Think on These Things Articles

The Kingdom of Emergent Theology - Part 2

(October 2007 - Volume 13, Issue 10) 

Having seen in our last paper the emerging church distortion of the kingdom of God, we move on this time to discuss its effect on the gospel.

The Effect on the Gospel

It is not surprising with this understanding of the kingdom of God that David Gushee in a recent Christianity Today article asks, “Is it permissible to reopen the question of salvation?” While Gushee follows up his question with some things worth pondering, he states that when “Jesus was asked about the criteria for admission to eternity, he offered a fourfold answer: love God with all that you are, love your neighbor (like the Samaritan loved his neighbor), do God’s will by obeying his moral commands, and be willing, if he asks, to drop everything and leave it behind in order to follow him.”[26]

While Gushee is confusing salvation with sanctification – the free gift of righteousness with its effects on our lives – at least he is still talking about salvation. Brian McLaren, on the other hand, is not concerned about these matters. In reply to his own question about who is in heaven and hell, he neatly sidesteps the whole issue by asking another series of questions,

Isn’t it clear that I do not believe this is the right question for a missional Christian to ask? Can’t we talk for a while about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven instead of jumping to how to escape earth and get to heaven as quickly as possible? Can’t we talk for a while about overthrowing and undermining every hellish stronghold in our lives and in our world?[27]

It would be hard to imagine a more arrogant statement. McLaren speaks as if Christianity began yesterday and we are just now getting around to asking basic questions pertaining to life and eternity. But this is no problem for McLaren who boldly states that we do not have even the gospel right yet. “What does it mean to be saved?... None of us have arrived at orthodoxy.”[28] More than that, we have virtually no truth nailed down.

Ask me if Christianity (my version of it, yours, the Pope’s, whoever’s) is orthodox, meaning true and here’s my honest answer: a little, but not yet. Assuming by Christianity you mean the Christian understanding of the world and God, Christian opinions on soul, text, and culture… I’d have to say that we probably have a couple of things right, but a lot of things wrong, and even more spreads before us unseen and unimagined. But at least our eyes are open! To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall.[29]

Samir Selmanovic, in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, goes so far as to totally distinguish Christianity from the kingdom of God. “The emerging church movement,” Selmanovic states, “has come to believe that the ultimate context of the spiritual aspirations of the follower of Jesus Christ is not Christianity but rather the kingdom of God.” [30]

What is Selmanovic’s point? Simply that the message of Christ and salvation as found in the biblical record is incomplete. God “place[s] his truth in others [religions] too.”[31] Therefore salvation is obtainable without a relationship with Christ,

If a relationship with a specific person, namely Christ, is the whole substance of a relationship with the God of the Bible, then the vast majority of people in world history are excluded from the possibility of a relationship with the God of the Bible, along with the Hebrews of the Old Testament who were without a knowledge of Jesus Christ—the person. The question begs to be asked: would God who gives enough revelation for people to be judged but not enough revelation to be saved be a God worth worshiping. Never![32]

As a result of this type of thinking the emergent church has become a champion of inclusivism, the idea that while salvation (whatever that means to the emergent crowd) may be based on the person and work of Christ, people who may have never heard of Christ can be saved by responding to God on the basis of the revelation they have received. With this understanding a Hindu, Muslim or animist, while not a follower of Christ, could nevertheless be in the kingdom of God because he has followed the light he has been given in nature and in his religious system. These individuals would not be Christians as such, but they would occupy a place in the kingdom every bit the same as Christians, perhaps more so because citizenship in the kingdom is predicated more on what we do rather than on what we believe. Theoretically a kind-hearted spirit worshipper from New Guinea would occupy a greater place in the kingdom than the dreaded fundamentalist, foundationalist, dispensationalist who, according to emergent thinking, has in his exclusivism declared those of other religions lost and bound for hell.

It is because people from all religions and all walks of life (people who are in the kingdom now) are working together to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth through their efforts of love and missional living that Rob Bell can say, “The gospel is good news, especially for those who don’t believe it…. [As a matter of fact] if the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.”[33]

According to McLaren, our concern should not be about who is saved but how to be blessings. “…My missional calling: blessed in this life to be a blessing to everyone on earth… My mission isn’t to figure out who is already blessed, or not blessed, or unblessable. My calling is to be blessed so I can bless everyone.”[34] All of this blessing is for the purpose of helping “our world get back on the road to being truly and wholly good again, the way God created it to be.”[35] In other words, by our good deeds to mankind and the planet we will usher in the final stage of the kingdom, “I hope that both they and I,” McLaren continues, “will become better people, transformed by God’s Spirit, more pleasing to God, more of a blessing to the world so that God’s kingdom (which I seek, but cannot manipulate) comes on earth as in heaven.”[36]

A positive response to the emergent message concerning the kingdom would result in the “new world…promised by the prophets. Jesus’ secret message tells us, then, that this new world is so possible it is at hand, within reach… We can be part of God’s dreams for planet Earth coming true”[37]

The emphasis on this world is partly because of the belief that this world will not be destroyed but transformed, not replaced but fulfilled. McLaren dreams of this world becoming “a place God is at home in, a place God takes pride and pleasure in, a place where God’s dreams come true.”[38]

As can be deduced by now, many within the emergent movement equate “eternal life” or salvation with the kingdom of God. To be in the kingdom is “a life that is full and overflowing, a higher life that is centered in an interactive relationship with God and with Jesus. Let’s render it simply ‘an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God.’”[39] While this is a truncated understanding of the kingdom and of eternal life at best, it gets more complicated when we are informed that the kingdom is really within us. McLaren writes, “The secret message, the mystery of the kingdom of God: that Christ the King indwells you, which means that his kingdom is within and among you here and now.” [40]

In the emergent gospel, salvation, in the sense of forgiveness of sin, redemption, and being given God’s righteousness because of the finished work of Christ, plays a minor, often nonexistent, role. McLaren believes that most planet dwellers are in fact already in the kingdom. “Maybe God’s plan is an opt-out plan, not an opt-in one. If you want to stay out of the party, you can... But it’s hard for me to imagine somebody being more stubbornly ornery than God is gracious” (emphasis mine).[41]

If McLaren’s understanding of the citizens of the kingdom is on target we should not be surprised to find that people from all religions are in the kingdom and possibly more advanced in that kingdom than many Christians.[42]

No wonder Heather Kirk-Davidoff echoes McLaren’s idea of evangelism by asking, “What would evangelism look like if we…counted conversations rather than conversion?”[43] Such an evangelistic transformation is predicated on the perceived purpose of the gospel. Kirk-Davidoff goes on the explain,

It is a change in the reason we engage in evangelism, shifting the focus from recruitment to the cultivating of relationships that are an end in themselves, indispensable to our spiritual journey… We want to build relationships with other human beings. Because of that, we’re willing to give up just about everything we’ve ever learned about how to grow a church or spread the gospel.[44]

Sherry and Geoff Maddock flesh out this understanding of salvation, “Through practices such as caring for AIDS sufferers, feeding the homeless, protesting the wanton destruction of the environment, or welcoming newly arrived refugees, we find salvation that is closer to the shalom of Scripture (emphasis in the original).”[45]

True to its liberal postmillennial roots, the emergent gospel has been reduced to social betterment of culture and physical improvement of the planet. There is little discussion or interest in the true spiritual needs of mankind; instead, the focus is on physical and perhaps emotional needs. If we can relieve suffering, care for the ozone layer, correct injustice and racism, we can save the planet and make this a better place to live for all. This is the same agenda used by old liberalism which thrived under modernity. All that has changed is making adjustments for the same theology under postmodernity.

If we would protest that none of this is biblical, the emergent leaders have a retort: God is doing a new thing, something not revealed in Scripture.

It would not be the first time God has broken out of religion, which carries his message, and made something new. If God found it good for his followers to break out of the confines of a religion two millennia ago, why should we expect God not to do such a thing in our time? Maybe Christianity should be thinned out and broken up, spent like Christ who gave himself for this world.[46]

Of course, in response Hebrews 1:1-2 comes quickly to mind, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son…” (NASB). When God chose to replace the dispensation of Law with that of the church age that change was communicated to us through His Son and those who wrote the New Testament (Hebrews 2:1-4). Why should we not expect God to dump the Christian faith and give us something new? Because God “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” The final revelation to mankind has been given. There is no further revelation forthcoming, no new era to be started by the actions of men; rather the next era will be initiated by the return of Jesus Christ.

We will discuss the biblical view of Christ kingdom next time.

 


[26]David P. Gushee, Christianity Today, March 2007, p. 72.

[27] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p.112.

[28] Quoted in Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique”, Christianity Today, November, 2004, p. 40.

[29] Ibid., p. 293.

[30] Samir Selmanovic, “The Sweet Problem of Inclusiveness, “An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, p. 192.

[31] Ibid., p. 194.

[32] Ibid., pp. 194-195.

[33] Rob Bell, pp. 166-167.

[34] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 113.

[35] Ibid., p. 223.

[36] Ibid., p. 263.

[37] Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus ( Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2006), pp. 181, 183.

[38] Ibid., p. 203.

[39] Ibid., p. 37.

[40] Ibid., pp. 100-101.

[41] Brian McLaren, The Last Word, and the Word After That ( San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005). p. 138.

[42] See Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus pp. 86-89.

[43] Heather Kirk-Davidoff, “Meeting Jesus at the Bar,” An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, p.35.

[44] Ibid., pp. 36, 37.

[45] Sherry Moddock and Geoff Maddock, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, p.82.

[46] Samir Selmanovi, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, p. 199.