The “Emergent Church” (Part III)

(Continued from Part I and Part II)

While my own introduction to the Emergent Church came through Rob Bell and his Nooma DVDs, further investigation led me to a man named Brian McLaren. McLaren is the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland, the author of several books, and one of the most prominent leaders (if not THE leader) of the Emergent Church movement. As such, McLaren’s beliefs and teachings might better reveal the theology of the Emergent Church overall.

I wanted to know if McLaren shared some of the humanistic, relativistic tendencies I had noticed in Bell. It didn’t take long to find out. Just the titles of his books indicate a belief system that apparently compromises sound biblical doctrine (A Generous Orthodoxy) and embraces Gnosticism (The Secret Message of Jesus). Book reviews of A Generous Orthodoxy (one by Dr. Al Mohler and the other by Bob DeWaay) confirmed the suspicions raised by the title.

Apparently McLaren is reluctant to rely on Scripture as an authority. In one interview I read McLaren said, “I intentionally avoid including a lot of Biblical references in my writing because the method of ‘proof-texting’ is terribly problematic. Yes – it can show the Biblical roots beneath a statement, but it also can be used to give the appearance that a statement is supported by Biblical authority when it isn’t.”

This statement reminded me of one I saw while glancing through Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis. In it Bell commented that every time he heard someone back up a statement with a Bible verse it made him want to throw up. He also used the term “proof-texting.”

It is true that proof-texting (also known as eisegesis) is not the proper way to read Scripture. It means reading one’s own interpretation into a given text. It is the practice of using Scripture to justify a predetermined belief. But the more I learned about McLaren, Bell, and the Emergent Church the more I came to realize that they consider even proper biblical interpretation as “proof-texting.”

The proper way to read Scripture is to use a method called exegesis, a term which means “to draw meaning out of.” It is the practice of going to Scripture, reading it with consideration of the author, the audience, the intent, the cultural and historical contexts and the original language, determining it’s meaning and then forming your beliefs accordingly. But even this is insufficient for McLaren.

He claims we can’t know absolute truth from reading the Bible because we, the readers, are fallible and therefore incapable of determining for certain the intent of the message. The Emergent Church, as a whole, embraces this view. They do this because the Emergent Church is founded on post-modern principles (primarily “relativism”) and a rejection of modern principles (including the idea of “absolute truth”).

McLaren goes on to assert that the Bible is about doing good works for the benefit of all people and not about propositional, objective truth. Instead of trying to form our beliefs about God from Scripture we should do so from “experiencing Jesus.” But even this method (whatever it is) is problematic because, according to McLaren, there are seven distinctive Jesuses, each of whom provides us with valuable information about God.

Now, he’s not claiming there were literally seven different Jesuses but that various Christian groups have emphasized different characteristics of Christ. Bob DeWaay, in his review of McLaren’s book said this:

From Eastern Orthodoxy McLaren learned about Jesus saving the whole cosmos by entering it and becoming part of it: “Second, as humanity (and all creation) enters into God through Jesus, God also enters Jesus’ people, species, and history. And by entering all creation through Jesus, God’s heart is forever bound to it in solidarity, faithfulness, loyalty, and commitment.”

This aspect of Jesus becomes ground for McLaren’s understanding of planetary, cosmic salvation within history. He later describes an experience where he personally felt the interconnectedness of all things in God: I felt that every tree, every blade of grass, and every pool of water become especially eloquent with God’s grandeur. Somehow they seemed to become transparent— or perhaps translucent is the better word—because each thing in its particularity was still utterly visible and unspeakably important . . . These specific, concrete things became translucent in the sense that a powerful, indescribable, invisible light seemed to shine through. . . . It was the exuberant joy of simply seeing these masterpieces of God’s creation…and knowing myself to be among them. It was to be one of them, and to feel and know that “we”—all of these creatures, molecules, and phenomena— were together known and loved by God, who embraced us all into the ultimate “We.”

This New Age, pantheistic worldview leads in a direction that one would think is unmistakably unbiblical. It is reminiscent of Bell’s Nooma DVD “Rythym” and the idea of just being “in tune with God.”

Another review I found in the Christian Examiner revealed even more troubling information. In it McLaren said, “I want to help people understand everything they can about the cross. … I wouldn’t say that having that understanding (Jesus dying as a substitute for sinful humanity) is all that it means to be a Christian. I think that some people might have that understanding and not be interested in following Jesus. They want Jesus’ blood to pay for their sins so they can go to heaven, but they aren’t really interested in following Jesus in this life.”

Jesus is not a “ticket” to heaven nor is He “fire insurance.” Jesus said to believe in him meant to “take up your cross daily and follow me.” The Lordship of Jesus Christ and His salvation are intertwined. Preaching that you can have one without the other in order to appeal to a post-modern culture is NOT preaching the gospel. It may appeal to this culture but it is inconsistent with Scripture and is NOT the gospel.

I’ll share more in Part IV.

The “Emergent Church” (Part II)

(Continued from Part I)

Since Nooma DVDs were the first place I heard “Emergent Church” ideas expressed I watched more of them to see if the humanistic worldview I had noticed in “Dust” was a thread which ran throughout. About half of the ones I’ve viewed have had elements of post-modernism, humanism, relativism or some related philosophy. Briefly, here is what I noticed:

“Bullhorn”Synopsis from Nooma: God loves everyone, so a Christian should, too. In fact, Jesus said that the most important thing in life is to love God with everything we’ve got and love others the same way. But it’s not always easy to love everyone around us, is it? Sometimes we strongly disagree with other people’s political views, religious beliefs, behaviors or something else, and it makes it hard to love them when we feel like we’re right and they’re very wrong. But Jesus doesn’t separate loving God and loving others. So maybe that best way for us to show our love for God is actually by loving other people no matter how hard it sometimes is. Maybe it’s the only way.

While this one has a good message about the importance of loving others it contains disturbing elements. It dismisses the seriousness of sin and the importance of repentance and focuses on loving people just the way they are. The implication is that it’s really not necessary to tell anyone they are a sinner and in need of God’s redemption because, “God loves us just the way we are.” In fact, this Nooma leaves the viewer with the notion that everyone’s religious ideas are of equal value and there’s really no need to get into all that doctrine and theology that bogs religions down.

“Trees”Synopsis from Nooma: We want to know why we are here. If our lives really matter. How our religion is relevant to this life today. We want to understand what significance this minute, hour, week, month, and year has to our lives. To our world. We need a God who cares about this life, in this world, right now. We want to understand why everything we think, everything we say, and everything we do matters. We don’t want to just sit back and wait for something to happen or someday to come. We want to know if all the choices we make now will shape our world and lives for eternity. Because we want our lives to have meaning today, and our lives today to have meaning forever.

This one challenges the viewer to have an eternal perspective. That’s good. It also implies that our good works are really what matters. It implies that we are the same as Adam and Eve, in that we have the ability to live “good” lives if we choose to. The implication is that there was no “fall” and the doctrine of original sin, if not outright denied, is minimized.

“Rhythm”Synopsis from Nooma: What does it mean to have a relationship with God? What does it look like? For a lot of us it’s a hard thing to fully understand. If God is an infinite spirit with no shape or form, how can we possibly relate to that? And what about Jesus? He said he came to give everyone life in its fullest. He came to show us how to live. Maybe it’s through trusting Jesus and living the kind of life he taught us to live – a life of truth, love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, and sacrifice – that we have a relationship with God. Maybe the way we live every day, every single choice we make, determines how in tune with God we are.

This one contains a heavy “new age” feel with regard to spirituality. Knowing God is like participating in a song and all we need to do is “be in tune.” The way to “be in tune” is to just love one another, do good things for one another, etc. and that’s enough. It completely ignores God’s revealed Word to us as a means of knowing God. It doesn’t mention Jesus Christ as the means of reconciliation between God and man or even a sinner’s need for salvation. If I didn’t already know Rob Bell professed to be a Christian I sure wouldn’t know it from this.

You may have noticed that I used the words “implied” and “implication” a lot. That’s because Bell leads the viewer toward certain conclusions without actually making firm statements. It’s a characteristic I’ve learned is a trademark of the Emergent Church movement.

The philosophies of this age were prevalent in several (not all) of the Nooma DVDs. The ones where it was not prevalent contained valuable messages that can and should be applied to a Christian’s life. But knowing that the post-modern element is present is enough for me to post a huge WARNING sign over anything with Rob Bell’s influence.

I also became curious to see how deep these philosophies ran within the broader “Emergent Church” movement. Could it be that Rob Bell is the rogue member of the movement and his worldview is the exception among emergers and not the rule?

I’ll address that question in Part III.

The “Emergent Church” (Part I)

nooma.jpgMy introduction to the “Emergent Church” came through a DVD series of short sermonettes by Rob Bell. Bell is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, the author of the book, “Velvet Elvis,” and the featured speaker in each DVD sermonette available from The first Nooma video I watched was called “Sunday” (pictured at right).

My initial reaction was quite positive. The message was about rejecting empty tradition and ritual and replacing it with an authentic Christianity that is visible through lives lived for Jesus Christ. “Sunday” is summarized on the Nooma website like this: “God doesn’t want the meaningless rituals. God wants our hearts.”

I was impressed. I liked the message. I liked the method for delivering the message. Nooma DVDs are very well done and engaging. I was ready for more.

I watched “Dust” (pictured at left) next. I started out just as impressed with “Dust” as I had been with “Sunday.” For the first two-thirds of Bell’s monologue I was quite impressed with his understanding of Jewish culture in the first century. Not only did he know the background concerning religious study in Jewish culture but he was able to apply that cultural context to Jesus’ relationship with his disciples and thus draw a firm connection between the way God dealt with His chosen people in the Old Testament (Israel) and the way he incorporated His chosen people into that relationship in the New Testament (the Church).

“Dust” draws a parallel between the enormous commitment one made when following a rabbi in religious training and the enormous commitment God expects of Christians to their Lord Jesus Christ. It is a lordship message that is sorely lacking in far too many 21st century churches. He implies that Christianity is more than just another aspect in the life of a Christian. It is our life. Christianity is who we are and we need to live in a manner so as to increasingly reflect the character of our Lord Jesus.

There were several things I liked about Bell’s message. He was challenging Christians to stop playing church and to live their faith. He was demonstrating the importance of knowing the historical context of Scripture and of church history. He uses innovative methods for delivering the gospel. I was making plans for more Nooma DVDs.

Then Bell made a statement that jolted me like the sound of a gunshot.

He was describing the story in Matthew 14 where Peter left the boat to walk to Jesus on the water. When Peter began to focus on the wind and the waves he began to sink. According to Bell Peter didn’t begin to sink because he had lost faith in Jesus, “Jesus was doing fine.” No, Bell contends, Peter sank because he lost faith in himself.


Is Bell saying that it was Peter’s faith in Peter that allowed him to walk on the water in the first place? And it was only when Peter’s faith in Peter waned that he began to sink?

Bell goes on to say that it is appropriate for us to have faith in God but we need to realize that God has faith in us, too. His implication is clear: We have the ability, in and of ourselves, to “be like our rabbi,” Jesus, and to please God.

His message in “Dust” is dripping with humanism.

I immediately began to reference the classic commentaries on the passage from Matthew 14: 25-31. Here is what I found:

Peter walked upon the water, not for diversion or to boast of it, but to go to Jesus; and in that he was thus wonderfully borne up. Special supports are promised, and are to be expected, but only in spiritual pursuits; nor can we ever come to Jesus, unless we are upheld by his power. Christ bade Peter come, not only that he might walk upon the water, and so know his Lord’s power, but that he might know his own weakness. And the Lord often lets his servants have their choice, to humble and prove them, and to show the greatness of his power and grace. When we look off from Christ, and look at the greatness of opposing difficulties, we shall begin to fall; but when we call to him, he will stretch out his arm, and save us. Christ is the great Saviour; those who would be saved, must come to him, and cry to him, for salvation; we are never brought to this, till we find ourselves sinking: the sense of need drives us to him. He rebuked Peter. Could we but believe more, we should suffer less. The weakness of faith, and the prevailing of our doubts, displease our Lord Jesus, for there is no good reason why Christ’s disciples should be of a doubtful mind. Even in a stormy day he is to them a very present help. None but the world’s Creator could multiply the loaves, none but its Governor could tread upon the waters of the sea: the disciples yield to the evidence, and confess their faith. They were suitably affected, and worshipped Christ.

In my mind this is more than a slight difference of opinion with regard to the text. Bell interprets this passage in light of a post-modern, humanistic worldview. It’s a common mistake. Many of us try to build a biblical worldview on a humanistic foundation. When we read Scripture, we have a tendency to think the stories are about us. But they’re not. They are for us, but they are about God. Bell seems to embrace the idea that Scripture is about us. The Mars Hill Bible Church website says this, “Mars Hill began as just an idea, a desire to open a church where the scripture would be taught in a new way, a way that would reach a changing culture.”

A “new way” indeed.

He seems to have found a message in Scripture that generations of believers have failed to see. Bell seems to think (in fact this is a cornerstone of Emergent Church teaching) that since our culture is now post-modern Christianity should conform to the culture in order to reach it. The problem is when we try to conform Christianity to our culture we often compromise the message to the point where it loses all meaning.

Bell doesn’t seem to be merely teaching Scripture in a “new way” but rather he seems to be teaching something new altogether. Which reminded me of a quote from Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the 19th century Baptist preacher from England. He said, “I cannot agree with those who say that they have ‘new truth’ to teach. The two words seem to me to contradict each other; that which is new is not true. It is the old that is true, for truth is as old as God himself.”

These discoveries prompted me to begin some serious research on Rob Bell and the “Emergent Church” movement of which he is a part.

In Part II I will discuss some of what I found.

Adrian Rogers dies at 74

rogers.jpgDr. Adrian Rogers, the long-time pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., died Tuesday, Nov. 15. Read the related story in Baptist Press here.

I know there are those out there who have criticized Dr. Rogers and Bellevue on a number of things. I hope they do not take this occasion to voice their disagreements. I did not agree with him on every point of doctrine or on every aspect of practice (I’ve yet to meet the Southern Baptist with whom I do agree on ALL things). However, it was my privilege to have Dr. Rogers as my pastor at Bellevue for more than five years. Years I will always cherish. I had the opportunity to meet him on a couple of occasions when I was an intern there (while attending seminary) and I formed some firm opinions about him.

Without reservation I can say he uncompromisingly proclaimed God’s Word. Without apology he stood by the absolute truth and authority of Scripture. He preached Christ and Him crucified. He was not swayed by political opinion or cultural whim. He was steadfast. He has my utmost respect.

My prayers are with his dear wife, Miss Joyce, who served beside him for all the years of his ministry. May God grant her strength and peace during this very difficult time.

Patriotism or Nationalism?

edfw301.jpgA disturbing trend has developed in America’s churches, the growth of which has been so subtle that it has largely escaped our notice. In fact, we have been so unaware of the rising danger in our churches and have come to accept the subtle changes step by step, that many of us will see this developing trend as a positive thing (I once did). The trend has been toward an acceptance, even an embracing, of civil religion.

The issue has been breeched on this website on a couple of occasions (here and here), but has yet to be dealt with head-on. In researching for the “head-on” article I intended to write I ran across a couple of essays that address the issue better than I could have. One, entitled “Nationalism in the Sanctuary,” deals with the issue in a straightforward and biblical manner. The second, entitled “The Critical Patriot,”, discusses the appropriate attitude of a Christian patriot and outlines the proper relationship between our loyalty to God and our loyalty to country.

My own observations deal mainly with how our churches came to so revere the state (be it the military, the president, the flag, veterans, or whatever) that we have engaged in activity that, if it is not outright idolatry, certainly approaches it. I don’t know when the practice of placing an American flag in the sanctuary (like the one pictured above) began but I’m sure it was met with little resistance. What could be wrong with identifying our church as an “American” one? Nothing, right? That’s why flags like the one above are as much a fixture in our churches as pulpits. Who could foresee a time when churches would participate in full-fledged services that completely ignore the cross of Christ and the glory of God in favor of “old glory” and pledging allegiance to the state (as seen in the photo below)?

The time has come to prayerfully consider what we are doing in our churches and to ask some difficult questions. What is the purpose of the Church? If it exists for the glory of God alone (as I’m convinced Scripture says), then is our Church engaged in activity for the glorification of another? What does the Bible say about it? What would God have us do?

I look at the picture below and imagine what my reaction would be if it were in a slightly different context. What if that was a first century church? What if the American flag on the wall was an enormous painting of Caesar instead? What if those Christians were swearing loyalty to an earthly emperor in a place designated specifically for the worship of God? Would I then consider their behavior appropriate or biblical? More importantly, would God?

“It takes a village” to indoctrinate

bdmwhw1.jpgWhen Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany he recognized the incredible importance of indoctrination. He understood it is a process that is more effective the earlier it begins. This is why he established the Hitlerjugend, or “Hitler Youth.” On its surface the Hitler Youth appeared to be a nice civic youth organization, which trained boys and girls in citizenship (see the propaganda poster at right). Who could object to nicely groomed and neatly dressed youth learning to be upstanding citizens, right? Well, reality was quite different.

The HJ, as it came to be known, was organized in a paramilitary fashion, complete with uniforms and courtesies. Eventually membership in the HJ was compulsory and was a full-blown education program (including preparatory schools) where the Nazi Party ideology was taught and reinforced.

Of course there were German parents who did not agree with the Nazi Party ideology but their desires for their own children’s education was of no consequence. The party knew what was best. In fact, over time the youth members of the HJ were required to report their parents to party authorities if they expressed any “anti-Nazi” ideas or appeared in any way less than completely loyal to the Reich.

This is all nice information, you may be thinking, but what does it have to do with me in the United States of America in 2005? I’m glad you asked.

According to a report on WorldNetDaily, on November 2, 2005 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against parents who had sued their local school district after their elementary-aged children were given a sexual survey. These parents, who thought they were sending their children to learn reading and ‘riting and ‘rithmetic found out their children were being instructed on sexuality, instruction that may or may not have been consistent with what the parents were trying to teach their children at home.

In ruling against the parents Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote, “…there is no fundamental right of parents to be the exclusive provider of information regarding sexual matters to their children, either independent of their right to direct the upbringing and education of their children or encompassed by it. We also hold that parents have no due process or privacy right to override the determinations of public schools as to the information to which their children will be exposed while enrolled as students.”

In our day this philosophy has been characterized like this: “It takes a village to raise a child.” A generation ago it was the Hitlerjugend. In both cases the state made an attempt to usurp the rights of parents to follow the biblical mandate to “bring up a child in the way he should go” and claimed for itself the role of parent. In both cases the leaders of the state effectively said “the children of this country belong to us.”

In Nazi Germany the HJ was divided into two groups, one for boys and one for girls. The boys were trained to be party leaders and soldiers. The girls were trained to be mothers. The children of Germany belonged to the state and the state actually trained girls in the proper way to give care to the next generation of Nazis.

The Nazi state went so far as to place its “brand” on the children of Germany in the form of uniforms and highly visible armbands (seen at right). But the most destructive form of branding came in the manipulation of young minds. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled that the state has the right to place a similar brand on the children of America and parents have no “due process” to override the determinations of the state.

I’m not saying that America is Nazi Germany, but as the saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This court decision is just another step in the journey (we’ve taken previous steps). If we don’t recognize our ultimate destination, should we remain on our present course, then we are more vulnerable than we realize.

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