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Is the “Emerging” Church a Modern-Day Heresy? (My Conversation with a New Religious Movement) — #1

For the last five years, since the emergent church has landed on my radar, I have given the movement and its leaders the benefit of the doubt. During that time, I read some of their books, followed their blogs, and watched podcasts. As one who’s always nurtured a rebellious streak, believing that the American church was in deep disconnect, I was excited about the possibility of a “third way.” The emergent church piqued that possibility.

So it grieved me when a friend of mine, a member of a Calvary Chapel, informed me of an official position the movement had taken concerning emergents, one that essentially charged them with heresy. As a result, in 2006 I posted a six-part series entitled Calvary vs. the Emergents (it’s pretty raw and I haven’t cleaned up the code or the links, but here’s part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6). The statements below are, I think, represented of the feel of that series:

The amorphous nature of the group makes blanket condemnations difficult. Yes, some Emergents challenge “the final authority of the Scriptures.” And some don’t. Some use icons. Others abstain. Some are more inclusive of outsiders and mystical traditions. Some are liberal, others conservative. Like any new movement, many different people and positions are represented there. And, in the case of the Emergent Church, some of those positions even veer into potentially dangerous theological terrain.

Because of the nature of the Emergent Church — and the serious charges being brought against it — I believe we must guard against “broadbrushing” the theology of the entire movement, and categorically assigning the Emergents, en masse, to one big, fat “damnable heresy.”

And I concluded the series on this note:

Yes, God values unity — but not at the price of doctrinal “essentials.” Nevertheless, the linchpin to this statement is the definition of essentials. As I see it, most Emergents believe in the basic tenets of Christianity. No doubt, some are questioning and re-thinking vital doctrines. However, there’s a big difference between expressing concerns about elements within a movement and labeling the entire movement apostate. Furthermore, all our concerns must be tempered by “charity,” and I’m wondering if this “essential,” more than any other, is being violated in the process.

Rather than jettisoning the entire movement, I would suggest we look at it critically, one Emergent at a time. Instead of issuing blanket condemnations that demonize churches and their leaders, why not give our congregation the tools to discern for themselves. Might we discern and stand against false doctrine, as my brothers and sisters in Calvary Chapel, no doubt, desire to do. But in all things, let us cultivate a spirit of love and liberty during the “conversation.”

That was back in October / November 2006. Shortly thereafter, I was invited to join several emergent blog sites. (In fact, I am still an Ooze Viral Blogger, although I have currently reviewed only two books for them.) During that short time, I had very cordial interactions with everyone involved and came away feeling that folks in the “emergent conversation” were very nice people.

Hopefully, that spirit pervades my approach to this current discussion and disarms any charges of prejudice. I am not a heresy hunter. Nor am I ultra-conservative, socially or theologically. I have no bone to pick with emergent / post-evangelicals (other than where we differ theologically); I have not been personally slighted or slandered by anyone in the movement. And I am not employed by a church, organization, or individual who would benefit from a particular position. I am simply a lay person, a non-pastoring ordained minister, who loves God, has tried to follow Him faithfully, and is asking questions about this “new” religious movement.

But despite my effort to be magnanimous and even-keeled, the longer I have observed, the more I have grown suspicious of the emerging church and the embrace of postmodernism by Christians. I’m not sure how else I can say it without sounding inflammatory but the charges of heresy concerning the emerging church are not completely groundless. Furthermore, I am deeply troubled that professed “Christian” publishers are publishing books by authors who, often blatantly, distance themselves from essential Christian beliefs.

The term “conversation” has been attached to the emergent movement from its inception. Rather than a complete reworking of historic orthodoxy, the movement was framed as a second look into what we believe, and how those beliefs may have been tainted by modernity, politics, tradition, or religious institutions, polarized believers and anesthetized the Church. I approached the movement thus. But along the way, two critical questions began to arise:

1.) Why do the questions keep coming back to the “essentials” (like the nature of God, original sin, the virgin birth, the atonement, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, etc.)?

2.) What would motivate a movement to repeatedly question the essentials?

The conclusion I’ve arrived at is that the emergent “conversation” has moved from exploration into apologetic. This is no longer about “thinking out loud.” It’s about getting something said.


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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • xdpaul February 16, 2010, 6:47 PM

    In the words of the great theologian, Euripides Eupayfordem, "Eek." This is either going to among the world's gentlest fistfights or the most violent encouragements ever.

    If I were to pick a fight, this might be the one.

    God bless you Mike. He says as he takes a cautious step back.

  • Mike Morrell February 24, 2010, 2:31 PM

    Oops! Where's an editor when you need one? I said 'modern Christian interpretations of' twice above. My bad.

  • Mike Morrell February 24, 2010, 2:30 PM

    Hi Mike, I appreciate your thoughts here – and you're always welcome in TheOOZE Viral Bloggers network, no matter how much you & I might possibly disagree personally. 🙂 (In fact, there are three books I'll be offering soon that I think will be right up your alley)

    All the same, I'm wondering where this might be coming from, the 'Why do emergents keep questioning the nature of God, original sin, the virgin birth, the atonement, the inspiration and authority of Scripture'? I suppose I'm of two inclinations here.

    One is that (speaking personally) I don't question most of these, not very often. I believe in Jesus' virgin birth (as well as God's Incarnation as Jesus, and the Trinity – two biggies you didn't mention), and Scripture's inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16 says it all for me, though I don't go further than Scripture on Scripture and tack on words like 'inerrant'). If I do question modern Christian interpretations of, say, modern Christian interpretations of God's character (and you know I do – I believe it was your post that alerted Rebecca Miller & others to my existence – thanks a lot! 🙂 ) or Jesus' atoning life, death, and resurrection, it's because, like you, I have a "rebellious streak, believing that the American church is in deep disconnect…[I'm] excited about the possibility of a “third way.”

    In other words, there's not really much difference between you and I – except maybe particularly theological differences, and I think you're responding to the unfortunate-but-unavoidable-in-this-day-and-age fact that the emerging church conversation has become a bit of a brand, or niche, in publishing – which gives the appearance of greater uniformity in belief or trajectory than is actually the case.

    Bottom-line, I think this kind of conversation is healthy – certainly we emergers need to hear thoughtful feedback from folks who feel like we're moving away from the God revealed in Jesus Christ – and why. And of course, the converse is also true. But I think that more motivates us in common than we might think.

  • Theodocia Flynn June 15, 2010, 3:25 PM

    Brian McLaren, a leader in Emergent, wrote a book about it. “A generous Orthodoxy”. Brian’s subtitle explains the ‘plethora confusio’ of his ruminatory cogitations, thus: “this book is bout “why I am a missional+ evangelical+post/protestant+liberal/conservative+mystical/poetic+ biblical+charismatic/contemplative+fundamentalist/Calvinist+Anabaptist/Anglican+Methodist+catholic+green+incarnational+depressed-yet- hopeful+emergent+unfinished Christian………..” This is the Age of Despair. This is what happens when Man gives up the possibility of validy knowing Truth about God and the world God created. Theodocia Flynn.

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