Monday, August 11, 2008

The Emerging Threat of the Emerging Church Movement


By: Philip Rosenthal ;
Last updated: 8 April ‘08
Types of emerging church leaders and participants 4
Answering the evangelistic argument 5


Recently, Christian bookshops have started to stock books published by leaders of the 'emerging church movement'. Speakers use new words like 'missional'. Christian blogs discuss the issue. Pastors are told that they need to adapt their message to reach a new 'post-modern generation'. Some of the statements of these leaders can seem worrying, but their attacks on the established church resonate with many who are fed up with hypocrisy, authoritarianism and institutionalism. Nobody wants to be seen as 'out of date', so they hesitate before challenging this movement. What is this all about? Is it just a new fad? Is it a new movement in evangelicalism?

I argue this is something much more dangerous and serious, and about which every Biblical Christian needs to be warned. The 'emerging church movement' is an attempt to merge Biblical Christian faith with the religious worldview of Postmodernism. It includes a range of responses. At the one end of the spectrum are those who are just trying to adapt our methods to appeal to Postmodern youth without compromising the gospel. The other end of the spectrum to which the most popularly read leaders belong, however, are essentially preaching a new way of interpreting scripture and a different gospel. This is I believe the most serious threat to Biblical Christian faith to 'emerge' in the last hundred years. I predict it will be the primary ideological battle in the church of at least the first half of the 21st century.

This attempt by another religion to infiltrate Christianity is similar in many ways to the attempts of Gnostic mystics to infiltrate the early church in the first few centuries. It is similar to the attempt to infiltrate Christianity with Modernism in the 19th and early 20th centuries; or with Liberal Christianity. Marxism tried to infiltrate Christianity with Liberation Theology in the late 20th century. Animists have attempted to merge with Christianity in certain African Independent churches. The Interfaith movement has attempted to merge Christianity with the New Age movement.

It is essential to understand that this is not a new stream of Christianity. It is an attempt to merge Christianity with another totally different religion. It is an attack on the core of the gospel. Orthodox Protestants have more in common with Catholics and Eastern Orthodox than they have with the 'Emergent Church' At least these major streams agree on the basic concept of absolute truth. The 'emergent church' does not.

In the past five years, a number of popular evangelical Christian writers, particularly those on the fringes, have abandoned orthodox Christianity in favour of the emerging church movement. You may find an author you like now promoting this heresy, without telling you he has changed his views. Evangelicalism is bleeding to the Emerging Church/Postmodernism now in the same way Protestantism was bleeding to Modernism in the late 19th century.

Tragically, many Christian leaders are not seeing the threat at present. Many good pastors who are friends of mine have already got involved in it. Thus 'emerging church' books are being published by reputable Christian publishers, sold in evangelical Christian bookshops and their speakers are allowed to speak at Christian conferences. It has already taken over many evangelical Bible seminaries overseas. This is sadly similar to the way Modernism infiltrated both Protestantism and Catholicism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. If it is not fought with all the strength we have now, it will likely either take over or force schism in most of the currently evangelical denominations.


Answer: Because it is an attempt to unite Christianity with Postmodernism, and Postmodernism is the dominant worldview of the educated elite of our society - particularly the younger generation (under 35 years old). Almost every university course, film house, newspaper and TV programme they are exposed to is promoting this ideology. And if they attend a Bible believing church or listen to Bible believing Christian radio, then the two
ideologies don't fit together. Real Christianity to many of them seems somehow intolerant and out of date. 'Emerging Church' Christianity does fit with the trendy youth culture. You can be 'cool' with your Post-modern peers and educators and yet still be ‘a Christian’.

But is this an authentic Biblical response to a culture gone astray? No! The correct Biblical response is to challenge the unbiblical culture with the truth of scripture, however unpopular that might make us. Jesus was despised and persecuted and so were his apostles (Hebrews 13:13). We must be ready to do the same. In the same way that the Judaisers of Galatians tried to adapt Christianity to avoid persecution (Galations 6:12), so the 'Emerging Church' tries to create a more tolerant, less certain, uncontroversial Christianity which does not offend the world.

Actually, many of our educated Christian youth are already Post-modern thinkers. They have already tried informally to merge Christianity and postmodernism in their own minds. It is just that now a group of Christian leaders is formalising this merger and articulating it as a movement and a theology.


There are many problems with the teaching of the 'Emerging Church', but most serious is its attack on the importance of truth and the certainty of the meaning of scripture. In postmodernist/emergent belief, truth, doctrine and logic is not all that important. What is much more important is tolerance, relationships, stories and people's feelings. Truth is not considered absolute but rather subjective. Truth relates subjectively to the human who hears it rather than to the absolute reference point of God. Hitherto, Biblical Christians may often disagree with each other, but they argue in the hope of convincing each other because they believe something must be true and the opposite must be false. Postmodernists don't see the world this way. Instead of an absolute truth to search for, all there is are people's opinions, and we must all respect each other’s opinions.

While Modernists attacked the truth of the scriptures, Postmodernists do not attack the scripture itself, but rather our ability to understand it. They refuse any systematic attempt to try to understand and interpret the scriptures. They just let everyone pick and choose what they want to believe and what not believe, without attempting to fit these beliefs together logically. The result is that scripture interpretation becomes entirely subjective to each individual. You can believe whatever you 'feel' like believing, as long as you respect everyone else's right to do the same. In their view, for example, it is simply impossible to determine certainly whether or not the Bible condones abortion or homosexuality.

They theological view truth as something that is 'emerging', 'progressive' and moving forward, rather like technology. Each generation is more enlightened than the last. That leaves open the door for the next generation of Christians to believe something totally different to us.

See MORE INFORMATION on page 8, for web links to some unbiblical quotations from Emerging church leaders).

The Emerging Church/ Postmodern interpretation of the Bible matters because it's subjective interpretation of the Bible is unbiblical, false and wrong. But it has damaging practical consequences for numerous other issues.

Firstly, if the Bible's teaching on ethics is mysterious, then we can never understand it. So, what authority does it then have? Emerging church supporters may apply their interpretation of the Bible to themselves. They may accept that the authority of their church or denomination to determine policy for church discipline. But how can they challenge anyone else outside their group’s belief? How can they tell non-Christians not to abort a baby or the government to ban abortion or 'same-sex marriage'?

Answer: They don't. Emerging church leaders generally discourage this. For example, their principal false prophet, Brian McLaren has called for a 5-year moratorium on speaking against homosexuality.
( The Emerging Church beliefs fit well with the pro-choice position on abortion. “I would not have an abortion myself, but I will not try to stop someone else from having one”. A post-modern church leader recently took the position ‘Our church denomination will not perform same-sex marriages, but we think the government should allow same sex-marriage for those willing to do them’.

So Emerging Church leaders undermine the whole basis for Christian activism against sin in society. They are not sure what is right and wrong themselves, and they are embarrassed by others who do. What were formally moral absolutes now become a 'grey area'. Just at the time when courage is needed to fight the evils such as abortion and homosexuality in society, the emergent church leaders discourage people from taking a stand.

Secondly, they attack core Biblical teachings as unimportant. While many Modernists will argue there was no virgin birth, some post-modernists will argue that they believe there was a virgin birth, but that if it were proved that there were no virgin birth, that would not affect their faith. What is the problem with this? Precisely because, if there was no virgin birth, then the scriptures are false, and if the scriptures are false then our faith in them is false.

Actually truth does matter. In 1 Corinthians 15:14, Paul explains how our faith hangs on the doctrine of the resurrection. Many other teachings of scripture are similarly integrally linked to the core of our faith. By arguing that truth is not important, they pave the way for others to follow into complete unbelief and apostasy.

Thirdly, if truth is not absolute, why should we care about those who are persecuted for their faith? Generally postmodernist Christians don't care. If truth is not clear in scripture, then why suffer for truth? Why not just compromise or shut up on that aspect of the truth which is under attack and thus escape persecution. To the postmodernist mind, Christian's suffering unpopularity, jail, torture and death for their faith seems weird. This is why the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission has identified Postmodernism as a major threat to religious liberty (Newsletter 15 February 2008).

While this section highlights the problems of post-modernism in interpreting the biblical position on a handful of ethical and theological problems, it potentially affects all aspects of ethics and doctrine. The result is that people hold to a weak, subjective view of ethics and doctrine that is highly tolerant of alternative viewpoints and behaviours.

Three hundred years ago, Protestantism meant a specific set of beliefs. Modernism re-defined Protestantism by destroying its boundaries and re-defining its terminology. ‘Fundamentalism’ was an attempt to re-define these boundaries. Many believed the boundaries set by Fundamentalism were too narrow and so created the broader category of ‘Evangelicalism’. The Emerging Church is a movement without boundaries. While claiming to be a part of Evangelicalism, it is attempting to re-define ‘Evangelical’ in a manner that is so broad that it can accept all kinds of heresy and unbiblical behaviour. We must look not only at what it leaders do and believe but what they tolerate. Before removing the fences we must consider why they were put up there in the first place and what has happened historically to groups which remove the fences.

Some 'emerging church' followers reading the above are probably going to protest at some point and say 'you are misrepresenting me' and 'I don't believe that'. Or 'my pastor is a good Bible believing Christian and he is involved in this' - are you saying he is a heretic?
Types of emerging church leaders and participants

No. Firstly, there are many different streams in the emerging/ emergent church/ 'missional' movement. Secondly, the post-modern belief system itself encourages diversity of belief. Thirdly, different people joining the movement have mixed it in different proportions with Biblical Christianity. Some are mostly Biblical and a little post-modern. Others are mostly post-modern and a little biblical. Some fall within the boundaries of Orthodox Christianity, some do not. Fourthly, post-modern beliefs have logical implications, which will lead progressively to a straying away from belief in the Bible. New 'emerging church' followers have not realised where their new 'uncertain' Biblical interpretation method will lead them. For now most of them remain mostly biblical, but in a decade or two they will have strayed further. Future generations of 'emerging church' followers will probably slide all the way to apostasy and rejection of Christian ethics, as many modernists have done.

One must draw a very big distinction between Christians who are trying to reach ‘post-modern’ youth by adopting cultural elements of post-modernism in their style of preaching and service format on the one hand and Christians who are re-interpreting the Bible through a post-modern lens. Some of the former category, call themselves ‘emerging church’, while others do not. My big problem is with the latter category – and I would prefer if the former category disassociated with the latter type and called themselves something different.

There are some areas where Christianity does not clash with post-modernism and on these areas we can adapt without compromising on essentials to try to win over youth influenced by post-modernism. For example, post-modernists tend to prefer stories illustrating a point to abstract theory. Jesus also taught that way in his parables. The Bible is full of stories and so is your personal testimony. Secondly, one can cater for their desire for meaningful relationships. Thirdly, we can also affirm the unity of true orthodox Christians across sectarian boundaries. Fourthly, the emerging church often encourages experimenting with changing the format of the worship service, often re-including elements practised centuries ago or borrowing ideas from contemporary youth culture. While this should be done with caution, truth is sacred, but service format is not.

The issue is very similar to evangelising any culture. For example, there is good and bad in traditional African culture. For example the emphasis on the extended family is more biblical than Western culture. Nevertheless, as Christians, we can’t compromise with ancestor worship. Missionaries to post-moderns need to filter the good from the bad.
Answering the evangelistic argument

Now some orthodox, Bible believing Christians have aligned themselves with the ‘emerging movement’. For example Mark Driscoll writes “In the mid-1990s I was part of what is now known as the Emerging Church and spent some time traveling the country to speak on the emerging church in the emerging culture on a team put together by Leadership Network called the Young Leader Network. But, 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 which is one hell of a mistake.”

Such people often see the ‘Emerging Church’ movement as a means to reach a generation of culturally post-modern youth. A question must be asked as to why they choose to align themselves in the same group and under the same name, with a movement whose principal leaders are not doctrinally orthodox Bible believers? By doing so, do they not risk lending credibility and leading others astray to follow the heretical leaders who share the same banner? Why do they not call themselves by another name and clearly disassociate themselves from the heretical leaders and beliefs? For example, they could use the name ‘Mission to Post-moderns’. By failing to demarcate a clear boundary between evangelical Christianity and the Post-modern adaptation of the gospel, they leave the door open for false teachers who use the same label and banner. The question is which direction is the influence mostly going? Are these Christians mostly influencing Post-moderns to become Orthodox Christians or are they leaving the door open for Orthodox Christians to be seduced into Postmodernism?

To respond to the evangelism argument, I would give two responses. Firstly, the main reason why Post-moderns fail to convert is not because the gospel is not formatted in a trendy culturally appealing ‘Post-modern way’. Actually, Post-moderns are generally more open to listen to the gospel than their Modernist predecessors, but they tend to just filter the gospel through their Post-modern lens, which treats it as just another opinion – and thus evade the challenge to repent of sin. They don’t see themselves as sinners because they don’t understand the concept of sin and thus don’t see any need to repent. Thus to really reach Post-moderns with the gospel, one needs to spend double the effort emphasising the differences with Biblical Christianity – the basic themes of absolute truth, God’s absolute moral standards, sin and repentance. Similarly a new generation of weak post-modern Christians has grown up who see their feelings as more important than their holiness and right belief. To really help such Christians, one needs to bring them back to orthodox Christian basics. I argue we need a more challenging gospel presentation emphasising the differences rather than the similarities with postmodernism.

Secondly, the emergent church tends to blur the focus in evangelism from calling the ‘lost to repentance’ to ‘dialogue’ with other religions. While this may result in less people being offended by Christianity, I believe it will likely lead to a diversion of effort from evangelism to ‘dialogue’, false conversions of those who have not really repented of their sins and ultimately less people being converted to the true faith.

Firstly, emerging church leaders like to confuse Christians with difficult questions from scripture. Then instead of encouraging study to answer these questions, they try to lead them to the conclusion that scripture is unclear on ethics and so we should not impose our beliefs on anyone else. Doubt and tolerance become virtues, while faith and standing for truth become vices.

While it is true that there are some things in scripture that are hard to understand, those things which are essential for righteous living and salvation are fairly clear and there is a consensus of interpretation among those who respect the authority of scripture.

Secondly, they try to argue that they are 'up to date' and that orthodox Christian belief is outdated. This is inherent in the terms 'post-modern', 'emergent' 'future church' - as if there was a forward march of history, which is unstoppable and we should not get left behind. Modernists, Progressives, New Agers also use this manipulative language to try to link their belief to a time period. Everyone in this time period now must believe what they do.

Thirdly, they try to label orthodox Bible believing Christians who believe in absolutes, reason from the scriptures and stand up for truth as judgemental, bigoted, intolerant Pharisees. In doing so, they distort the
Biblical meaning of judgmentalism and substitute a post-modern meaning to the term and evade the real reasons why Jesus fought with the Pharisees. Many Christians, afraid of such ugly labels, shrink from challenging emerging church leaders in debate.

Fourthly, they attack the problems plaguing the contemporary church such as authoritarianism and hypocrisy. While these problems are real, the answers offered by the 'emerging church', such as simply lowering the moral standards required for biblical church discipline and speaking out on moral issues in society on grounds of 'non-judgmentalism', are false.

Fifthly, many emerging church leaders do a lot of good works and fight for some good causes. For example, some run charities, which help the poor. How could people doing so much good be teaching error? Modernists also did a lot of good works and fought for good causes, often more so than orthodox, but pietistic, Christians.

Sixthly, 'emergent church' leaders try to pose as orthodox Bible believing Christians. They publish through respected Bible believing publishers like Zondervan and join evangelical associations and preach in evangelical churches. But this is “wolf in sheep’s clothing” teaching.

Seventh, against charges of heresy, they argue for 'tolerance' and act like wounded lambs. This was the same tactic used by them Modernists in the late 19th and early 20th century. The modernists, once they had seized control of Protestant institutions, then used their power to persecute, silence and throw out Bible believing leaders who opposed them. 'Tolerance' was just a tactic to gain an advantage. The same will probably happen if we don't act now.

Eighth, they promote the 'emerging church' and postmodernism as a platform for unity across denominational and sectarian boundaries. While we should promote unity amongst true Christians, the 'emerging church' is not the correct platform to do so.

Ninth, when an 'emerging church' leader is attacked on any specific point of heresy, then they tend to just disclaim that person as 'not one of them' or part of a different faction. Reality is that the movement is fragmented in belief and its ideology promotes that fragmentation. That is why it is hard to argue with because everyone believes something different.

Tenth, 'emerging church' leaders pose as 'youth experts', offering to help pastors and denominational leaders to relate to the youth. Since they assume the church going youth have already swallowed the lies of post-modernism, they expect their pastors to follow them into error in order to reach them. Actually, a shepherd is supposed to lead the sheep and rescue and defend them from wolves - not follow the sheep who are following wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing. Pastors need to understand postmodernism like a doctor studies disease.


* We must fight the 'emergent church' heresy with all the strength we have. The sooner people are warned about this emerging threat, the more easily they can be saved from it. If we don't fight now, we will have to fight later and then it will be harder to win. This is a priority we cannot ignore. We must be prepared to sacrifice our popularity, our positions, our money, our time, our friendships, and our ministry relationships to fight this uncompromisingly.

* We must fight not only intellectually, but also to ensure that only Bible believing (non-emergent) leaders are appointed to positions of authority in Christian institutions. That means for example, making it a criterion when
you call a new pastor to your church, or choose presenters for a Christian radio programme or who you support in choosing the next leader of a Christian organisation. Christian organisational leaders need to screen their new workers for 'emerging church'/post-modern beliefs.

* We need to be kind and gentle with pastors and leaders who have been recently influenced by the movement, while discussing and giving them resources to help explain its errors. Many have joined it because they are
disillusioned with contemporary Christianity and see it as a more hopeful alternative. It will be doubly painful to be disillusioned twice, first by contemporary Christianity and now by the 'emerging church' movement. We shouldn't add to the pain by being brutal with our words.

* We must encourage a return to the alternative historic Orthodox Biblical Christianity - a study of respected teachers, creeds, confessions statements of faith interpretation the Bible that have stood the test of time to serve
as a balance with new writers. While we must be open to the Holy Spirit shedding some new light on the Word of God, orthodox Biblical movements generally affirm and re-state old accepted truths more than they introduce new ones.

* We should warn Christian bookshops, magazines, churches, publishing houses and denominations and radio stations against 'emerging church' false teachers like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell and ask them not to stock their books, publish their articles or give them a platform at conferences. 2 John v11 explains why assisting heretics is sharing in their work.

* We need to also go onto the offensive against the Postmodernist worldview of which the 'emerging church' is an accommodation, and promote instead the alternative of a Christian worldview. In other words, we must explain how true Christianity applies to all of life and how it differs from other ideologies in its answers to the questions of life.

* Most of the power in Christian institutions is currently in the hands of people who are over 45 years old. Most of these people do not understand the ideology of Post-modernism, which the youth are embracing. They may have biblical views. They may see a few problems, but they don't understand the seriousness of the threat. Most don't like conflict amongst Christians and want to be nice to everyone. They may view conflict as unnecessary trouble-making. We must educate them about the threat, otherwise, in twenty year’s time, most of the orthodox evangelical institutions will be taken over by postmodernists/ 'emerging church'. They must choose their successors from those who stay with Biblical Christianity and they must re-affirm Biblical Christianity to their followers particularly on points such as the clarity of scripture where it differs from post-modernism.

* We can cautiously consider legitimate ways of adapting cultural elements of our church and organisational methods to attract post-modern youth, while being careful not to compromise the gospel and Christian ethics.

* We must have hope and confidence that ultimately, the 'emerging church movement' and its mother, 'postmodernism', will eventually go out of fashion just like Modernism, Marxism, Fascism and their attempts to synchretise with Christianity. Already Postmodernism is losing support amongst the worlds top intellectuals and that means it is only a matter of time before it loses support in popular culture. That however, could take a few decades. Until then, we must fight to stop it corrupting Christianity and present a Biblical Christian alternative.

* Please print out this document and give it to your pastor or Christian organisational leader.


* The main group promoting the emerging church in South Africa is
* Examples of unbiblical quotations from principal Emerging Church leaders:
- Brian McClaren
- Rob Bell
- Steve Chalke
* A chart comparing post-modernism to other worldviews:
* Overview of movement (mostly in favour but including some balancing criticism).
* A list of some key leaders opposing the emerging church movement
* Helpful web sites against the Emerging Church are:

1 comment:

Roger Saner said...

Philip, you say the emerging church does not believe in absolute truth. Does this mean everyone, or a majority of people within the emerging church do not believe in absolute truth?

If so, and because your article is so well-researched, could you please provide me with one, just one, quote where a leader/respected voice within the emerging church conversation says, "I do not believe in absolute truth."?