by David Hesselgrave
A distinguished professor of missions shares how the Emergent Church Movement and the beliefs of one of its best-known supporters, Brian McLaren, differ from traditional IFMA beliefs.
Brian McLaren and his writings intrigue me. He reminds me of Dr. Paul Holmer, my adviser during undergraduate days as a philosophy major at the University of Minnesota. A recognized authority on Kierkegaardian and Scandinavian philosophy, Holmer later became dean of Yale Divinity School. His quips alternatively amused and frustrated some of us believer students. We were amused when he playfully accused our resident logical positivist, Herbert Feigl, of attending a church where “he could have his religion and not have it at the same time”; we were frustrated when he made disparaging references to his own upbringing in the Evangelical Mission Covenant Church.
McLaren’s writings are reminiscent of Holmer’s lectures. McLaren himself says, “There are places here where I have gone out of my way to be provocative, mischievous and unclear, reflecting my belief that clarity is sometimes overrated, and that shock, obscurity, playfulness and intrigue (carefully articulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity” (2004, 23). Although this may be standard fare in university classrooms, these techniques have much less currency in the communication of divine truth.
PRELIMINARIES AND LIMITATIONS OF THIS STUDY
Brian McLaren is founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spenceville, Maryland. He is an internationally-acclaimed lecturer and author and is recognized as the “father” of the Emergent Church movement; he is also chair of the Emergent Village organization. The Emergent Church movement is by no means monolithic; proponents diverge both theologically and methodologically on a number of issues. Nevertheless, because the dominant voice is that of McLaren, his philosophy deserves special attention.
This particular study will focus on missiological and contextualization issues. It is necessarily very limited. To expedite it, I will assume the faith commitments of the IFMA (Interdenominational Foreign Missions Association) as put forth in their statement of faith. Primary reference will be made to three seminal works especially germane to this discussion. It will be most convenient to identify them here and reference them in the text that follows by publication dates and chapter or page numbers. The three books are:
1. Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (2001) in which he speaks indirectly through a fictitious Dr. Neil Edward Oliver (Neo). A case can be made for saying that this popular work launched both McLaren and the Emergent Church movement to national prominence.
2. McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy (2004) in which he explains why he is missional, evangelical, post-protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent and unfinished. Here McLaren speaks directly concerning both his personal beliefs and his contextualized message to emergents.
3. Edwin Frizen, Jr.’s 75 Years of IFMA 1917-1972 (1992) chronicles the history of the IFMA and catalogues eight basic belief commitments of its founders. The book contains their elaboration into a full-fledged statement of faith (SOF).
For our present purpose we will think of contextualization broadly in terms of the ways in which McLaren conceives of his mission (and by extension, ours) and proposes that the gospel be communicated by means of “new ways of believing, belonging and becoming” (2001, inside jacket cover). This article is divided into four sections which compare McLaren’s and the IFMA’s views of (1) mission, (2) believing, (3) belonging and (4) becoming. Each section contains an overview, a descriptive of the views of McLaren and the IFMA and a final analysis.
MCLAREN’S NEW "MISSIONAL MISSION"
McLaren sincerely—and in some ways, correctly—feels that the basic problem facing churches and missions today and tomorrow has to do with developing a mission, message and methodology that will be understandable and appealing to emergents in our post-Christian, postmodern culture. He characterizes the modern culture (i.e., “modernism,” the modern mindset) as having been one of conquest, control, critical thinking, analysis, objectivity, absolutes, individualism, consumerism, organization, Protestantism, institutional religion and secular science. Postmodernism, on the other hand, is strongly inclined toward relativism, experientialism, noncreedalism, togetherness, harmony, belongingness, holism, experimentation and discovery. For McLaren the advent of postmodernism necessitates a reconsideration of not only style and strategy, but of the Christian gospel and mission.
McLaren professes to be a “missional Christian.” In fact, “missional” is the very first word used to describe his position in the subtitle of A Generous Orthodoxy. “Missional,” to McLaren, does not mean to be “missions-minded” in the traditional sense. Following Vincent Donovan, David Bosch, Darrell Guder and members of The Gospel and Our Culture Network, McLaren says that “missional” means that the Church should first reflect on its mission in the world and then allow its theology to flow out of that reflection rather than first reflecting on theology and allowing its understanding of mission to flow out of theology (2004, 105-106). To miss this is to misunderstand McLaren’s contextualization. Indeed, he has reflected on what the Christian mission is and what it entails. A commitment to his kind of mission/missiology radically changes the way one thinks and does both church and mission. In his view, Christian missionaries should first consider adherents of other religions to be their neighbors, and then converse and dialogue with them in ways that will enable themselves and Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims to become “humble followers of Jesus.” Rather than inviting Buddhists, Hindus, Jews or Muslims to become Christians, it may be advisable to help them to become “followers of Jesus” while remaining in their Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish or Muslim contexts (2004, 259-60). Buddhists who “feel so called will become Buddhist followers of Jesus” and they should be given that opportunity and invitation (2004, 264).
“Great Commission mission” as viewed in the IFMA. Compare McLaren’s “missional mission” thinking with the mission thinking of the IFMA as expressed in the IFMA SOF Article #9: “We believe that Christ commanded the Church to go into the world and preach the gospel to every person, baptizing and teaching those who believe” (1992, 436). This article reflects not only the theology of IFMA founders but also the fervent hope that their new organization would “make possible the bearing of a united testimony to the need of a complete and speedy evangelization of the world” (1992, 109). Some challenges to conversionist mission were well known to them; others were in the offing. But in 1917, and for those such as Henry Frost, J. R. Schaffer, Roland Bingham, Paul Graef, Clara Masters and Frank Lange, the Christian mission was a given. It had already been expressed in what Donald McGavran much later referred to as the “Great Commission mission” to go and “make disciples” as commanded by our Lord in Matthew 28:16-20.
Towards an analysis. Let’s agree with McLaren’s implied criticism that missionaries sometimes tend to make converts into “cultural (Westernized) Christians.” That does not change the fact that his view of mission is fundamentally flawed. In the first place, missionaries are not sent so much to invite those of differing faiths to come to Jesus as they are to take Jesus and his gospel to these individuals. Second, missionaries do not determine the provisions of the “invitation”; the Lord Jesus does. Third, Jesus’ invitation/command is not just to “follow him” but to “take up one’s cross and follow him.” But the fundamental problem with McLaren’s view of mission and his missiology is not just hermeneutical; it is epistemological. Because he does not begin with biblical theology, McLaren’s “reflections on mission” turn out to be “refractions of mission.” Given his approach to mission/missiology, how do we really know what the Christian mission actually is? Or even that we Christians have a mission at all?
NEW WAYS OF BELIEVING: SCRIPTURE
McLaren takes aim at the IFMA/EFMA and other evangelical forebearers when early on in A New Kind of Christian he has Neo address InterVarsity, Campus Crusade for Christ, Navigator and Baptist Student Union students in the following vein: “I believe that the modern version of Christianity that you have learned from your parents, your Sunday School teachers and even your campus ministers is destined to be a medieval cathedral. It’s over, or almost over” (2001, 38). In line with this dismissal of traditional evangelical beliefs, we need to examine McLaren’s new ways of believing. We do this by looking at both McLaren’s view of scripture and the IFMA’s view of scripture.
McLaren on scripture. Concerning the authority of the Bible, McLaren says that some people look at the Bible in much the same way as medieval Catholics looked at the Church and the pope—infallible, inerrant and absolutely authoritative. Others (such as Neo and McLaren himself) look at the Bible as a collection of ideas—inspiring and sometimes even inspired, but not ultimately or finally authoritative. For McLaren, the authority of the Bible does not reside in the biblical text itself but in God who “moves mysteriously on a higher level” than the level of the text. He notes that in spite of the way almost all evangelicals have interpreted the passage, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 does not say that the Bible is inspired and therefore authoritative; it says that it is inspired and therefore useful (2001, chap. 6-7; 2004, chap. 10).
IFMA on scripture. Contrast the foregoing with IFMA SOF Article #1: “We believe the Bible, consisting of Old and New Testaments, is verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit, is inerrant in the original manuscripts and is the infallible and authoritative Word of God” (1992, 435). Both the positioning and wording of this article are important. It is positioned first because scripture is the primary source of our knowledge about God and his works, ways and will. Moreover, its wording includes three descriptors that preclude McLaren-like misunderstandings: “inerrant,” “infallible” and “authoritative.”
Towards an analysis. There is much more to these “mysterious higher level” and “useful only” ideas than is immediately apparent. There is a strong tendency among even believing emergents to avoid confessional statements and doctrinal discussions. McLaren is correct in thinking that emergents are more concerned about knowing “truth” by virtue of experience than about “getting the facts straight.” But McLaren is wrong in the ways in which his contextualization “cashes in” on biases such as these. He proposes that spiritual experience yields a truer knowledge of God, a higher understanding of scripture and a greater possibility for life-changing transformation than does a wrestling with the meaning of the biblical text itself. Hindus and Buddhists entertain similar ideas with respect to the Vedas, the Tripitaka, the Lotus Sutra and their other holy books. Japanese Buddhists, for example, speak of montei or a meaning “beneath the letter” of the Sutras. As a matter of fact, both Buddhists and Hindus think of their holy books not so much as being true or conveying truth as being utilitarian and enablers of the enlightenment experience which alone yields what we might call “true truth.”
But to know the truth in a truly Christian sense is very, very different. For Christians, the Bible is not a prod to God, it is the Word of God! The Holy Spirit illumines the teachable mind so that the biblical text can be understood; however, revelation occurred when the Holy Spirit inspired Bible authors to write scripture, not when the Holy Spirit enables readers to discover its truths at some deeper or higher level. Insofar as “higher level knowing” and “transformational worship experiences” grow out of McLaren’s “new way of believing” and “generous orthodoxy,” they are perilously close to the “knowing” and “enlightenment experiences” of Eastern mysticism. Elaborate visual and auditory forms of stimulation reminiscent of the yantra symbols, breath exercises, focused meditation and mantra repetition common to various kinds of Yoga would be cases in point. But in Hinduism and Buddhism these resorts are un-Christian to the core. Not only is this sort of experientialism misguided, these resorts are calculated to enable the adept to experience the Divine (Brahman) already imminent within the individual (as the Atman), not a transcendent and living God.
McLaren’s view of scripture and its use impact the gospel message in other ways that can only be mentioned here. For example, IFMA SOF Article #12 says, “We believe that the saved will be raised to everlasting life and blessedness in heaven, and that the unsaved will be raised to everlasting and conscious punishment in hell” (1992, 435). McLaren, however, proposes that biblical language concerning heaven and hell is evocative (e.g., encouraging a certain response), not descriptive (e.g., not referring to actual places or states). In his view, the gospel has little or nothing to do with “getting our butt into heaven”; instead it is about something beyond time and space—the “redemption of the world, the stars, the animals, the plants, the whole show” (2001, chap. 11).
Similarly, IFMA SOF Article #4 says, “We believe that Jesus Christ …died vicariously, shed his blood as a substitutionary sacrifice” (1992, 435). McLaren, however, downgrades (though he does not entirely dismiss) the biblical doctrine of justification by the blood sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He recasts the substitutionary atonement in the mold of a “metaphor” that is attractive mainly to children and the immature. To most postmoderns (and McLaren), however, it is barbaric. They would prefer to understand the message of the cross in terms of justice for all peoples, and hope for all human cultures and the whole created order (2004, 45-49).
NEW WAYS OF BELONGING: THE CHURCH
McLaren insists that Christians get over notions that distinguish between “us” and “them”—our religion and their religion, our denomination and their denomination, our church and their church, our beliefs and their beliefs. This kind of thinking, he believes, will never work in a postmodern culture that espouses “tolerance,” seeks to break down barriers, wants to build bridges and longs for togetherness with people of different colors and creeds. For McLaren, belongingness precedes becoming. Here we must compare McLaren’s view of the Church with the IFMA’s view of the Church.
McLaren on the Church. McLaren warns his readers not to use any of his ideas (or, we may suppose, the ideas of anyone else) in a way that might be divisive. In his view it is repugnant to try to build an “elite club” of any kind, even an “elite generous orthodoxy club” where members “look down their long, crooked noses” on those who do not believe the way they do. He sees keeping “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” as something that must be preserved at all costs. In his view, doctrinal distinctives and “a lot of additional stuff” must not be allowed to turn away “spiritual seekers who are attracted to Jesus.” To all such people he says, “Don’t leave! Don’t give up! There’s room for you” (2004, 39-40). In order to make such people feel welcome in emergent services, McLaren believes the Church should become a “community” where everyone belongs and participates in conversations about “predicaments” that are common to all. While the modern spirituality (which is nearing its end) has to do with “I” and “me,” postmodern spirituality has to do with “us” and “we.” While modern spirituality has to do with getting people into worship services (and where guilt is laid on them for not doing more outside the church), postmodern spirituality has to do with making the worship service itself into something where outsiders are included and then helping them to “do something now” (2001, chap. 13). When everyone “belongs” and all can contribute to the ongoing conversation, the Bible becomes a “family storybook” that calls God’s family together “and helps create a community that is a catalyst for God’s working in the world” (2001, 53).
The IFMA on the Church. Article #8 of the IFMA SOF reads: “We believe that the Church, the body of Christ, consists only of those who are born again, who are baptized by the Holy Spirit into Christ at the time of regeneration, for whom he now makes intercession in heaven and for whom he will come again” (1992, 435). Indeed, “belonging” was just as important to moderns yesterday as it is to postmoderns today. But as an examination of the foregoing article and similar confessional statements of both premodern and modern times will show, the kind of belonging that was emphasized was first of all spiritual and only secondarily psychological and social. Whatever the failure of its members to live up to their high calling, the true Church was made up of a “called out” family of God that was designed to be different from the world and destined to be disciplined when it was not.
Towards an analysis. McLaren’s proposals with regard to belongingness seem too good to be wrong. But wrong they are. They subvert the true nature of the Church and turn biblical ecclesiology, which makes a clear distinction between the Church and the world, on its head. Three times in one brief passage (1 Cor. 14:13-25) the Apostle Paul speaks of outsiders (unbelievers, “ungifted”) coming into worship services and, being convicted by what believers are saying and doing, falling down in repentance and declaring that God is really at work among his people. Indeed, the idea that this profound distinction between believers and unbelievers is to be smoothed over (and that outsiders are free to contribute to worship and partake of the Lord’s Table) never occurred to Paul.
NEW WAYS OF BECOMING: BECOMING A CHRISTIAN
McLaren’s take on how people around the world become Christian impacts negatively on his understanding of evangelization in general and his teachings having to do with sin, depravity, repentance, faith, conversion, reconciliation and regeneration in particular. We must now compare McLaren’s and the IFMA’s views on becoming a Christian.
McLaren on becoming a Christian. As we have said, McLaren prefers to think and speak in terms of conversations rather than conversions. He accuses traditional evangelicals of being naïve, not only in the ways they define and describe the gospel, but also in the ways they invite people to become Christians. The common approach that presents the gospel in a few simple statements that people of other religions or no religion must understand and agree to, and then informing them that they must “accept Christ” and be “born again,” elicits his harshest criticism. It amounts to going around the world and telling people of other faiths that we are right and they are wrong. In McLaren’s view, and as far as these other religions are concerned, Jesus Christ came to fulfill those religions just as he came to fulfill the Old Testament law. As for the New Testament gospel, it does not have so much to do with being right as it has to do with being good. And, according to him, becoming good is more a process than a point; more a matter of following than a matter of believing; more a gradual transformation than a radical turning (2001, chaps. 8-9; 2004, 254).
The IFMA on becoming a Christian. How unequivocal Article #3 of the SOF is: “We believe that Adam, created in the image of God, was tempted by Satan, the god of this world, and fell. Because of Adam’s sin, all men have guilt imputed, are totally depraved and need to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit” (1992, 435). It is the sinfulness and depravity of the whole of humankind that makes such words and phrases as “have guilt imputed,” “are totally depraved” and “need to be regenerated” as well as “the remission of sins,” “received by faith” and “be born again” essential. It is because we are sinners by nature, choice and decree of God that “becoming” a true believer logically (as well as theologically and existentially) comes before “belonging” to the Church of Christ.
Towards an analysis. Once again, McLaren’s views turn out to be radical. However, they are not really new and have been dealt with before. His theology of sin is not far from that of Pelagius who, about AD 400, denied both original sin and hereditary guilt. Not only were Pelagius’ teachings shown to be wrong by Augustine and other Church Fathers, they were also condemned at the Third General Council of Ephesus in AD 431. As for “becoming a Christian,” McLaren’s approach does not seem to be far from that of the nineteenth century Yale theologian Horace Bushnell who also criticized evangelical individualism, revivalism and conversionism. He emphasized “true Christian education” and the “law of Christian growth” according to which children could grow up never knowing themselves to be anything other than Christian.
As for fulfillment theory, it is reminiscent of the “re-thinking” of William E. Hocking and leaders associated with the Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry in the 1930s. Only a few years had passed until missiologist Hendrik Kraemer artfully demonstrated not only that the Christian gospel is absolutely unique but also that the communication of that gospel requires fidelity to that uniqueness.
McLaren and his colleagues are convinced that the future of the Church and missions does not rest on the kind of faith articulated by modern churches and missions, including conservative ones. Rather, it rests on resisting “modernism” and accommodating postmodernism by recovering “the faith articulated by the common consensus of the ancient Church” as they conceive it. But if partially right on some counts, both he and they are profoundly wrong on others. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both liberals/modernists and conservatives/fundamentalists (and then evangelicals) attempted what can be thought of as “contextualizations” of the Christian gospel for modern (Western) culture. The former did it by accommodating traditional faith to modern culture. The latter did it by maintaining and restating biblical faith for modern culture.
McLaren and his colleagues are essentially right in concluding that both contextualizations were culturally-conditioned because all contextualizations are culturally-conditioned by definition. They are also partially right in concluding that the gospel preached in Eastern and other cultures was often quite “Western” and under-contextualized.
But they are profoundly wrong in following the lead of twentieth century liberals when they insist on accommodating postmodernism by resisting biblical authority and replacing the biblical gospel with another gospel of whatever derivation. The postmodernism of McLaren and the Emergent Church movement represents a radical over-contextualization and is destined to fail both the Church and missions in the twenty-first century just as surely as the modernism of Higher Criticism and the Social Gospel failed the Church and missions in the twentieth century. In the end, the biblical gospel—and only the biblical gospel—will prevail.
Frizen, Edwin Jr. 1992. 75 Years of IFMA 1917-1972. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
McLaren, Brian. 2001. A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.
____. 2004. A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
David J. Hesselgrave is professor emeritus of mission at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and co-founder (with Donald A. McGavran) of the Evangelical Missiological Society.
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