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Catholicism and the Emergent Church

June 2006 | by Richard Bennett

‘Not since the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s has a Christian phenomenon been so closely entangled with the self-conscious cutting edge of US culture. Frequently urban, disproportionately young, overwhelmingly white, and very new – few have been in existence for more than five years – a growing number of churches are joining the ranks of the “emerging church”.’

Thus declared Christianity Today in its article ‘The Emergent Mystique’.1 While this new movement is permeating evangelical circles in the Western world, few seem to understand its essential modus operandi. Careful analysis shows it to be a theory that repudiates any single defining source for truth and reality beyond the individual.

The larger context

The Emergent Church movement did not start and does not operate in a vacuum – there is a larger context. We need to understand that 35 years ago the Roman Catholic Church published its non-negotiable agenda on ecumenism in its Post Vatican Council II documents. A crucial passage states:

‘Ecumenical dialogue is not limited to an academic or purely conceptual level, but [is] striving for a more complete communion between the Christian communities [churches] … and closer collaboration on the level of thought and action …

‘In this way, it aims at preparing the way for their unity of faith in the bosom of a Church one and visible: thus “little by little”, as the obstacles to perfect ecclesial communion are overcome, all Christians will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into that unity of the one and only Church … This unity, we believe, dwells in the Catholic Church …2

Thus rather than seeking unity based on truth, the papacy, as ever, aims to secure visible outward conformity through the compromise of others. This is the larger context in which the Emergent Church is set.

A generous orthodoxy

Brian McLaren is the pastor of the non-denominational church he founded in the late 1980s and a leading spokesman for ‘Emergent-US’ – a dominant group within the Emerging Church movement. He is a prime example of the success of the Catholic ecumenical agenda.

Leaning heavily on Roman Catholic sources, particularly G. K. Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy3,McLaren has written a book entitled A generous orthodoxy. Here he moves beyond Chesterton’s censure of Calvinism and sponsorship of mysticism, to present what he thinks is a whole new method of knowing Christian truth, namely, through Eastern mysticism.

But to sell this mindset to Protestants with their Bibles in hand, he pitches his approach in strongly subjective terms. This subtle tactic is part of the methodology of ecumenism spelled out in 1970 in Post Vatican Council II documents.

Neither objective nor fair

At the outset, McLaren calls his book ‘confessional’ – which gives him latitude to express his opinions without needing to give any formal argument.4 Indeed, he states, ‘you should know that I am horribly unfair in this book, lacking all scholarly objectivity and evenhandedness’.

Excusing himself on the basis of his heritage, he continues, ‘I am far harder on conservative Protestant Christians who share that heritage than I am on anyone else. I’m sorry. I am consistently over-sympathetic to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, even dreaded liberals, while I keep elbowing my conservative brethren in the ribs in a most annoying – some would say ungenerous – way. I cannot even pretend to be objective or fair’.5

Here the author reveals how bitterness against his conservative Protestant heritage has driven him into the arms of those who either deny or sideline Scripture. Yet this book is being hailed by many admirers as the manifesto of the Emergent Church movement.

The larger context, therefore, is the ecumenical aspirations of the Roman Catholic Church – as she moves to regain the political empire she lost at the hand of the Reformation three and a half centuries ago. Since the papacy thinks in terms of centuries6 rather than decades, Brian McLaren (and Rick Warren as well) could be very useful to the wider papal cause.

Redefining God

McLaren says his book is addressed primarily to those who are ready to give up Christianity altogether. He encourages them not to do so by deriding the conservative Protestant and Pentecostal view of Jesus as ‘a personal saviour’, and pointing them instead to the Roman Catholic ‘Jesus’ and the ‘Jesuses’ of Liberation Theology and liberal Protestantism.

Next, McLaren is bold enough to re­define the Holy God. He does this by making a distinction between ‘God A’ and ‘God B’. He writes:

‘Think of the kind of universe you would expect if God A created it: a universe of dominance, control, limitation, submission, uniformity, coercion. Think of the kind of universe you would expect if God B created it: a universe of interdependence, relationship, possibility, responsibility, becoming, novelty, mutuality, freedom’ (p.76).

By this fictitious contrast he entices his readers to choose between two highly subjective views of a god of his own imagination. That done, he has set his standard of truth – not the inerrant Word of God but rather his own current theory.

Hey presto!

McLaren also informs the reader that, ‘as in most of my other books … I have gone out of my way to be provocative, mischievous, and unclear, reflecting my belief that clarity is sometimes overrated’.7 Further, he fully intends that ‘shock, obscurity, playfulness, and intrigue’8 should all be a part of his style. In a major section entitled ‘The kind of Christian I am’, he claims to be many kinds of Christian simultaneously.

His method is to assign a focus of his own choosing to a particular group and then redefine whatever words or terms delineate that group. Under the new definition, which usually is the opposite of the original definition, he then declares himself to belong to that group.

He can then describe himself as all things to all men – fundamentalist, Calvinist, Methodist, Evangelical, Charismatic, liberal, conservative, Catholic, mystical, and so on ad infinitum. An instance of this tactic is when he defines Calvinists by their acrostic TULIP (which he clearly detests) and proceeds to use the same letters to construct an antithetical parody of the acrostic which he can accept – and ‘Hey presto!’ he becomes a ‘Calvinist’!

Confusion

Another group he dislikes are the fundamentalists, or ‘fighting fundies’, but says he will borrow from them the term ­’fighting’. He claims that this word is his legitimate heritage from them, allowing him to ‘fight’ for his own cause under the name of fundamentalist – despite the fact that what he is fighting for is directly opposed to fundamentalism!

Hence he feels free to define himself as a ‘fundamentalist/Calvinist’, but by doing so merely foments confusion and division.

By contrast, he does not redefine groups he likes, such as liberal Protestants, Catholics, mystics, and environmentalists – all of which he also claims to be, except Roman Catholic.

There is good reason for this. He considers himself ‘Post Protestant’, retaining as his heritage the right to protest, but not in the historical sense of protesting against Roman Catholicism. On the contrary, his protest is against the conservative Protestants of his own day. It should be noted that his chief sources of authority in nearly every chapter are Roman Catholics, particularly G. K. Chesterton.

Relativism

Although McLaren denies being a relativist, his explanations give him away. He states, ‘How do you know if something is true?… First, you engage in spiritual practices like prayer, Bible reading, forgiveness, and service. Then you see what happens; you remain open to experience. Finally, you report your experience to others in the field of spirituality for their discernment, to see if they confirm your findings or not’.9

In another place, McLaren redefines theology. He does this by drawing heavily from Vincent Donovan, a Roman Catholic missionary priest. Donovan came to the conclusion that ‘praxis [practice] must be prior to theology’ and that his theology would be derived from his theory that was derived out of his experience with pagans.10

Enlarging on Donovan’s (and others’) definition, McLaren says, ‘rather than seeing missiology (the study of missions) within theology, theology is actually a discipline within Christian mission. Theology is the church on a mission reflecting on its message, its identity, its meaning’.11

McLaren’s assertion that theology is actually a discipline within Christian mission is an utter denial of absolute truth as it is revealed in Scripture. Like the existentialists before him, McLaren has clearly denied biblical faith.