Joy-Riding on the Downgrade at Breakneck Speed:
The Dark Side of Diversity
by Phil Johnson

This article was written in 2007 while I was teaching systematic theology in Sicily. It was my contribution to Gary L. Johnson & Ronald N. Gleason, Reforming or Conforming?: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008).

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can't remember a fad or phenomenon in the past four decades that has captured the imagination of evangelicals as quickly or as powerfully as the Emerging Church movement (ECM). Various ECM-style trends have been leaching into evangelical thought and practice more or less quietly for about two decades. Internet forums promoting "postmodern Christianity" were appearing as early as 1994. The growing influence of Brian McLaren was evident by the start of the new millennium. His books (and others in the same vein) stood out as one of the remarkable success stories in Christian publishing in the first half of the decade. The Emergent Convention in 2003 also garnered quite a bit of publicity. I watched all those trends with interest.
     But when Christianity Today published its first major story about the movement in November of 2004,1 many of my evangelical friends and fellow-ministers said they had never heard of the ECM before. That article seemed to introduce the ECM to many in the evangelical mainstream for the very first time. By then, the ECM was already an amazingly widespread phenomenon, but most evangelical pastors and church leaders seemed completely caught off guard by it.
     The following March I attended a major evangelical pastors' conference, and questions about the Emerging Church were raised at least once in every question-and-answer session. Just two years later at the same conference, it seemed like the ECM was practically the only topic anyone wanted to talk about. If my perception is accurate, from the ECM's first blip on the evangelical radar screen to the point where it utterly dominated the evangelical conversation was a short enough time span to be measured in months.
     Analysis and critique of the ECM is no easy task. The movement is a typically postmodern phenomenon—deliberately diverse, perplexingly amorphous, and constantly in flux. It has no clear homogeneity in doctrine, philosophy, or practice. In early 2006, Ed Stetzer, who has studied and written about Emerging trends in a Southern Baptist context, identified three distinctive strains of Emerging style.2 Shortly after that, Mark Driscoll (unquestionably the most conservative leading figure within the movement) essentially borrowed Stetzer's taxonomy and added a fourth category that better characterized his own position.3
     A year later, Scot McKnight, who describes himself as a participant in the ECM (and who functions alternatively as a sympathetic critic and an apologist for the movement), wrote an article in Christianity Today identifying five streams of influence in the ECM.4 That same month, Zondervan released a book-length symposium discussing various doctrinal perspectives within the ECM, featuring five contributors ranging from Driscoll on the far right to Doug Pagitt at the opposite end of the spectrum.5 There was so much ambiguity and so little consensus among the participants that in a summary at the end of the book, general editor Robert Webber wrote, "For those who have read this book to gain clarity on emerging beliefs, I have to say that what you are looking for is not here, except in Mark Driscoll."6
     Diversity may well be the only descriptor that can be used without asterisks or qualifiers to describe the many theological currents that keep the ECM in a constant swirl. Read a generous sampling of ECM books or blogs and you will soon realize that there are many more than five streams of influence feeding into the movement. With all due respect to Stetzer, Driscoll, McKnight, Webber (and other friends of the ECM who have bravely attempted to explain ECM beliefs to the rest of us), five categories—or ten or a hundred—are not nearly enough to do justice to the breadth and variety of theological opinions represented within the movement. Perhaps the only accurate way to depict the ECM's vast doctrinal diversity would be to have as many categories as there are persons who identify with the movement.
     Indeed, it might be even more accurate to say that one of the principal aims of the ECM seems to be the elimination of categories and boundaries altogether. In the words of one ECM blogger, "We love it when people begin thinking for themselves and value intellectual diversity. We distrust systems of moral and doctrinal boundaries precisely in the way that the New Testament distrusts religious legalism."7 That seems a fair way to characterize the dominant ECM perspective on doctrine. Clarity, harmony, and precision are held in high suspicion because such values invariably establish "boundaries." Boundaries (by definition) mean someone is being marginalized—and that reeks of "legalism" (or even worse).
     Diversity, on the other hand, though missing from every biblical list of virtues, is esteemed within the Emerging movement even more highly than unity. The many clear New Testament pleas to "be of one mind"8 are effectively set aside in favor of the more postmodern and politically-correct ideal of liberal-minded "tolerance."
     Three major motives seem to drive the passion for diversity within the ECM. One is the unwitting (or, in some cases, intentional) adoption of postmodern values. Anyone who watches the evening news will have noticed that "diversity" is one of the few remaining virtues of secular postmodern society. The general tide in the ECM is clearly and profoundly swayed by that point of view.
     A second reason the ECM fosters such unbridled theological diversity stems from a gnawing doctrinal indifference that has been spreading like leaven through the evangelical movement for several decades. The trend seems to have begun in the mid-twentieth century as a radical overreaction to the fundamentalist idea—especially in the wake of the fundamentalist movement's failure to maintain focus on the truly essential doctrines of the Christian faith.9 But the accrued apathy of at least four-plus decades of neo-evangelical influence has left evangelicals virtually defenseless against doctrinal error—especially the subtle varieties. The ECM has aggressively exploited that weakness, challenging on various fronts practically every historic evangelical doctrinal distinctive. The ECM has therefore become practically the mirror opposite of what fundamentalism was supposed to be.
     A third motive for so much stress on diversity in the ECM seems to be self-defense. Individuals within the movement are essentially free to deny or assert anything they like while the larger movement remains effectively impervious to doctrinal criticism—because "Not everyone in the movement believes like that" works well as an easy, all-purpose reply. Heresies and false doctrines of all types can and do percolate freely within the movement (often coming from some of the ECM's best-known figures10), but Emerging devotees usually dismiss legitimate concerns about the erosion of doctrine in their midst with a shrug and a wave of the hand at the ECM's broad diversity.
     In this chapter, I want to highlight and examine those three factors—and attempt to explain why a celebration of theological diversity per se augurs disaster for the movement's inevitable drift.

     Proponents of the ECM and their critics alike frequently use the expression postmodernism. It's hard to make much sense of the ECM without some idea of what that term refers to. The word is notoriously difficult to define succinctly, because postmodernism truly is a complex and enigmatic idea—involving, for example, ingenious theories about how language works, how ideas are formed, and how texts should be interpreted. Various trends in art, philosophy, epistemology, education, and literature have all been labeled "postmodern"—and a thorough definition of the term would need to account for all of them.
     To complicate things further, postmodernists tend to think of reality as a socially-constructed concept (meaning we determine what is "real" by perceptions that are influenced by our interaction with one another). Postmodernism does not (as is often supposed) deny that absolute or objective truth exists. (Such a categorical denial would entail too obvious a self-contradiction.) But the typical postmodernist points out that if objective reality does exist somewhere, we could never see it objectively. So the only "truth" we can apprehend is inherently subjective, ever-changing, and always different depending on our perspective when we see it. Our knowledge of what's true should therefore always be tentative and indefinite; never settled and confident.
     In practice, of course, that means even if the most sympathetic scholar produced a large tome attempting to explain postmodernism as thoroughly, as carefully, and as favorably as possible, the typical postmodernist would still insist the definition isn't quite right yet. All of this makes the postmodernist idea seem arcane and esoteric to anyone whose thinking isn't already well-mulched with postmodernist presuppositions.
     Furthermore, classic postmodernism involves a theory about language and literature that is inherently hostile to unambiguous definitions anyway. To define that word crisply is to contradict it. It is also tantamount to lobbing a personal taunt at every postmodernized college student and blogger who reads the definition. All such definitions are therefore guaranteed to be met with the most ruthless kind of deconstruction.
     Fortunately, postmodernism has been explained with a fair degree of thoroughness and analyzed on numerous levels in several helpful evangelical resources,11 so someone who still has no idea what postmodernism is can refer to those resources.
     But with those caveats, here's a simple description of what is most relevant about postmodernism in any discussion of the ECM: Postmodernism has at its heart a nagging suspicion that at the end of the day, no one can really know with complete certainty or settled assurance what is true and what is not. It might not be too far-fetched to say that's virtually the distilled essence of the whole postmodern idea.
     Postmodernists modestly refer to their own invincible lack of certainty as "epistemic humility." To anyone who has something to be certain about, the postmodernist's refusal to be definitive looks, sounds, and acts like old-fashioned cynicism. From the postmodernists' own perspective, however, that kind of skepticism is the new meekness—while the very epitome of ugly arrogance is any notion that we actually do know something with conclusive and categorical certainty. Dogmatism of any kind is equal to the most diabolical kind of cruelty; anyone with strong moral convictions is deemed particularly judgmental; and even quiet faith has a kind of uppity feel to it. Thus the "humility" of perpetual ambivalence has become postmodernism's one supreme and cardinal virtue.
     Postmodernism (as the name itself suggests) is supposed to entail a radical renunciation of the modern mentality, and in one sense, that's true. The central belief of so-called modern thinking was that our only sure knowledge is whatever is scientifically verifiable. In other words, modernity still made room for certitude, but modernists maintained that the only reliable test of what's true is scientific rationalism.
     Modernity is often traced to the foundationalism of Rene Descartes in the early seventeenth century. Descartes sought an unassailable foundation for human certainty. Noting that virtually all human beliefs are subject to skeptical arguments, Descartes was left with one invincible certainty: his own conscious existence. And he concluded that nothing but his own mind gave him certainty of that. His famous maxim, Cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am") reflects that singular certainty. Using it as his starting point and foundation, he argued for the existence of God and the reality of the physical world. A genius as a mathematician, Descartes approached epistemology like someone solving a mathematical problem. His work was seminal in bringing epistemology to the forefront of philosophical debates.
     But modernity was unleashed in its full fury by Darwin's theory that men are only animals who evolved from lower creatures. In Darwin's system, of course, everything hinges on the survival of the fittest. Humanity is not really accountable to any higher moral being. The predictable results included Marxism, fascism, and various other social experiments that had Darwinism as a main ingredient and the survival of the fittest as their goal and justification. Modernity thus spawned two world wars and a long cold war—until communism finally collapsed under its own weight.
     Modernity died with the last communist superpower—or thus many postmodernists allege. By the end of the 1980s, the certainty supposedly guaranteed by science and human reason had been unmasked as a cheap illusion. The hubris of scientific modernism was utterly exposed; Cartesian foundationalism was summarily discredited; and modernity itself was suddenly regarded as academically unfashionable. Postmodernism stepped into the gap, borrowing ideas made popular by existentialism and cultural and ethical relativism—then blending them with values made politically correct by secular humanism.
     The ECM is fundamentally a self-conscious attempt to adapt the church and frame the gospel message in a way that meets the unique challenges postmodernism presents. There's nothing wrong with trying our best to communicate more effectively with postmodern people, of course. In fact, it is right for Christians to grapple with the question of how the church should respond to postmodernism. That's a serious and vitally important issue that too many old-style evangelicals are blissfully oblivious to (and too many evangelicals who are aware of the problem seem unwilling to face it seriously). The ECM deserves credit for recognizing the megashift and sounding a wake-up call. The evangelical movement desperately needs to be stirred from its own apathy and oblivion.12
     Unfortunately, the Emerging movement has an extraordinary knack for adapting to and embracing the very aspects of postmodern culture that most need to be confronted with the truth of the gospel. In the process of contextualizing the Christian message for a postmodern culture, the ECM has rather uncritically assimilated a postmodern value-system. Postmodern "virtues"—such as uncertainty, ambiguity, mystery, latitudinarianism (masquerading as "tolerance"), and above all, diversity—have somehow made it to the head of the ECM's hierarchy of moral values. These inevitably crowd out and eliminate more biblical values, such as assurance, boldness, conviction, understanding of the truth, and the defense of sound doctrine.
     Read any book, blog, or essay from ECM sources, and you can hardly help noticing how postmodern moral values—especially diversity and ambivalence—dominate practically every page. Brian McLaren, for example, starts a book with this caveat: "A warning: as in most of my other books, there are places here where I have gone out of my way to be provocative, mischievous, and unclear, reflecting my belief that clarity is sometimes overrated, and that shock, obscurity, playfulness, and intrigue (carefully articulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity."13 Robert Webber sums up his symposium on Emerging beliefs with this: "Emerging leaders do not want a closed theological system all neatly tied together by reason and logic. They call us to a more open view of theology with room for mystery. Theology is 'an adventurous exploration of new horizons.' Theology is more like a 'mysterious adventure than a mathematical puzzle.'"14
     Qualities like diversity, ambiguity, mystery, and novelty—as well as qualms about expressing our own certainty—will sound like positive virtues to almost anyone steeped in postmodern entertainments and mass media. But from a biblical perspective, those things are not inherently virtuous at all. In fact, they are all fraught with serious and significant dangers, especially when applied with lavish abandon to biblical theology and hermeneutics.
     Sober, careful consideration of the biblical exhortations for Christians to guard sound doctrine would soon peel the mask of "virtue" off the postmodernist value system. Specifically, a better understanding of the biblical concept of humility would help correct the most glaring, fundamental flaw in the ECM's approach to Scripture and doctrine: an almost impenetrable apathy about what's really true.

Doctrinal Indifference
     In biblical terms it is anything but humble to imply that God's Word is not sufficiently clear—as if we can't possibly be sure what the Bible means, and as if we should never be so "arrogant" as to defend its truths against the enemy's relentless attempts to twist and subvert what God has said. For Christians blithely to accept (or even defer to) the postmodern premise that certainty and arrogance are essentially the same thing is to surrender a major portion of the very ground we are called to defend. This is no minor or incidental matter. John MacArthur writes,

What is really at stake are the very same truths the serpent sought to subvert when he asked Eve, "Has God indeed said . . .?" (Genesis 3:1). They are the same truths that have always been at the heart of the Truth War—the inspiration, authority, inerrancy, sufficiency, and perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture . . .. Surely those are issues that cannot be swept aside or discounted as marginal in the name of a twisted notion of charity or false humility.15

No one would argue that everything in the Bible is crystal-clear. The inspired text itself contains an acknowledgement that "some things [in it] . . . are hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:16). We're not to imagine, however, that most of the Bible is sheer mystery—so lacking in clarity that every interpretation and every opinion about every doctrine deserves equal (or automatic) respect.
     In fact, Christian leaders in particular are charged with the task of defending the truth against those who would twist it (Acts 20:28-31). As politically incorrect as this might sound to postmodern ears, there are abroad and within the church "many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers . . .. They must be silenced" (Titus 1:10-11). Or, in the more picturesque imagery of King James parlance, "[Their] mouths must be stopped."
     How false teachers are to be silenced is one of those things in Scripture that is crystal-clear. It is not by physical force or auto-da-fé. But they are to be refuted and rebuked by qualified elders in the church who are skilled in the Scriptures, "able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it" (v. 8). That presupposes that vital truth is clear enough to know for certain. And it prescribes a clear remedy involving exhortation, reproof, rebuke, and correction.
     This is to be done patiently, not pugnaciously: "The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil" (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
     And yet even within those boundaries, the defense of the faith sometimes requires a kind of spiritual militancy (1 Timothy 1:18; Jude 3). The Christian life—especially the duty of the leader—is frequently pictured in Scripture as that of warfare (2 Corinthians 10:3-6; Ephesians 6:10-18; 1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 2:3-4).
     So the defense of the faith is no easy task. But it is an indispensable duty for faithful Christians. Again, Scripture is not the least bit vague or equivocal about that.
     Nevertheless, the defense of the faith is a duty the evangelical movement as a whole has mostly shirked for at least two decades. Since the formal dissolution of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in September 1987,16 evangelicalism as a movement has never fully mobilized for the defense of any point of doctrine—even in the wake of seismic challenges to the doctrine of God in the form of Open Theism17—and despite recent assaults on the penal, propitiatory, and substitutionary aspects of Christ's atoning work.18 It is no longer safe to assume that someone who calls himself an evangelical would even affirm such historic evangelical nonnegotiables as the exclusivity of Christ or the necessity of conscious faith in Christ for salvation.19 Recently, it seems, the evangelical movement's standard response to that kind of doctrinal slippage has looked like nothing more than cynical insouciance.
     Yet trends like those represent nothing less than the abandonment of true evangelical principles. Historic evangelicalism has always had the gospel at its center. The name itself reflects that, and it also denotes a particular stress on the doctrinal content of the gospel message.20 Yet the typical message proclaimed in many mainstream evangelical churches—including some of the best-known and most influential megachurches—was long ago reduced to a set of selfish and simplistic aphorisms ("God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life"; "accept Jesus as your personal savior.") The message is sometimes overlaid with moralistic platitudes and a conservative, mostly-secular political agenda. In fact, a lobbyist's commitment to a handful of morally-related political issues is about as close to anything serious as you will find in the average evangelical community. So the message communicated to the world at large sounds like a social and cultural commentary driven by Republican-party politics. Gone are the clarion notes of personal guilt, the redemption of the soul, and the real meaning of the cross—which, after all, Scripture says is the one message worth proclaiming (1 Corinthians 2:2).
     Why fight for a message that doesn't even have Christ crucified at the center anyway? Contemporary evangelicals have utterly neglected and virtually forgotten almost everything truly distinctive about historic evangelicalism. They have broadened their boundaries to include beliefs they once viewed as beyond the pale. They have now forgotten what the boundaries were all about in the first place. Meanwhile, with the gospel no longer at evangelicalism's heart and hub, the entire evangelical subculture has begun to seem like a kind of spiritual black hole, where bad ideas spawned at the fringes are sucked one after another into the void at the center.
     The typical young person coming out of an evangelical background and into the ECM most likely has never really been exposed to all that much serious biblical preaching or theological precision. And yet many of them are convinced an undue preoccupation with propositional truth and doctrinal correctness is one of the chief reasons for contemporary evangelicalism's pathological commitment to shallowness. They are therefore determined to avoid rigid boundaries at all costs. No wonder the Emerging movement itself is so diverse and all-inclusive. "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Jeremiah 31:29).
     Looked at from that perspective, the ECM is not really a surprising development at all. It's just another revolution in a steady downward spiral that has been carrying the evangelical movement away from historic evangelical principles for several decades. It follows a predictable pattern of decline and disintegration that should be familiar to anyone who knows evangelical history.
     More than a century ago, Robert Shindler (a fellow Baptist pastor and close friend of C. H. Spurgeon's) traced the path from apathy to apostasy through several cycles, beginning with the Socinian heresy that arose in the first generation of the Protestant Reformation. Shindler noted that the pattern is always the same. It begins when otherwise good men grow careless with regard to the defense of the faith. They usually begin to stress the moral teachings of the New Testament and neglect or downplay the "great central truths" of the gospel.21 When that occurs, Shindler said, it's like being on a steep downgrade. The next steps always involve questioning or redefining the atonement, softening the difficult parts of the gospel, balking at the exclusivity of Christ—and ultimately putting every vital truth of Christian orthodoxy up for grabs. The further you move, the more you gain speed—and the harder it is to stop the descent.
     Describing the rise of deism and unitarianism at the end of the Puritan era, Shindler wrote,

As is usual with people on an incline, some who got on "the down grade" went further than they intended, showing that it is easier to get on than to get off, and that where there is no brake it is very difficult to stop. [They] may not have dreamed of denying the proper deity of the Son of God, renouncing faith in his atoning death and justifying righteousness, and denouncing the doctrine of human depravity, the need of Divine renewal, and the necessity for the Holy Spirit's gracious work, in order that men might become new creatures; but, dreaming or not dreaming, this result became a reality.22

Shindler was drawing a comparison between earlier apostasies and the modernist drift that was beginning to derail the late nineteenth-century evangelical movement. The emerging wisdom of Shindler's and Spurgeon's time insisted that if the church did not adapt her methods and message to accommodate modern thought and style, Christians would lose their influence and their religion would become irrelevant.
     Shindler and Spurgeon strongly opposed that idea, of course, and sounded a shrill warning about the dangers of such a strategy. They were written off or decried as alarmists and unsophisticates by the Christian mainstream of their era.
     But before the twentieth century was half over, the bitter fruits of modernism completely vindicated both the substance and the shrill tone of every warning Spurgeon, Shindler, and likeminded evangelicals ever published.23 The mainline denominations in America, virtually all of whom embraced modernist principles in quest of greater relevance, actually lost influence and membership as a result. Churches that fought modernism and held onto evangelical principles invariably grew and gained influence—until they began to forget the dangers of the downgrade and started on the downward path themselves—some via the path of neo-evangelical compromise; still more through the avenue of seeker-sensitivity; and now even more by way of the ECM.
     The similarities between nineteenth-century modernism and the ECM of today are uncanny. Some of the most popular bromides of the ECM are ringing echoes of arguments that were used by Victorian modernists—including the suggestion that penal substitution is too harsh a model for understanding the atonement; the claim that too much stress on orthodoxy undermines orthopraxy; and the incessant pleas for liberality and tolerance—even while leading voices in the movement are systematically attempting to dismantle the biblical foundations of evangelical belief.24 The only thing remarkable about the current descent is the astonishing speed and utter heedlessness with which the downgrade is now being traversed.
     The ECM's tenacious commitment to unbridled diversity is one of the major factors making that downward inertia so difficult to arrest. It is practically impossible to make any defense of the faith or refute error when diversity is deemed virtuous and certainty is written off as inherently arrogant. How can faithful shepherds keep wolves at bay—or indeed, why should they—if being tolerant is truly a higher virtue than being right?25
     Perhaps that is why the New Testament commands Christians to pursue unity, not diversity.

     The same broad diversity that has virtually eliminated doctrinal boundaries in the ECM is also the movement's favorite self-defense. As we've seen, classifying subgroups or currents within the ECM is nearly impossible and only marginally helpful because the movement is full of people who don't fit nicely into any category. In good postmodern fashion, they consciously resist labels and try to live outside the margins as much as possible anyway. Some of them seem just as irked by those who merely attempt to categorize them as they are by those who aggressively criticize them.
     That means almost any general criticism leveled at the ECM can be deflected or dismissed by saying the critic is painting with too broad a brush. On the other hand, specific criticisms cannot possibly apply equally to everyone in the ECM. So whatever complaint the critic makes, the critique is judged invalid. When critics notice liberal tendencies in the ECM, someone will point out Mark Driscoll's crypto-fundamentalism as a significant exception. If, on the other hand, the critic is a liberal or egalitarian who is thinks Driscoll sounds misogynistic or reactionary, he will be assured that Driscoll is an anomaly who by no means represents the overall direction of the movement. Practically every critical analysis of the ECM can be—and has been—deconstructed by similar means.26 But those are evasions, not answers, and meanwhile, the menagerie of errors continues to circulate and be sampled by people in the ECM, as if all this diversity is a wonderful and positive development.
     It's not. Nowhere does Scripture suggest that diversity—least of all, doctrinal diversity—is a virtue. Quite the opposite. "Diversity" at Corinth was the source of most of that church's difficulties—which is the reason Paul wrote, "I appeal to you, brothers,[a] by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (1 Corinthians 1:10).
     The ECM's thoughtless celebration of unbounded diversity is a deadly trait. The idea that diversity is somehow intrinsically virtuous is rooted in postmodern principles rather than biblical truth. It fosters apathy toward sound doctrine and a passive attitude toward error. It makes wayward Christians impervious to correction. It's an idea borrowed from the world, and it has no business in the church.


1. Andy Crouch, "The Emergent Mystique," Christianity Today (November 2004), 36-41.

2. Ed Stetzer, "Understanding the emerging church" Baptist Press News (6 January 2006). Stetzer's article, first posted online and widely circulated, identifies three strains of Emerging churches: the relevants (who are merely trying to contextualize the church's message for a postmodern culture), the reconstructionists (who want to restructure the church and corporate worship while holding to a more or less "orthodox view of the Gospel and Scripture"), and the revisionists (who are questioning "and in some cases denying" the most essential evangelical doctrinal convictions). Stetzer concludes that the Emerging "conversation" is strategic and that evangelicals should jump in and participate. "Many 'emerging' evangelicals are distancing themselves from the revisionist leaders," he writes. "Let's affirm the good, look to the Scriptures for answers to the hard questions, and, yes, let's graciously disagree when others hold views contrary to our best scriptural understanding of God, Bible and church" (Ibid.).

3. In a videotaped interview promoting the 2006 Desiring God conference, Driscoll described the same three categories of ECM types Stetzer had named, but Driscoll then placed himself in a fourth category, which he characterized as essentially Reformed theologically, but methodologically Emerging—i. e., striving to contextualize Christianity for postmodern culture.

4. Scot McKnight, "Five Streams of the Emerging Church," Christianity Today (Feb 2007).

5. Robert Webber, ed., Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches: Five Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007). The five contributors to the volume were Driscoll, Pagitt, John Burke, Dan Kimball, and Karen Ward.

6. Ibid., 200.

7. Isaac Everett, "Kimball, MacArthur, and Me" on the "Transmission" blog (27 January 2007). [source page has been removed]

8. 2 Corinthians 13:11; cf. Romans 15:5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 1:27; 2:2; 3:16; 4:2; 1 Peter 3:8.

9. For my own brief assessment of the fundamentalist movement's meltdown, see "Dead Right: The Failure of Fundamentalism," Shepherds' Conference seminar transcript (Sun Valley, CA: Grace Community Church, 2005).

10. To cite just one specific example of this, Spencer Burke, former pastor of the 10,000-member Mariners Church in Irvine, CA, issues a press kit in which he boasts of his reputation as "a heretic." His recent book, A Heretic's Guide to Eternity (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), denies the personality of God (p. 195); is skeptical about the exclusivity of Christ; and champions a broad kind of universalism that fatally alters the gospel ("I don't believe you have to convert to any particular religion to find God," p. 197). The website Burke founded,, is one of the most-trafficked ECM portals on the Web, and despite his aggressive advocacy for doctrinal opinions that (by his own admission) are rank heresy, he remains one of the most influential figures in the ECM.

11. See, for example, D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002); D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005); David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005); Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994); David S. Dockery, The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995); and John MacArthur, The Truth War (Nashville: Nelson, 2007).

12. One genuine contribution the ECM has made is in its analysis of the many failures of the contemporary evangelical mainstream. The ECM critique of the evangelical movement is for the most part right on target—especially when Emerging critics decry contemporary evangelicals' infatuation with everything frivolous, superficial, and self-centered. As a matter of fact, one major catalyst that seems to be propelling young people into the ECM is their loathing for the unbridled shallowness and self-absorption of modern evangelicalism. The publisher's ad copy for Russell Rathburn's Post-Rapture Radio (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005) expresses a typical sentiment: "Frustrated with the shallowness of the American Evangelical Movement of the past few decades, and seeing that many of his friends wanted to have nothing to do with Christianity, Russell . . . decided to create a church that his friends would want to come to."

Rathburn and friends are absolutely right in their negative assessment of contemporary evangelicalism; but their solution could hardly be more wrong-headed. Redesigning the church to suit one's own cultural or generational preferences (as opposed to taking a biblical approach to church order) is the very thing that caused the evangelical movement to run aground in the first place. It has already bred a completely different—and perhaps more dangerous—kind of superficiality in the ECM, too.

13. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished Christian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004) 22-23.

14. Webber, 199.

15. John MacArthur, The Truth War (Nashville: Nelson, 2007), 38-39.

16. ICBI, founded in October 1978 (at the height of the controversy spawned by Harold Lindsell's landmark book The Battle for the Bible) was never meant to be a permanent organization. At the beginning, they laid out a strategy, stuck to that strategy until the task was finished, and then in September 1987, the organization was formally disbanded.

17. See Greg Boyd, God of the Possible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000); John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998); and Clark Pinnock, ed., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994). All of those books deny that God knows the future perfectly. After lengthy debates about the issue, the Evangelical Theological Society issued a statement in 2002 disavowing Open Theism. Yet three years later the Society declined to remove Pinnock and Sanders from membership, in effect embracing theologians who deny the foreknowledge of God and who regard inspired prophecy as merely "probabilistic." They are welcome in the ETS as long as they profess to hold to some form of "inerrancy"—or at least the profession thereof. The evangelical movement's leading periodical quickly heralded the development as a triumph for "grace and truth." See David Neff, "Open to healing: anxieties and attack turn to grace and truth at ETS meeting" (Christianity Today, January 2004). The title and tenor of that article reflect contemporary evangelicalism's deep-seated discomfort with the thought of any polemical defense of the faith.

18. Steve Chalke in the UK and Brian McLaren in the US have both strongly criticized the historic evangelical belief that God's wrath against His people's sin was satisfied when Christ bore their guilt as their substitute on the cross. Chalke referred to that view as "cosmic child abuse" in The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 182. McLaren had the protagonist in one of his fictional dialogues echo the same idea, dismissing the idea of penal substitution as just "one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse. You know?" Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), p. 102. Canadian theologian Robert Brow attacked penal substitution in the pages of Christianity Today more than fifteen years ago, and he correctly predicted that the evangelical movement would be rocked by a "megashift" in which historic evangelical doctrines ranging from the atonement to the exclusivity of Christ would be abandoned on a widespread basis. Everything he predicted has come to fruition, and most of the opinions Brow was advocating then are now staples in the ECM. See Robert Brow, "Evangelical Megashift" Christianity Today (19 Feb 1990), 12-14.

19. No less an iconic figure than Billy Graham, for example, has made numerous public statements in recent years suggesting that he no longer believes personal trust in Christ is necessary for salvation. "When asked whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, Graham says: "Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won't . . . I don't want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have." Jon Meacham, "Pilgrim's Progress," Newsweek (14 August 2006), 36.

20. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the earliest recorded usage of the term evangelical to William Tyndale. The original meaning of the word was simply "of or pertaining to the gospel," but evangelical then came to be used in a more technical sense, referring to "that school of Protestants which maintains that the essence of 'the Gospel' consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy." ["Evangelical," Oxford English Dictionary (New York: Oxford, 1971), 5:329.]

21. Robert Shindler, "The Down Grade," The Sword and the Trowel (March 1887), 122. Charles Spurgeon, of course, was the publisher of The Sword and the Trowel, and this was the first of a series of articles that launched the infamous "Down Grade" controversy, which consumed the final years of Spurgeon's life and ministry.

22. Ibid., 124.

23. A comprehensive collection of documents regarding the "Down Grade" controversy, taken mostly from The Sword and the Trowel and other primary sources, is available in paperback from Pilgrim Publications, Pasadena, TX. A similar collection of documents is freely available online at

24. Spurgeon's replies to the modernist proposals of his day work remarkably well as answers to ECM arguments—with no revision whatsoever. I have posted excerpts from Spurgeon at my weblog almost weekly for nearly two years, showing how perfectly he answered the rhetoric of the ECM—and I'm nowhere close to running out of material. Spurgeon often sounds remarkably like someone replying to Brian McLaren. A careful reading of his "Down Grade" writings should convince any reasonable reader that the ECM phenomenon is really nothing new. I have suggested elsewhere that even postmodernism is a complete misnomer. It really ought to have been called Modernism 2.0.

25. Doug Pagitt (founding pastor of Solomon's Porch, an ECM congregation in Minneapolis) gave his perspective on the ECM's hierarchy of Christian virtues: "To meet face to face, to create our own language, to create our own expression really matters to us. To have creativity and art and beauty matters. It's more important for us to feel like we're representing a beautiful expression of our life with God than it is to be right about everything . . .. We would just as soon be careful about being a people of peace and of beauty and of goodness and not have to be right." Quoted in Kim Lawton, "Interview: Doug Pagitt," Religion & Ethics Newsweekly (July 8, 2005).

26. The ECM's renunciation of D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) is a case in point. The book is a helpful and perceptive critique, explaining the ECM's contempt for most kinds of certitude and tracing the movement's postmodern roots. It is generally well-documented, understandable, thorough, and thought-provoking. Carson makes many strong points against commonly-held ECM viewpoints. But within the ECM, the book is usually disregarded or treated with a kind of sneering contempt. Yet the one argument most frequently made against the book is that Carson focused too much of his criticism on Brian McLaren, who (as we are constantly reminded by some of the same people who enthusiastically recommend his books) doesn't speak for the whole movement. Scot McKnight, for example, began his Christianity Today article about the ECM with this offhand dismissal: "Carson's book lacks firsthand awareness and suffers from an overly narrow focus-on Brian McLaren and postmodern epistemology" (McKnight, 35).

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