Monday, August 11, 2008

Emergent or Divergent? When Doubt Becomes a Virtue

Emergent or Divergent?
When Doubt Becomes a Virtue

By Tim Cantrell – August 2007, Sr. Pastor, Honeyridge Baptist Church, Johannesburg

With endorsements from: Rev. Leigh Robinson, Rosebank Union; Rev. Frank Retief, CESA; Rev. Colin Bishop; Rev. Rowland Myburg, BU President

(Article was previously published in Today Magazine and Baptists Today)

If you were about to undergo an operation and your doctor planned to use you as a guinea pig for new, emerging methods, should you know about it? If your bank was going to re-invest your money in high-risk ventures, should you know about it? Of course! Yet in churches today, leaders are jumping on the bandwagon of the latest theology, called the Emergent Church, while their people know little of the consequences at stake.

This is where a magazine like Baptist Today can serve a vital role in alerting ordinary church members to trends and equipping them to hold their leaders accountable. We too easily forget that it is the biblical responsibility of each member of the congregation to guard the purity of the church (Acts 17:11; 1 Cor. 5; 1 Tim. 5:19; Gal. 1:6-9; Rev. 2-3).
I write this article to sound a warning out of love for Christ’s church and out of a desire to “guard the trust” of Scripture that is under attack (1 Tim. 6:20-21), so that we will stand firm in our faith and fulfil our mission to the ends of the earth.

What is the Emergent Church?
As defined in the March 2007 issue of Christian Living Today, “the emerging church is a conversational, grassroots movement to contextualise the gospel for the changing world of the 21st century”. These Christian leaders call themselves ‘emerging’ because they believe that as Western culture emerges out of modernity and into postmodernity there must be a new, ‘emerging’, more relevant way of doing church and reaching our world. (Note: The very nature of the movement defies definition; some treat ‘emergent’ and ‘emerging’ as synonymous, but for the sake of clarity and fairness I will focus only on the strand of this conversation that labels itself “Emergent Church,” hereafter, “EC” [Cf. “An Emerging Church Primer” at ].)

The most prominent leader in this EC ‘conversation’ is Brian McLaren, a pastor and author that Time Magazine proclaimed as “one of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America”. His influence is also growing in South Africa as he has just completed his third tour in three years. Another key leader related to the EC, who visited South Africa last year, is Rob Bell. His Nooma videos are especially popular. Likewise, Erwin McManus is an influential voice related to the EC and he too visited South Africa this year.

The EC is a reactionary movement that wins a hearing through insightful critiques of evangelicalism that resonate with many who are disenchanted by a weak and ineffective church. No one can deny that evangelicals have often failed in our passion for the lost, social concern, good works, deeds of love, abuse of power, abuse of Scripture, and lack of authenticity and humility. We have also been uncritical at times in conforming to modernity. But sadly, the EC appears no less naïve in their zeal to conform now to postmodernity. Some of their descriptions of the problem may be accurate, but the solutions they offer are more culture-driven than Scripture-driven.

What are they actually teaching?
Few people realise the doctrines that leaders of the EC are teaching. For example, they teach:
· That it should not shake our faith if we found out “that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry... and that the virgin birth was just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in...” (Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, pp. 26-27).

· That we should shy away from describing the Bible in such terms as “the authority,” “infallible,” or “inerrant” (McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, p. 164).

· That it is fine for leaders of the EC movement to frankly have no idea what “most of the Bible means” (Rob & Kristen Bell, Christianity Today article, Nov. 2004).

· That the church should consider taking “a five-year moratorium on making pronouncements” against homosexuality (

· That we should not be so concerned with “being saved” or finding “right answers”, and that any Christian who sees a difference between us and the world is probably arrogant (Christian Living Today magazine, March 2007, p. 56).

· That the church should be inconclusive about the eternal destiny of non-Christians and should change its historic belief in hell (McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, pp. 111-114; The Story We Find Ourselves In, pp. 167-68).

· That you believe in “a form of cosmic child abuse” if you say that Jesus died to pay the price demanded by His Father’s holy wrath (Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Jesus, Zondervan: 2003 [foreword by Brian McLaren], p. 182).

· One of the chief proponents of the Emerging Church in South Africa is saying that he must now “leave church” and “give up belief in God in order to find God” (

Not everyone identified with the EC teaches all these things. But these are views held by leading voices in the movement. And any Christian who knows His Bible should be alarmed when hearing of such aberrant views. Even some leaders from within the wider emerging church movement are sounding the alarm, such as Mark Driscoll who writes:

…the Emergent Church is the latest version of liberalism. The only difference is that the old liberalism accommodated modernity and the new liberalism accommodates postmodernity. (Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev., p. 22)
…I eventually had to distance myself from the Emergent stream of the network because friends like Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt began pushing a theological agenda that greatly troubled me. Examples include referring to God as a chick, questioning God's sovereignty over and knowledge of the future, denial of the substitutionary atonement at the cross, a low view of Scripture, and denial of hell…. (Driscoll, (Cf. also Jason Carlson, “My Journey Into and Out of the Emergent Church,”

What is the greatest concern about the Emerging Church?
There is one doctrine that the EC attacks most, a doctrine upon which all Christian faith and teaching rests: the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. This has been a cornerstone of evangelical belief ever since the time of the Reformation – the settled confidence that, on the whole, the Bible is not obscure or ambiguous but that it is clear and understandable for the ordinary Christian. Saints have faced persecution and suffering with unshakable certainty because their faith was grounded in the clarity of God’s Word. Jesus frequently appealed to and assumed the clarity of Scripture when He rebuked the religious leaders: “Have you not read in the Scriptures? Do you not know?” (Matt. 12:3,5; 19:14; 21:42; 22:31, etc.)

But McLaren and the EC celebrate their ignorance of Scripture and their certainty that no one can be certain of what Scripture says. McLaren summed up his motto well when he wrote, “Certainty is overrated” ( But Luke’s whole aim for Christians was that they might “know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4). And Scripture says, “faith is being…certain of what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1).

EC leaders say it is more humble to embrace mystery than to seek certainty. But this is arrogance disguised as humility, claiming to be wiser than God regarding whether He spoke clearly or not. Here’s how God defines humility: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2). God is not looking for those who only dialogue or converse about His Word, but for those who take it seriously enough to tremble and obey.

McLaren even wants to throw out certainty about the gospel, the very “evangel” that defines evangelicalism! He writes, “I don’t think we’ve got the gospel right yet…. None of us has arrived at orthodoxy” (Christianity Today, Nov. 2004). Because authorities have been certain about wrong things in the past (a flat earth, apartheid, etc.), McLaren jumps to the conclusion that we must beware of thinking we’re right. But the only way for a preacher to be unashamed and approved by God is to be sure that he has “rightly divided the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Paul was so sure of the rightness of the gospel that he told the Galatians anyone preaching another gospel should be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9).

God’s Word treats certainty of spiritual truth as essential. To be saved is to “come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:4); it is to join those who “believe and know the truth” (1 Tim. 4:3). It is not a complement to be described as those who are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7).

McLaren believes that we must accommodate other religions – that new converts to Christ would not necessarily have to leave Buddhism or Hinduism, and that we need more “gentle and respectful dialogue” with other religions in order to improve Christianity (A Generous Orthodoxy, pp. 255-60). But one searches in vain to find the OT prophets or NT apostles suggesting that conversion could come at such a small cost, or that the truth becomes richer by bartering with error.

Why certainty matters
While writing this article, I received a testimony from a young pastor whose wife was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. He writes:

I am more convinced than ever as I walk through this valley that God’s truth is all that can sustain us – Satan wants to rob God’s people of this confidence so that in their day of battle they will shrink back or grow weary and abandon well doing. [The EC] may be a new and avant-garde thing to discuss on the lecture circuit and in books – but in the valley of the shadow of death it falls pathetically short when measured against the blessing and comfort that comes from accurate, confident exposition of Scripture!

God pours His peace into the soul that is certain of His promises. Any movement that exalts doubt over certainty and that undermines the clarity of God’s Word is a movement that endangers the faith of God’s people. The EC is not evangelical at all if it throws out the clarity of the gospel. It should be classified as “divergent” rather than “emergent”.

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