According to Jesus, eternal life consists in knowing “the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). If, like those original disciples, you are a true follower of Jesus, you’ll believe that. Even so, it can certainly be a stiff challenge to faithfully live and witness for Christ in a culture awash in relativism, tolerance, and rival deities—gods which, as the Apostle Paul once said, “are not gods” at all (Acts 19:26), but nevertheless compete for the hearts and minds of people. The challenge is difficult enough without there also being a movement inside our community which, if it achieves its ends, virtually guarantees we’ll lose the day. That movement is called by various names: the emergent church, the emerging church, missional Christianity, and several others. There’s no need to fuss about the label. What’s important are the ideas in play, and their implications for the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Emergent leaders invite us to change the way we think about God, the Scriptures, heaven and hell, the church, gospel, missions, and more. It’s a tall order. However, by starting strategic “conversations” about a “New Kind of Christianity” in key sectors of the church, emergent Christianity has had a wide-ranging impact. According to Brian McLaren, the grandfather of emergentism,
The conversation continues to grow, not by creating a new slice of the pie, but by seasoning nearly all sectors of the pie. Even where the word ‘emergent’ is not used, ideas from emergence leaders are being considered and adopted, leading to new experimentation and openness (“More on the Emergent Conversation,” Nov 17, 2014 [link]).
The result of this “ideational seasoning” is that “much of the Mainline Protestant world has opened its arms wide to the emergent conversation.” And there is, perhaps, more to be expected in the future:
Key next steps may include the creation of a national, trans-denominational campus ministry, collaborative and transdenominational church planting and ‘branding’, new approaches to theological and ministry education, and the development of a new genre of progressive Christian worship music (ibid, [link]).
It’s quite an effort.
The Demise of Doctrine
Now it goes without saying that if you’re going to propose a new kind of Christianity, you’ll need to distance yourself from the old. McLaren does this in a variety of ways. Here is just one. Some bible doctrines, he thinks, are cast in such a way that they promote hostility and opposition between religions. This can happen when doctrine uses the language of exclusion, that is, the sort of “us/them” language that breeds a judgmental mind-set (e.g., true/false, right/wrong, good/evil, saved/unsaved). Here, e.g., we are told that the traditional doctrine of original sin
promotes a dualistic judgmental, accusatory mind-set…[which] in turn breeds hostility and rivalry…[It] often aids in the expansion of sin (Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, p. 133).
McLaren doesn’t mention which sin he has in mind. But some of the things he says about doctrine in general suggest that he’s thinking of the sin of “empire” or “imperial control,” (p. 101) which, in this case at least, amounts to a blunt power move on the church’s part: making doctrinal pronouncements for the purpose of subjugating and controlling others. Thus McLaren asks:
Has the very concept of doctrine as popularly understood become so full of imperial bugs that it needs to be deconstructed—not just specific doctrines, but the very concept of doctrine itself? Is doctrine…a tool of imperial control? (ibid).
The question, of course, is rhetorical. For McLaren, both doctrine itself and individual doctrines are tools of imperial control and so must be deconstructed. “Oppositional” doctrines—those driven by power motives and inevitably undermining hospitality—are first identified, then rejected, and finally replaced with new and improved “healing” teachings:
Can doctrine be rediscovered…as a healing teaching?…In other words, can the idea of doctrine itself be reformulated not as an instrument of mind control and social pacification, but as an instrument of healing—including healing from the diseases of empire? (p. 101).
So we’re looking at a re-write of many traditional bible doctrines, using non-hostile, non-imperialistic, healing terms—such terms as ‘care’, ‘love’, ‘listen’, ‘appreciate’, ‘harmony’, ‘learn’, ‘accept’, and so on. When I express my doctrines using healing language (as opposed to binary, “oppositional” language), I can generously extend “orthodoxy” to those with divergent views. I can adopt a “big tent” posture with respect others. Indeed, I can create all sorts of “space” under the tent because its boundaries are fluid and personal (e.g., being hospitable rather than hostile) as opposed to fixed and propositional (e.g, true vs. false, right vs. wrong). If I no longer have to think of my views as true (hence under the tent), I don’t have to see yours as false (outside the tent). And then since it’s a big tent, and you’re now happily under it, I don’t have to see you as a rival or enemy. I am free to be hospitable.
The Deconstruction Disaster
There are two basic reasons (in addition to those given here and here) to think that this brand of “big tent” Christianity collapses on itself. First, McLaren’s hospitality approach to doctrine implies that we should reject what Jesus plainly teaches about himself. Perhaps we can see this as follows. In order to generate his “healing teachings,” McLaren requires something like the following principle (call it the ‘Hospitality Principle’):
HP: If a doctrine or teaching promotes hostility and rivalry to others, we should reject it. If it promotes hospitality and collaboration, it can be acceptable.
Armed with (HP), McLaren can then say that we should reject the traditional doctrine of original sin, which “breeds hostility and rivalry” (p. 113), in favor of his preferred narrative
in which a beautiful songbird sings from the tree of life, inviting us to eat again of its original fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control” (p. 114).
Not surprisingly, this “songbird” narrative passes (HP) with flying colors. (After all, who could possibly be upset or offended by a singing bird?)
A Different Jesus, A Different Gospel
But there is a problem. For consider what Jesus teaches about his own life and ministry. “Do not think,” he says, “that I have come to bring peace to the earth.” On the contrary,
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household (Matthew 10:34-36).
Here Jesus’ intent lines up rather badly with McLaren’s. McLaren says our purpose should be to avoid religious conflict by employing healing language. Jesus’ purpose, by contrast, appears to be quite different. He came to bring a sword and to set people against one another. It’s not just that his teachings did produce sharp divisions, what Jesus says actually implies that they were designed to be that way.
Or again, consider Jesus’ remarks in Luke 11:23: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Here it seems that McLaren’s Hospitality Principle seems to have escaped Jesus’ notice. Not only does he use oppositional language (“with me…against me”), he divides people into two camps: those who are for him and then everyone else. If Jesus’ goal were to create a climate of “generous spaciousness” and collaboration among religious groups, this is exactly the wrong sort of language to use.
The bottom line is that if (HP) is correct, we shall have to reject many of Jesus’ teachings, since both their language and effect on listeners are indisputably “oppositional,” which makes us question whether Jesus was properly committed to the “big tent” as all good hosts are supposed to be.
Sadly, I’m afraid, McLaren seems to have things in reverse. He thinks our doctrinal test should be the absence of offense. According to the Apostle Paul, however, we distort the gospel (e.g.) when we remove its offense.
But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed ( Galatians 5:11).
So there’s your test. If you remove the offense, you lose the gospel. It can be tricky. On the one hand, you and I are to proclaim the gospel with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15); we shouldn’t be offensive. On the other hand, the heart of the gospel is the cross of Christ. And Paul says that is offensive. It’s offensive to human pride. Remember, Paul’s gospel begins with the fact of our enmity with God. We are sinners and enemies, and God doesn’t actually accept us just the way we are. We’re actually under God’s wrath apart from Christ. Romans 5:9 – “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!”
And yet according to the Hospitality Principle, that makes God out to be a bad host. He’s “hostile” to unrepentant sinners who refuse to trust in the one “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25). Compare Isaiah 53:5 – “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (niv).
Not surprisingly, our tolerance driven culture finds this message deeply offensive. Is there anything we could do to “soften” it up a bit? Well yes there is, if it doesn’t trouble you “to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal 1:7). We could re-write our doctrine of the cross. And so McLaren:
How…might our atonement doctrines be reformulated in a nonviolent, postimperial, postsacrifical light?…How might we reformulate those doctrines of heaven, hell, and final judgment so they are no longer malignant? (p. 157).
Unfortunately, torturously redacting the cross of Christ into one of McLaren’s “songbird” narratives here would be sheer disaster—indeed, a “turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). For there isn’t a shred of offense in a deconstructed hospitality cross. You can turn to it if you like, but it can’t save you. It’s just a postcolonial distortion of the true gospel, the one by which Paul says “you are being saved” (1 Cor 15:1).
There is a second problem. McLaren’s “big tent” hospitality is self-refuting. Think for a moment about his Hospitality Principle (HP). How shall we regard it? McLaren clearly believes it and wants us to as well. Does he think it’s true? If he does, then those who believe its negation (as I do) believe what is false. But on his view that’s oppositional and hostile. It puts me outside the “big tent.” Does he think it’s better than my belief? That’s judgmental and accusatory. Well, you get the point. Any attempt to legislate (HP) or enjoin it upon me is going to be a philosophical tar baby.
Or you can look at it this way. (HP) says that if a doctrine promotes hostility and opposition, it should be rejected. But let’s not forget that (HP) is also a doctrine. It’s the doctrine that implies we should put up with a Jesus other than the one Paul proclaimed, and remove what can’t be removed without departing from the gospel: “the offense of the cross” (Gal 5:11). If hostility is what McLaren says it is—seeing other views as “wrong, false, or evil,” and maintaining a “posture of opposition” (p. 69) towards all but one’s own doctrinal views, I can tell you with a high degree of confidence that (HP) is hostility promoting, if only because Jesus and Paul are flatly opposed to it. By its own criteria, therefore, we shouldn’t hesitate to reject the principle. And the same goes, I would suggest, for that postimperial house of cards McLaren erects upon it.
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