Is Brian McLaren a Christian?

Many love Brian McLaren and his books. It comes across as a breath of fresh air to them. Most probably are simply aware of his name and that he is popular but beyond that don’t really know what he has to say. Some are wondering if he is a Christian though few would dare to answer that negatively. It just wouldn’t be good P.R. After all, he is promoted by Willow Creek Community Church, Saddleback Community Church, Christianity Today, Rob Bell and many other big names. I suppose in order to answer the question we would have to know what one’s definition of Christian is. If the definition is someone who was born in the United States, attended an Evangelical or Fundamentalist church and then went on to pastor an Evangelical church the answer would be yes. If the definition is someone who wants to call all people to social action, eliminate poverty, eliminate sickness, redistribute the wealth, and create a Utopia on earth in the name of God, then yes he is a Christian. If the definition is someone who has accepted the atoning sacrifice and physical resurrection of Christ it becomes more questionable. As Brett Kunkle points out in Essential Concerns Regarding the Emerging Church McLaren doesn’t know why Jesus died on the cross and floats out the option of that being an act of “divine child abuse.” McLaren writes:

“…a couple of weeks ago I realized that I don’t know why Jesus had to die.”

Quite a number of biblical teachings suffer at the interpretive tool McLaren calls his “framing story.” His “framing story” is essentially his worldview and his worldview has been shaped by many who in years past and even present would not be invited in to teach in the very Evangelical churches and institutions who have embraced McLaren. As I have read McLaren’s books I had the eerie feeling that I have read this stuff before. His latest book, Everything Must Change confirms my suspicions. The books is a rehash and attempted repackaging of liberal theologian and Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan about whom we wrote our article The Hysterical Search for the Historical Jesus. McLaren also aligns with and draws from the grandfather of the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, Socialist and Black Liberation Theologian Cornell West, Karl Marx and a number of others.

The societal sins (with the exception of ecology) as determined by McLaren, follow very closely along the lines of Rauschenbusch and his Social Gospel.

As one reads McLaren’s book Everything Must Change we can begin to understand why his view of the atonement is so low or non-existent. The historical accounts of Genesis are rewritten from rebellion against God to something else. For Eve (and Gwen Shamblin would like this) the problem was overeating:

It’s interesting to note the importance of consumption in the biblical narrative. When the crisis of human evil is introduced in a passage beginning in Genesis 1:29 and ending in 2:20, forms of the words “eat” and “food” are used about twenty times. Consumption is closely linked with human evil. Adam and Eve live in harmony with creation in a garden, surrounded by food-bearing trees. But to be a human is to live within creaturely limits in God’s creation – reflected in self-restraint in regard to eating the fruit of “the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17). If they break the limits represented by the fruit hanging on that tree, they will taste death (or as we said earlier, the will decompose).

Eve exceeds the limit, drawn to consume a fruit that “was good for food and was pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (3:6). Adam joins her. As a result, an avalanche of alienation crashes into the human story – alienation from God, alienation from one another, alienation from oneself, and alienation from creation.(p. 209-210)

We always thought the problem in the account of Cain and Abel was that Abel offered the sacrifice which God required and was accepted while Cain’s sacrifice was rejected because it wasn’t the one which God required. We were wrong for as McLaren continues we find that for Adam and Eve’s offspring the problem was class envy and empire building:

In the following chapters, brother is alienated from brother and a form of class violence enters the story, as the class of pastoralists (symbolized by Abel) are exterminated by the class of agriculturalists (symbolized by Cain). Soon new forms of institutionalized violence arise in great cities, so horrible that they are swept away by a flood of judgment. Eventually empires emerge, reflecting the imperial dream of unifying people under one dominating language and culture in Babel. Genesis provides a genealogy for all the pain and evil in the whole social structure of humans on planet Earth; it all can be traced back to a problem of consumption beyond limits.(p. 210)

Salvation isn’t something which happens individually as we personally are offered “shalom” or “peace” with God through Christ’s death, burial and resurrection:

With no apologies to Martin Luther, John Calvin, or modern evangelicalism, Jesus (in Luke 16:19) does not prescribe hell to hose who refuse to accept the message of justification by grace through faith, or to those who are predestined for perdition, or to those who don’t express faith in a favored atonement theory by accepting Jesus as their “personal Savior.” Rather, hell – literal or figurative – is for the rich and comfortable who proceed on their way without concern for their poor neighbor day after day. (p 208)

What does “born-again” mean?:

If we resituate ourselves in this new story, if we find identity, meaning, and purpose in this good news, we find ourselves beginning again, born again, facing a new start. As recomposed, resituated, de-deranged people, we can begin rebuilding our societal system, not as a suicide machine, but as a beloved community, the kind of garden city envisioned in John’s Apocalypse (Revelation 21:1-4).

This all very much reflects the views of Walter Rauschenbusch. The Wikipedia entry points out:

Concerning the social depth and breadth of Christ’s atoning work, Rauschenbusch writes: “Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.”

Is Brian McLaren a Christian? I cannot know his heart or standing before God but like Rauschenbush, Crossan, Marx, Cornell West, there does not appear to be anything in his beliefs or teachings which resemble the gospel which Paul preached and by which he tells the Corinthians they are saved (1 Corinthians 15: 1-4) or the “faith delivered once for all to the saints.”(Jude 3) Perhaps now that he has abandoned anything resembling biblical orthodoxy he can move on to embrace mysticism.Ω

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Is Brian McLaren a Christian? — 6 Comments

  1. I am a born-again Christian for almost 8 years now, and am reading Mclaren’s “everything must change” (all lower caps).
    Each chapter is about six pages, and I am able to read only one chapter a day due to the excruciating nature of McLaren’s approach, throughts, philosophy and claims.
    After having made it through his acknowledgments and 4 chapters, I can conlude that McLaren feels he has an ax to grind with every aspect of Christianity that has come before him, that he can find nothing good to say about any of the Christians who came before us, and that we are to somehow feel thankful that McLaren has arrived on the scene to save the day, not to mention the world.
    On p. 23 McLaren writes: “If adherents to the Christian religion in Europe and America could experience revivals and write theological masterpieces and send missionaries by the shiploads around the world, but remain in naive, unconscious, or willful denial about the injustices inherent in their way of life, what are we missing now?”
    So, what about Wilberforce, who brought an end to the slave-trade in Britain? What about the Corrie Ten Booms of the world? What about Christians and churches in America who helped organize and who participated in the Underground Railroad? What about the Christian missionaries who lost their life in Ecuador, and about whom the movie “End of the Spear” was made? What about all of the Christians that have followed in the example of the Biblical good samaritan who have been quietly working under the radar for years to help their neighbors in distant as well as not-so-distant lands? Does McLaren not see any of this? Who is it that he says remains in willful denial? We Christians are the missionaries by the shipload! Does he not see that most of the help efficiently and successfully going on out there is being done by Christians? Or could it be that McLaren doesn’t see these quiet, humble, persevering Christians who serve the Lord because he chooses not to look, or because they’re sharing the Gospel, or because they aren’t showy enough for McLaren; they’re not the likes of, say, U2’s Bono.
    Is there more that Christians can do? Yes. Are there Christians who go to church for one hour on Sunday and then call it a day? Yes. This was the case in Biblical times as it is the case now. There will always be people who don’t have ears to hear the message and call of Christ, and who haven’t been born again of the Spirit to know what it means to truly love their neighbor as God has loved them.
    But McLaren’s claim that, until he came along, Christians haven’t cared, attempted to reach out or done anything regarding poverty, race, rights, etc. is just not true. And his claim that the only preaching going on in churches is about who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell is also not true.
    I’ve attended dozens of churches, including the one I grew up in, heard numerous radio and tv pastors, and interviewed many Christians and pastors as a religion reporter and I have yet to hear one sermon presented the way McLaren says all sermons have been presented for all of history: as talking ONLY about who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell.
    All this, in only four chapters of McLaren’s book!
    Thanks for the blog. Keep up the great work!!

  2. To Sandra — yes, it’s the same McLaren who wrote “A Generous Orthodoxy.”

    To Barb – Thanks for your insights and comments! You make some good points. I agree, it does seem McLaren is creating a straw man he can knock down. The kind of Christians he seems so angry at are not the ones I know – they are out there – yes – but they do not comprise the whole church, or even most of it.

  3. I think he pushing back against the image that we as a church have created in America (and europe, etc). Yes, we are doing great things around the world… but what is the image that those outside the church see? And I think he would say, if those outside the church only see judgementalism, hypocrisy, lack of love for others and the poor, then it might say something about how we are, in fact, doing at all of those.

    I think he would affirm that there are christians who are doing wonderful things (and he does), but it doesn’t change the fact that what he is saying is true in many aspects.

    Street interviews of what people in Chicago think of Jesus and then what they think of Christians (This is from my church, these are what 98% of the interview were like):

  4. A great post. We need to check out the teachings floating around and purporting to be Christian against God’s Word as the standard. And Jude 3 is a commission for all Christians.

    When I read McLaren and many other emergents I am continually reminded of the nonsense that early 19th Century liberal and neo orthodox theologians and pastors sprouted in Germany. It would be helpful if many emergents actually studied a bit of theology and the refutations of that liberal and neo-orthodox theology.

    Why on earth do they make the same mistakes over and over? or are they merely repackaging the same errors?

    In Christ,

  5. its funny and appalling how freely we feel the need and license to judge our fellow christ-followers. what if we began looking outwards with our knowledge and stopped keeping what we know and fighting as if truth is a concept to be colonialized and conquered…jews thought saw truth as something as unfolding rather than conqeured. let’s surrender to that kind of truth rather than alwaya focusing on whos right and what’s wrong. christ isn’t going to ask that on judgement day….

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