Doctrine Is Inevitable

A decade later, the Emergent Church discovers that you DO need boundaries. Just the right ones.

I’m old enough to remember a movement in the mid to late 2000s called “the emerging church.” I still own some of their books, because as a high school/college student raised in conservative evangelicalism, I resonated with a lot of what they taught, including the idea that conservative evangelical culture was far too obsessed with policing doctrine. I loved this point, because (at the time) it expressed a coldness I had felt for a long time growing up in the church. Emerging church literature pressed a dichotomy between relationships and religious dogma and laid the blame for the schism at the feet of fundamentalists. “Yes,” I thought, “this is why church feels so inauthentic.”

Many of these authors were explicit in their recommendations. Do away with “what we believe” lists. Stop making theology the test of church membership or teaching. For every verse you read from Paul, read the Sermon the Mount 10 times. If given the choice between insisting on a point of doctrine and welcoming someone into your fellowship, choose the latter every time. It was alluring stuff, because you could hug it, shake its hand, take it out to coffee, not just read or recite it. And it won over a lot of my generation.

I’m no longer allured by it all. For one thing, what we referred to as the “emerging church” doesn’t really exist anymore, and the cause of death is unflattering. Rob Bell went from pastoring to touring with Deepak Chopra. Velvet Elvis (his first and most broadly successful book) was wrongheaded in a lot of ways, but at least it was a book about Christianity and didn’t sound like it should be featured in a Readers Digest column by Gwyneth Paltrow. Don Miler’s Blue Like Jazz was a sort of “searching for answers my religious upbringing didn’t give me” manifesto. Miller now runs a corporate branding company and doesn’t go to church. Well then.

But here’s the most illuminating part. Many of the writers and spokespeople who talked about prioritizing relationships over doctrine have actually become quite adamant about their own theology. It just so happens that the doctrine that is worth making standards around is just a different kind. For example, opposing the death penalty is worth excommunication:

And the ordination of female elders is worth schism (and, presumably, excommunication as well):

The time has come for a schism regarding the issue of women in the church. Those of us who know that women should be accorded full participation in every aspect of church life need to visibly and forcefully separate ourselves from those who do not. Their subjugation of women is anti-Christian, and it should be tolerated no longer.

Christianity’s treatment of LGBT people, too, is worth taking a stand on:

Death penalty, gender, ordination, sexuality: Aren’t these issues that alienate people? Aren’t these divisive topics that keep people at arms length from each other instead of bringing them together around Jesus?

By the standard that was applied ten years ago to conservatives, yes, they are. But it turns out that not all orthodoxies need be “generous.” Not all gatekeepers are bad. It’s a matter of having the right ones.

On that, I certainly agree.


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What happened to the “Emergent Church”?

As far as I can tell it, the “emerging church” is dead.

The time of death is difficult to establish, much like the time of birth was. But there’s no question to me now that the whatever internal mechanisms the emerging church

"A Generous Orthodoxy," by Brian McLaren
“A Generous Orthodoxy,” by Brian McLaren

movement contained are no longer functioning. Its leadership seems largely to have abandoned its project. Compared to the flurry of publishing in the early to mid-2000s, the last few years of evangelical writing have hardly broached the topic. Perhaps most significantly, its most popular champions have almost uniformly given up the pretense to reforming evangelicalism and are now either squarely in the mainline Protestant tradition or else out of the game altogether.

If you type in EmergentVillage.com in your browser, you won’t be reading the latest thoughts of postmodern evangelical theology. THAT site apparently doesn’t exist anymore. EmergentVillage.com is now a home decor shop, which is probably not as ironic as it feels. There is indeed a blog with the name “Emergent” in it at Patheos Progressive Christian, but the site seems to be operated mainly by a few non-clerical mainline Protestants, and–if I may add–doesn’t seem to generate much traffic.

The “emergent movement,” as keynoted by men like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Rob Bell seems to have little to zero traction. What’s fascinating about these men is the way their recent intellectual output seems to fold neatly into categories that they fiercely protested being placed in. McLaren of all of them seems to have maintained his “conversational” tone. Pagitt and Jones continue to produce their own content, yet neither of them seem to have much use for the emergent movement anymore. Jones will occasionally highlight something about it, but his mentions nowadays feel more occasional than regular (and almost never venture beyond his personal blog page). There’s very little focused attention like the kind that was given to the movement a few years ago.

Bell’s case is more interesting. Of the four Emergent pastors I mentioned, Bell is by far the most well-known. He went from pastoring a several thousand-member church in Grand Rapids to becoming something like Oprah’s official spiritual guru, landing his own television show and accompanying Oprah on her massive, pseudo-sacramental speaking tours. That’s quite a turn, of course, for a pastor whose theology embraced Emergent principles like authenticity and community. I wonder how many Emergent teachers would have identified Bell’s current trajectory as a desirable one back in Emergent’s heyday; I would guess very few.

Doctrinally, it’s interesting to me that a movement that placed so much emphasis on “conversation” and positioned itself as an inter-evangelical dialogue has become solidly progressive in its ethics and soteriology. As Scot McKnight pointed out in an important lecture on the Emergent Church in 2006, the movement distinguished itself largely by its refusal to be “pinned down” on areas of theology and draw meaningful doctrinal lines. Yet between Bell, McLaren, and Jones–and I think its fair to sum up the most active remnants of Emergent in terms of those three men–all of them have affirmed the goodness of LGBT sexual relationships, have repudiated penal substitutionary atonement, and have explicitly distanced themselves from most traditional evangelical camps.

Bell and Jones have been especially aggressive in this. Bell was quoted recently as predicting that churches that didn’t embrace same-sex marriage would “continue to be irrelevant” and dismissed those churches that used “letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.” In November of 2013, Tony Jones used his blog to “call for schism” in evangelicalism, urging his readers to separate immediately from any church that didn’t allow women to be pastors.

Now the important thing about those two comments is this: Even if you agree with both sentiments, it is unquestionable that the absolutist and dogmatic nature of those comments clangs loudly against the kind of gentle, “let’s talk about this” tone that characterized much of Emergent literature for many years. If nothing else, we can conclude one thing from all this: The Emergent Church movement has largely folded into a rigidly doctrinal camp with specific theological boundaries that match up well with mainline Protestantism.