Heretics in the Emerging Church? Oh My!

At least one of the three of you who read this may (1) like theological discussions and/or (2) wonder what I think about the Emerging Church. This one’s for you. For those who don’t care about this, read on anyway and you may find it mildly interesting.

First off, I do not consider myself “involved” in the Emergent movement. I may have a few years ago, but I felt like things started getting a bit too hip for my dorky self, so I tapered off on following everyone and everything with the movement, but I still keep in touch. I have many friends who are still closely involved, some serving with the coordinating council for Emergent Village and such. And some people may still consider me an Emergent-type of Christian, but I’d respectfully disagree, mainly because I feel in many ways I’m just barely a Christian at all….but come to think of it, that’s what some say about emergents anyway. Also, I am part of a faith community that some may consider an emergent church, although most people in my church wouldn’t say that – because we just are what we are.

Second, keep in mind that Emergent is a pretty fuzzy term. Some people think it’s a revolutionary movement similar to the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation; others think it’s nothing more than a passing fad that either is already dead or will die out soon. Some people consider it purely deconstructive; others consider it conversational. And some say it’s absolutely liberal and Marxist while others say it incorporates conservative evangelicals, liberal mainliners and everyone in between those spaces and even those outside of it all.

Now, to either their credit or blame, depending on your view, Emergent “leaders” like Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt and many others, through their books and through personal conversation, have inspired me. Brian’s A Generous Orthodoxy and other books were a huge breath of fresh air that I felt helped to liberate me in many ways. And many books and conversations later, I really feel free in my spiritual perspective. Sure, they may have made me a heretic, but at least I’m free.

But I still often agree with many of the sentiments expressed in Emerging church-type conversations, although I find the whole scene getting too cerebral for me these days. And while at one gathering of thought leaders a couple years ago, I felt fully included, like even though I couldn’t claim all the correct traditional beliefs, I was fully welcome to freely express myself right alongside the likes of N.T. Wright, Richard Rohr, Brennan Manning, and others. It was beautiful. I’ll post a video or two some time. …But at the same time I also felt a bit excluded, like I wasn’t cool enough because I wasn’t published, I didn’t have a doctorate, and I didn’t wear designer sunglasses indoors. But that’s another story. The point is that I am familiar with emergent and it is one train of thought that helped free me from an obligation of having to always stay within the accepted traditional boundaries and be “right.”

Anyway, in addition to other recent notable announcements concerning the Emergent movement, a recent blog made a bit of a stir among the Emergent crowd, particularly in Grand Rapids, which to some is known as one of the hubs for Christian progress. In it Jeremy Bouma, who has been somewhat of an Emergent insider, announced his theological departure from the movement. For his next couple posts, he will continue detailing his theological concerns with Emergent leaders like Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt. Brian has just dropped new book called A New Kind of Christianity, which for many will serve as a long-awaited treatise that addresses specific theological questions concerning the ideas behind this new-ish church movement.

Without going into details, Jeremy’s main criticisms revolve around the idea that Emergent theology is based on old ideas that were declared heretical centuries ago by church authorities. He accuses Pagitt of neo-Pelagianism, which essentially says that Adam’s “original sin” doesn’t really affect human nature today. Jeremy then basically defines McLaren as a Unitarian Universalist, which sort of asserts that he think all paths lead to God and no one will go to hell, if it even exists. So what do I think?

“Because We Said So.” Is That Enough?

I agree with Jeremy, Brian and Doug. While theological arguments abound in defense of both sides, it’s easy for me to say, “Yes” to all. I agree with Jeremy that yes, much of Emergent theology is really nothing new in the grand scheme. Many of the propositions are remixes of ideas that may have been deemed heretical in generations past, or at least outside traditional standards. But so what?

Technically speaking, theology is a science. And it is the study of many things we cannot conclusively prove. The whole point of a study like this is to advance our understanding, or at least advance our discussions of our understanding. The idea is to study all the information we have available to us from the past and present, even if present ideas are built on past ones, in order to further our discussions. If we only work within a predetermined framework that already has established the answers to its study and excludes any other questions or answers, and all the answers are based on the authority of the past, that is not a sincere study that seeks to advance knowledge; it is merely a study of law. But perhaps that’s what our seminaries prefer — to secure our pool of lawyers. But does that somehow advance the study of God? I don’t think so, and that’s why I say…

  • So what if centuries ago some guys got together and thought they answered all the questions once and for all; defined correct belief in regards to an offshoot of Judaism; defined what letters should make up the Bible and what it does and does not say; defined what God wants or hates, and defined what God looks like according to their current paradigm. For their deep sense of passion and their tireless debate skills, I honor them. But I must say that’s just what they were: master debaters.
  • And so what if theories that questioned the status-quo ages ago have been brought back up today. Without such ideas, we would still think Earth is the center of the universe and we would still literally burn people at the stake instead of only with our words. This would make us  modern-day versions of Nero and others who destroyed Christians…who at the time did not adhere to the traditional, national beliefs of the day. It’s interesting how the the persecuted often become persecutors.

The fact is that with new discoveries come new ideas (and vice versa), which usually have origins in formerly rejected ideas. For example, String Theory was once rejected from almost all discussions on the nature of the universe. Now it is regarded as the root of one of the most widely-accepted “theories of everything” available today. And I would suggest that such theories as this, General Relativity, Chaos Theory, M-Theory and such could offer much to theology, but sadly each of these fields have excluded the other. Regardless, the Emerging Church movement in my mind is a movement of challenging foundational assumptions. It is a science in that way. That’s what we do with principles we really cannot prove. It is in fact a deconstructionist movement , or at least a re-constructionist movement. That’s just what it does: It strips things down and challenges the foundations to find any cracks. And anyone who challenges foundational creeds are heretics…that’s the definition. But still, so what?

Perhaps you can prove that someone is a heretic – that their ideas do not line up with documents drawn up centuries ago – but I don’t see that as a problem. Maybe it’s a problem in the bubble called Christendom, but I really don’t think God is bound by the dimensions of that bubble. And I don’t see why some ideas were deemed outside the “range of acceptable answers” just because Church fathers answered heretics past with a terse, “Because I said so.” Or worse yet, because they claimed to speak on God’s behalf with a terse, “Because I said that God said so.” Or, to put it in modern-day bumper-sticker terms, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And tot hose who would ask if I would say that to God if He said “Because I said so,” well first off, Yes. I would. He didn’t seem to have an issue with  Biblical figures doing that. But secondly, men are not God. Those who claim to speak on God’s behalf are no different than the pharaohs and Caesars of millennia past.

For me, “Because I said so” is not a good enough answer. And that’s why I support rebellion. While I may not consider myself an Emergent per-se, it is what I see to be a holy rebellion, and I’m good with that. So, even if Brian and Doug and others could be proven to be heretics according to the terms and conditions set forth ages ago, I really don’t see what the big deal is. So was Jesus.

Just to be clear, all this is not to say that those who adhere to orthodox Christianity are just like the Inquisitors of the middle ages or something. I just felt I needed to encourage people that, just because one challenges core teachings of the church and in fact may be technically labeled a heretic, (1) they are not alone and (2) heresies have given us the religious freedom we experience today. So let’s keep up the tradition of rebellion.

4 Responses

  1. Jonathan makes an excellent point when he says “he’s slightly concerned that modern Christians are fairly ignorant of what their faith is, and what might actually be a heresy.” Yes. God calls us to study, study, study, contemplate, think and pray a lot, and study, study, study some more before we presume to know what is “Truth,” but so few people do that before feeling free to spout dogma (especially online).

    Along these lines, it disturbs me that so many of the most published and most widely read theologians today (including emergent writers) are SO YOUNG and have not yet spent a lifetime living faith experientially and learning all which God desires to teach about Himself, His ways, His plans. Heresies often sound wonderful and plausible until one’s personal experiences show otherwise, and I think it takes a lifetime to become competent enough to teach others about God. I’m just saying.

    But, Jonathan, I hope you are being playful when you say you are “so emergent that you have emerged beyond the church and possibly even beyond God,” because genuine heresy has nothing to do with disagreeing with what church leaders wrote down centuries ago. Genuine heresy, and genuine theology, are all about GOD and His nature and will, not things created/said/thought by men.

    Reading your statement that you have “possibly emerged beyond God” reminds me of a conversation I once had with a young girl who lived near me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she attended a fundamentalist church which frowned upon women cutting their hair or wearing pants. I was complimenting how beautiful her long hair was, and she complained to me that really she wanted to cut it, but cutting it was not allowed by her church. I responded, in a very thoughtful tone of voice, “Really? . . . Out of curiosity, why do they think it important to God that women not cut their hair?” She immediately acted impatient with me and kind of sneered, “GOD??? Who’s talking about GOD??? I’m talking about what my CHURCH believes!”

    Well excuuuuuuuusssssseeeee me! That’s not a church, that’s a CULT! I’d take an atheist any day over someone who is knowingly loyal to a manmade dogma! Again, I’m just saying.

    The key to learning Truth is a personal prayer relationship with God. You have to have a sincere desire to be and do nothing but what the Creator and Author of Life would have you be and do — if you pray with the ulterior motive of gaining something specific for yourself (including the selfish desire to have “spiritual experiences” or, heaven forbid, “prosperity” or “blessings”) then you’ll just be setting yourself up to be deceived. “Ask not what God can do for you, but what you can do for God.” If you daily engage in intimate and honest “baring it all” prayer to God (while also studying Scripture) desiring to be conformed into the image of Christ and trusting that God has the ability to lead you where you need to go in order to learn Truth, God will bring to your attention what He would have you read. When I was in college, God specifically led me to a bible study which focused on the words in red (the words spoken by Jesus) and although I had had a personal prayer relationship with God since the age of 7, that bible study revolutionized my understanding of what God wanted from me personally and from all of us.

    At a minimum, read Matthew and Luke and pray/reflect upon their content (God has convicted me over the course of my life that Matthew and Luke are the key gospels, despite the recent emphasis on Mark as “the oldest gospel”). For a wonderful historical fiction treatment of Christ’s life, consider reading Marjorie Holme’s books Two from Galilee, Three from Galilee, and The Messiah. As a college student I struggled with whether I was an archaic dinosaur for continuing to believe that sex is reserved for marriage, and right when I was considering whether to give myself to my (very sweet, non-pressuring) boyfriend, I happened across Two From Galilee in a Christian bookstore. I didn’t feel like I could justify spending $5 to purchase this book (since I was working my way through school and was constantly broke) but I literally became ROOTED to the spot in front of the display until I broke down and realized I had to buy, and read, this book. God was literally not going to let me leave without having purchased it.

    Two From Galilee is the story of Mary and Joseph’s love for one another, and it absolutely polished and renewed the vision of the glory of premarital chastity which God had given me as a young teen, but which had begun to be tarnished by the worldly values about sex I encountered in college. It is a holy text, and I have given countless copies away to young girls over the years — including that both of my own daughters read it and loved it.

    Anyway, I’ll shut up now and go away. ‘Emergent church’ is a fad which will eventually fade away. I recently read a memoir by Phyllis Tickle, one of the Emergent Church’s cheerleaders, and I felt so sorry for her: she was an only child who had formal, distant parents who left her alone a lot with only her imagination for companionship — and children who are not loved and nurtured appropriately become ripe fields for the sowing of deception. Every ‘mystical’ experience she described (as having led her to ‘the truth’ about God) chafed me inside as I read, and was just SHOT THROUGH with patterns which are hallmarks of deception. I’d get more specific, but I promised my son I’d get off the computer, so I don’t have the time to go back through my notes and pull out the details. I plan to eventually publish on the topic of deception within the church, and Phyllis Tickle will likely have a chapter all to herself.


  2. Thanks for the education. I love your writing style. You provoke me.

  3. I agree that freedom to speak what may be heresy is very important. I’m slightly concerned that modern christians are fairly ignorant of what their faith is, and what actually might BE a heresy.

    Mindyou, I bet that was also the case way back when – it was the educated theologians that debated these things.

    I guess the main problem with that is that people will waste an awful lot of time re-arguing something that has already been settled. Then again, this is the church we’re talking about 😉

    I’m so emergent I’ve emerged out of my cocoon into something beyond the church. Possibly beyond g0d. Who can say?

    • Good thoughts Jonathan. ..And I’m feelin’ ya on the “I’m so emergent…” Thanks for sharing!

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