Five Streams of the Emerging Church or Has the Church Sprung a Leak?

In 1997 MCOI was faced with a difficult decision. We had been dealing primarily with cults and false religious movements up until that time but had received a number of calls looking for information on Bill Gothard and the Institute in Basic Life Principles. He and his organization are popular within Evangelicalism even though his material is riddled with false teaching. Our dilemma was, do we tackle this or don’t we? As we prayed about and discussed it we came to the determination that if we don’t have the integrity to address false teaching within the church, we don’t have the right to address it outside the church. We realized at that time that we would be taking some unpopular stands in the future. In some cases we would publicly be taking individuals or organizations that we consider our friends to task. In more recent years that realization has helped us temper how we say things to some degree for the purpose is loving correction. As I read the January 20, 2007 Christianity Today article “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” I knew I would have to write a response to my friends at C.T. and I pray that I can say hard things in a gracious way.

The article is written by Scot McKnight. Scot McKnight is professor of religious studies at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. This is an educational institution which is thought of as Evangelical. His book The Real Mary: Why Evangelicals Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus was published by Paraclete Press, an Evangelical publisher.

McKnight is an advocate and promoter of the Emerging Church Movement. We carried the article “Emerging from What?” in the Spring 2005 issue of the MOCI Journal. We also had a section devoted to it in the article “Indistinct Sound” in the Summer/Fall 2005 issue of the MCOI Journal.

Where We Agree

The Emerging Church Movement has some things to say that the church needs to hear. However, there is quite a bit about it that is a departure from “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). A few issues ago Christianity Today reaffirmed its commitment to Orthodoxy. After its title “Christianity Today” the magazine assures its readers it is “A Magazine of Evangelical Commitment.” With these claims and assurances along with the position of prestige which C.T. occupies within Evangelicalism also goes the responsibility to make sure that what is contained between the covers (or on the Internet) is actually Orthodox from a biblical and creedal standpoint in essential areas. This is particularly so as the term “Evangelical” becomes increasingly vague definitionally as the January 23, 2007 USA Today article “Evangelical: Can the E-word be saved?” indicates. Dr. Francis Beckwith, President of the Evangelical Theological Society and professor at Baylor University is quoted as saying:

“When I travel, I call myself a ‘creedal Christian’ now,”

McKnight’s credentials and affiliations may explain why C.T. printed his article. After all he works at an Evangelical seminary and writes for an Evangelical publisher. It would seem to follow that what he has to say must be biblical. Unfortunately, this article again points out the severe need for discernment and sound teaching within the church.

Although I have never met him I have no doubt that Scot McKnight is a nice guy and a believer. Nothing that I write here is intended as a personal attack on him. However, I wonder if there are “Five Streams of the Emerging Church”, or if the church has simply sprung more leaks?

Scot McKnight writes that, “Emerging Christians believe the church needs to change…” Although I agree with that position I would suggest that one of needed changes, perhaps the most needed change, is calling the church back to teaching what the biblical faith is by expounding from the revealed written word of God.

Probably the area I would probably most strongly agree is that the church needs to see itself as “missional.” That is if by “missional” he means that the church sees itself as a group of missionaries called to carry the gospel outside the church walls into a culture to whom the one true God is foreign. As I pointed out in the article “Indistinct Sound” , the church has brought the mission of the church in to the church (evangelism) and virtually abandoned the ministry of the church (training, equipping, and ministering to the needs of believers). As believers we are to take the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18) to unbelievers outside the church.

Under his subheading “Postmodern” he writes that “Living as a Christian in a postmodern context means different things to different people.” And then gives examples.”

David Wells at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary falls into the to category, seeing post moderns as trapped in moral relativism and epistemological bankruptcy out of which they must be rescued.

Others minister with post moderns. That is, they live with, work with, and converse with post moderns, accepting their postmodernity as a fact of life in our world. Such Christians view postmodernity as a present condition into which we are called to proclaim and live out the gospel.

Both of these descriptions well represent what we at MCOI and other missionaries to cults and New Religious Movement have advocated for a long time. Being an ambassador requires living among the people to whom we were sent as ambassadors in order to demonstrate who He is by how we live. Both of the examples cited above also must begin with a solid theological and apologetic base affirming that Christianity is true. In order to be effective they must also have a well developed understanding and theology of other world views and religions. We see the Apostle Paul’s ability to live among and minister to a culture which held virtually identical worldviews as postmoderns do today in Acts 17:16-34. Although he was kind in his presentation and challenges he demonstrated that he understood their frame of reference. He was familiar with their literature but was uncompromising on the truth and validity of Christianity and the falsehood of theirs. He used their worldview to shatter their beliefs in order to bring them to a knowledge of the one true God and the salvation being offered from His hand. The goal of all of this was and continues to be to proclaim the gospel to those to whom we are working as missionaries in order that they may likewise become citizens of heaven. Scot McKnight goes on to say:

The vast majority of emerging Christians and churches fit these first two categories. They don’t deny truth, they don’t deny that Jesus Christ is truth, and they don’t deny the Bible is truth.

That may be, but over all the church is so biblically illiterate that I am not sure how he could tell. More to the point, that they don’t deny these things is not the same as knowing what they are or how to articulate and defend them. Many Evangelical Christians don’t “deny” the doctrine of the Trinity, deity of Christ, physical resurrection or salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. As a result much of church leadership assumes that since potential members don’t deny these teachings when they become members they therefore understand them. George Barna’s statistics have demonstrated that Evangelical Christians like “emerging,” “don’t deny truth, they don’t deny that Jesus Christ is truth, and they don’t deny the Bible is truth.” It must be understood that not denying these truths is not the same thing as believing these truths. Barna shows that in actuality 91% of Evangelicals hold false beliefs in one or more of these essential of orthodoxy. As we look in to this deeper we can see that not only is it not well taught but that 49% of Evangelical pastors are in the same position.

The Disagreements Begin

The first sentence of McKnight’s fourth paragraph states, “To define a movement, we must, as a courtesy, let it say what it is.” He then gives this definition:

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.

There are a few problems which begin here and grow as the article builds. Although as a courtesy McKnight is right that we should let any and every group as well as each individual tell us what they believe and define their beliefs. It does not necessarily follow though that their beliefs are true. It is also not necessarily true that others within their “movement” agree with their personal definition. For example, we can and should let the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Jesus Seminar and even Wiccans say what they are. But simply because each of these groups or individuals within the groups may claim (even many Wiccans claim to be Christian) doesn’t mean that their claims are true. It is also not necessarily the case that the movement with which they are associated is Christian in any biblical sense.

First, all 9 elements McKnight lists are anthropocentric or man centered. It says nothing about what they believe. None of these things are necessarily bad but since they are undefined we don’t know. Which Jesus are they identifying with? Is it the Jesus of the Mormonism, the spirit brother of Lucifer and us who was born on another planet along with the rest of us, became god like his father and all the gods before him and then came to earth to tell us how to become gods and goddesses ourselves? Is it the Jesus of Islam or perhaps another Jesus? We are unsure. The definition given could just as easily have come from John Dominic Crossan who although he claims he wants to identify with the life of Jesus does not regard Jesus as being God or being physically resurrected. The Jesus of John Dominic Crossan , is a political revolutionary who came to set up centralized big government to care for the population. The salvation message of Crossan’s Jesus was to end racism, sexism and belief in absolute truth. His Jesus was buried in a shallow grave and eaten by dogs. Crossan’s is clearly “another Jesus.” (2 Corinthians 11:4)

The second problem is that the definition McKnight uses was penned by authors Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger. That isn’t necessarily bad but we are unsure if McKnight or anyone else in the Emerging Movement actually accepts it. One of the claims of those in Emerging is that no one speaks for the movement. Also some object that the movement cannot really be defined since it is emerging. It is fluid and ever changing with such descriptive websites as “The Ooze” and “Liquid Church.” Probably one of the more common descriptions would be “For me emerging means…” In this respect Emerging does more resemble Wicca and its embrace of relative truth than it does the biblical faith. As Bill Honsberger of Haven Ministries and I have attended events which included round table discussions with Wiccans, each participant begins with “Wicca means to me…” The foundational claim is that we cannot know or access absolute truth. Within their postmodern view truth not absolute and transcendent but is relative, personal and situational. Even the definition which McKnight uses could just as easily been given by Lady Olivia Robertson, the co-founder of the Fellowship of Isis along with her sister-in-law Pamela and her brother Lawrence. All were Episcopalian. Robert was an Episcopalian Priest. As we met with Lady Olivia at the Parliament of Worlds religions she was clear in her view that there is no absolute truth other than doing no harm to others and claimed there is no conflict between Christianity and Wicca. As a postmodern Episcopalian Wiccan in 1993 Lady Olivia personally held to most if not all 9 elements which comprise the definition which McKnight applies to the Emerging Church. She and the Fellowship of Isis were interested in transforming the secular realm, and lived highly communal lives. They were very welcoming to strangers and tried to serve with generosity. The group participated as producers; create as created beings particularly in the area of creating sacred space. They lead as a body. In fact, they were the most popular and sought after Wiccan group at the Parliament. They took part in spiritual activities. They were even very positive about Jesus being one of their examples who they regarded as a Wiccan as well.

Please don’t get me wrong on this point. I am not saying that the Emerging church is Wicca. Similarity does not prove or equal sameness. I am saying that Wicca and Emerging and even John Dominic Crossan seem to be drinking from the same philosophical “stream.” That stream is postmodernism.

We really don’t have to read much further to find McKnight defending postmodernism. On page 3 he states:

Postmodernity cannot be reduced to the denial of truth. Instead, it is the collapse of inherited metanarratives (overarching explanations of life) like those of science or Marxism. Why have they collapsed? Because of the impossibility of getting outside their assumptions.

This is remarkably similar to an earlier time in history when God speaking through Jeremiah said:

For you will no longer remember the oracle of the Lord, because everyman’s own word will become the oracle, and you have perverted the words of the living God, the Lord of hosts, our God. (Jeremiah 23:36)

McKnight’s conclusion is false because his premise is false. For postmodernists metanarratives because they deny the existence of or at least the ability to know truth. Their rejection doesn’t invalidate the metanarratives or for that matter truth. Further the key idea McKnight is asserting here is that our claims of truth are predicated on our acceptance of objectively unprovable and unverifiable claims. The reason given is that we cannot get outside of the assumptions to test them. The dilemma McKnight faces is that if his claim is true his view self destructs. Why is that you ask? In the second paragraph of the article he informs the readers that “I happily consider myself part of this movement or ‘conversation.'” He later writes, “Since I swim in the emerging lake…” If indeed we are hopelessly trapped inside our assumptions as McKnight proposes, that would apply to McKnight in the same way it applies to all others. McKnight’s assumption that truth is unknowable is, by his own claim, something he cannot know. So how, one wonders, can he know? Well, by feelings of course:

Emerging upholds faith seeking understanding, and trust preceding the apprehension or comprehension of gospel truths.

The contention that postmoderns make is that we cannot know absolute truth in any absolute way. But one would ask, “Do they know that absolutely?” Simply because we are finite beings and have language that is limited in the face of the enormity of an eternal being does not mean we cannot objectively know truth. More to the point, God communicated to man what it is that man needs to know. Hebrews 1:1 & 2 gives a synopsis of how He did so:

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.

Our ability to know is the result of God’s intentionality in self revelation. We discover it in the revealed word of God as well as the appearance and life of the Word Who was before the beginning.

By Their Fruits

All of this leads to a tragic end as McKnight, who should know better, says, “By their fruits [not their theology] you shall know them.” These words of Jesus are exactly about testing “them” by their theology. The “them” He is referring to are, as He stated “false prophets.” As I pointed out in “Beware of False Prophets” :

The text of Matthew 7:15-27 was spoken by Jesus. He was a Jewish teacher speaking to a Jewish audience and warning all the listeners to be on guard for false prophets. Being Jewish they all, teacher and listener, had commonly understood definitions for the term “false prophet.” In Deuteronomy 13:1-5 a false prophet was one who made true predictions but led their followers to false gods. In Deuteronomy 18:20-22 the definition was one who made 1 false prophecy. In the Old Testament, living in a Theocracy, false prophets were to be stoned to death. In the New Testament (no longer a Theocracy) they were to be publicly exposed and avoided.

False prophets would look like true believers (come to you in sheep’s clothing). However, what they taught on the nature of God is false. Their fruit in Matthew 7:16-20 is the prophetic utterances and core teachings on the nature of God. In 21-23 He goes on to point out that simply because they use His name and even do seemingly miraculous stuff, they are still false prophets.

The “fruits” of the “false prophets” was their theology. You would know “them” (the false prophets) by their false theology and/or false predictions.

McKnight contends:

Personally, I’m an evangelist. Not so much the tract-toting, door-knocking kind, but the Jesus-talking and Jesus-teaching kind. I spend time praying in my office before class and pondering about how to teach in order to bring home the message of the gospel.

The dilemma is that the gospel is a theological statement about the nature of God, the nature of man and the nature of salvation. What is his proclamation if there is no way to know truth about these questions? Is it simply “would you like to join us in the ooze of not knowingness and just be liquid together”?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *