Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Myth of the "Third Way": A Humble Polemic for the Emerging Church

First, let me state from the beginning: I am probably not someone who could be identified as part of the "emerging church" movement. I am a linear thinker who has the creativity of a #2 pencil. Yet there is much about this movement that I appreciate, and believe that it has the potential as one facet of the church of the future, to change the face of Christianity in North America for the better.

Still, there are things of grave concern within this movement; things which must be jettisoned if the emerging church is to help lead the body of Christ in North America into the 21st century and beyond.

Let me also say at the outset that although parts of this post may appear arrogant, they are not intended to be so. I have a deep and abiding respect for many who may be referenced in the forthcoming paragraphs because of the way they have challenged me personally. Yet, while certain issues should remain "non issues," there are others which define the church and the Gospel in which there is no--repeat no--room for compromise!

As a whole, the emerging church has provided a helpful push out of the "bowels" of modernity. Their reviving of the use of the arts in worship, their missional focus, Kingdom consciousness, and narrative approach to evangelism in a postmodern world do more than just help us to be more effective in making 21st century disciples: These revived foci also help us return to a Christianity that is less Constantinian and more Apostolic. In addition, it must be admitted that the "modern" church contends with its own demons (epistemological idealism, "establishment arrogance", and a borderline-legalistic perception of Biblical morality are but a few of these), and those among the emerging church movement are right and just in their challenges to these modern shortcomings.

Given these wonderful positives, the emerging church movement (or "conversation" as Brian McClaren prefers to call it) sometimes is touted as the group that could possibly "unify" the body in ways never dreamed possible. It seems, on the surface, to provide a way for evangelicals to enjoy an affinity with more liberal Christians that was not previously known or experienced. At a youth workers convention, Mark Oestreicher introduced Brian McClaren as a "pilgrim" in search of a "third alternative, something beyond the confining boxes of liberal and conservative..." and was met with erupting applause. But is there really any such thing as a legitimate "third way?"

I began to smell something rotten about this just today. In a recent post by Adam Cleveland, this Princeton Seminary student issues a challenge as to whether Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church, could really be considered a part of the emerging church. His rationale was not tied to appearance, worship style, methodology, or missional commitment, but to theology. For example, Cleveland contends that Driscoll might be excluded because Mars Hill excludes women from pastoral leadership positions. He is also troubled by how Driscoll seems to come across with "absolutes." Cleveland states "I just get the feeling that Mark feels like Scripture is clear, black/white on many issues and he is sharing these answers with people."

Further troubling Cleveland was the fact that when he visited the church, "Mars Hill had a lot of John Piper available [at their book tables]" Cleveland's conclusion then, is that Mars Hill couldn't be a real emerging church, because "theologically, they resemble any other conservative, evangelical church [with the possibility of a bit of a fundamentalist streak there]."

Why don't we turn the tables a bit? What if I walked into Brian McClaren's Cedar Ridge Church, just minutes from my house, and made the following observations: "As I sat in worship, I noticed that women were prominent leaders in the worship service. In fact, this particular morning, one of the women pastors gave the message. In addition, when I walked by their book tables, I noticed both Walter Brueggeman and Joel Green. Also, McClaren is very 'fuzzy' on a lot of issues that I think Scripture addresses with crystal clarity. Therefore, McClaren couldn't possibly be a part of the emerging church movement, because theologically, Cedar Ridge resembles any other liberal, neo-orthodox church [with the possibility of a bit of an existentialist streak there]."

Think the above paragraph is unfair? Of course it is! The truth is that both McClaren and Driscoll have made helpful contributions. But Cleveland's post reveals a certain reality that I fear is not yet understood by many in this movement. Over a half-century ago, J. Gresham Machen revealed this same division in his classic text Christianity and Liberalism. Machen was sometimes hurtfully clear that the teachings of Scripture were incompatible with the teachings of early 20th century liberalism. For many in the emerging church movement today, this incompatability is the "elephant in the room." Few seem willing to acknowledge it. And as Machen first said in 1923, "Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time . . . .clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding." In other words, in the early 20th century people were asking whether it was really neccesary to discuss these differences--to risk division on the grounds of doctrine to the detriment of mission. Machen's answer was that the destruction of mission comes when the "fundamentals of the Christian faith" are compromised for the sake of a disingenuous "unity." If we don't know what message it is we are to carry, then what good is it to run with empty arms?

This same challenge must be made to the emerging church, only with much more solemnity! The issues at stake are more severe, because unlike the liberalism of the past, which claimed "scientific" answers to many questions of faith, that sector of the emerging church which holds to "post-liberal" understandings of Scripture claims no answers at all; only a "journey." Strange thing is, this "journey" has more "absolutes" than many will admit:

-They are certain that women should be allowed to serve as Pastors, overseeing the local church.
-They are certain that George Bush is evil, and that ALL war is unjust!
-They are certain that much that is wrong with the 21st century church is due to "doctrinal division" caused mainly by "fundamentalists."
-They are certain that orthopraxy is not just equal to orthodoxy. It superceedes orthodoxy.
-They are certain that the "conservative/Protestant" Gospel is not actually what Jesus or Paul were getting at.

If these "certainties" are troubling, consider their "uncertainties"

-They are uncertain about whether truth is absolute.
-They are uncertain about the veracity of the miracle passages in the Bible.
-They are uncertain about the substitutionary nature of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
-They are uncertain about the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the only route to a relationship with God, and eternal salvation.

So you tell me, is this a legitimate "third way," or is it simply plain, old-fashioned liberalism? Though I strongly disagree with Adam Cleveland's post, I have to give him credit for being among the first to point out this "elephant in the room." There are differences on the two "sides" of the emerging church movement that will not be overcome, except by eventual fracture.

Contrary to the pictures of Jesus given by those on the "left" side of this movement, He was at times divisive! And He was most divisive when it came to the issue of His identity and purpose. To be sure, we can learn much from McClaren, especially when it comes to the way in which we display humility and graciousness. (Some might argue after reading this post that I could take a few lessons from McClaren in this regard, and I would probably agree!) But a compromise of the "faith once delivered unto the saints" will not move the North American church forward, it will destroy it.

Now, do not read what I haven't written! I am not suggesting a "takeover," or some other "political strategy." For one, there is nothing to "take over" (which may be the best thing about this "conversation," as McClaren calls it). But I am suggesting that in our dialogue we remember that there can only be one Gospel! Take away the meaning of the cross and ressurrection, the means of grace, the deity and exclusivity of Jesus, and all you have is a glorified copy of the United Way with a baptismal pool! If the emerging church is going to continue to legitimately be called the "church," it must continue to act as what Martin Luther called "God's mouthpiece." For those in the movement who believe in the ultimate authority of Scripture, that may mean becoming "divisive." But you are a debtor to God, and to the people He has called you to reach, to ensure that the message you bring really is able and mighty to save them.


'Thought & Humor' said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
andrew jones said...


well written

from my viewpoint, we find commonality in our mission - that God is sending us all to the fringe of culture where emergence is happening and we are working together for the gospel - which brings mark driscoll and brian mclaren together in the same trench, even though their approach is different, (and i would add that, having been to Brian's church as well as marks, that i really dont think their church would fit the liberalist description you have given)

but there is a lot of variety among the churches ministering among the emerging culture and a lot of similarities in the way their missiology is taking shape

keep on blogging!!!

Joel Rainey said...

Hi Andrew! It's an honor to have you stop in, read, and reply. I visit your site often, and am always challenged to churn the "grey matter" a bit!

I agree with you that it is the commonality of mission that holds the different parts of the emerging church together. Also, know that my characterization of Cedar Ridge was given in jest, and in response to Cleveland's post about Mars Hill. I admit having never been to McClaren's church, and would never make serious statements like that of a church I never visited.
My main concern isn't over the differences on things like the Iraq War, or the place of women, etc. Certainly those are issues that evangelicals can agree to disagree on. What bothers me is how some within this movement are changing the content of the Gospel. McClaren for example, rightly challenges those who reduce the Gospel to "raise your hand, pray and prayer, and escape hell because of Jesus' death on the cross," but in the process, I'm afraid he's throwing the baby out with the bathwater by circumventing penal substitution all together. In the end, although I believe McClaren and Driscoll have the same heart, they are driven by different motivations. My fear is that what motivates McClaren, while noble, isn't the Gospel. Hope this helps clarify my concerns.
Thanks for stopping in!

Ryan DeBarr said...


You've shown more tact than I am capable of. I've followed Emergence from a distance for a two or three years now. Maybe a better way of saying it is that I was aware of its existance and had surfed a few websites. I viewed it as an interesting fad, that makes a few good points but is too eager to ditch the traditional churches.

After reading through the major Emergent blogs after Brian McLaren's discussions about Hell, my mind has changed. There seems to be a good bit of tired, old theological liberalism repackaged as something new and exciting. Call it neo-neo-orthodoxy. My primary concern is not annihilationism, but the seeming reluctance on the part of many in the "conversation" to acknowlege the eternal and supernatural aspects of Christianity. McLaren also seems to have a warped view of God's justice when he says (and I paraphrase) that hell would make God into some kind of monster. Whether or not hell is literal, Jesus used horrific language in describing it- does that also make Him a monster?

Funny how we both came to the same basic conclusion, even if you can state it with more grace. Maybe we're just both fundyclones.

adam feldman said...

joel, i enjoyed your perspective on the theological substructure in all this "emerging" dialogue. just for clarification, are you referring to the "emerging" church in general, or the conversation called "emergent?" i imagine you were referring to the latter, but just asking for clarification.

you hit the nail on the head about the absolute certainties and uncertainties within emergent. to emergent's credit, i think there are more "uncertainties" within the faith than most evangelical/fundamentalists are willing to acknowledge. (i am not by any means suggesting they are the same as what you put in the list on your site.)

Joel Rainey said...

Good to see you have emerged from the "house-buying blues" alive, and thanks for posting.
I suppose that when I refer to my concerns, that most of what concerns me does come from "emergent." However, I don't believe all of the problems have their locus in emergent. Conversely, I don't believe everyone involved with emergent can be described in the same way (although I do believe my descriptions are an accurate picture of most of their leadership)
You do, however, raise an interesting point: It IS neccesary to distinguish between the "emerging" church (which describes the entire movement), and "emergent" (one identifiable group within the movement.) Thanks for making that distinction, and hurry on up here! We can't wait to start working with you! :)

Rick said...

I would say that I agree with the statement that Mark Driscoll is not part of the emerging church movement.

however, I would say this because I know Mark and he would say he is not part of the emerging church conversation.

The person who said this about Mark is like the person that gets the right answer to a math problem, but when you look at all the work they did to get the answer, it seems wrong.

Anonymous said...

Adam has his own view of things, and thats the only one he is interested in.

He is someone who has alot to learn.

The church must find common space and mutual trust.

He wants the opposite.