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).