What is the Emerging Church?

Introduction to The Emerging Church

Recently, Brian McLaren, a leading theologian in the emerging church, said, “I was a good kid, I believed what I’d been told. And as a pastor, I started having gay people come out to me and what became clearer and clearer to me is that their experience was not explained by the theology I inherited. And that it would be unjust to continue to uphold what I’d been taught. Maybe I could say it like this: My call to love God and love my neighbor was in conflict with what I’d been taught the Bible required me to say and do”[1]. The issue is not with gay marriage, but rather, how does what ones interpretation of the Bible required McLaren to say and do. More specifically, does the call to love God and love ones neighbor conflict with other portions of scripture as McLaren and other theologians from the emerging church claim. The Emerging church continues to grow in number and influence, as it does, there has arisen the need to accept the emerging church or reject the emerging movement as a heretical challenge to traditional Biblical Christianity.

In order to assess the nature of the emerging church and determine where the theology lies, one must assess the doctrines and find out exactly what the church agrees. Determining the doctrines the emerging church follows is difficult because “one of the difficulties in discussing the emerging church is the diversity of the congregations that fit under this umbrella. The most important criteria are those that highlight the connection of emerging churches and postmodern culture.”[2] After determining the doctrines the church holds, there must be an assessment of what scriptures teach, and an evaluation of those two views to each other to see where the differences and similarities arise. In order to do make these evaluations, there must be similar doctrines upon which to base the comparison on. For the purposes of evaluation, comparison will be made on the foundational views of where truth comes from (for the purposes of simplicity, it shall be called Absolute Truth from here on), Heaven and Hell, definition of salvation, the deity of Christ, and the role of Christ in Salvation. Each section will have an area for the emerging church’s position followed by the position taken by historical Christianity. Once these positions are evaluated, we can draw a conclusion regarding the emerging church in relation to historical Christianity.

Absolute Truth

When looking at the nature of truth in the emerging church there is a dilemma. The foundation for the emerging church is that of relativism. For those unfamiliar with relativism, it can be defined as in relation to culture as “the argument goes, although we may prefer the aspects and values of one culture to another, and give reasons for doing so, we cannot say with any degree of certainty that any one culture is better than any other.”[3] This definition is specific to cultural relativism, but religious relativism is no different and some would say it fits into the cultural relativism definition with religion being part of culture. By the very definition of relativism, there is no possibility of a definite truth because there is no one way that is better than any other. With a position regarding relativism there is a downside because there must be a place where ultimately an item is right or wrong. Many people who ascribe to this thinking would follow the concept of seeing things in color rather than in black and white.

Traditional Christianity would define truth as “that which conforms to reality.” This position has recently taken the name of absolute truth. The reason for the name of absolute truth arising, has been relativists who will say “just because its true for you does not mean it is true for me.” Which is in response to the relativism permeating American culture, but more importantly, it serves as a definite, concrete means by which everything else can be judged. In traditional Christianity, absolute truth serves as a means of determining what is true and what is false, especially in relation to the rest of the doctrines the church holds, but also in relation to society at large.

Heaven and Hell

Because the emerging church embraces a relativistic world view, there are few churches which are considered emerging who hold to the classic doctrines of heaven and hell. The primary views for which the emerging church consist of one were everyone goes to heaven, there is nothing after life on earth, or one where good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. Rob Bell, a prominent emergent teacher, has even gone so far as to say hell doesn’t exist as defined traditionally. “Bell does his best to argue that the church has allowed the story of Jesus’ love to be perverted by other stories. The story of an eternal hell is not, he believes, a good story. He suggests that a better story would involve the possibility of a sinner coming to faith in Christ after death, or hell being a cessation of being, or hell being eventually emptied of all its inhabitants.”[4] Bell makes the argument from his unease with the doctrine of hell, and even creates an argument around his “central thesis: Heaven and hell are already present on earth, and Christians are specifically called to spread the reality of God’s heaven to the hellish realities of earth.”[5]

The typical view on heaven and hell from the traditional church although a very large issue, can typically be summed up by two verses from the Bible. The first verse is taken from John 14:6 when Jesus says “I am the way the truth and the light, no one comes to the father except through me.” The other verse which typically is used also comes from Mathew 7:13-14 where Jesus says “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Salvation

As noted previously, studying the emerging church is difficult because of the relativism which is typically followed. When truly following a relative religion, it is impossible to say that salvation is even necessary. This is part of why emerging churches tend not to focus on salvation, but rather choose to focus their efforts on the community in which they live. From their focus on community, the emerging church does not us focus on evangelism in the traditional sense but rather in order to effect change from a position where “Christendom has drifted far from alleged revo- lutionary implications of the gospel for transforming the lot of the socially downtrodden and the economically excluded.”[6] McLaren echoes the sentiment of Steve Chalke when he says “the Christian faith is meant to confront and overturn social subsystems such as the economy and foreign policy.”[7] With the emerging church focusing on their social subsystems as their main method of evangelism contrasts with the traditional views on evangelism which have their view of salvation from hell to heaven.

The traditional view of Christianity teaches salvation comes only through Jesus Christ. It is through Jesus (and Jesus alone) that a man can be saved from the fires of Hell, and the Judgment of God to a place Jesus has gone to prepare for us. When looking at traditional Christianity, many will often quote John 14:6 where Jesus says He is “the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the father except through me.” This is where the concept of salvation and sanctification come into the doctrines of the traditional church. We see different aspects, but ultimately, “people have been saved since Chrsit accomplished His work on the cross, only in time has there developed a distinction between salvation accomplished (justification) and salvation applied (sanctification).”[8] Although there is much to be said regarding the doctrine of salvation, it ought to be noted the reason the traditional church has any emphasis on evangelism is because it is only through Jesus which people are saved.

Because the only way to heaven then is through this Jesus the gospels proclaim and the church proclaims, there is a heavy burden upon the church to deliver the good news to those who don’t know it. It is this burden of sharing about Jesus which brings Christians from the United States of America to China to smuggle in banned copies of Bibles so the Chinese can hear the gospel for themselves and make a decision to follow Jesus and avoid the perils of Hell.

Deity of Jesus Christ

The doctrines about Jesus in the emerging church are often conflicting. Some hold to Jesus being God. Others say he is a good moral teacher but not God, or at least not God in the traditional sense but maybe some type of god. There are many views here, but Brian McLaren does a good job summarizing some of the more liberal views on Jesus by saying “One Jesus I have known is the conservative Protestant Jesus who focuses on the crucifixion…Another Jesus I have met is the Pentecostal Jesus…The Liberal Protestant Jesus…The Jesus of the oppressed.”[9] Ultimately, McLaren takes a Jesus whom he wants to see in any given situation. This fits perfectly with the relativistic world view he and other emerging theologians accept.

On the other side of the issue is the Jesus of classic theology. When looking at classic theology, we see the deity of Christ in many different situations throughout scripture. The theologian who would deny Jesus as the incarnate Son of God who came from Heaven to Earth to save humanity is rare. The view of the traditional Jesus can be seen from the gospel of John where “John makes a startling assertion: Jesus is God. This God “became flesh” and “took up residence” among God’s people as the “One and Only Son from the Father.”[10] The deity of Christ in traditional theology is not a topic lightly refuted.

Jesus Christ’s Role in Salvation

Because of the focus of the emerging church on the various facets of social behavior, there is less of a Role for Jesus to play in salvation, rather, “Jesus invites his followers to participate in God’s redemption of the world.”[11] Also, due in part to the role of Jesus in salvation, the leaders of the emerging churches, such as McLaren put more of a focus on “Of greatest concern is the basis of the believing McLaren emphasizes. He says we need to believe the right ‘framing story’.”[12] This is what allows the leaders of the emerging church to say people can make it to heaven through means other than Jesus Christ. Ultimately, in the theology of the emerging church it is not necessary for Jesus to be involved in a persons salvation. Many of the advocated of emerging theology will say there are many ways to Jesus and it is possible for someone to be saved to heaven after death. In fact, McLaren and Chalke “both reject Christ’s death on the cross as a substitutionary atonement for sin.”[13]

This is in direct opposition to the traditional view of Jesus in Salvation. The traditional church teaches Jesus’ purpose was to save the lost. In fact, “in discussing the process of salvation, the work of Christ is supreme in achieving man’s salvation. Primarily, it involves the death of Christ as a substitutionary atonement for sin in securing man’s release from the penalty and bondage of sin and meeting the righteous demand of a holy God.”[14] In traditional Christianity, Christ’s death on the cross has been in the process of being worked out since the Garden of Eden where God foretold “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” As Paul Enns says, this is “the first announcement of the gospel in Scripture. Satan would be dealt a destructive, head-crushing blow. This is a reference to Christ’s victory over Satan at the cross.”[15] The traditional view of Jesus is one of the utmost importance because the difference between someone being able to get to Heaven apart from Jesus or having to go through Jesus alone changes all implications of the gospel and what it means to be a Christian.

Final Comparison  

The emerging church addresses man aspects where the traditional church tends to fail. It tends to search out the social avenue where the non-Christian doesn’t relate to the Christian and stand in the gap. If this was all it was doing, there would be very little problems. However, “where the church is so anxious to fit into the world that it becomes merely an extension of the culture and has lost any distinguish-ing particularity as a culture of its own. This response assumes the congruence of church and culture. It is assumed that the primary symbols of the church and of the culture are identical. The church sees itself in some way as representative of the culture at large and prides itself on its shaping, transforming role.”[16] The emerging church can then be seen primarily as a community group. A quick survey of emerging theology would include the relativistic basis from which emerging theology originates. The traditional church comes from the opposite side where the main issues are concrete and set in stone. The emerging church doesn’t truly hold any set doctrines on Heaven and Hell (some outright denying it or refusing to talk about the subject) whereas the final destination of all people after this life is a crucial element in traditional Christianity. Because of the difference in views on eternity that are present when looking at emerging theology as compared to traditional theology, there is a difference in even what salvation means. Salvation with emerging theology takes a back seat, and even has a different meaning as the emerging church tries to save the earth whereas the traditional church is concerned more with the souls of man instead of the here and now.

The differences between the emerging church and traditional Christianity don’t stop there. While some of the leaders will acknowledge the deity of Christ, some do not. With the emerging church, it is hard to pin down where they stand on this as well as many other issues. However, the traditional church will always stand for Christ being not only fully man, but fully God as well. This is seen in Christology, specifically in the incarnation of Christ whereby “the eternal Son fo God took to Himself an additional nature, humanity, through the virgin birth. The result is that Christ remains forever unblemished deity, which He has had from eternity past; but He also possesses true, sinless humanity in one person forever.”[17] Because of His incarnation, Jesus is able to take an active role in salvation when looking at Jesus through the traditional church, but the emerging church can’t do this. Because of their views on salvation, Heaven and Hell, the deity of Christ, ultimately they can’t have Jesus involved in salvation in the way the traditional church has had him involved.

Conclusion

There are many issues which have historically divided Christians through the centuries. Those divisions have led to the multiple denominations that are in existence today. Ideally, there would be no doctrinal divides among the different denominations and each person could go to any church any the area to receive solid Biblically sound teaching with differences only in style. Unfortunately that is not the world we live in, and we must decide what doctrinal issues are worth arguing over and defending. In the situation with the emerging churches, there is little to evidence traditional Christianity. Rather, the circumstances surrounding the emerging church ought to sadden anyone who takes seriously the claims of Christ to be God, and to be the only way to salvation. While it is true the modern church has failed to connect with the culture, there ought to be an understanding of what the church is to be in culture. Jesus compared the church to a light on top of a hill, a place of security in a dark world, unfortunately with many emerging churches, there is little light shining if any at all. When it is said and done, the emerging church has been measured…and found wanting. The doctrines of the emerging church need to be declared heresy in order to prevent lies from spreading into the church as pastors defend their congregations from heretics.

Bibliography

Drummond, J. S. (2005), Relativism. Nursing Philosophy, 6: 267–273. doi: 10.1111/j.1466-769X.2005.00234.x

Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008.

Hammett, John S. “Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 4 (2006): 867-72, http://search.proquest.com/docview/211153896?accountid=12085.

Hawtrey, Kim & John Lunn. “The Emergent Church, Socio-Economics and Christian Mission.” Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies April 2010 27: 65-74, http://trn.sagepub.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/content/27/2/65.full.pdf+html.

Kostenberger, Andreas & Scott L Kellum & Charles Quarles. 2009. The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville: B&H Publishing

McCall, Bradford. “An emergent theology for emerging churches.” Mission Studies 25, no. 1 (January 1, 2008): 151-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed September 16, 2012).

Mohler, Alber. “AlbertMohler.com” We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology. http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/16/we-have-seen-all-this-before-rob-bell-and-the-reemergence-of-liberal-theology/ (accessed 9/15/2012).

NPR. National Public Radio. 09 15, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/09/15/160610371/embracing-diversity-in-a-multi-faith-world (accessed 10 10, 2012).

Oakes, Edward T. “Bell’s Present Heaven.” First Things, no. 216 (2011): 23-5, http://search.proquest.com/docview/894123462?accountid=12085.

Towns, Elmer L. 2008. Theology for Today. Mason: Cengage Learning.

Stuvland, Aaron. “The Emerging Church and Global Civil Society: Postmodern Christianity as a Source for Global Values.” Journal of Church and State 52, no. 2 (2010): 203-31, http://search.proquest.com/docview/755000185?accountid=12085.

Ward, Kevin. “It might be emerging, but is it church?.” Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal Of Christian Thought & Practice 17, no. 4 (November 2009): 2-13. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 16, 2012).


[1] (NPR 2012)

[2] Hammett, John S. “Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 4 (2006): 867-72, http://search.proquest.com/docview/211153896?accountid=12085.

[3] Drummond, J. S. (2005), Relativism. Nursing Philosophy, 6: 267–273. doi: 10.1111/j.1466-769X.2005.00234.x

[4] Mohler, Alber. “AlbertMohler.com” We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology. http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/16/we-have-seen-all-this-before-rob-bell-and-the-reemergence-of-liberal-theology/ (accessed 9/15/2012).

[5] Oakes, Edward T. “Bell’s Present Heaven.” First Things, no. 216 (2011): 23-5, http://search.proquest.com/docview/894123462?accountid=12085.

[6] Hawtrey, Kim & John Lunn. “The Emergent Church, Socio-Economics and Christian Mission.” Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies April 2010 27: 65-74, http://trn.sagepub.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/content/27/2/65.full.pdf+html.

[7] Hawtrey, Kim & John Lunn. “The Emergent Church, Socio-Economics and Christian Mission.” Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies April 2010 27: 65-74, http://trn.sagepub.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/content/27/2/65.full.pdf+html.

[8] Towns, Elmer. Theology for Today. Mason: Cengage Learning, 2008. 419

[9] Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008.

[10] Kostenberger, Andreas & Scott L Kellum & Charles Quarles. 2009. The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville: B&H Publishing 308.

[11] Stuvland, Aaron. “The Emerging Church and Global Civil Society: Postmodern Christianity as a Source for Global Values.” Journal of Church and State 52, no. 2 (2010): 203-31, http://search.proquest.com/docview/755000185?accountid=12085.

[12] Hawtrey, Kim & John Lunn. “The Emergent Church, Socio-Economics and Christian Mission.” Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies April 2010 27: 65-74, http://trn.sagepub.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/content/27/2/65.full.pdf+html.

[13] Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008.

[14] Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008. 341

[15] Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008. 43-44

[16] Ward, Kevin. “It might be emerging, but is it church?.” Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal Of Christian Thought & Practice 17, no. 4 (November 2009): 2-13. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 16, 2012).

[17] Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008. 253


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