How does one define the emerging church? This is not an easy question to answer. Are you emerging? Maybe you are and you just don’t know it. It is very difficult to define exactly what it means to “emerge.” Sometimes its characteristics sound a lot like what “Evangelical” used to mean. Other times it sounds just like “Liberal.” Often it is hard to distinguish from neo-orthodox or even Eastern Orthodox. Many would just say that emergers are Christian Democrats!

If you compare yourself to a personality to determine whether you are emerging, it is no better. To whom do you choose to compare yourself? Brian McLaren? Doug Pagitt? Dan Kimball? Mark Driscoll?

1. If you go with Brian McLaren, then you may view “emerging” as somewhat of a political revolution.

2. If you go with Doug Pagitt, then you may see “emerging” as the hope of God’s redemption through a sort of quasi-universalism.

3. If you go with Dan Kimball, then you see “emerging” as a mission to win the lost with the essential message of the Gospel through kindness and understanding (sounds a bit like evangelicalism).

4. If you go with Mark Driscoll, then you may find it hard to distinguish “emerging” from a missional minded reformed evangelicalism.

Maybe its not that simple, but my point is that most of these fellows don’t seem like bed-fellows. In other words, it is hard to find the least common denominator with regards to their emerging distinction. They all call themselves emergers, but I don’t think that Driscoll would be too fond of being identified with Pagitt or McLaren. Kimball and Driscoll maybe, Pagitt and McLaren maybe, but not all of them together. It is hard to find the connection. If all of these guys are emerging, then what does emerging mean? Would the real emerger please stand up?

Part of the reason I write this post is because I just finished John MacArthur’s Truth War. While I really appreciate much of MacArthur’s work, I did not find this book helpful with regards to the emerging issue. In fact, I found it very unbalanced and ill-informed. He simply focused on one thought of one strand of the emerging “movement.” He did not distinguish between those who were guilty of his charges from those who were not. In this he mischaracterized many people and the movement as a whole. He choose one strand of emerging and presumed to attack the entire ununited movement as if it were united.

I also write this because I was recently identified as an emerger (which was news to me) by some of the more antagonist anti-emergers at a Bible conference. More importantly, I was placed along side of McLaren and Pagitt as a significant influence in the emerging movement. I did not see the connection at all.

I think it is important for us to recognize that there are many types of emergers. Let me attempt to give some perspective.

First, I think that it is important to distinguish between two meta-strands of emergers. Some would separate those that are emerging and those that are Emergent. I think this works well and is becoming more and more accepted. Emergent would be the more theologically liberal minded group of emergers. These are those that MacArthur went after with gloves off.

If you were to graph this out, adding a section for fundamentalism and liberalism, it would look something like this.

Notice there is overlap in many of these areas. There is an overlap of traditional evangelicalism and emerging. There is an overlap of Emergent and liberal. There is also an overlap between fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Traditional orthodoxy might be found in a balance between the extremes.

Here is how I would chart many of the popular emergers.

Notice, I would place many emergers outside the bounds of orthodoxy—at least as it has been seen from a historic Christian standpoint. The reason being is that they deny many aspects of historic Christianity. Among other things, either their doctrine of judgment, the exclusivity of Christ, the atonement, or even theistic worldview is contrary to that of the historic Christian faith. Some would even deny or call into question just about every foundational doctrine to the Christian faith.

Don’t misunderstand the chart. D.A. Carson represents the best of traditional Evangelical scholarship. But being in the middle does not necessarily mean that I believe that he is more orthodox than Dan Kimball. He is just less emerging! John MacArthur is to the far left, not because he is in danger of stepping outside of traditional Evangelicalism into a heterodox form of fundamentalism, but because he is more fundamental and less emerging than the others. McLaren is right on the line between emerging and Emergent.

Well, thus far I have simply meant to communicate the defining “emerging” is not a simple task. The one thing that I would immediately caution people on is this: don’t lump all those who call themselves “emerging” into the same category reserved for heretics. We have to be more responsible than this. It is unfair and could damage people’s reputation. If you were to do this, how is that any less an evil than the evil you may be accusing them of?

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.