Great Stuff — Sense and Sensibility: Emergent Mystique or Emerging Mistake?

Here’s an blog post on a very odd article in the latest Concordia Journal on the Emergent Church by Pastor Woodford. We’ve previously posted articles by him, e.g. What the Church Needs Now and Getting the Message Out or Getting the Message Right?.


As a pastor and student of theology, I like to keep up on the various movements within the Holy Christian Church. One recent movement is known as the Emerging or Emergent Church Movement. I’ve posted on it briefly in the past, but a recent article has caught my attention. Enough so, that I felt compelled to write a response to it here (and perhaps pursue a formal one as well.)

The article was from the just released Spring 2012 issue of the Concordia Journal and is titled, “The End of Theology?: The Emergent Church in the Lutheran Perspective” and written by Ph. D. candidate Chad Lakies. I’ve never met Chad and I’d love to talk to him in person about this, but as I read his article I’m not sure it was as helpful as he had hoped.

His title would make one think there would be some thoughtful evaluations of the movement and its theology from a Lutheran perspective. Curiously, that was not the case. Rather, as Lakies states, “I want to show what they are ‘up to’ in a way that, perhaps, does not cause us to raise so quickly the alarm of concern”(p.118). In short, he takes particular issue with what he considers an overly negative assessment of the Emergent Church movement by Dr. Carol Geisler in her May 13, 2011 article “Reframing the Story: The End of the Emergent Conversation.” (He is also critical of a corresponding CTCR document about the Emergent Church Movement.) His desire is “to suggest a different kind of evaluation that is more congenial for interacting with ‘cultural sensibilities’ as they are manifest in the life of the church—for this is what I suggest emergents are doing, manifesting a sensibility, rather than presenting an entirely new theology” (p.118). I would respectfully disagree. To be sure, I agree they are intentionally manifesting a sensibility, but it is one that most certainly informs and shapes an emerging tendency to create “new” if not, amorphous theology (not to mention ecclesiology).

Lakies primary objections fall in that there is no official Emergent “church body” to fairly evaluate, as well as Lutherans who have a knee jerk and uninformed reaction to movements like these:

“Typical of Lutheran authors who set themselves up to examine the beliefs and confession of a different body from their own, Geisler begins comparing what she sees as the beliefs and confession of emergents with those of Missouri Synod Lutherans. A major problem with this approach is that fact that there really is no particular body or denomination called ‘the Emergent Church’…From the outset, the assumption, which is uncritically employed, is that Lutherans are plainly and simply right. From the very beginning, it is as if confessional Missouri Synod Lutheranism owns the market on theology…Such a methodology of evaluating the beliefs and confessions of others is problematic for a whole slew of different reasons. But ultimately it assumes that ‘theology is over,’ that orthodoxy has once-for-all been established and is guarded and maintained in our Confession, and thus it is our God-given task to sound the alarm when others get out of line…For all the good intentions that are the impetus for both works [CTCR document and Geisler] in trying to help the church understand emergents, I am concerned that both works are based only on bibliographical research alone” (p.119-120, 125).

I’m not exactly sure what Lakies aims to communicate with this. Should confessional Lutherans not subscribe to the orthodoxy of their faith? Should they not declare, with Luther, “Here I stand, I can do no other”? How else should confessional Lutherans evaluate other faith claims? I certainly embrace the opportunity to learn from other perspectives, but I am uncomfortable with what Lakies seems to insinuate about Lutheran orthodoxy. In sum, Lakies desires to give the emergent church movement a more favorable treatment with the hopes“that this different approach might prove informative and helpful for those reflective practitioners who are attempting to navigate relationships with the emergent movement…” (p.125).

First, a couple of brief concerns, and then I’ll offer a more in-depth assessment in narrative (emergent) form. To begin, Lakies rightly sides with the Emergent premise “that what one really believes is evidenced in what one does” over against the current “flawed” model and “bad anthropology” of contemporary Christendom that emphases (only) right belief with little or no emphasis on right practice or life (p.121). But then he acknowledges that “Their criticisms (which are aimed mostly at evangelicalism since many of them come from that tradition) demand they tell a different story”(p.121). However, he fails to note that Lutheran theology has always had a robust love of neighbor and doctrine for life inherent in it. This seems to imply that Lutherans are also in need of this emerging corrective. But if this is so, and perhaps sadly in some cases it is, it will only go to show how some Lutherans have abandoned thier historic confession of faith and adopted evangelicalism, as opposed to somehow insinuating that Lutherans need to embrace what emergents think they have discovered.

Second, I find it interesting (and partially true) that Lakies feels it unfair to wholesale evaluate the movement since it is not an official denomination. But then he wishes to go and defend and speak for it wholesale. I find this a bit inconsistent, i.e. “Emergents do not want to end up simply repristinating the kind of ‘violent’ practices and positions from which they are ‘emerging’” (p. 122). Further, as one who has not only read volumes of emergent books, documents, and blogs, has interviewed emergent leaders (i.e. Doug Pagitt, of Solomon’s Porch, Minneapolis, MN) and has written and published a detailed chapter about the Emergent Church in my recent book Great Commission, Great Confusion, Or Great Confession? (see chapter 5), I feel it is in fact legitimate to provide wholesale evaluations. Perhaps there may be various brands that need to be noted, i.e. “Emerging” and “Emergent,” but they do tend to be very similar, where the above notion of “manifesting a sensibility” does certainly tend toward “new” hermeneutics and new theology (or in some cases, retreads of old trendy theology).

One short but startling example comes from a book that Lakies notes, but fails to adequately evaluate. Phyllis Tickle in her book, The Great Emergence, makes a bold assertion. She states that the notion of using “Luther’s sola scriptura… is now seen as hopelessly outmoded or insufficient, even after it is, as here, spruced up and re-couched in more current sensibilities.” (p. 151). Tickle then goes on to explain their new hermeneutic and its “authority base” as it flows out of the idea of “network theory” and “crowd sourcing.” In short, if “manifesting a sensibility” means abandoning Sola Scriptura, then it most certainly is a new theology.

And this brings me to my final point. I fear Lakies over plays and under evaluates the claim that Emergents are really just about “having a certain sensibility.” In fact, if I might be so bold, I think he has played right into the hands of the emerging hermeneutic. I’ll try to explain by way of a narrative (emergent) hermeneutic.

Consider Jane Austen’s well known novel, Sense and Sensibility. The title of the book conveys the philosophical depth and intent of this 19th century classic romance novel. The “Sense” or prudent, good judgment of the novel is most notably embodied by Elinor Dashwood. She is the reserved eldest (19) daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood. She is portrayed as one who has a keen of responsibility to her family and friends and so places their welfare and interests above her own, suppressing her own strong emotions in a way that often leads others to think she is indifferent or cold-hearted.

This is contrasted with the “Sensibility” or the passions, (the following of your heart above all other rules and conventions) of the novel which are embodied by Marianne Dashwood. She is the romantically inclined and eagerly expressive second daughter (16) of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood, who develops an intense affection for the philanderer, Mr. Willoughby.

As the novel plays out, the reader is invited to see how the variations of “sense” and “sensibility” unfold in each of the characters’ lives, particularly in Marianne and Elinor. The reader is meant to become romantically enthralled by the impact and consequence of each characters decisions as they’re set in the midst of their 19th century British upper class cultural and social norms.

In the end, Marianne comes to assess what has passed with “sense” rather than emotion, i.e. “sensibility,” and sees that she could never have been happy with Mr. Willoughby’s immoral and expensive nature and so eventually comes to marry the more honorable Colonel Christopher Brandon.

Though this is simply a romance novel, it is nonetheless a descriptor, a narrative of life that speaks to the realities of life. In it “sense” is found to offer greater clarity, while “sensibility” tended to cloud judgment. I wonder if Lakies has disregarded the “sense” of Lutheran theology and fallen in with the “sensibility” of emergents. I don’t mean that as a disrespectful slight, but rather, as it was for Marianne Dashwood, a surrender to the charming allure of a “sensibility” that seemed so much more appealing, more visceral, and more compelling, which prompted her to, for a time, disregard “sense.”

In the end, I’ll stand with John Pless who provided an early astute evaluation of the emergent church movement: “Missing Luther’s radical move, the Emerging Church begins with life not doctrine, and with ethics not faith. While claiming to be generous, open, and tolerant, McLaren—with his incessant focus on the necessity for authentic discipleship, obedience rather than knowledge, and lives characterized by compassion slips into a rigidity that is unattainable. While the language might sound inclusive and undiscriminating, it is the language of the law… The Emerging Church is not nearly as free from the dreary moralism that they decry. Gerhard Forde has helpfully observed that those who begin with the presupposition of freedom end in bondage. Only a theology that begins with the presupposition that humanity is in bondage can end in freedom—the freedom of the Spirit.” “Contemporary Spirituality and the Emerging Church,” Concordia Theological Quarterly (July/ October, 2007), p 320.

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully and collegially talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.


Rev. Woodford

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

Norm has been involved behind the scenes in many of the "go-to" websites for Lutherans going back many years.


Great Stuff — Sense and Sensibility: Emergent Mystique or Emerging Mistake? — 18 Comments

  1. Thank you for such a great article on the Emergent/Emerging church. I have interacted with self-professed Emergents for a number of years and in every case I have heard remarks similar to Mr. Lakies’ “A major problem with this approach is that fact that there really is no particular body or denomination called ‘the Emergent Church’…” These sort of statements are simply “dodging” sound criticisms of serious errors and heresies expressed by Emergent writers. A similar dodge is “Nobody speaks for the Emerging church!” Perhaps that is the case, but surely there are many Emergents confessing their doctrines in the public arena and their teachings can therefore be evaluated against the Holy Scriptures? Indeed, what is the sense of “engaging the conversation,”—as Emergents love to put it—if nobody speaks a faithful Emergent message? This whole theological “Wack-a-mole” game of theirs around there being “no particular body or denomination” which represents Emergent serves to undermine what it is they claim to be doing, and that is engaging “the conversation” over the meaning of truth, etc. In other words, what is the sense of claiming an “emergent Christian message” if when anyone claiming to confess that message can’t speak as an authority for Emergent teachings?

  2. But I did learn (page 125), Luther was an emergent church guy in his approach to practice and theology.

  3. The author is to be a prof at Concordia, Portland. The name listed as the author was Chad Lakies. Why do we differ here on the author?

    I had trouble understanding most of what he wrote, except that the LCMS was wrong in its criticisms. He never did explain or deal with what emergents might be teaching.

  4. “In short, he takes particular issue with what he considers an overly negative assessment of the Emergent Church movement by Dr. Carol Geisler in her May 13, 2011 article ‘Reframing the Story: The End of the Emergent Conversation.'”

    It would be helpful if links to referenced articles were provided. Where was Dr. Geisler’s paper published? Is it available on the Web? How about the CTCR document?



  5. The Concordia Journal article is not digitally available yet.
    The piece by Carol Geisler is here:

    The CTCR document is here:

    Enjoy your reading – most consultants are saying that the Emergent Church is dead already, but that of course doesn’t stop the LCMS from talking about her and learning how to do things from her (even though she lasted only a dozen years or so). At least we aren’t 20 years behind like we used to be.

  6. My first thought was “Lakies needs to revisit Luther’s ‘Freedom of the Christian.'” Any “movement” that is adoctrinal in the interest of promoting an expressed faith will soon find itself with neither doctrine nor expression. Mr. Lakies’ example of the resurrection was also relatively offensive. He seemed to hold the view that Orthodoxy amounts to nude proposition as an intellectual exercise devoid of application. This would be news to any of the orthodox dogmaticians. Still, if I must choose proposition without expression or expression without proposition, I will take the former. The latter will have no idea what to express and soon cease to be anything at all. At least with doctrinal proposition a person has a measure of his own hypocrisy. Lakies might need a little of that.

  7. My copy of Concordia Journal arrived in the mail and this piece (of ____) was my bedtime reading. It reminded me of the time when Concordia Journal presented a glowing tribute to a man who became famous for rejecting the Lutheran Confessions and embracing Rome. As if singing the praises of “Father” Neuhaus in their official professional journal wasn’t bad enough, Concordia Seminary tarnished its reputation even further by endorsing the author, a man who also rejected the Lutheran Confessions when he joined hands in a worship service with those praying to a wide variety of false gods, including the Muslim god of the false prophet Mohammed — and then he made a mockery of Christian repentance and that great man of faith, Wallace Shulz.

    Lakies’ article reads like something released by the ELCA (or Benke) and so much of it is asinine that it’s hard to decide where to begin or what was the most dangerous part. Here is a random sampling:

    He mocks the belief that “Lutherans are plainly and simply right.” (I don’t think he ever even mentions the Confessions.)

    He turns a great quote from Luther on its head, saying that it means we should doubt everything we believe (apparently even the Confessions). Luther: “The Word of God comes, when it comes, in opposition to our thinking and wishing. It does not let our thinking prevail, even in what is most sacred to us, but it destroys and uproots and scatters everything.”

    Because he, ironically, is clinging to his own sacred belief that we should question the Confessions’ exposition of the Scriptures, Lakies cannot see that Luther is actually preaching against such “emergent” nonsense.

    The St. Louis seminary is pretty touchy about accusations that it is still liberal, very sensitive to any hints that they didn’t all walk out in the ‘70s. Then they endorse tripe like this in their professional journal. What are they thinking? What do they expect us to think?
    I notice Davies has accepted a call to CU Portland. From what I hear of Oregon, he ought to fit right in. Thanks be to God he’s not going to a parish.

  8. @Pastor Ted Crandall #9

    Sad the Journal is this way. If hopefully when the time comes, I have paid attention for a number of years. When deciding a seminary, I just don’t see how St. Louis can be a viable option….

  9. @Jason #10

    Jason, I fully appreciate your caution in selecting the institution that will play such an influential part in your pastoral formation, but I stop just short of claiming St. Louis is not a viable option. I won’t even claim that Fort Wayne is the better choice — both seminaries have their strengths and weaknesses.

    All I’m saying is that St. Louis is still suffering from the reputation they obtained during the walk-out, so I would expect them to be more careful in what they choose to publish in their official theological journal.

  10. @Ted #9

    The purpose of Lakies’ article is simply to note that the emergent church is a shift in human worldview, and that it shouldn’t be so quickly judged by a theology of a different worldview. It would be like Justin Martyr evaluating Walther as heretical only because he doesn’t utilize Aristotelian philosophy. Walther had to operate within the context of the Enlightenment, and sometime soon the LC-MS is going to have to operate within the context of post-modernism. We need to get on the same page as post-modernism and speak the same language as post-modernism in order to discuss theology with post-moderns.

  11. And I wouldn’t say that he is mocking the idea that Lutherans are plain and simply right. But rather he mocks the common unspoken and underlying notion that the LC-MS is plain and simply infallible. Can’t we all acknowledge that the Church and Lutheran tradition are not infallible? Of course, we all know that the only infallible church and tradition is in Rome.

  12. @Ben #13
    “We need to get on the same page as post-modernism and speak the same language as post-modernism in order to discuss theology with post-moderns.”

    What does this mean?

    @Ben #14
    “Can’t we all acknowledge that the Church and Lutheran tradition are not infallible?”
    You must have missed the long discussion on another thread here where we acknowledged that the Confessions are fallible and yet have no theological errors (what I like to call “inerrant, but not infallible”).

    [Ben Eder?]

  13. Well, I think that both of those things are related.

    The goal for the church is to be able to communicate the gospel message to the people who most need to hear it. The Lutheran confessions spoke this message clearly to the people for whom they were written, when they were written. They were produced right before the Age of the Enlightenment, when the world was just about to be thrust into the scientific revolution. However, the world is now coming out of that modern period that required all truth to be scientifically verifiable, and post-moderns simply encounter life and the world in a fundamentally different way. It must be the task of the Lutheran church to embrace these people and learn to communicate the same message that is contained in the confessions, but in a way that can be understood according to their sensibilities.

    Lakies is saying that the evangelicals have and are embracing these emerging church members, but there need not be an absolute association between this emerging sensibility (I actually don’t like these terms, but I will use them to continue in defense of Lakies) and bad evangelical theology. However, to this point, the LC-MS has rejected those who are emerging out of the Age of Reason simply because they aren’t familiar with and can’t understand certain terms and ideas that we consider necessary for good theology. It is important to recognize that in most cases, we have rejected them; they have not rejected us.

    If we want to communicate to them the salvific good news of Jesus Christ, then we must not reject them, but must learn their language and must be able to communicate with them.

    Its like Jesuit missionaries in Canada. Those who learned how to speak Algonquin succeeded in their mission. Those who required that the Algonquins learn french failed.

    As a synod, will we preach the Gospel in Algonquin, or will we force the post-modern generation to learn french? Up to this point, we’ve been teaching french, and the post-modern Algonquins have rather gone to the Algonquin-speaking evangelicals. But there is no reason to reject them just because they don’t speak the language of the Confessions! Instead, we must learn to communicate the Confessions in the language that they already understand.

    Obviously this will not be an easy task. There will be debates about how best to use terms and ideas. There will be birth pains. But as a church body that loves the Scriptures and the Confessions and that is driven by the message that they convey, we are obligated to go forward with the task. And instead of rejecting Lakies or CSL, condemning them as untrustworthy or heretics or whatever, we must join with them in love. It is expected that there will be disagreements about how to go about the task of engaging with the emergent sensibility, but there shouldn’t be disagreement about whether or not we should do it. If we believe that Christ died for all, then we have to applaud Lakies and commend him for his service to the church, even while saying “But you know what, I think that we need to talk about this a little more.” Or, “Are we sure that describing justification that way is accurate according to what is said in Romans? Lets go back, Brother Chad, and make sure that we aren’t leading the emerging generation down a bad path.”

    Post-modernism is not a theology and can’t be rejected for theological reasons; rather, it is a way of encountering the world. We have grown used to encountering the world in a certain way and explaining theological truths according to that context. But the context is changing with or without us. We’re not in France, anymore; this is Algonquin territory. We can’t go back, and these Algonquins need to understand Biblical truths. If we abandon them because they don’t know French, then their spiritual blood is on our hands.

  14. By the way, Pastor Crandall, I did see that you defended CSL as having both strengths and weaknesses, and I do appreciate that. I don’t go to either seminary, and have never attended either. But I have known many pastors from both and am familiar with the written content that comes out of both. I personally love both seminaries and think that they compliment each other quite well. (Even though I’d rather sing a hymn with an organ than a song with a guitar anyday.) But, I think that how they work together is one of the reasons for which I am so hopeful for the future of the synod. Institutionally they recognize this and get along quite well, so I don’t know why the respective camps can’t do the same thing.

  15. While driving today I listened to a radio program that hosted some nuns and a news reporter and the subject for conversation was the very public debate between the Catholic hierarchy and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It occurred to me that this debate is exactly the same as the debate that is being had over this article.

    I can’t speak for the LCWR, but I think that in the LC-MS we can all agree that while God and true doctrine do not change, people and perspectives and language do. We have to find ways to be able to communicate those eternal and ultimately ineffable truths to the world in a way that has meaning and is meaningful.

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