What Do Emergents Believe? A Review

Recently a pastor friend of mine asked me the following, and I thought it would be good chance to give folks a short summary on the main characteristics or beliefs of an emergent thinker.

“How can someone know with 100% certainty that he/she is an emergent pastor? Is it a formal set of thoughts, or beliefs that make you one?  Or just because he/she doesn’t condemn something, does it mean that he/she condones it?”

Let me answer the last question first: “Or just because he/she doesn’t condemn something, does it mean that he/she condones it?” No, not at all.  And I would never ask that anyone condemn any movement, unless they themselves have come to the clear conclusion that I have, that it is a movement not of God, because of its basic ideology that is contrary to scripture.  Some people still cannot yet condemn it outright, because they just don’t know much about it, or only a little bit.  To those who have come to that conclusion, I am asking them to speak out against it, if they believe that these emergent practices contradict scripture and are threatening the salvation of our youth and others.

“How can someone know with 100% certainty that he/she is an emergent pastor? Is it a formal set of thoughts, or beliefs that make you one?” The ones that I know for sure are emergent, and and there are plenty that I have actually spent time talking with, going back and forth with them on the NazNet forum, or my own blog, hold certain values or belief systems, which they themselves articulate to me.  Not all share the exact same things, but in general, there are some things that they do.

I don’t think there is a formal, official setting down of emergent ideology which anyone can grab onto and read. I don’t know of a specific universally acknowledged “handbook” for emergent ideology and doctrine.  The ambiguity within the movement is one of the things they like- to keep it a moving target, so they cannot be pinned down completely, especially on doctrine.  That’s why they tend to play down biblical doctrine, for to articulate their beliefs in a very clear way would not be advantageous for them.  Brian McLaren is generally considered the “godfather” of the emergent movement.

In my two years of research, here are some of their attitudes and beliefs I have found that they have in common:

1. THE BIBLE IS NOT GOD’S FULLY INSPIRED WORD. This is the underlying and most critical and dangerous foundation of emergent thought today, in my opinion.  A belief that the Bible “contains” God’s word, but is not necessarily God’s word in total.  This has opened it up for people like Karl Giberson of ENC with his evolution teaching and rejection of biblical inerrancy, Tom Oord of NNU with his Open Theism teaching (God does not know the future), and Dennis Bratcher’s Process Theology (God learns from His mistakes).  These false teachings have led many emergents to accept, or at least hold to the possibility, that Adam perhaps was just a fable, and not a real person, or that there was not a worldwide flood, as the Bible says there was, or perhaps that Methuselah did not really live for 967 years, or that Jonah was not swallowed up by a large fish, and on and on.

(Instead, read Psalm 119 and learn about the power and authority of God’s word; God’s word is truth (John 17:17); it is eternal, and His commands are trustworthy, His laws are right, giving light and understanding; directing our footsteps, makes us wiser than our enemies, makes us blessed, strengthens us, sustains us.  Jesus said not even the smallest part of scripture can be broken. Hebrews 5:12 calls the written record the oracles of God.  Paul said that his words were the word of God (1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Cor. 4:1; 2 Cor. 5:20.  And finally, Revelations says in 22:18-19 that it is important not to add or subtract from the words of this prophesy (Revelation).  GOD’S WORD IS TRUTH!


2. THE BIBLE IS A MYSTERY. Popularized and expounded on often by Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and others.  It is a fascination with the Bible as something that cannot be truly understood, because it is wrapped in mystery that is far too complex for Christians to ever know something with certainty. (This is the attempt to make all things relative, and to deny the authority, clarity, and infallibility of scripture, which I believe is at the core of the ideology of this movement.  Deny the clarity and infallibility of scripture, which lays the foundation for anything goes, and puts up a wall of “non-judgmentalism” for those who deny scripture’s reliability.  There are no absolutes, yet at the same time, they are saying that there is one absolute: “there are no absolutes!”  You will often see this uncertainty placed on even the most obvious passages of scripture, and they will insist that you are using your own “personal interpretation.”  For folks who insist the Bible is “mysterious to the core”, as Rob Bell puts it, they sure are certain of themselves.  How ironic!

3. EMBRACING OF ANCIENT RITUALS, PAGAN PRACTICES, AND MYSTICS. Emergents have a love for bringing in ancient Roman Catholic practices and pagan rituals; use of candles, icons, and other “props” to help us get closer to God; prayer labyrinths, lectio divina, prayer stations, and such.  They also embrace the writings of such obvious heretics as Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton, both Catholic mystics who embraced universalism and other religions.  This is a core part of emergent ideology, and emergents will either defend it completely, or they will dance around the questions and refuse to condemn these pagan practices or their love for these mystics and their writings.  In a previous post, I stated that concerned Christians will be totally upfront about what they believe, and what they clearly condemn as unbiblical; not so with emergents.  They tend to dance around the questions, and will not clearly state that, for instance, a prayer labyrinth has no business whatsoever in a Christian church, because it is unbiblical.  These practices all are an attack on the sufficiency of scripture for Christians; instead, nothing else is needed.  The Bible is all we need to live our Christian life, and there is no need to use these things to enhance it.  That is an insult to the sufficiency of simply placing our faith in Christ and His death on the cross.

4. POST-MODERN/CULTURAL ACCOMMODATION. Emergents are fascinated with the idea that we need to adjust the Bible to the culture in a post-modern world.  Instead of focusing on the unchanging truth of the gospel and how it has done its job through the Holy Spirit, for over 2,000 years, they are obsessed with “community”, and “missional”, and all sorts of other phrases which emphasize the attempt to “become relevant” to the post-modern culture.  Trust me, missional no longer means what it used to mean.  Those of us who oppose this ideology say to them, the Bible is always and will ever be relevant to he culture; we should not compromise it, and we should not doubt that the gospel “once given to the saints”, will do its work through the Holy Spirit, in this culture, or other cultures to come.  Besides, does anyone think that post-modernism will last forever?  When the next fad culture comes along, what do we do then?  Change again? Their basic stance is this, which Brian McLaren holds to: in 2,000 years, we have got it all wrong, and we need to start all over again.  Thus, his book and it’s title, “A New Kind of Christianity”, says it all.  But scripture says: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”   Romans 1:16

5. SOCIAL GOSPEL/SOCIAL JUSTICE. An unhealthy fascination with the social gospel, or with social justice, and environmental concerns, and a Kingdom of God on earth mentality, that we ourselves can right all the evils and wrongs of the world if we work together with anyone, and any religion. I believe in helping the poor, the downtrodden, etc., but too many times emergents de-emphasize the primary goal (preaching the gospel to the unsaved) at the expense of cleaning the sidewalks of the neighborhoods, without ever reaching any unsaved with the message.  We are ignoring the fact that the real Kingdom of God will not be finally established until Christ returns in His glory, to judge the world.

6. DOWNPLAYING OF DOCTRINE. A downplaying of biblical doctrine, including but not limited to the following: the importance of right doctrine; the coming judgment of the world and Christ’s return; the existence and reality of a literal hell; the denial that there will be eternal punishment for those who reject Christ; separation from the world while being in the world.  Yet over and over, scripture emphasizes the importance of right doctrine (1 Tim 4:16; 2 Tim. 4:1-5; Acts 20:28-31; Jude 1:3)

7. SYNCRETISM OR BLENDING WITH OTHER RELIGIONS. Many also seem to show a very close affinity to a universalistic view of salvation, such as McLaren and others, who either don’t answer the question, or who say that probably Hindus and Buddhists will make it to heaven, even if they have not repented and accepted Christ.  I have seen this kind of thinking,or hinting of it, on the NazNet forum, which is an unofficial Nazarene discussion website.  Not all emergents think like this, but many do, and this is a dangerous move towards acceptance of universalism and relativism right in the evangelical church today.  (See John 14:6)

8. DISTORTION OR REJECTION OF JUDGING. Emergents will over and over again emphasize love and friendship, and will reject judgmentalism, as if you can only have one or the other.  Remember when Paul rebuked Peter publicly for a seemingly minor problem, and in public?  I do believe Paul did that out of love, and as well as his criticism and rebuke of various churches that he wrote to.  Paul loved these folks, and it was out of love for them that he exposed their errors so that they could then turn from those errors, and follow right doctrine.  Do not ever let anyone tell you that you as an individual Christian cannot judge a set of beliefs or someone’s doctrine or practice.  That is called discernment, and without it, we cannot do they work of defending the true faith.  Emergents reject this because if they accepted it, it would more clearly expose their false teachings and bring them to the light. (For a solid teaching on judging, see Yomi’s lesson Judge Not? on my blog, as well as this post, Is It Right?, on Tim Wirth’s blog.

So this is a short description of some things to watch out for if you wonder whether a pastor or other Christian may be emergent.  Keep in mind that they will not generally shout it out, but instead will hide their ideology as much as possible and are very subtle in their teaching.  You must be grounded in the word of God, or you could be deceived by fine sounding language and arguments.

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” Col. 2:8

“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”  1 John 4:1

May the Lord help us all to stay true to the gospel “once for all entrusted to the saints”.  May He give us the courage to help and witness to someone who may be falling captive to these false doctrines.  It is our responsibility as faithful Christians, to follow the whole counsel of God.

Thanks to Pyro-Maniacs for the posters.  Also, check out their blog at Team Pyro.

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6 responses to “What Do Emergents Believe? A Review

  1. Not all emergents are the same, yet it appears that you have captured the “big umbrella” that most gather under. A good primer on what to watch out for.

  2. I think that you identify things that all of us must watch out for. How important it is to know the Word of God first and foremost so that we can first know what we believe and then we are able to discern error from truth (Hebrews 5:11-14).

  3. It seems you make a lot of assumptions about what the majority of emergent thinkers believe. I hear these accusations over and over and very rarely get an adequate answer when asking how they come to their conclusions. Yes I have heard emergent leaders share these views, but I have seen many more emergents who have solid historical orthodoxy as their belief.

    I believe we must be vigilant, but we must also be fair in our zeal. Brian McClaren does not speak for all emergents, just like Par Robertson does not speak for all evangelicals. It seems to me that as Wesleyans we have a four prong approach to Theology, Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition. (Wesleyan Quadrilateral)

    All four of these need to be used to develop our theology. Lets not be one trick ponies. As I look at your web site I am very aware of what you are against. Not so much information on how to be better Christians. Just for the record I am not emergent, I just think our doctrine and history is strong enough continue making a difference in this world. If we truly believe the emergent church is a threat to our faith then the problem is not emergent.

  4. Hi Scott,
    These are not assumptions at all. They are actually what most emergents believe and promote. I agree, not all believe as McLaren does, but these points I made are very typical of many emergents, and especially those I have encountered and talked with. There are even more things they share which I will detail at some other time.
    I believe we have been very fair in characterizing emergents’ it is they who try to hide behind their own words because they cannot biblically defend the points I made in the post.

    I believe in the supremacy of scripture- it is all sufficient for everything, and takes final authority over the other parts of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

    As far as your last point, we are commanded in scripture to deal with threats to the true gospel. We are to expose false teachings- do you agree? That’s the problem, not the fact that we feel threatened. The emergent church is a real threat, and must be exposed, rebuked, and in my denomination, Nazarene pastors promoting it are going against their own Nazarene doctrines and teachings. Perhaps they should resign and start their own emergent denomination.

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