:1 - NASB)
There are men who are emulating exactly what Peter spoke about in his epistle. Men who claim to be Christians...men who stand in pulpits...men who write books...men who are denying the faith and introducing destructive heresies that clearly go against the word of God.
So, what is the emergent church? First, we need to distinguish between the words emergent and emerging. Emergent is the name of an organization. Their website is Emergent Village1. Emergent is an official network of like-minded leaders within the emerging church movement.
The term emerging church on the other hand refers to the broader movement as a whole. The emergent church movement is a movement within the church of people who are seeking to reinvent or reconstruct Christianity so that it might be more accommodating to the culture of today, particularly the young people who are heavily influenced by post modern beliefs and practices.
Emergent church leaders say because we as a society have entered into a post modern, Christian, secular and pagan world, we need to reevaluate and change our methods and our message if we want to be effective in talking about Jesus. The movement has mainly arisen due to a protest against the institutional church, modernism and modern seeker sensitive churches. This movement has been growing steadily since its start back in the early 1990s.
Next, we will look at who its leaders are. Some of the more recognizable and influential leaders in this movement are Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones.
- Brian McLaren is a pastor and an author of many books including “A New Kind of Christianity” and “Everything Must Change”. He was named as one of the top 20 evangelical leaders by Time magazine. He is probably the most influential of all the emergent church leaders today.
- Rob Bell is the author of “Velvet Elvis - Repainting the Christian faith”. He is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church 2, and his church attracts a Sunday congregation of over 10,000 people.
- Doug Pagitt is one of the originators of the emergent church movement. He is a senior person with Emergent Village. He is the author of books like “Church Re-imagined”, “Preaching Re-imagined”, and is the pastor of an emergent church known as Solomon’s Porch3.
- Tony Jones is the national coordinator of Emergent Village. He is the author of numerous books as well, including titles like, “The Sacred Way” and “An Emergent Manifesto of Hope”, which he co-authored with Doug Pagitt.
Although these men are considered the main leaders of the emergent church, they do not speak for the entire emergent church movement, but they are the ones who are having the most influence on the movement and its followers.
Of the four men that are mentioned above, Brian McLaren and Rob Bell seem to be the most active and the most popular leaders of this movement.
Brian McLaren is a best selling author and is also very active in his scheduling of University campus tours where he uses this platform to spread his false gospel to many unsuspecting people. It is my opinion that Brian McLaren specifically targets Christian Universities since most young Christians haven’t fully developed a solid theological belief system and therefore are more open to liberal ideas.
My reason for writing this article is to bring some of these unbiblical teachings to your attention and to hold them up to the light of God’s word to see if they are theologically sound. Just as in Acts 17, the people who were taught by the Apostle Paul took the time to check the scriptures to see if what Paul was teaching lined up with the word of God. If these people were allowed to check the teachings of Paul (an Apostle of Jesus Christ) for accuracy, we should certainly be able to do the same with these emergent church leaders. John also told us (in 1 John 4:1) to test the spirit of those who teach because there are many false prophets in this world.
So, why do I consider Brian McLaren to be a danger to the Christian faith? It’s because he is preaching a false Jesus and a false gospel. Let’s take a look at some of the doctrinal issues within this movement that are being taught by McLaren.
The first area being challenged by the emergent church has to do with the gospel itself. The leaders of the emergent church are tampering with, reworking, rewording and questioning the gospel. In an interview with Christianity today, Brian McLaren made the following quote:
"I don't think we've got the gospel right yet. What does it mean to be ‘saved’? I don't think the liberals have it right. But I don't think we have it right either. None of us has arrived at orthodoxy." 4
It’s amazing and painful to hear a so-called Christian and pastor say something like this. This is a direct attack on God’s ability to communicate clearly to His people. Is the gospel too confusing for us? Have millions of Christians throughout the centuries really been unable to decipher what the gospel is about? Absolutely not. Christians have had the gospel right for over 2,000 years. We can say that because the Bible tells us in very clear language what the gospel is. Paul wrote the following in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5:
“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Ciphers, then to the twelve.” (NASB)
Paul is so clear and adamant about the gospel that he also gives a very strong warning (in Galatians 1:8-9) to those who would attempt to preach another gospel. He tells us this:
“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” (NASB)
So first, Brian McLaren questions the ability of Christians to understand the gospel, but then in his book (Everything Must Change) he goes on to do the very thing that Paul warns against, he offers a different gospel. McLaren does this by suggesting his own interpretation of what the gospel is. And although his gospel mentions trusting Jesus, and becoming his disciple, his version of the gospel does not mention the cross, Jesus’ death, His resurrection, repentance from sin, heaven, everlasting life or hell. Instead he writes this:
Jesus came to become the Savior of the world, meaning he came to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil.5
Brian is suggesting that Jesus’ mission was to actually save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction. You might be asking yourself..."What is he talking about?" Is he talking about saving sinners or saving the earth, as in the planet? He clarifies this, by writing:
“I see Christ’s work on the cross as saving all creation, including, but not only humanity.6
Can we assume that Brian McLaren is telling us that Christ came to save the animals too? We can only answer “yes” to this question because he plainly says all creation will be saved, “including, but not only humanity.” But the Bible tells us that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, not the animals or the planet:
“It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” (1 Timothy 1:15 NASB)
Rob Bell, who is another popular Emergent Church leader and author, seems to share the same belief as Brian McLaren when it comes to his view that Christ’s death on the cross is going to result in the salvation of every “thing” and everyone. Rob Bell writes this:
"To make the cross of Jesus just about human salvation is to miss that God is interested in the saving of everything. Every star and rock and bird. All things."7
So Rob Bell believes that Christ also came to save every “thing”, not just sinners. Inanimate objects like stars, rocks and even birds are also in need of salvation according to this twisted view.
We can now see that the gospel of the emergent church is very different from what Jesus and the Apostles were preaching back in the first century.
Not even the doctrine of the Trinity is safe from the emergent church. In his book, “Velvet Elvis”, Rob Bell seems to be questioning one of the most basic doctrines of the Church…The Trinity. In his book, Bell says the following:
This three-in-oneness understanding of God emerged several hundred years after Jesus' resurrection. People began to call this concept the Trinity. The word trinity is not found anywhere in the Bible. Jesus didn't use the word, and the writers of the rest of the Bible didn't use the word. But over time this belief, this understanding, this doctrine, has become central to how followers of Jesus have understood who God is. It is a spring [Bell’s term for a removable doctrine], and people jumped [Bell’s term for walked with God] for thousands of years without it. It was added later. We can take it out and examine it. Discuss it, probe it, and question it. It flexes, and it stretches.8
We can take the doctrine of the Trinity out of the Bible? It was added later? These are the types of arguments that the Jehovah’s Witnesses use to try to disprove the Trinity when they come knocking on your door. What does that say about Bell’s theology? Sorry to burst your bubble Rob, but the Trinity has always been true. It was not added later. It began to emerge (no pun intended) in the Old Testament and was revealed in the New Testament.
The next doctrine that is being challenged by the emergent church is the Bible's teaching on the coming judgment, and hell. Many of the emergent church leaders are watering down, or flat out denying the teaching on the coming judgment and the everlasting suffering of the unrighteous in hell.
In a 2007 interview for “The Ooze” website, Rob Bell was asked the following question about hell:
You recently preached a sermon called “God wants to save Christians from hell.” I was discussing the message with a guy who after hearing this message was a bit disturbed and somehow came to the conclusion that you didn’t believe in a literal hell. Let me ask you, do you believe in a literal hell that is defined simply as eternal separation from God?
“Well, there are people now who are seriously separated from God. So I would assume that God will leave room for people to say “no I don’t want any part of this”. My question would be, does grace win or is the human heart stronger than God’s love or grace. Who wins, does darkness and sin and hardness of heart win or does God’s love and grace win?
I don’t know why as a Christian you would have to make such declarative statements. Like your friend, does he want there to be a literal hell? I am a bit skeptical of somebody who argues that passionately for a literal hell, why would you be on that side? Like if you are going to pick causes, if you’re literally going to say these are the lines in the sand, I’ve got to know that people are going to burn forever, this is one of the things that you drive your stake in the ground on. I don’t understand that.” 9
As you can see, Rob does not really want to affirm that there is a literal hell, but the Bible speaks about hell a lot, and that it is a place of eternal punishment and torment (Mat 10:28, Luke 12:5, 2Peter 2:4, Rev 19:20;20:10 & 20:14-15).
In an audio interview10 that Brian McLaren did on a radio show called Bleeding Purple, he tries to dismiss the doctrine of hell because of what Jesus did on the cross. The cross would be a distraction and false advertising to Brian if hell were true. If the doctrine of hell is true, Brian McLaren says that, "God is asking us to do something that He can’t do Himself...forgive". I would whole heartily disagree with that. God will forgive us if we repent of our sins, and accept his son as the Lord and Savior of our lives. If we don't, then God (being a just God), must punish the unrepentant sinner. This is the main thing that Brian and many other emergent church leaders seem to forget.
Lastly, the emergent church is attacking the clarity of scripture itself. Evangelical Christians believe that the Bible was given to mankind as a God breathed revelation that clearly reveals God’s will for our lives. I believe that with the proper study and investigation of the scriptures that they can be rightly divided, and can be properly understood and a person can be certain concerning its main teachings. Many emergent church leaders seem to disagree though. While making the claim that the Bible is divinely inspired, they also make the claim that it is full of mysteries that can't be understood with any real certainty. For instance, in his book “Adventures in missing the point”, Brian McLaren says the following:
“Drop Any Affair You May Have with Certainty, Proof, Argument – and Replace It with Dialogue, Conversation, Intrigue, and Search.”11
Why is it that Brian McLaren seems to have such a low view of the Bible? Probably because he feels like the Bible isn't solely inspired by God as is evident from the quote below:
“Scripture is something God had ‘let be,’ and so it is at once God’s creation and the creation of the dozens of people and communities and cultures who produced it.”12
Brian tells his readers that the Bible is the creation of God and man. I'm sorry Brian, but God inspired and created the Bible. Man was the instrument used to write down what God wanted, but man has no right to make any claim to the creation of God's word.
Rob Bell joins in the assault on the clarity of scripture. In his book “Velvet Elvis” he says the following:
“Is the Bible the best that God can do? With God being so massive and awe-inspiring and full of truth, why is his book capable of so much confusion?”13
The answer to Rob’s question is...The Bible is what God felt was the best way to communicate to His creation, and as Christians, we should honor that. Can you ever imagine a man of God or a prophet of God saying anything like Bell just said? If we aren’t smart enough as human beings to understand the word of God, why did Jesus ask the Pharisees “Have you not read” in his discussions with them (Matt 12:3; Matt 12:5; Matt 19:4; Matt 22:31 and Mark 12:26)? It’s because Jesus expected them to be able to read and understand God’s word.
So what advice do I have for Christians who encounter people from this movement? Test their teachings against the word of God. Once you are able to recognize the errors of their teachings, warn others about this movement. Direct them to this article for more information. And lastly, point others to the following Bible verse (Romans 16:17-18) for an explanation of how these emergent church leaders are to be viewed:
“Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.” (NASB)
1 Emergent Village - www.emergentvillage.com
2 Mars Hill - www.marshill.org
3 Solomon’s Porch - www.solomonsporch.com
4 Christianity Today, 2004 - www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/november/12.36.html?start=4
5 Everything Must Change by Brian McLaren, p.79
6 Adventures In Missing The Point by Brian McLaren & Tony Campolo, P.195
7 Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, p.161
8 Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, p.22
9 Interview from The OOZE website - www.theooze.com/articles/article.cfm?id=1762
10 Bleeding Purple Interview - www.truth4christ.com/MP3_files/brian_mclaren-on_hell_listen.m3u
11 Adventures in missing the point by Brian McLaren & Tony Campolo, p.84
12 A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren, chap 10, p. 180
13 Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, p.44-45