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Leaders call ‘Emerging Church Movement’ a threat to Gospel

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A recently developed way of envisioning church known as the “Emerging Church Movement” deals carelessly with Scripture and compromises the Gospel, according to a prominent evangelical scholar and a Southern Baptist seminary president.

But Brian McLaren, one of the movement’s leaders, told Baptist Press that such criticisms are unfounded and that the Emerging Church Movement is “seeking to be more faithful to Christ” in the current postmodern cultural context.

In a book entitled “Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church,” which is scheduled to be published in June by Zondervan, theologian D.A. Carson defines the Emerging Church Movement as a group of people who believe the church must use new modes of expressing the Gospel as western culture adopts a postmodern mindset.

“At the heart of the ‘movement’ … lies the conviction that changes in the culture signal that a new church is ’emerging,'” writes Carson, who serves as research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. “Christian leaders must therefore adapt to this emerging church. Those who fail to do so are blind to the cultural accretions that hide the gospel behind forms of thought and modes of expression that no longer communicate with the new generation.”

According to Carson, the movement arose as a protest against the institutional church, modernism and seeker-sensitive churches.

At times it is difficult to identify with precision the participants and parameters of the movement, he writes.

Carson acknowledges that the Emerging Church Movement has encouraged evangelicals to take note of cultural trends and has emphasized authenticity among believers.

He criticizes the movement, however, for a reductionistic understanding of modernism and an inappropriate dismissal of confessional Christianity.

Carson asserts that some Emerging Church leaders are “painfully reductionistic about modernism and the confessional Christianity that forged its way through the modernist period” and that they “give the impression of dismissing” Christianity.

Carson argues that many thinkers in the movement shy away from asserting that Christianity is true and authoritative.

He also argues that the Emerging Church Movement frequently fails to use Scripture as the normative standard of truth and instead appeals to tradition.

In response to Carson, McLaren told Baptist Press that “Dr. Carson doesn’t understand us.”

McLaren, who is the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church near Baltimore, Md., and was listed as one of 25 influential evangelicals by TIME magazine, said that he rejects the label “movement” to describe the Emerging Church.

“I generally don’t even use the term movement at this point,” he said. “I think it’s more of a conversation. It’s a group of people who are talking about the Gospel and church and mission, especially in terms of changes going on in our culture that some people call a shift from modern to postmodern culture.”

In contrast to the cultural imperialism demonstrated by believers in the past, McLaren believes Christians should present Christianity through loving attitudes rather than logical arguments.

“Those of us in the west now … realize that there were a lot of bad consequences of European and American people trying to tell everybody else how things are,” he said. “We feel that there’s got to be a lot more humility and a lot more gentleness and that the Gospel is made credible not by how we argue and make truth claims. But it’s made credible by the love and the good deeds that flow from our lives and our community.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., questions McLaren’s claim to be giving a credible witness for the Gospel. In an Internet commentary posted on crosswalk.com Mohler argues that McLaren’s claim to uphold historic Christian faith and simultaneously avoid articulating truth in propositional form is self-contradictory.

Responding to McLaren’s book, “A Generous Orthodoxy,” Mohler writes, “Embracing the worldview of the postmodern age, he embraces relativism at the cost of clarity in matters of truth and intends to redefine Christianity for this new age, largely in terms of an eccentric mixture of elements he would take from virtually every theological position and variant.”

“… As a postmodernist, he considers himself free from any concern for propositional truthfulness, and simply wants the Christian community to embrace a pluriform understanding of truth as a way out of doctrinal conflict and impasse.”

Mohler charges McLaren with speaking about clear-cut issues in an unbiblical and ambiguous manner.

“When it comes to issues such as the exclusivity of the gospel, the identity of Jesus Christ as both fully human and fully divine, the authoritative character of Scripture as written revelation, and the clear teaching of Scripture concerning issues such as homosexuality, this movement simply refuses to answer the questions,” Mohler writes.

“A responsible theological argument must acknowledge that difficult questions demand to be answered. We are not faced with an endless array of doctrinal variants from which we can pick and choose.

“Homosexuality either will or will not be embraced as normative. The church either will or will not accept a radical revisioning of the missionary task. We will either see those who have not come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as persons to whom we should extend a clear gospel message and a call for decision, or we will simply come alongside them to tell our story as they tell their own.”

McLaren answers Mohler by saying that he is seeking to contextualize the Gospel as many Southern Baptists do. At times contextualizing the Gospel may mean encouraging people to become followers of Jesus without encouraging them to become a part of the institutional church, McLaren added.

“Dr. Albert Mohler is one of the people who have talked about this,” McLaren said. “But yet there are many Southern Baptists who are doing this very thing. … Many missionaries are … realizing that the issue isn’t whether a person identifies with a religion that now is seen as a western European religion. But the important thing is to help people identify with Jesus and become followers of Jesus.”

When asked whether a person must trust Christ as dying to make atonement for sin in order to be a Christian, McLaren replied, “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.”

McLaren declined to give his opinion on the morality of homosexuality, saying that the issue has become inappropriately political.

“I have my own opinions, but I don’t believe that the smartest thing for me to do is to go around and make those varying opinions a reason to separate myself from other Christians,” he said. “I fellowship with Christians who have a diversity of opinion of this (homosexuality).”

Because of his views on salvation and other issues, the Kentucky Baptist Convention recently withdrew an invitation for McLaren to speak at the convention’s evangelism conference Feb. 28-March 1.

“I respect Dr. McLaren greatly and have appreciated his insight on reaching people in today’s culture,” KBC executive director Bill Mackey said. “We try to bring dynamic speakers to the Evangelism Conference who will challenge and inspire their listeners. I felt that in this instance, however, Dr. McLaren’s position diverges too greatly to be appropriate for this conference.”

Mohler concludes that McLaren and other leaders in the Emergent Church represent “a significant challenge to biblical Christianity.”

“Unwilling to affirm that the Bible contains propositional truths that form the framework for Christian belief, this movement argues that we can have Christian symbolism and substance without those thorny questions of truthfulness that have so vexed the modern mind,” Mohler writes.

“The worldview of postmodernism — complete with an epistemology that denies the possibility of or need for propositional truth — affords the movement an opportunity to hop, skip and jump throughout the Bible and the history Christian thought in order to take whatever pieces they want from one theology and attach them, like doctrinal post-it notes, to whatever picture they would want to draw.”