A good friend dropped off a letter he received from John MacArthur from “Grace to You”. I rarely take time out to respond to things with which I disagree, but this one hit me pretty hard so I wanted to share my response. I wanted to include a link to the entire letter so you can see the context, but I was surprised to find out that I couldn’t find it on the internet. If anyone finds a link let me know and I’ll add it.
First, it is true that the emerging movement is experiencing a snowball effect in it’s growth and popularity. So much so that many are calling it the next “Reformation”. Even very trustworthy conservative leaders such as George Barna are using this language. I just finished a book entitled “Revolution” by Barna that would be a tremendous counter-point to the claims of MacArthur. Barna is, however, getting major backlash from much of the conservative evangelical community. Although, Barna's book is not specifically about the emerging movement, the revolutionaries he describes share a lot of the characteristics. The very ones who stuck with him and supported him for many years are now turning their backs on him both in financial support and public criticism. Ironically, Barna says that the reason he has changed his approach is because he worked for these guys for 30 years and did hundreds of thousands of hours of research on American culture to help the church be more effective and these guys would not change a thing about their approach to outreach. They would pay thousands of dollars to have him come in and speak so they could learn about the culture and then would do absolutely nothing to adjust the way they do church. It’s been an interesting dialogue to follow.
Now, to the letter.
Paragraph 5: “The Emerging Church movement is wildly popular with people who are dissatisfied with orthodox doctrine, dogmatic preaching, and traditional worship.”
It is possible that John was saying that the movement is just popular with these people, but in the following comments I am assuming that he is saying that these people are the leaders of the movement.
If he is simply referring to those who are attracted to this movement, then praise God they are, because obviously the traditional (20th century style) church is not moving them closer to Jesus. Let’s pray that the emerging movement will!
It is unfair to say that the emerging church as a whole is dissatisfied with Orthodox doctrine. It would be more accurate to say that the younger generation is more interested in truth and want to know the truth outside of the boundaries of just what someone is going to tell them that was told to them and told to the person who told them and so on. The emerging movement has been about knowing truth as presented in the Word of God alone. This has led to some very positive results. For example, the emerging movement is extremely focused on helping the poor, sick and needy. Jesus spoke more on these issues than any other and the emerging movement is putting it’s money where it’s mouth is in regards to resources and volunteerism. It’s easy to sit in a fancy building on Sunday mornings and teach biblical truths to a group of people who are going to leave that afternoon and talk about how good church was and then go work to make bunches of money until next Sunday so they can pay the pastor to do the same thing again. It’s a whole other thing to take the truth of the gospel out to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and dig wells for the thirsty and show compassion to the AIDS victim. The emerging movement is DOING THIS! If John means that the emerging movement is dissatisfied with dogmatic preaching for the sake of good preaching to puff up the believers so they can survive in the world until next Sunday just to do it all over again, he’s probably right. The gift of teaching and preaching is not given for the sake of preaching and teaching it is to lead people to ACTION! The emerging movement is tired of the church pumping all it’s resources back into highly paid staff keeping the big machine well oiled and amassing huge monuments to themselves through buildings and steeples and such.
And interestingly enough, the churches you’d consider most emergent are the ones that are moving back toward ancient hymns, practices and liturgy! John is definitely misinformed to say that these churches are dissatisfied with traditional worship, unless he is talking about a type of traditional worship that looks very 20th century American. If you really want to talk about traditional worship you’d talk about people meeting together in each others house, eating, singing, giving money to each other and laughing like you find in Acts 2. John could be saying that the emerging movement is dissatisfied with the selfish way we experienced worship in 20th century America.
Paragraph 6: “They reject the notion that God’s Word is clear, and that anyone can really understand its meaning. That means that every doctrine you and I find precious is subject to new interpretation, doubt, and even wholesale rejection. … Unlike the noble Bereans who used Scripture to test what they were taught and refine their understanding of truth…”
This is an amazingly contradictory set of statements. If I find doctrine more precious than Jesus and his Word, something is distinctly wrong. Doctrine is simply an understading of God’s truth through His word. That is the passion of the emerging leader, to know truth as revealed to us in God’s word and how that will play itself out in our day to day lives. What MacArthur seems to be saying is that what you learn in a seminary textbook as someone else’s perceived truth is to be adopted without question or doubt. In that case, who’s interpretation is correct? In which seminary professor do you place your “faith”? EVERY doctrine of man should be open to new interpretation. There has been no human that can perfectly without flaw know Truth in every facet. The entire thrust of the emerging leader is to ”(use) scripture to test what they were taught and refine their understanding of truth” Isn’t that exactly what John is saying the emerging church is doing in the statement IMMEDIATELY preceding. And isn’t that exactly what someone would be doing if they accepted any given doctrine of man without reservation or testing? In this single paragraph John seems to be criticizing people for doing something that he is doing himself!
Paragraph 7: “The result is a movement that thrives on disorganization, lends itself to mysticism, distrusts authority and dislikes preaching, feeds intellectual pride, and recognizes few (if any) doctrinal or moral boundaries.”
I definitely think that John needed to take some time to define what he means by the emerging church! I've not seen churches that meet these criteria. I think he may be trying to refer to a small group of people who may call themselves emerging and he is applying his opinion of these people to a much larger movement. I’m not really sure, but I can tell you that from my experience, these projections of the movement as a whole are simply twisted or not true. It is true that the emerging movement may be less structurally organized than the 20th century church, however, so was the Reformation and every other movement throughout history in it’s infancy. How organized do you think the church in the book of Acts was? Is there any Biblical precedence that the church must be structurally organized with committees and policies in order to be spiritual? It is true that there is some value placed on the mystery of God. God help us if we ever think we have it all figured out and He is no longer a mystery to us! Who can explain the work of the Holy Spirit, the act of supernatural healing, the truth that the sin I commit in 2006 was placed upon the back of a man 2000 years ago and punished long before it was ever committed? Who can explain these things about God? There is so much about Him that is a mystery to us and I hope that it remains that way until we enter into eternity with Him. It is somewhat true that there is a careful approach to authority, however, this is a direct result of the massive amount of moral failure of spiritual leaders (conservative, evangelical and others) young people have seen in our lifetime as opposed to the inherent result of the movement. It would be more accurate to say that the emerging movement dislikes “preachiness” as opposed to “preaching”. Especially knowing that many emerging worship services have 45 minutes to an hour of speaking and teaching. I’m not really sure what John is referring to in feeding intellectual pride. I hope he clears this up in his forthcoming CD interview. And finally it is simply untrue that the emerging movement recognizes few doctrinal or moral boundaries! One of the characteristics of the emerging movement and revolutionaries according to Barna is the passion for purity and integrity when it comes to spiritual matters. There are more people in this category that have a biblical worldview than there is in any other category. One of the very things that the revolutionaries are “rebelling” against is the inconsistencies we’ve seen in religious movements throughout history.
Paragraph 9: “When I first began ministry nearly four decades ago, I knew the road ahead would have adversity – assaults to the Lord, His Church, and His truth were inevitable. What I didn’t expect was that the most pernicious attacks would come from within the church itself.”
Personal note: Doesn’t this sound like something you’d read from a church leader in the 16th century during the Reformation…interesting.
I know I am speaking from a personal bias when I say this, which is what I am criticizing MacArthur for doing…forgive me. The only thing being assaulted in the emerging movement is the comfort of thinking we have this whole worship and church and God thing figured out. Many evangelicals, such as the author of this letter, must think they have it figured out and it is very threatening for them to have people questioning their life’s work. This entire letter bleeds threat. It is extremely defensive and the root of defensiveness is fear! The emerging movement longs to know TRUTH, not truth as perceived by man, but truth as it is presented in God’s Word! For years I’ve listened to evangelical preachers in America stand in the pulpit and say, “Please don’t take my Word for this, search it out on your own. Read your Bible and challenge me where you think I’m mistaken.” And yet when people actually do that it is threatening. Now we’re bringing an all out assault on “the Lord, His Church, and His truth”! It just doesn’t make sense!
Paragraph 11: “The Emerging Church’s frontal assault on the clarity of Scripture makes it the most dangerous attack I’ve seen. If the Bible isn’t clear and its meaning can’t be understood, what do Christians have left to say to anyone? No doctrine is sure enough to DECLARE; everything is subject to debate and discussion. No text offers hope and comfort. No truth can definitively correct error…”
I assume John is speaking about doctrine as the American Heritage Dictionary speaks of it…”a principle or body of principles presented for acceptance or belief, as by a religious, political, scientific, or philosophic group.” If he is referring to this use of the word, then No doctrine IS sure enough to DECLARE! This doctrine is the result of man’s understanding of an incomprehensible God. No single or set of doctrine can fully present truth without error. The Word of God is the only text capable of doing that and it does so perfectly! If John is referring to doctrine as presented in the Bible and impossible to present in a comprehensive set of statements of faith, then he is mistaken about the emerging movement. That is what it is about, discovering TRUTH, while understanding that full truth is beyond our finite minds and even at times beyond our finite definition of truth. Emerging leaders long for TRUTH to correct the errors we have lived in for years. To think that your understanding of truth is complete is the ultimate form of “intellectual pride” as John mentioned earlier. If you think that doctrine is not debated and discussed in the very repositories for doctrine, our nation’s seminaries, then try sitting through a few Bible classes in any Bible College or Seminary in America and you will hear more debate about what is truth than years of talking to seekers sitting in coffee shops and walking through shopping malls. TRUTH will ALWAYS be debated and discussed until we throw off these imperfect bodies and minds and enter into eternity with Christ. Evangelicals have always placed high values on debating and discussing doctrine and now the emergents are the bad guys for doing so.
Paragraph 12: “While not all the Emerging Church leaders and authors pursue their belief system to the same extreme the movement’s core is radical and dangerous.”
I’m not really sure who John defines as the core in a very disorganized and unstructured movement as he mentioned earlier. Again, it sounds to me that he’s picked out a small group of thinkers that he disagrees with and has projected their beliefs and teachings upon a larger movement of people. It is interesting that many of these emerging churches are part of the Southern Baptist Convention and many other evangelical and conservative denomination!
Paragraph 13: “with the movement on my mind and after an extensive study in the book of Jude on spiritual terrorism…”
Spiritual terrorism? Terrorists die to kill a belief system, not to progress it. The emerging movement is a passionate attempt to rekindle the principles of the New Testament church. Does anyone really believe that a spiritual movement can undermine the Kingdom of God and threaten the Gospel of Jesus Christ. John is “warning us” (paragraph 14) of the dangers to the Kingdom of God with this form of spiritual terrorism. Isn’t that what the denominational movement (which by the way is very young in the big scheme of things) has done for a couple centuries, divided the Kingdom and set up followers against followers? As you read this article, do you really believe the church of Jesus Christ can be defeated by a group of people who love him with their whole hearts and long to live out the gospel each day of their lives? Not even the entire multitude of Satan’s army can defeat the Kingdom! I seriously doubt a group of people longing to find God in a new way can pose much threat!
As intense as this review sounds, I am thankful for the life and work of John MacArthur. He has been a tremendous servant of Jesus Christ and I pray for continued success in his attempt to expand God’s Kingdom among those who do not have Christ living in them. Again, we may have a different definition of the Emerging Church. I hope he spends some time defining his perception in his interview.
“Revolution” by George Barna
An Interview with George Barna: http://www.catalystspace.com/content/podcast/signup.aspx You have to sign up to download the interview. Do it if you’re interested in finding out more about this movement.
After I wrote this response I found this response on a blog. Dan Kimball is one of the leading emergent pastors. I recommend you read this response!
Dan Kimball’s response to this letter: http://www.dankimball.com/vintage_faith/2006/12/saddened_by_joh.html
Here is an interesting quote from Dan’s response.
"I would have hoped that the pastor would have done his research, visited emerging churches or called and asked leaders to describe what they do, or what doctrines they hold to. I think he would have learned from D.A. Carson's over-generalization in his book on the emerging church of how he narrowly portrayed the whole emerging church according to one or two leaders instead of the whole of everyone - as so wonderfully pointed out in a recent lecture by theologian Scot McKnght. Scot actually has been to emerging churches and knows many of the leaders, so his critical analysis was really insightful of the book D.A. Carson wrote.
As Scot McKnight pointed out, "the emerging church" is not about one, two or three people. I travel a lot and I talk to a lot of people in what I would consider as missional emerging churches all across the country. There may be a very small percentage that possibly are ones this pastor would be concerned about, but the majority, not the minority, of "emerging churches" are absolutely nothing like he described. To his defense, perhaps this information was given to him by ill-informed students or others giving these descriptions of churches that don't really exist, or if they do they are the rare ones, not the norm. "
Just a thought....