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The Emerging Church, Part 7: Sheep Without a Shepherd

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• “I no longer consider myself a tour guide, but a fellow traveler.”

                                                           -Emerging Church leader Spencer Burke

  In Part 6 of our discussion, we explored the Gospel message of the Emerging Church, which for some Emergents has become a Social Gospel. In this part, we will look at the role of the “pastor” in Emerging Churches.
  The Emerging Church, in its reaction to modernism, generally avoids propositional “truth claims.” An example of this can be seen in the words of Scot McKnight, “ [the Emerging Movement] sees cock-sure certainty as a cancer,”
1 and the words of Frank Viola: “The emerging church phenomenon has dumped the modern penchant to always be certain in answering every spiritual question under the sun. Instead, it has rested content to embrace mystery and paradox in our God.2

  In one sense, the above two viewpoints are correct, to the extent that they critique a modernistic theological worldview. There are many mysteries in the Bible that we can not and should not attempt to answer, that have nevertheless been explained via rationalism. There are, however, two problems with these quotes. First, those in the Emerging conversation often fail to distinguish between modernism and the mainline church, unfairly lumping both into the same category and heaping invectives on the latter.3 Second, while there are mysteries in Scripture that should remain unplumbed, there are also many things of which we can be certain. It is at this juncture that a decision has to be made. In order to be certain of anything, you must accept Scripture as the source and norm of all theology. It is here that many people in the Emerging conversation depart the realm of orthodoxy (they’re not alone - so do many in mainline churches). By abandoning Holy Scripture as their sole source, they usher in a man-made theology in which everything becomes relative. Experience, mysticism, and imagination are all thrown into the pot, creating an unsavory stew that doesn’t follow the recipe. This admixture makes certainty impossible, which is just fine with postmodernists, but is not “just fine” with God. Jesus says in John 8:31-32 that "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." It is by continuing in Jesus word, and only His word, that liberating truth is found - the path of experience and uncertainty leads to enslavement. But uncertainty, rather than being eschewed by the Emerging Church, is being embraced.

  One area of Scripture in which there is certainty is the “job description” of a pastor. There are many verses in the Bible that delineate the qualifications and expectations placed by God on the pastor. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are examples. One skill that pastors must possess, as mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:2, is the ability to teach. Not only must they have the ability to teach, they must use that ability to teach those in their flock. The role of the pastor as a teacher is disdained in many corners of the Emerging Church, at least in a didactic sense.

We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. After all, if our perspectives are biased by the groups we belong to, if our understanding is limited by our contexts, if our view is valid only from our subjective standpoint, then each of us is untrustworthy and subjective in knowledge and judgment and none of us can presume to very much authority. 4

  The perspective in the above quote of Brian McLaren, in which he presents a nice mix of circular reasoning and false propositions, is indicative of the postmodern Emerging view. Contrary to that lack of certainty is the witness of Scripture. Paul advised his young pastoral friend Timothy:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
2 Timothy 4:1-5

  Paul and Timothy lived in a time very similar to our own. People of many different cultural and religious backgrounds were thrust together in the Roman world. Many religious myths were “for sale” in the world marketplace, and no one idea appeared to have validity over another. Much like the postmodern times of today, people lived with ambiguity and paradox. While Paul tailored his message to his audience, speaking in ways each of their unique cultures would understand, he never changed or compromised his message. When Paul stood up to speak to Jew and Gentile alike, he didn’t say “we are always aware that we could be wrong,” as does Emerging Church leader Brad Cecil.5 He didn’t say “We are also genuinely open to being wrong about parts and perhaps all our beliefs–while at the same time being fully committed to them,” as does Emerging Church leader Pete Rollins.6 When Paul spoke, he wasn’t afraid to present propositional truth or “proof texts” (the bane of many postmodern Emergents):

for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
Acts 18:28

Paul didn’t sit down with each group and swap stories so that truth could be culturally incarnated, or keep quiet and hope that people would come to “live in the way of Jesus” after observing the Godly life he led. He preached to them the Gospel. After his miraculous conversion, he immediately began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God, which was blasphemy to the Jews and nearly got him killed (Acts 9). He wasn’t afraid to speak of the bodily resurrection of Christ, which would have been offensive to the Sadducees and the gnostically-inclined Greeks . He didn’t shrink from proclaiming “Jesus is Lord,” which could have incurred the wrath of Caesar. Instead, he “spoke out boldly” (Acts 13:46).

  Where Scriptural authority is rejected, conviction of belief wanes. This lack of conviction is the ground the Emerging Church holds:

...a teacher of great worth in postmodern society isn’t the one with the right answers, but the one who can ask the right questions, and then walk the road of discovery with others.7

We are comfortable with having a lot of unanswered questions. We think maybe that’s what it’s like being in relationship with a living Being. We think its more honest than providing a lot a answers, abstract notions of truth.8

Standing up for the truth or fighting the culture wars has no appeal to emerging church leaders.9

The further you walk away from Scripture, the less certain your faith becomes, because faith rests not in the wisdom of men but in the power of God through the Gospel (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).

Paul and the other first century pastors had no such lack of conviction:

because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.
1 Thessalonians 1:5

but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.
1 Thessalonians 2:4

The conviction of Paul’s teaching, and that of the other Apostles and pastors of the first century was firmly rooted in the Word of Jesus. Matthew 7:28 reads:

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching,

The Greek word for “teaching” used in this verse is didache, which means “teaching” or “doctrine.” It is the same Greek word used in Acts 2:42:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

  In both Matthew 7:28 and Acts 2:42, the King James translation of the Bible translates didache as “doctrine.”

Paul tells Timothy:

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. 10
1 Timothy 6:3-5

Thus, the New Testament Church devoted itself to Jesus’ didache. That didache is the same that is to be taught to pastors to this day. Paul instructs Timothy:

and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
2 Timothy 2:2

What is this didache that all pastors are to preach? Paul answers:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you--unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
1 Corinthians 15:1-3

This didache is the Law and the Gospel, preached in all its wondrous salvific detail! It is to be taught, preached, demonstrated, and defended with steadfast certainty.11 As Paul declares in Ephesians 6:19-20:

Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (NIV)

Let’s Be Irenic

  In an article co-authored by Emerging Church leaders Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Spencer Burke, Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, Andrew Jones, and Chris Seay, they mention what I, and likely they, would consider to be a creed for the Emerging Church:

...cultivating a wholehearted devotion to Christ and his gospel, by seeking to join in the mission of God in our time, by calling people to follow God in the way of Jesus, and by doing so in an irenic spirit of love for all our brothers and sisters.12

In a similar spirit is this quote from Emergent Village:

We understand the gospel to be centered in Jesus and his message of the Kingdom of God, a message offering reconciliation with God, humanity, creation, and self. We are committed to a “generous orthodoxy” in faith and practice - affirming the historic Christian faith and the biblical injunction to love one another even when we disagree.13

Both of the above quotes offer a reprise of the Social Gospel that we considered in Part 6. That being said, we should indeed operate in an irenic spirit of love, and we should love one another even when we disagree. Both statements however, stop short. The definition of “irenics,” according to the Christian Cyclopedia, is this:

Theology which tries to arrive at Christian peace. Irenics presupposes polemics, which in its true character should have no other aim than irenics. The “bond of peace,” Eph 4:3, embraces all Christians, and “speaking the truth in love,” Eph 4:15, deserves to be emphasized at all times. But he who truly seeks ecclesiastical peace well-pleasing to God will find himself compelled to engage in controversy. True irenics does not exclude polemics, but is another way of gaining the same end. The danger of polemics lies in the direction of separatism and magnification of unessential differences; irenic efforts are prone to degenerate into syncretism and unionism; love of revealed truth guards against both dangers.14

  The Emerging Church has erred on the side of syncretism and unionism, and mostly ignored polemics of any kind. Emerging Church leader John O’Keefe states: “We desire growth and learning, not dogma and doctrine.”15 Spencer Burke comments: “Rather than force people to fall into line, an ooze-y community tolerates differences and treats people with opposing views with great dignity.”16

  Not only is there a biblical injunction to love our brothers and sisters in Christ even when we disagree, there is also a biblical injunction to point out doctrinal error that our brothers and sisters might hold:

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Titus 1:9

preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,
2 Timothy 4:2-3

  Fellow Christians who continue in doctrinal error are to be avoided:

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.
Romans 16:17

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
2 Thessalonians 3:6

  It may seem ironic, but it is biblical, that an irenic spirit of love includes pointing out doctrinal error to a fellow Christian. You ultimately may have to avoid that brother or sister, even to the point of excommunicating them from the Church, both in love for them and in love for the Church. This is never an easy thing to do. No one likes to discipline, but just as parents discipline their children out of love, so it is with Christians. To allow and offer succor to false doctrine, while it may on the surface seem loving, actually harms and pollutes the body of Christ.

  In their pastoral efforts to be irenic, the Emerging Church has created an awfully big tent. By stretching the boundaries of Christian doctrine, and in some cases abandoning Scriptural authority and the doctrine of justification by faith, the tent stakes are spread so far as to include just about anybody under the Christian big-top. Atonement is sometimes optional. Belief in Jesus as your Savior is occasionally optional. Not only are those who don’t believe Jesus is their Savior welcomed into the tent, they’re offered seats on the board of directors:

“Evangelism or mission for me is no longer about persuading people to believe what I believe, no matter how edgy or creative I get. It is more about shared experiences and encounters. It is about walking the journey of life and faith together, each distinct to his or her own tradition [religion] and culture but with the possibility of encountering God and truth from one another.”17

Much of what exists in other faiths may not necessarily be hostile to the kingdom. Christians can learn much from other walks of life.18

“It is possible for someone who does not know Jesus to be saved.”19

It will take a decolonized theology for Christians to appreciate the genuineness of others’ faiths, and to see and celebrate what is good, beautiful, and true in their beliefs without any illusions that down deep we all are believers in the same thing.20

Let the Sheep Beware

  In the article co-authored by Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Spencer Burke, Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, Andrew Jones, and Chris Seay mentioned above, they state that they “...affirm the historic Trinitarian Christian faith and the ancient creeds....”21 Their statement sounds like a good start, but in the following paragraph they say this:

But we also acknowledge that we each find great joy and promise in dialogue and conversation, even about the items noted in the previous paragraph. Throughout the history of the church, followers of Jesus have come to know what they believe and how they believe it by being open to the honest critique and varied perspectives of others. We are radically open to the possibility that our hermeneutic stance will be greatly enriched in conversation with others.

In other words, they affirm nothing, even when it comes to the bare bones minimums of Christianity that many Christians assume as a “given.” For them, everything is fair game, including the basics. If you elevate yourself above Scripture, so that you decide what is and isn’t God’s Word, everything falls apart, including your confession. This position isn’t particularly surprising – plenty of people outside of the Emerging Church hold the same sort of subscription. What is surprising, is that they are bold enough to pose their affirmation of orthodoxy in the first place. At least some of them are highly inaccurate historians, because their definition of the “historic Trinitarian Christian faith” doesn’t match that of the protestant historic Trinitarian Christian faith doctrine. Of those whose work I’ve studied, which would include Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Spencer Burke, and Brian McLaren, none of them proclaim the Gospel as presented in Part 5. All of them are also involved in mysticism (see Part 4) and have been heavily influenced by postmodern thought. You won’t be hearing any sermons or reading any blogs about justification by faith from them. In the ultimate irony, Brian McLaren, who endorses the “historic Trinitarian Christian faith,” also says just the opposite: “We must continually be aware that the ‘old, old story’ may not be the ‘true, true story.’”22 There is a mountain of criticism that could be cast here, but that is certainly not my desire. My point is that they aren’t who they say they are. They misrepresent themselves and are leading their flocks astray. Let the sheep beware.

  The postmodern influence has drastically reshaped the pastoral office in the Emerging Church. While it was once assumed that the teacher knew more than the student, that is no longer the case. Spencer Burke proudly asserts “I no longer consider myself a tour guide, but a fellow traveler.”
23 Emerging Church leader Rob Bell says “I have as many questions as answers....”24

  Pastors are “entrusted with the task of preaching the Gospel” (Galatians 2:7, NIV), but the Emerging Church is forsaking the didache of Christ. While Paul stated that he “did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), the Emerging Church fails to do so. They fail to preach an orthodox Gospel, they embrace uncertainty, and they espouse false doctrine rather than “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). For a church that claims to be seeking a first century way of living the Gospel, these men and women have failed in their witness, largely forsaking their pastoral duty. While they claim to uphold the historic orthodox teachings of the church, what they’ve written often reveals other beliefs.


Coming up, The Emerging Church, Part 8: Final Thoughts.

Written by Scott Diekmann

Continue to Part 8

All parts of this article may be referenced or downloaded separately or all together at:

To jump from the endnote number in the text to the actual endnote and vice versa, click on the respective endnote number.
All quotes containing italics are those of the quoted author unless otherwise noted.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.


1.     Scot McKnight, “What is the Emerging Church? Protest,” Jesus Creed, 27 Feb 2007 <>.

2.     Frank Viola, “Will the Emerging Church Fully Emerge?,”, 27 Feb 2007 <>.

3.    Here are two examples in which the mainline church is unfairly linked to modernism. The first is from Gibbs and Bolger’s book Emerging Churches, and the second is from Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy:
“During modernity, the idea that Christians ‘participate with God’ was lost. Participation was replaced by a willful God who commands all reality through his awesome power. The modern God no longer had humans’ ultimate good in mind. Rather, this God simply wanted complete obedience. By reducing God to power, modernity removed the sense that a good and beautiful God participates with humans. Modern people fled from this God of unbridled power. They sought to create ‘safe zones’ (the secular realm) so that God would not interfere with them.
Modern churches [here being defined as any church that doesn’t fit the Emergent Church ideal] resemble this modern God. Their leadership is based on power, control, and submission to authority.”*
“This rebuke to arrogant intellectualizing is especially apt for modern Christians, who do not build cathedrals of stone and glass as in the Middle Ages, but rather conceptual cathedrals of proposition and argument. These conceptual cathedrals– known popularly as systematic theologies–were cherished by modern minds, liberal and conservative....”**
*Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) 192.
**Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional+evangelical +post/protestant+liberal/conservative+mystical/poetic+biblical+charismatic/ contemplative+fundamentalist/calvinist+anabaptist/anglican+methodist+catholic+ green+incarnational+depressed-yet-hopeful+emergent+unfinished CHRISTIAN (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004) 168.

4.    Brian D. McLaren, The Church on the Other Side (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998, 2000) 163.

5.    Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) 123.

6.     Gibbs and Bolger, 132.

7.  Leonard Hjalmarson, “Kingdom Leadership in the Postmodern Era,”, Winter 2003, 27 Feb 2007 <>.

8.     Gibbs and Bolger, 124; quoting Debbie Blue of House of Mercy in St. Paul.

9.     Gibbs and Bolger, 124.

10.  1 Timothy 6:4 is misquoted in “A Response to Recent Criticism,” the article I reference below in the beginning of my discussion on irenics (see endnote 12). In an effort to eliminate the biblical commands to point out doctrinal error, these Emerging Church leaders do a little “Scripture twisting” with this verse. They replace the front of the verse with their own words, and then quote only the last part of the verse, dropping the context of the front part of the verse and ignoring the surrounding context of verses 1, 2, 3, and 5, thereby changing the meaning. They state: “‘The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, patient when wronged.’ In addition he warned Timothy not to develop ‘an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions, and constant friction.’” They put a “spin” on this section, as you can see by comparing my correct quotation of it. These verses do not warn Timothy “not to develop and unhealthy interest....” Placed in the proper context of verses 1 and 2, Paul is contrasting the proper doctrine of verses 1 and 2 which Timothy is to “teach and urge,” with the teaching of false doctrine in verses 3-5.
Brian McLaren, one of the authors of this quote, is being a hypocrite here twice over by using a twisted proof text. He doesn’t heed his own bad advice: “I intentionally avoid including a lot of Biblical references in my writing because the method of ‘proof-texting’ is terribly problematic. Yes – it can show the Biblical roots beneath a statement, but it also can be used to give the appearance that a statement is supported by Biblical authority when it isn’t.”
Brian McLaren, “Do You Believe the Bible is the Inerrant Word of God?,” online question,, 27 Mar 2007 <>.

11.   Martin Luther spoke of Christian certainty in Bondage of the Will:
“For it is not the mark of a Christian mind to take no delight in assertions; on the contrary, a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian. And by assertion – in order that we may not be misled by words – I mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and invincible persevering . . .
I am speaking, moreover, about the assertion of those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings. Elsewhere we have no need either of Eramus [sic] or any other instructor to teach us that in matters which are doubtful or useless and unnecessary, assertions, disputing, and wrangling, are not only foolish but impious, and Paul condemns them in more than one place...
Let Skeptics and Academics, keep well away from us Christians, but let there be among us ‘assertors’ twice as unyielding as the Stoics themselves. How often, I ask you, does the apostle Paul demand . . . that most sure and unyielding assertion of conscience? In Rom. 10 he calls it ‘confession,’ saying, ‘with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.’ And Christ says: ‘Everyone who confesses me before men, I also will confess before My Father’. Peter bids us give a reason for the hope that is in us. What need is there to dwell on this?
Nothing is better known or more common among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity.
(Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, Library of Christian Classics, Vol XVII, Westminster Press, 1969, pp. 105-106).”
Quoted from: Rolf Preus, “Luther Revisited: The Doctrine of Justification Is Still the Issue,” Minnesota Lutheran Free Conference, St. Cloud, 31 Oct 1998, at, 27 Mar 2007 <>.

12.   Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Spencer Burke, Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, Andrew Jones, and Chris Seay, “A Response to Recent Criticism,”, 27Feb 2007 <>.

13. Values & Practices page, Emergent Village, 27 Feb 2007 <>.

14.   “irenics,” Christian Cyclopedia, Erwin L. Leuker, et. al., eds, Concordia Publishing House, 2000, 27 Feb 2007 <>.

15.  John O’Keefe, “QUANTUM SERVANTHOOD: knowing how to lead in chaos - Visual,” formerly available at

16.  Spencer Burke, “FROM THE THIRD FLOOR OF THE GARAGE: The Story of TheOOZE,”, 3, 27 Feb 2007 <>.

17.   Gibbs and Bolger, 131, Quoting Pip Piper of maji, Birmingham, U.K.

18.   Gibbs and Bolger, 131.

19.  Dallas Willard, “Apologetics in Action,” interview with Cutting Edge Magazine, 5.1, Winter 2001, 28 Feb 2007 <>.

20.  Leonard Sweet, Quantum Spirituality: A Postmodern Apologetic (Dayton, OH: United Theological Seminary, 1991) 131.  Available for free download at:

21.   Jones, et. al., “A Response to Recent Criticism.”

22.   McLaren, Generous, 294. Thanks to Apologetics Index for originally pointing out this quote: <>.

23.   Burke, 3.

24.   Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) 14.

Sola Scriptura     •     Sola Gratia     •     Sola Fide