Brian McLaren Addresses His Critics

Orginally published on Wednesday, July 05, 2006 at 8:31 AM
by Todd Rhoades

Brian McLaren is a controversial leader in the church today. Whether you agree with Brian or not, he does deserve respect; and that's just what he asks for in his recent internet posting entitled "A Friendly Note to My Critics." While I don't agree with some things that McLaren has said in the past, I do believe that he (just like other brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we might disagree with on some things) deserves our respect. In this piece, I think Brian does a good job in laying some groundwork for any comments we make about others...

You would think after 24 years of serving as a pastor I would get used to it. You would think I would get a thick skin so that criticism wouldn’t bother me. But I confess that I am disheartened by some forms of criticism. Obviously, I am aware of the fact that some of my ideas are controversial. I believe that all controversial ideas need plenty of scrutiny – as do many non-controversial ones. I do not in any way think I am above scrutiny, and I have been wrong enough times in my life to be sure that I will need ongoing correction for the rest of my life.

I struggle more whenever a new book comes out. Books are like kids, and the release of a new book is like sending your child off to school for the first time. You don’t want her to get made fun of for her thick glasses and braces. You know she’s a little clumsy and overweight, but you don’t want her to be chosen last for the team or called mean names. You don’t want her to get pushed around on the playground by the local bullies. You see her potential, and you hope that others will, and it hurts when they judge her by her looks, or when they make her the focus of their faultfinding mission. Of course she’s not perfect, but you know she has value and you hate to see her treated badly.

Thankfully, some criticism comes in a truly constructive way – it helps me, informs me, and helps me be a better person, writer, and Christian. In my most recent book, for example, The Secret Message of Jesus, a few readers pointed out a few small factual errors in the text. Thankfully, those mistakes were not substantial, and they will be corrected in future editions.

So it’s not the helpful pointing out of factual errors that disheartens me; it’s the unfair, inaccurate, unreflective, and mean-spirited responses – especially when they are done in the name of God. I imagine that some fair-minded people who deeply disagree with my books also wince at the way less fair-minded people critique me or my work.

When people who claim to love the Bible launch unfair, inaccurate, unreflective, and mean-spirited attacks, especially when they do so on a public and international forum like the internet, they are not only hurting me and sometimes my readers (which they may not care about) – they may also be hurting the cause of Christ (which they do care about). After all, the Bible clearly says we must not bear false witness, spread rumors, or indulge in uncharitable or unwholesome speech. It says we should do to others as they do to us and act justly. It asserts that our love for one another reflects on the credibility of our message. It tells us we should examine ourselves and look at obstructions our own eyes (which would include flaws in our own viewpoint or perspective) before we try to perform eye surgery on someone else. This kind of behavior among people who claim to love the Bible, Jesus, Christianity, orthodoxy, and truth brings dishonor on these very things.

So, in a fraternal and hopeful spirit, I would like to make several requests of my critics.

1. Accuracy: I repeatedly read people claiming, “McLaren says…” or “McLaren believes…” when I have either never said what they claim or explicitly denied it. Or they make exaggerated statements like, “McLaren doesn’t believe anything,” or “He questions everything.” Even though you think I’m wrong, may I ask you to accurately represent me, and not push what I say to an absurd extreme that any sane person would reject?

2. Fairness: Sometimes people accurately quote one sentence, or part of one sentence that I have written, and then use it to claim I am being imbalanced or dualistic or reductionistic, and so on. I often go back and check the sentences or phrases they quote, and then I notice that in the very next sentence or paragraph, I qualify or balance or add nuance to what they have quoted. If you are on a fault-finding mission, you will quote the first sentence and ignore the second, but if you are pursuing fairness – as an expression of your own integrity and good character, can I ask you to seek to be more fair?

As well, may I politely ask you in the interest of fairness to avoid guilt-by-association? This works two ways. First, I read and quote a wide variety of people. More than that, I try to build friendships with people with whom I disagree. With increasing frequency, I find that people are attacking me because I keep company with certain people (and even speak with them) or I quote someone who we would both agree is wrong on many counts. Since Jesus was a friend of sinners, and since Paul quoted “pagan” poets on more than one occasion, can I ask you to refrain from using guilt by association in your critique? Second, I find critics attacking other people merely for keeping company with me or listening to me. Be assured, people often are kind enough to speak with me or quote me on occasion even though they disagree with me on other points. I hope you won’t criticize them for doing so. Perhaps they’ll have a good influence on me!

3. Judgmentalism: There is a difference between truthfully reporting a statement and uncharitably inferring a motive. So when people say, “McLaren shows contempt for the Bible,” or “McLaren is a coward because he didn’t answer my question directly,” or “McLaren thinks he is better than everyone else,” that seems less like an act of reporting or analysis and more like violating Jesus’ command not to judge. In Paul’s famous love passage, he says that “love believes all things,” which seems to mean that love believes the best – it tries to interpret other people’s behavior not cynically, but charitably, graciously giving the benefit of the doubt. Similarly, Jesus sums up the law and prophets by teaching us to treat others as we would be treated. Unless you would like others to jump to conclusions about your motives and assume the worst about you, may I ask you to fairly and accurately engage with my ideas, but try to avoid making judgments about things you simply do not know – my heart, my motives, my intentions?

4. Rumors: It is quite distressing to see inaccurate or unfair or judgmental things said about my writings or my own character. But it is even worse when these rumors are passed around as facts. Recently, I’ve read a number of reviews by people who admit they have never read my books, but are working from hearsay. Please don’t spread rumors, and please don’t believe unsubstantiated claims.

5. Lack of Self-examination: Those who attack my ideas often do so in a way that shows they haven’t really examined themselves. For example, someone recently criticized some of my writings in ways opposite to what I’m requesting here. Then he quoted a Bible verse to refute what he claimed to be my position. (Sadly, he had misinterpreted my actual position, so he was attacking a straw man.) Interestingly, the Bible verse he referred to actually contradicts the position he claimed to hold. Even if I am wrong in my view, this kind of unreflective reaction is a bad reflection on the Christian faith. So please, if you use a Bible verse to try to refute me, first see if it actually supports your own position.

6. Name-calling. Words and phrases like “liberal,” “heretic,” “of the devil,” “Satanic,” “fundamentalist,” and so on are very effective in discrediting someone, but they are also rather childish and unhelpful and divisive. Those of us who are parents don’t like our children calling each other names in this way, and I am quite certain God has similar feelings when we resort to name-calling.

7. Harshness: In 2 Timothy 2, Paul advises his younger associate to use gentleness when he seeks to correct people in error. I’ve noticed that whenever I am harsh with people, I am less likely to gain a hearing for my message. In fact, some of your frustration with me may come exactly from times when I have been harsh, which I sincerely regret. If you are hoping to correct me or people who feel they have been helped my books, may I ask that you do so with gentleness? That way, if you’re completely right in your correction, you’ll increase the chances that we’ll listen. You’ll allow us to respond to the truth of your corrections rather than drive us away with the spirit in which you express them. And if you are not completely right, you will have made it easy for there to be constructive dialogue so that we can all grow through our interchange – instead of filling the body of Christ with the toxins of attack, defense, counterattack, and so on.

8. Disharmony: I’ve noticed that intelligent people often use a “but” when they could more profitably use an “and.” For example, I might make a statement that is true and accurate and needed as far as it goes. But obviously, that one statement still doesn’t say everything that needs to be said. So, someone else can wisely and helpfully add the word “and,” and build on what I’ve said, contributing balance, depth, nuance, and so on. This is how good conversation progresses. But if she instead implies I am stupid or wrong or dishonest for not saying both what I said and what she wishes to add, that strikes me as unhelpful. She has a chance to work in teamwork with me for the common good, but instead she chooses to set us up as enemies. I love Paul’s words in this regard in 1 Thessalonians 5: “Therefore, let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding,” or his words in Ephesians 4: “Be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

In that light, I want to say again that wherever I have been harsh in any of my writings, whenever I have come across to you as divisive and disrespectful, I am truly sorry. These eight requests are communication practices to which I aspire, but sadly, I fail to practice them at times. So of course I will endeavor to be gracious to those who fail to meet these ideals, since I stand in need of grace myself. I have made it my policy to avoid name-calling or even naming individuals in a negative light. I have tried to present my ideas with humility so that others do not feel shamed or insulted in any way. But I am sure that I have failed on more occasions than I realize. I have many regrets in my life, many of which relate to the way of I have critiqued others. Looking back, I have never been proud of even one time when I have been harsh, sarcastic, or disrespectful in my words or attitudes to other human beings.

So I want to assure you, if you find yourself among those who deeply disagree with me, that I mean you no harm. I repeatedly tell people, if they are happy and confident in your approach, that they stay with it and ignore me, my work, and my friends entirely. I am not here to steal any of your “market share” or do you harm in any way. Instead, I’m here for all the people who can’t survive following your way of thinking and your way of doing things. These people, many of them, are about to leave the church and the Christian faith entirely. Many have already left in disillusionment. Many are seekers with lots of issues, the kinds of people for whom your churches aren’t ready, nor are they ready for you. You may consider them apostates or pagans or whatever, but these are the people I feel some calling to help – so they can be connected to Christ and his mission even though they can’t function in the religious settings over which you preside or in which you are yourselves sincerely satisfied and blessed. I am not your enemy. I see myself as your colleague, just as Paul, who consented to work with Gentiles at the margins, was the colleague of the apostles in Jerusalem, who continued to focus on serving the Jewish community.

You can read more of this article, or more of all things Brian McLaren here

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 TRACKBACKS: (0) There are 19 Comments:

  • Posted by

    Whatever your views on McLaren or the EC, I think it’s pretty hard to disagree with the prinicples discussed in this post.  Though I’m not one of McLaren’s critics, “Let your gentleness be evident to all” is something I know I need to work on myself.  Thanks for the reminder, Todd!

  • Posted by eric

    I am always impressed by the humble, Christlike attitude McLaren displays when responding to critics.  If I am going to ere on one side or the other, I would prefer to ere on the forgiving side. Even if McLaren is completely wrong about everything (which I don’t believe he is), his ability to respond the way he does makes his ideas much more appealing than those of his critics.

  • Posted by

    I am sometimes critical of Brian’s theology, and sometimes not, myself. For instance, I have serious issues with “Generous Orthodoxy” BUT “The Secret Message of Jesus” is a GREAT read for Christians today, and Brian’s (addmittedly flawed) insights are very much needed in our time.

    And I pray that we can all be respectful in the manner in which Brian has requested, but I somehow doubt it’s possible, as evidenced by the post on Stephen Baldwin’s comments about Bono earlier… And as evidenced by many of the posts we make back and forth on this blog!

    Let’s speak the truth in love! I say that to me first!

  • Posted by Daniel

    About McLaren… I think his kindness speaks volumes about him.  Regardless of whether or not you think his theology is spot on (I doubt that he would say it is), I’m sure everyone can agree that his attitude is an example to all believers.  Would that I were as humble and kind as he!!

  • Posted by Daniel

    And we’re probably glad McLaren doesn’t drive Piper out of his church with a whip.  Jesus and Brian, because of their different settings, have different ways of doing things.  Because the controversy he has created is within established Christian circles, Brian is kindly asking us all to be, kind, fair, and well… Christian.  Jesus’ context with his critics is quite different.
    I do enjoy the fact that you are making comparisons between Jesus and Brian McLaren though… the resemblance is far greater than some would have us believe (and I only say this to re-emphasize that Brian’s life truly bears the fruit of the Spirit--that’s all).

  • Posted by

    Has anyone read the recent interview with Emergents leader in the current issue of Relevant Mag.?  He made it pretty clear about his belief on Absolute Truth.

  • Posted by Leonard

    Having read some of but not all of Mclaren’s work, many but not all of his postings, sat with him personally and listened to him corporately, I do indeed find him to be a gentle soul.  It is often with sadness that I read and listen to him because he comes across as a leader not quite sure where he will end up, but sincere in the journey.  The dangerous part is he has a great following of people, who cling to his gentle fatherly approach, but do not examine his teaching thoroughly. 

    Some of what he writes needs to be challenged vigorously, with full force.  Too often I read his followers words that say, “he is so sincere or nice and gentle” while failing to give his words much examination. 

    Here is my question, (s).  So how does one say to a kind and gentle soul that his teachings make him concerned?  How does one say to someone he feels is becoming dangerous to many people of faith, what you wrote or said is not okay?  How does one confront teaching that would border false or even heretical when the teacher is so darn nice? 

    Before we make him out to be a carbon copy of Jesus, remember that Jesus was right, all of the time.  His responses were not always gentle and kind.  His teaching, while controversial was always true and accurate.  Mclaren’s teaching does not come across as, “this is what God says” nearly as much as, “I am not so sure what we have been taught about… is right.” When you challenge people’s belief systems, even kindly, while you come across as having yours firmly planed in mid air, those you challenge will respond. 

    Finally, do not confuse a kind spirit with being teachable and humble. A person can be direct, confronting and bold and be teachable and humble too.  Do not confuse kindness as being like Christ, a person can be forceful, passionate and direct and be like Christ.  I am not saying Brian is not like Christ, I am simply warning us not to confuse in such a way what “like Christ” means that if you are not like Brian you are not like Christ.  Which, by the way, is what I see many of his fans doing. 

    I feel very strongly about this, I apologize if my passion confused my words.

  • Posted by Daniel

    Leonard, thanks for taking the time to post these comments, and for making the effort of doing so constructively.  I find your attitude quite refreshing.
    I would personally beg to differ with your assessment ("The dangerous part is he has a great following of people, who cling to his gentle fatherly approach, but do not examine his teaching thoroughly").  As a McLaren ‘fan’, I have examined his ‘teaching’ as thoroughly as I know how.  It so happens we read the same scholars (mostly Walter Brueggemann, NT Wright and Andrew Perriman) and we both find them to provide the most coherent articulations of the biblical narrative and its role in our lives as disciples of Christ.
    As for your question about how to tell someone as kind as McLaren that we are worried about his teachings… well, the same way you’d tell anyone else.  Plenty of people have emailed him (as you can tell from the dialogue on his site--brianmclaren.net) and he has responded graciously.  You remind us that being kind isn’t the same thing as being teachable, and you are correct!! However, I think Brian is teachable where he needs to be teachable, and firm where he needs to be firm.  Plenty of us wish that he would change his views where he disagrees with us, but we should not wish this if it would go against his good sense.
    And personally, I think he’s right on with most of his theology.
    My two cents.  For what they’re worth.
    All the best,

  • Posted by


    I like your comments! But you say “ ...I still happen to believe in the necessity of the resurrection, but I am simply leaning away from it - my feet are still firmly planted...” I wouldn’t agree that by definition the individual in your example is “firmly planted”. But your comment about working out salvation more privately is great!

    Thanks everybody for engaging in this little conversation with the same grace and humility that Brian McC is asking for!

  • Posted by eric

    I don’t think the example works well, though Randy. McLaren is not waffling on the issue of the resurrection. He is asking about the feasibility and definition of Hell (really a non-essential). He is asking where does social justice fit into the modern evangelical framework. He is asking how should we treat homosexuals? (I don’t think he has given an answer because he wants to focus attention on how they are treated by the Christian community more than the morality of it).

    I may have missed the article or book about his not believing the Resurrection, so you may be right, but I have read just about everything he has written.

    I think he is also asking people to not use the Jesus-card when they are loosing an argument with an athiest or other unbeliever. There are valuable things that can be learned from people of other faiths, but it doesn’t mean we believe them to be the way to the Father. I also think he is asking why, if we are so committed to proper doctrine, are we not equally committed to proper practice?

    I have prefaced most of my thoughts with “I think” because I am not Brian, I am simply trying to understand why he is saying what he is saying and what he is saying. Sorry for what may seem like rambling.

  • Posted by

    Eric writes

    “He is asking about the feasibility and definition of Hell (really a non-essential).” I don’t think that you will find many who agree that the feasibility of Hell is a non-essential. In fact, McLaren’s apparent attitude toward “hell” and what appears to be a slight tendency toward (not belief in necessarily) some kind of universalism is one of my key issues with his theology. He tends to skirt that issue, imho, but perhaps if he does it’s because he himself is still sorting it out.

    “A Generous Orthodoxy” got my blood boiling a bit, “The Last Word...” got my blood boiling a LOT, both in “negative ways” but “The Secret Message of Jesus” got my blood boiling in POSITIVE ways. I count myself as one who has serious or semi-serious issues with some of what appears to be his theology, and I also count myself as a big fan, reading every one of his books that has come out over the past 4 or 5 years. Can I be both?

    Brian, if you’re reading this, yes some of us disagree with what we think you’re saying a lot, but some of the same ones of us LOVE you and want to read more! Keep it up! Anyone who inspires me to love Jesus more (and you do that) is okay in my book!

  • Posted by eric


    I would consider it a non-essential because the writers of our Early Creeds did not consider it an essential. Neither the Apostles nor the Nicene Creeds worry about hell; only “the life everlasting.” It is silent about a fiery eternity for the unrepentant.

    For me, “Generous Orthodoxy” was a breath of fresh air. It was marvelous. I didn’t necessarily agree with everything in the “The Last Word...” but it certainly exposed the weak foundation of a “burn in hell” theology.

    I rest on the fact that God is infinitely more just, loving, and grace giving than I. I don’t know what they end (eschatologically or judgmentally) looks like (neither does anyone else really), so I have to live out the Good News now. I don’t think eternal punishment in hell is a necessary part of the Good News. People live lives filled with Hell every day how about God’s rescueing them from that?

  • Posted by


    I agree that “burning in hell” theology is a bad way to evangelize or share the Gospel. As far as your argument for the non-essentiality of the definition of hell, some might argue that by upholding scripture, the creed-writers DID affirm it. We could go off on this, but let’s not, since it’s not the point of the post.

    In fact, I think perhaps that this “hell discussion” is the “thin ice” that so many are walking on right now, at least as regards contemporary evangelical understanding of scripture, God, et cetera…

    But your point about grace is excellent. I’d like to think we can share the Good News with regard to God’s love for us in Christ, not with regard to some “fire insurance” kind of faith. And Brian McC certainly affirms that, imho…

  • Posted by

    While Jesus did strongly rebuke the religionists, we are not yet fully re-created in His image.  Our “corrections” of the brethren should be done in such a way as to redeem them, not attempt to remove them from the rolls of the redeemed.  Jesus’ admonition to go to them—then go with a witnesws—then consider them as unregenerate should be our guide.  I suspect that there is enough lack of understandin in all of us to invalidate a “mean spirit.”
    Be Blest,

  • Posted by

    I am usually critical of Mr. McLaren’s writing, but will always try to do so in a loving, Christ-like sort of way.  My key criticism is one of irresponsibility - Whether he likes it or not, he is considered a strong leader with many young adult seekers.  His writings, whether intentional or not, are taken as authoritative by many of his young readers. I have spoken to many of these young seekers over the past couple of years to get a “pulse” with regard to what they truly believe, and what kind of impact Mr. McLaren’s writings have had.  The resonating theme recently is one of confusion and frustration over what the real truth is.

    When these “emergent” ideas were new, the “pulse” was one of excitement, intrigue, and a renewed desire to discover truth.  However, since truth seems to be relative, and since Mr. McLaren answers questions with yet more questions, his readers are left longing for a real answer.  The answers are in scripture, and are there for all of us.

    Now, Mr. McLaren has done it again.  The answers are now contained in the “Secret Message of Jesus”.  The answers are in scripture alright, but now an entirely new methodology needs to be practiced to uncover them.  It is almost as if Mr. McLaren doesn’t want the seeker to find what he or she is seeking - continually holding a “carrot of truth” in front of our “seeking noses”. It is a very sad state of affairs.

    On the brighter side, many young adults that I have spoken with a growing weary of this relativism, and are seeking answers once again.  They are learning that these answers aren’t going to presented my Mr. McLaren.  They are beginning to seek elsewhere - hopefully they’ll find their answers, through the help of the Holy Spirit, in the scriptures that God intended us to go to for the revelation of His Son.  Mr. McLaren’s books of questions, methods, poetry, and more questions are not God-inspired.  Thankfully, God provides us with the answers.

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