The Emerging Church, Part 5: A Generous Orthodoxy?

(Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final post in this series on the Emerging Church by lay theologian Scott Diekmann. Check out his blog at Stand-Firm.)

The phrase “a generous orthodoxy” comes from the pen of Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren. Some people might call his phrase describing the Emerging Church an oxymoron, positing that while the Emerging Church is generous, you may not want to call it orthodox. That would be a wrong assumption, because it is neither generous, nor orthodox. McLaren states in his book The Church on the Other Side:

We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. After all, if our perspectives are biased by the groups we belong to, if our understanding is limited by our contexts, if our view is valid only from our subjective standpoint, then each of us is untrustworthy and subjective in knowledge and judgment and none of us can presume to very much authority. (p. 163)

What an odd thing to say – compare McLaren’s words with Paul’s words to the Thessalonians:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter (2 Thess. 2:15 ESV).

Martin Luther’s response to Erasmus comes to mind after pondering McLaren’s false presuppositions: “What a fulsome speaker you are!-but utterly ignorant of what you are talking about.” [1]

The Emerging Church view of a continually changing, localized, and uncertain truth leads them to wander in the wilderness, “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7 ESV). Their position is the antithesis of the Christian viewpoint. Luther states:

To take no pleasure in assertions is not the mark of a Christian heart; indeed, one must delight in assertions to be a Christian at all…. Nothing is more familiar or characteristic among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity. [2]

The liberal wing of the Emerging Church has truly lost the Gospel and has given up on assertion.[3] Their social gospel is certainly not orthodox, and a gospel that cannot save is decidedly un-generous, thus making “a generous orthodoxy” neither of the two.

And what of the current incursion of the Emerging Church into the corridors of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod? Parading Leonard Sweet across the stage at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and a host of other LCMS venues, with a welcome worthy of a Major League MVP, immediately legitimizes the Emerging Church. Never mind that it comes with a huge disclaimer, since Leonard Sweet traffics in universalism and panentheism. [4]

While the extension of an invitation by Synodical officials to Emerging Church speakers may relate to a desire to explore fresh ways of attracting postmodern people, their pragmatism conveniently ignores doctrine in favor of the golden calf of church growth.

For those who reject Sola Scriptura, inspiration, inerrancy, and the perspicuity of Scripture, for those who reject the power of the Word, for those who reject the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, for those who reject the saving power of Baptism, they also reject Jesus Christ Himself – they reject the Gospel.

Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works (2 Jn. 1:9-11 ESV).

So, should we embrace this opportunity to interact with the ideas of the Emerging Church? My answer would be a resounding “yes,” in the same way the Egyptians embraced their interaction with the plague of locusts. While they may ask good questions, their answers come up short, and should be left on the dusty shelf with previous iterations of the same old heresies. They share the doctrinal indifference, moralism, and evasiveness of Erasmus, the Neo-Orthodoxy of Barth, the occultism of the Catholic mystics, the enthusiasm (God works without means) of the Anabaptists, the theological shallowness of the Jesus Movement, and the liberalism of what Dr. Walter Martin called “The Cult of Liberal Theology.”

Their questions are not new. They are the same questions that many Christians wrestle with – what it means to be a “follower” of Jesus, and how to reach unbelievers with the Gospel. It is the answers that shape where we are headed, and those answers, if we are to remain faithful to Jesus Christ, must come solely from within the fabric of our Confession. Does this mean we should never consider the thoughts of those outside of our own denomination? No, of course not. But it does mean we should be very cautious when we do so. If the start line is drawn in the wrong place, as it often is in the emerging conversation, the finish line isn’t likely to end up in a confessional place either.

Should we therefore throw our hands up in the air and walk away when encountering someone with a “liberal” postmodern mindset, thinking they reject propositional truth and cannot be reached through rational discourse? Not at all. While they may reject an approach that brow beats them with proof texts, they can be reached by showing genuine concern for them and befriending them, being patient and presenting what you have to say with authenticity, gentleness and respect. It is then that the truths of the Gospel can be shared as objections melt away by the power of the Word.

Can the LCMS “go it alone” without enlightenment from the minds of Emerging Church leaders, conservative or otherwise, and other brands of thinkers, to reach a postmodern generation? Yes. We are blessed in our Synod with many wonderful, insightful, pastors and professors who write solid Confessional materials (see Part 4 for examples) – materials that are written with ordinary words. But when these words convey the truths of the Scriptures, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. These Confessional materials are ripe for the picking by a postmodern world hungry for more than just “smells and bells” – yet we refuse to listen to these pastors and professors and share what they write. We oftentimes fail in our own witness, instead wandering off into myths. Our own rejection of sound doctrine and those who teach it calls to mind the words of Jesus in Matthew 13:15:

And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.”

Our Confession is rejected by those in our own circle, snubbed as being irrelevant. We have fallen prey to those who cry that Lutherans don’t “do” sanctification well, or that our message is “unappealing.” Our message will always seem foolish to the world:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:17-18 ESV).

Those who welcome the conclusions of the Emerging Church are also those who are generally willing to incorporate the ideas of any and every other guru who shouts “Look, he is in the inner rooms” (Mt. 24:26b ESV). Do not be deceived by fine sounding arguments.

Ultimately, the Emerging Church, at least the liberal portion of it, fails to preach Law and Gospel. They emphasize the social gospel, a gospel of works, and thus the Law (the third use of the Law, as a rule) – yet they fail to preach the wrath of God’s Law, leaving sinners secure in their sin. Luther’s words still ring true: “The ultimate proof of the sinner is that he doesn’t know his own sin. Our job is to make him see it.” [5]

The battleground remains unchanged – the battle still rages against the unseen spiritual forces of darkness on the theological plain of justification by grace through faith. While the Emerging Church may go the way of other religious fads of the past, the threat from false doctrine will never retreat this side of the eschaton. We must remain the Church militant, always on guard, until we are at last the Church triumphant. Come, Lord Jesus.

For further reading on the Emerging Church:

1) Scott’s in depth, eight part article on the Emerging Church, available on the Lutheran apologetics website

2) Fellow LCMS Lutheran Chris Rosebrough’s site, Extreme Theology.

3) Pastor Ken Silva’s site, Apprising Ministries.

[1] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1957) 90.

[2] Bondage, p. 66.

[3] For an example of the Emerging Church’s loss of the Gospel, listen to Chris Rosebrough’s interview of Emerging Church leader Doug Pagitt on Fighting for the Faith, in which Pagitt demonstrates a complete inability to articulate the Gospel. Listen from 35:37 to 40:41.

[4] To illustrate Leonard Sweet’s universalistic and panentheistic leanings, here are two quotes from his book Quantum Spirituality: A Postmodern Apologetic:

“It will take a decolonized theology for Christians to appreciate the genuineness of others’ faiths, and to see and celebrate what is good, beautiful, and true in their beliefs without any illusions that down deep we all are believers in the same thing” (p. 131).

“Quantum spirituality bonds us to all creation as well as to other members of the human family. New Light pastors are what Arthur Peacocke calls ‘priests of creation’–earth ministers who can relate the realm of nature to God, who can help nurture a brother-sister relationship with the living organism called Planet Earth. This entails a radical doctrine of embodiment of God in the very substance of creation. The Oxford Dictionary of the Chnctian [sic] Church (1974) identifies the difference between pantheism and panentheism: Pantheism is ‘the belief or theory that God and the universe are identical’; panentheism is ‘the belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him, but that His Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the Universe.’ New Light spirituality does more than settle for the created order, as many forms of New Age pantheism do. But a spirituality that is not in some way entheistic (whether pan- or trans-), that does not extend to the spirit-matter of the cosmos, is not Christian. A quantum spirituality can in no way define God out of existence” (p. 125).

[5] Quoted from Gene Edward Veith’s Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, p. 228 (amazon), who in turn was quoting from Charles Colson’s book The Body.

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