Explaining Emerging (Part 6) – Doctrinal Distinctives

I am coming to the close of my series of posts on the emerging church, and now is the time for some real controversy. Despite being a diverse bunch, I think I have identified a number of common doctrinal distinctives of emerging Christians. Interestingly, emergents can rarely be found debating amongst themselves on infant vs believers baptism, cessation or continuation of charismatic gifts, Calvinism vs Arminianism, interpretation of the millennium or about the leadership structure of a local church. These are the sorts of things that evangelicals love to have a debate on, but emergents have their focus elsewhere. Read some emergent blogs, or listen to some emergent sermons and you are bound to come up against one or more of these hot potatoes…

Women – Emerging churches are almost exclusively egalitarian (i.e. no gender distinctions in roles in the church). The complementarian position held by many Reformed evangelicals is considered sexist and shameful. They are not likely to use an exegetical argument to prove their position however, like many egalitarian evangelicals would try to. That would go against the way they approach Scripture. Rather they talk about redemptive trends, or trajectory hermeneutics. In other words, the biblical writers were too timid (or even wrong) when it came to declaring the egalitarian position, but at least they pointed us in the right direction and now thankfully we have got it right.

The Atonement – Evangelicals have happily preached and sung about Christ bearing the punishment for our sins for years, but recently there has been a back-lash from emergent theologians arguing that the doctrine of “penal substitution” is all wrong. Worse than that, some are outraged by the very concept of it, as they see it as portraying a sadistic God. Instead the emerging church argue for “Christus Victor” approach, partly because it removes the distateful concepts of God’s wrath and Jesus being the object of the Father’s punishment, and partly because it claims support from the early church fathers (playing a card that is conspicious by its absence in some of the other issues listed here). This has spilled over into wider debate on the precise meanings of terms such as justification and imputation and perhaps represents the biggest theological battle-ground between conservative evangelicals and emergents.

Hell – Emergent churches are calling into question the evangelical understanding of hell as everlasting conscious punishment, in many ways for similar reasons to those for the atonement – it makes God out to be too nasty in their eyes. There is a range of alternative options, from annihilationism to universalism. They object to evangelism conceived as saving people’s eternal destinies, and stress that salvation is for before death as well as after. Some emerging conversations I have listened to on the internet recently are questioning whether evangelism (i.e. attempting to convert people) is even desirable any more.

Homosexuality – Emerging churches are determined not to be homophobic, which they view evangelicals as being, and emphaisise having an open and “inclusive” attitude. Personally I have never come across an evangelical church that does not claim to want to be welcoming or loving to the homosexual, but they will all make clear that they do not believe practising a homosexual lifestyle is compatible with a Christian confession. Emerging leaders typically refuse to be drawn on whether they view it as a “sin” or not, and some have decided that there is nothing wrong with it at all (I came across a “pro-gay” emerging blogger recently).

Holiness – Evangelicals have typically thought of holiness in terms of maintaining a good devotional life, and avoiding “worldly” sins such as swearing, sexual promiscuity and drunkenness. Emergents on the other hand are glad to shock us with the odd curse in their sermon, and wax lyrical about their love for beer. They see holiness (or “orthopraxy” as they call it) as expressed in issues such as environmentalism, fair trade and lobbying for human rights legislation. Thus there is plenty of scope for emergent and evangelical Christians to doubt the genuine holiness of each other.

There is no doubt that emerging Christians are concerned that evangelicals are portraying a bad image of Christianity. Atheists such as Richard Dawkins for example are attacking the church for being sexist, homophobic, violence loving (because of their views on the atonement and hell), stupid (for believing in young earth creationism) and unconcerned with the environment or human rights. The emerging church can answer on each point “but we’re not like that – its just those unenlightened evangelicals”. So my contentious question for today is, what is driving the emerging church in this direction? How come it seems to be answering to the world’s agenda at almost every point? Is it fear of ridicule? Or is truly the direction that following Jesus takes you in (as they would claim)? As a reformed evangelical, I do believe that the church must always be reforming, but that is to be more faithful to the truth as revealed in Scripture rather than to appease the critics in a secular society. On the other hand, I do agree with the emergents that too often the evangelical church has behaved in a way that makes the gospel seem unattractive because we have come across as hypocritical, judgemental and self-serving. However, we must accept that followers Jesus will not always be well-loved by an unbelieving world (see 1 Pet 3:16; 1 Jn 3:13).

7 thoughts on “Explaining Emerging (Part 6) – Doctrinal Distinctives

  1. Mark,

    Good distinctives. Obviously the ’emerging conversation’ is quite broad and contains a wide range of theological positions, so we need to be careful when attributing ‘pro-gay’ labels to the ’emerging church’ as a whole.

    You’re absolutely right when you highlight the ‘risk’ of enculturing the ‘gospel’ solely within Post-modern western culture. As someone once said, ‘He who weds the Spirit of the Present age will be a widow in the next’. I am concerned that there are some (though not all) who are so concerned to make Truth relevant within postmodern culture that they commit many of the opposite errors which they castigate their ‘modern’ evangelical brothers for.

    I’ve said it before, I don’t believe the ’emerging church movement’ has any future in and of itself – but is, instead, a waystation on a journey that is taking many Christians from classical Reformed evangelicalism to somewhere else altogether.

    Basically, to be a ‘Christian’ within Britain over the past 500 years has essentially assumed that one is broadly protestant’ and has ones theology informed by (in whatever way) the insights of the Reformation. This is akin to the water that a fish swims in, one doesn’t question their enviroment but just ‘is’ within it.

    However this ‘matrix’ is changing and the ‘impact’ of the Reformation (in terms of defining theology) is being ‘diluted’ by insights from other parts of the Church. This means terms like ‘Penal Substitution’ (which is exclusively a Western theological term) are having to give space to other concepts, notions and articulations.

    Now this doesn’t mean that such other notions ‘replace’ what was before, but they add a different perspective and allow us (who have inhabited these terms and theologies for centuaries) a chance to see things in a different light.

    I’d recommend anyone reading this to spend some time engaging with Eastern Orthodox understandings of ‘hell’, ‘judgement’, ‘atonement’. It’s like hearing the other side of a dialogue after one has spent all their time wrapped up in the ‘Western’ half of the conversation.

    The emerging church hasn’t ‘invented’ its different articulations out of thin air, but is trying to appropriate Christian wisdom wherever it’s to be found.


  2. Hi,so would it be fair to say emergents are quickly trying to erase anything that the world finds offensive about Christianity?

    At the very least they seem in danger of not being able to stand on the word as fact,as this is uncomfortable..Its ironic the more liberal we get, the more the church goes into decline (polls saying as low as 3 or 5% go to church in the UK)where is this revival promised from Toronto and other doctrines?? the true irony atheist stand solid on what they believe even if it upsets us,but it seems were all about being tolerant..

    We need to consider that by questioning parts of the Word the more humanistic side,we may be opening the door for people to question the more spiritual issues..The church grew scared of science and were prepared to give away Genesis but then became surprised when people questioned the Cross!!

    Jesus rightly says If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?


  3. thanks Richard,
    its been great having your comments on this series. I think that the emerging church is offering some interesting “new perspectives”, and surely we must concede that there is more light to be shed on our current understandings of the Biblical revelation. And yet at the same time, there are some things I am hearing from emerging churches that honestly cannot be called new perspectives, but are flat out contradictions of the evangelical position.

  4. Hi Andy,
    this is my concern, but I do not feel that all emerging churches are doing this. The trouble is because they are all in this one big happy conversation and eager not to be judgemental of each other, they do seem to be drifting together in the same direction on their journey. Perhaps it will be on the topic of politics though, about which I have recently posted something, that emergents will start to realise that to stand up for righteousness will inevitably make them unpopular, no matter how sensitive they try to be.

  5. Hi Mark how much of this “post modernist” thing do u buy into? I’m not sure man is any different then it ever was or that the world is any different, behind the technical veneer..

    I heard a sermon by Piper recently (I’m not a Calvinist) he said its not post modern its pre modern, because its perpetual what u think he ment?

    The Emergents seem to run into a wall to me when you compare them to Jesus,Hes pretty direct about reaching the Father,also on hell..


  6. Andy, sorry for the delay. I personally do not feel I am very postmodern, and actually, in the computer software industry I work in, I don’t think many of my non-Christian colleagues are postmodern either. So the church needs to reach out to all the people in the culture, rather than just to those adopting the latest trend.

    And for your point about Jesus – the emergents seem to want not to offend anyone but evangelicals – I guess they see us as analagous to the Pharisees – hypocrites. So they would see themselves as being like Jesus in this – nice to sinners, hostile to religious types. But it is when you consider the consistent NT attitude to false teaching – which is one of solemn warning and condemnation – which can be found in every single NT author – that the emerging church doesn’t look like the biblical model.

    I was listening to some audio from an emerging conference recently and someone asked what the speaker thought “heresy” was. The question was greeted with howls of laughter – they are becoming so “open” that there is almost nothing they would dare to put into that category. Although many of them do have theological boundaries, they consider it bad form to say what they are.

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