November 30, 2020

A Response to Roger (Questions on my review of “The Truth War”)

04a_prayer_candles.jpgRoger” is a co-worker who asked several questions about my review of Dr. John MacArthur’s “The Truth War.”

I’d like commenters to suggest good books on postmodernism and the emerging church. Thanks.

Roger asked me for complete definitions of postmodernism and the emerging church.

That’s a lot of reading, listening and work, Roger. There are no shorthand, quickie ways to get all you need to understand the terms and the movements that appropriate them. Let me try and point you in the right direction for your own reading.

The critics of the emerging church have hit the ground early and hard with their own definitions of both of these important terms. I can only ask you to remember what it would be like if Democrats offered three hours of a free seminar called “What is conservativism? and What do Republicans really believe?” Or if Muslims said “Buy our book on what Christians believe.” That’s the same kind of propaganda you will read on the net.

Some critical sources are more careful than others. I believe you can read for yourself and learn a lot. Here’s a quick list.

Read James Smith’s book “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” Then read Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, which will put you in the middle of the whole range of people who relate to the word “emerging” in some way. An Emergent Theology is also good. Christianity and the Postmodern Turn gives six perspectives.

Then Read Scot Mcknight’s material at The Jesus Creed blog and Andrew Jones at Tall Skinny Kiwi. These identify with the emerging movement at different points, but searches for “emerging” and “postmodern” should keep you busy there.

If you don’t want to read the emerging church in its own words, and if you listen to people who only quote Brian Mclaren, you’ll join the rest of a very large and wrong-headed group. I hope you will read more seriously than some of these “experts” and make up your own mind.

Roger asks if polemics are good or bad.

That’s much like asking if criticism of my co-workers is good or bad? There are a lot of other questions to be asked.

What’s the purpose? What’s the tone? What is the significance? What is the character and heart of the polemicist? What is at stake? Is the other side fairly represented? How are the common errors and sins of polemicism handled?

I am all for fair and important polemics. But polemicism has a place. Sometimes it’s overdone, overused and not justified. Other times it isn’t done in a professional or humble way.

Roger asks if Rob Bell and Brian Mclaren “represent” the emerging church?

Visibility in a movement can be deceptive regarding influence. These are influential men. But their influence varies. Mclaren represents many of the emerging church’s questions and objections. He doesn’t represent its answers. (In fact, he’s not really identified with a well-known church at all.) Bell’s church is probably less “emerging” than many others, but Bell himself is very skilled with media and is a good communicator. Bell shows a lot of intelligence and skill at pastoral application, but he also shows Biblical naiveté. I think the jury is way out on Bell.

Be very careful when the critics of the emerging church point at diverse personalities and say they all are anything. It’s just rarely true. The emerging movement is simply very young, very diverse and not particularly organized to respond, though it has done so.

Roger asks if the emerging church is becoming an “entity” with conferences, etc.

The nature of evangelicalism today is that people with similar interests network together via conferences, the web, books, etc. This doesn’t predict a denomination or an entity. The organization called “Emergent” is the closest thing to an entity, but this is a far left group and many people who identify with the label “emerging” do not identify with this network. I see no evidence that the “emerging” church will be anything more than a group of leaders and churches who approach ministry and especially church with some common interests. They will continue to reflect traditional distinctions in the Christian family.

Read Scot McKnight for more information. Here’s an interview. Here is a detailed presentation by McKnight on “What is the emerging church?”

Roger asks if I disagree with Mclaren, Driscoll, Padget and Bell overall.

I have heard very little Bell. What I heard I liked, but it needed some scholarly depth. He’s a good communicator with a pastor’s heart. He sometimes says things that make me wince, but I have that problem with 99% of the preachers I hear.

I have read one essay by Padget, and found him far to the left of me. I really can’t comment on him.

I like Driscoll a lot. I disagree with him on some issues regarding Calvinism and egalitarianism. I think he’s a brilliant church planter. Throwing Driscoll into this book is the worst mistake MacArthur makes. We need thousands more Driscolls. He’s all over the web. Read and listen to him for yourself.

Mclaren asks good questions and I think he’s very perceptive. We’ve been to many of the same places in our journey, but I haven’t come out at the same place he has. He’s to the left of me on a lot of things, and I disagree with almost all of his politics and applications. I also think his influence is overplayed. Sometimes he can be really sadly off the map on some clear Biblical issues.

I consider all these men my brothers in Christ. Some of the emerging critics do not consider anyone identifying with the emerging/missional conversation to be a true Christian. (Or…it would be “I have no comment to make on their profession of faith.”)

Roger asks how emerging/missional churches are different from other churches.

The differences are significant and important. Those who see Rick Warren as part of the emerging church are wrong. Those in the Purpose Driven movement who think that having a service with candles makes them emerging are wrong.

Emerging churches aren’t into the church growth movement’s priorities or ways of thinking. They tend to be small. They don’t do full service programs to keep the whole family happy. They don’t spend lots of money on facilities. They are informal. They relate to culture rather than trying to build a church culture. They typically use a lot of culturally influenced media, art and communication. They are rarely into traditional church behavior codes, dress codes and expectations. Expect to hear a lot more about spiritual formation and to sense an openness to the larger, more ancient church. Serving the community will be important, but the church will be more likely to deploy into existing community organizations than to create new ones.

Best way to answer this question is to go find one and visit. And again, don’t let people whose experience with the emerging church comes from Youtube be your authorities.

Roger asks who was criticized in the MacArthur book that didn’t deserve criticism.

I tried to be clear that no one is above criticism, nor should they be. Making Mark Driscoll, a shi’ite Calvinist, and John Armstrong, a man with a passion for Biblical reformation, the enemies of orthodoxy is simply going overboard.

Let’s be honest here. Armstrong read N.T. Wright and thinks that Catholics might be Christians. That’s enough to get you shown the door in some circles. Driscoll is crude and a bit unrestrained in his speaking style. It’s a flaw, not a threat to the church. Driscoll is a warrior for Christ and Armstrong is a great encourager to conservative evangelicals of all kinds. I can’t see that they deserve to be mentioned in the same way as people trying to redefine the Trinity.


  1. steve yates says

    I would recommend ed stetzer (sbc missiologist) and scot mcknight’s takes on the conversation (ed splits emergents into 3 categories, scot into 5 – but they both seem to make good points). it’s hard…i was brought into this emergent idea by mcclaren’s writings, so i’m a bit more sympathetic for him (his earlier work is better – ‘a new kind of christian’ is his first real thesis on the movement) – mostly because i attended his church in maryland around the time he was leaving…you’d be suprised on how non-“emergent” it was. mcclaren simply has a tendency to publish his musings on God w/o realizing his influence. i definitely learned more from pagitt in terms of methodology than theology – i just finished ‘church reimagined’ and was pleased with the concepts presented (the book includes a number of journel entries from his church members; not everything excites me, but they helped me see what ‘normal’ emergent church members are in pagitt’s view).

    another ‘flavor’ of the emerging church (for lack of a better term) worth exploring are the new monastics of Shane Calibourne and the simple way – Michael did a book review of his book ‘the irresistible revolution’ a little while ago.

    hope this helps.


  2. For grasping postmodernism while retaining a Christian perspective, I would recommend Newbigin’s “Proper Confidence” and Caputo’s “Philosophy and Theology”. They’re both fairly short books. I think Scot McKnight addresses some of the things those with a less modern perspective seek in “The Jesus Creed” and “Embracing Grace”.

  3. Michael writes,

    > Those in the Purpose Driven movement who think that having
    > a service with candles makes them emerging are wrong.

    and later,

    > Expect to hear a lot more about spiritual formation and
    > to sense an openness to the larger, more ancient church.

    Don’t you think that that’s precisely what the Purpose Driven folks think, that having candles constitutes openness to the more ancient church?

    More on-topic than the above comment:

    I really like some of John McArthur’s stuff, but like many of us he has a tendency to make sweeping judgments of whole movements which is always a dangerous thing. But he’s done it with Charismatics and Catholics before, and I am not surprised that he does it with the emerging crowd. Big difference is that he makes these sweeping judgments on air and in print, which most of us fortunately don’t get a chance to do.

  4. I get very tired of blog pundits who forget that “postmodernity” means after modernity. I don’t think it’s possible to offer blanket criticisms of whatever version of “postmodernity” without implicitly accepting the controlling narratives of modernity.

    It’s about modernity, and how dead it is or is not, and what we are to do, and how we are to live and speak after that.

    Michael, have you heard Tom Wright’s comment about how “postmodernity preaches the doctrine of the Fall to arrogant modernity”?

    I love it.

    Nice post. Blessings.

  5. Wow. I like the study and level headedness that went into this blog. It’s measured, careful and thorough in many ways.

    I think we would all do well to continue to examine the fruit from the postmodernist trees, because that will tell us much about whether there is good in it.

    We shouldn’t forget in this process to also examine the roots. If they are bad then we know the fruit will be bad. So, if we see good fruit, as with Driscoll, we know there is something he is doing fundamentally right, however much we may disagree with any postmodernism influence in his belief system.

    On the other hand, when we look at the tenets of postmodernism itself, where it started, the roots, its initial proponents, I think we will be shocked by its utter relativism, secularism, denial of absolute truth and amorality. Why should such a philosophy inspire us? How should Derrida, for example, bring us closer to God?

    Only in the most indirect way should secular critics and philosophers change our way of thinking. And then, only to cause self-examination and bring us back to our true roots, the Bible and New Testament Christianity. All good reformations and revivals hold this element in common. We will never “move on” from New Testament Christianity.