The Squareoff: John MacArthur vs. Emergent

Orginally published on Tuesday, December 12, 2006 at 5:02 AM
by Todd Rhoades

John MacArthur has a new book coming out soon on the “Emergent” Church.  In it, he really takes the emergent church to task over many things.  But Dan Kimball, one of the outfront leaders in the EC movement takes issue with much of MacArthur’s leadership.  I think you’ll be hearing alot of this debate in the near future… take a read at Dan’s post here (it’s rather long); and be sure to check out his blog for other details on this subject.  You may not agree with everything (on either side of the issue) but it’s important to keep on top of things… Dan writes…

I rarely, rarely ever try to specifically talk about someone in a negative light, and I hope this isn’t negative against a person, but about their opinions. I received from a friend a mass letter going out to supporters of national radio preaching ministry. He sent it to me to read since the whole letter was about “the emerging church”.

I was really dismayed and saddened to read this letter he sent out. It was a fund raising letter for his radio ministry which I went on his radio ministry blog and found that my name was actually listed in his list of who he sees as emerging church leaders. So this became personal, since he mentions me on his radio blog and also raised my interest more in what he was saying in the letter.

Unfortunately, what I read in the letter was, in my opinion, hyper-exaggerations with nothing listed or a specific emerging church cited to back up his claims (at least in this letter). If I was a radio listener and didn’t know what the emerging church was about, after reading the letter I certainly would have my fear raised to find out how to avoid them as the letter says they are a “threat” and “the danger is real”. Many of the descriptions in the letter of “the emerging church” were ones that I commonly hear over and over again and most of them are much like a stereotyped cartoon caricature. Sadly, for the grandparents and parents and all those reading this letter, this stereotype is all they end up hearing which then forms their opinions. Let me show some examples of what he wrote in this letter:

“People who are drawn to the emerging church generally place high value on ambiguity and mystery. They reject the notion that God’s Word is clear, and anyone can understand its meaning. That means every doctrine you and I find precious is subject to new interpretation, doubt and even wholesale rejection. Everything is being questioned and deconstructed. Unlike the noble Bereans who used Scripture to test what they were taught and refine their understanding of the truth, people associated with the Emerging Church regard God’s Word as too full of mystery to warrant handling any truth in a definitive way.”

As I read this I am asking “What emerging church is he possibly talking about?” In our church, we actually use the Acts passage about the Bereans as one of our staple verses about what we try to do.  He says that the Bereans are commended as they used to Scripture to “test what they were taught”, so why is it wrong when emerging leaders continue to do what the Bereans did? I learned from this very radio preacher in my early years in ministry that I should not just accept anyone’s teaching but to constantly be looking into the Scriptures and testing everything as the Bereans did. That is what I see many emerging leaders doing, so I am not sure what is wrong with that. I will comment on his words about doctrine and mystery in the next section.

He continued:
“The result is a movement that thrives on disorganization, lends itself to mysticism, distrusts authority and dislikes preaching, feeds intellectual pride and recognizes few (if any) doctrinal or moral boundaries. You can see why the movement is so appealing to college-age people young people - it is fleshly rebellion dressed in ecclesiastical robes.”

Again, as I read this, I am thinking “Who in the world is he talking about? “ That is so unlike any emerging church I have ever been to. It is describing something that really doesn’t exist. When he says that emerging churches “dislike preaching”, I have been to a dozen or more emerging churches and in every single one, they had preaching for at least 30 minutes long, and usually more like 40 minutes, sometime 45 minutes. In every one of them, they may not all have been teaching through entire books of he Bible (but several do), but they were teaching long sections of Scripture, not just isolated verses pulled out of context. People at the emerging churches I have been to had Bibles themselves with them or provided for them. Several of them had teaching handouts or notes. I don’t know what he is saying that they don’t like “preaching”. They may not like angry forms of preaching, or pastors whose preaching is more about being moral police to the world than about being a follower of Jesus type of preaching, or preaching that is not based out of the Scriptures but out of the pastors opinion - but to say that emerging churches don’t like preaching? I can only assume he has never actually been to an emerging church. I only see a renewed hunger for the Scriptures and teaching in emerging churches. Many have participation in preaching where questions are asked (like Jesus did in His teaching) so the learning and retention goes higher than just a one-way presentation. Many emerging churches I know offer theology classes and I don’t know what he is talking about when he says “they don’t like preaching”.

I also don’t know what he is talking about when he says they “thrive on disorganization”. Most emerging churches I know have leadership structures, teams, multiple home communities or house churches in addition to the weekend gatherings - which cause a need for a great deal of organization, leadership, accountability and structure. There might be some very small organic type of emerging churches out there that can be disorganized, so maybe he is thinking of some of them? But the ones I know are highly organized, even more so than many other churches because they involve more people in decision making than just the senior pastor, so it causes the need for a more organized structure than just a top-down type of structure. So, again - in my experience I have not seen a single emerging church which “thrives on disorganization”, quite the opposite.

When he says they all “lends itself to mysticism” - again, in every emerging church I have ever been to I have never seen any “mysticism” in how I imagine he is thinking of it. There is no mantras or mindless chanting or rubbing crystals or whatever he may be thinking. There is a lot of prayer in emerging churches, so maybe he is equating praying in worship gatherings with “mysticism”? I don’t know.

He says that emerging churches “recognizes few (if any) doctrinal or moral boundaries”. Again, I am surprised he didn’t take the time to go on some of the web sites of emerging churches - as he would have discovered that within a few mouse clicks he could have found that on almost every emerging church there are very clear “This is what we believe” doctrinal statements listing specific theological beliefs held to by the church. So where he is getting the information that most emerging churches don’t hold to doctrines? All the emerging churches I know believe in the inspiration of the Bible, the Trinity, the atonement, the bodily resurrection, and salvation in Jesus alone. You go on their web sites and you quite often see the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed listed. So to say emerging churches don’t have doctrines is very incorrect. There may be an isolated few that don’t, but the majority do. Put this to the test and go look on some emerging church web sites, and you will easily see why he is wrong with this.

He says that emerging churches recognize “few if any..moral boundaries” and that is why “it is so appealing to college-age people - it is fleshly rebellion..”. Again, who the heck is he talking about here? The emerging churches I have been to call people out on sin and un-Jesus-like behavior regularly. They confront those who are not taking care of each other, or being greedy and hoarding to themselves, or when they are not involved in the social justice the Bible so clearly speaks of that we should be involved with, or about repentance from all types of sin issues. I was just at an emerging church who called people to repent and allowed them to get on their knees in repentance. In our church a few months ago we taught a whole message on repentance. I listened on-line to a series in an emerging church that was on sexual purity and sex being designed within the covenant of marriage and sharing how sex outside of marriage would be sin. We did a whole series on this in our church and just 2 weeks ago in the sermon taught our position on homosexual practice. I don’t see emerging churches ignoring sin or repentance. So, I am wondering who where are these stories coming from? He doesn’t list a single emerging church who does these things, he simply paints a picture of mystical, anti-preaching, anti-doctrinal, anti-organization churches in a broad stereotypical way.
There was more to the letter, with similar things. But I better stop here, as this is already a very lengthy post. I seriously am not trying to be defensive, but it is hard not to when I see my name on the list on his web site, and the assumption is then all leaders listed are in churches like he described in the letter.
I would have hoped that the pastor would have done his research, visited emerging churches or called and asked leaders to describe what they do, or what doctrines they hold to. I think he would have learned from D.A. Carson’s over-generalization in his book on the emerging church of how he narrowly portrayed the whole emerging church according to one or two leaders instead of the whole of everyone - as so wonderfully pointed out in a recent lecture by theologian Scot McKnght.  Scot actually has been to emerging churches and knows many of the leaders, so his critical analysis was really insightful of the book D.A. Carson wrote.
As Scot McKnight pointed out, “the emerging church” is not about one, two or three people. I travel a lot and I talk to a lot of people in what I would consider as missional emerging churches all across the country. There may be a very small percentage that possibly are ones this pastor would be concerned about, but the majority, not the minority, of “emerging churches” are absolutely nothing like he described. To his defense, perhaps this information was done by ill-informed students or others giving these descriptions of churches that don’t really exist, or if they do they are the rare ones, not the norm.
For those with concerns or for those who hear all these descriptions of “emerging churches” like the one in this letter, I would lovingly like to challenge you to to please actually check the sources of who is telling you about them. When someone starts saying with authority “This is what the emerging church is like..”, ask them if they have ever been to one. When I read all these very weird things said about emerging churches, ironically it is never based on anyone actually visiting one. When I ask someone where they heard these descriptions of emerging churches, it all comes from other sources, who have never been to an emerging church either.

These stereotyped descriptions about “the emerging church” going around like the ones written in the letter are like an urban legend. They are stories and caricatures that developed on the internet and repeated so many times over and over in various circles that it eventually becomes thought of as a fact. The Scriptures say in Matthew 12:36 that one day we will have to give an account to all the words we say, and I think we should be choosing our words very carefully when we accuse people of almost being heretical, like the letter pretty much was doing.

I just get so weary of these types of things. At the conference I blogged about in the last post, the same questions arose. I am all for always, always wanting to hear from people if something is going astray somewhere with me or our church, so I can be in constant check. So I never want to discount someone coming with an outside perspective and I always be open to listening. But these are the consistent caricatures that aren’t too helpful, since they are so over-exaggerated.

If you know me, you might be surprised I wrote this, as I normally don’t get defensive and I apologize if any of this is not coming out as loving. I am trying to write in love as best I can - but maybe by posting this, some may hear that they shouldn’t believe all the hear about the emerging church until they check one or two out themselves or talk to a leader themselves to see if letters like this one have truth or not or are about isolated churches or leaders and not the majority which aren’t like what is normally depicted.

This past summer we had two students from the seminary the pastor teaches at show up at our church for a visit. Afterward, one of them said “This is nothing like we thought it was going to be.” And they said how at the college the stereotype written about in the letter is what they hear on campus.
So, if there any critics or people who have these impressions of emerging churches, talk to one of us. Ask us questions. Visit our churches. You might be surprised when you actually find out what our beliefs and practices actually are. You’ll probably go after visiting one “Where is the mysticism? Where are the new-age mantras? How come people here are reading Bibles? I didn’t know you had sermons? You seem very organized, not disorganized and filled with chaos and rebellious like I heard. Your core theological beliefs are like the core beliefs at our church, I didn’t know that?” etc.  You might be shocked that all the stories you hear about what most emerging churches do, are not real for the overwhelming majority, but more of an fictitious overblown stereotype that has developed.

I am being redundant, but next time you read on the internet or hear someone speaking on “the emerging church” and what it is like, ask them: “How many emerging churches have you actually been to? Where have you actually seen them doing these things you are describing? Have you actually seen in an emerging church people chanting and practicing Buddhist meditation?  Have you been to an emerging church that didn’t have preaching? Or are these simply things you heard somewhere? If you did see them, what specific churches have you seen these things in? Is it one church or only one or two church leaders you are then making a conclusion it is the same for everyone else? Have you asked the leaders of emerging churches for doctrinal statements to see what they actually believe, or do you lump everything in together as assume the majority of emerging churches believes the same thing?” Be a Berean and test those who are teaching things about “the emerging church” to see if what they are saying is actually true.

Please don’t make a conclusion or talk about “the emerging church” based on reading or hearing about only one or two people and think the whole “emerging church” is all the same. Even the leaders you probably are critical of always are saying they don’t represent everyone. None of represents everyone. But, please ask us questions, please visit our churches. Don’t fall into believing urban legends or over-generalizations without checking them out. Please don’t stereotype the emerging church anymore.

Oh Lord Jesus. Come quickly. What a mess we sin-tainted human beings create. Please forgive us all.

SOURCE:  http://www.dankimball.com/vintage_faith/2006/12/saddened_by_joh.html

FOR DISCUSSION:  So… where do you weigh in on this subject?

This post has been viewed 7432 times so far.

  There are 85 Comments:

  • Posted by Peter Hamm


    I’ve read a LOT of Leonard Sweet and don’t see him to be panentheistic, unless the idea that God is omniscient is panentheistic, which it is not… it is biblical. I’ve read most all of McLaren and met him personally and also do not see what many, including you, are complaining about. (I am curious to know if you’ve read, in full and in context, any of these authors’ works in deriving your conclusions.)

    If you take anybody’s work out of context (including Jesus’ words in the Gospels) I believe you can prove just about any point, and I believe that’s what many of the detractors of the “emerging church” (which is, I remind you, not an organized movement in any sense of the word) continue to do. And that is the key problem I have with MacArthur and his comments about the “emerging church”, which is what this post was originally about.

    As far as your research, Anne, I think compiling ideas from extremists who have their own web sites or statements from people who quote “emergents” and point out their scary “liberalism” (just two examples… not necessarily what you have done) has inherent dangers with regard to being truthful. I’ve heard people complain about the liberal theology of people like Erwin McManus and Dan Kimball for instance, and I, as one who has read everything published by both of them as far as I know, and heard them speak, find that they both hold to very conservative traditional views theologically and scripturally.

  • Posted by

    Wendi and Peter
    This is an old thread… But you brought up a point I have been thinking alot about lately and I would appreciate your interaction with it.  Wendi, you quote LS “content ...containers”.  I agree that we for too long are more concerned withe the containers.  The point I would like your interaction is: Are we in danger of swaping one container for another?  Is the only way to reach western culture with the truth is to abandon the traditional container and espouse a new one with multimedia and music? I am not anti methods, but I have been thinking alot about this and I do international ministry so this is heightened in my mind. The question that is glaring to me is: Are we still in western society enamored with the idol or containers because we are so desireous of a tangeble fellowship which may sublty be in opposition to the true fellowship with Christ. 

    Let me move it in a diffeent direction, If the western church gets blessed by political or physical persecution, will it have the deep center to truely stand.  Having read you here, I fell confident you will.  My concern is that the feeling of worship has become more important than the person of worship. This can result in shallow theology , not necesarily by the practitioner, but the participant. To your point-- People quite thinking for themselves and are parrots of new men who do study rather than become their own Christ follower. 

    I think my point is not to dis the assembly, but to even evaluate more intently the “how we do it in the west.:  It seems to me there may be a faultline not exposed by the JM or the EM.  Namely, we are not motivating the masses to explore Christ, but a container.  Your thoughts.

  • Posted by Peter Hamm

    Chris, you make GREAT points. This is why it is important in every generation for God’s word to be preached, not our little over-simplified theological ditties and such, with care to be complete and accurate, embracing, imho, the whole wonder and mystery of God’s love in Christ.

    No more “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs, please…

    Some of those who have given me the greatest insight into God’s word have been the “emergents” who have been singled out by people like MacArthur. Rob Bell’s books have been wonderful for that.

    Some of the best songwriters who’ve given us great worship songs for this have been people like Tomlin, Crowder, Baloche, Hall…

    A lot of these “new container” guys have really kept the integrity of God’s words intact, imho.

    Unless their quoted out of context or just misquoted, as has been done too much…

    As far as the question [Are we in danger of swaping one container for another?]… If it is indeed only the container… who cares…

    As far as [Are we still in western society enamored with the idol or containers because we are so desireous of a tangeble fellowship which may sublty be in opposition to the true fellowship with Christ.] I don’t see the “new containers” as being in opposition to true fellowship at all.

    [My concern is that the feeling of worship has become more important than the person of worship.] ME TOO! As a Worship Arts Pastor, I am constantly thinking about how to avoid this kind of pitfall. Not all do, but, imho, just as many people “idolize” traditional worship as contemporary, perhaps even more do. I don’t think the style has anything to do with the unfortunate “shallow theology” that results.

    Thanks for the conversation!

  • Posted by

    Thanks for the reply.  You made my point exactly. Many traditionalist worship the container (The way we do church).  The same line I also hear in EM - the way we do church. I am greatful that you SEE the danger and work at avoiding the pitfall. Christ must be exalted not church.  Growth, success, masses of people or myriad of media need not be too emphasized (it is imho in our culture and makes all of theses idols). Christ Alone is exalted and the “tools of the trade need to be properly labeled and appropriately diminished till Christ Is all in all.  Col. 2.10b - you are complete in Him.  When this becomes all out moto, then I think we will make much less of church, tradition, buildings and start again making more of HIM.

  • Posted by Phil DiLernia

    Hi Cris:

    Good stuff.  I think you may been a little too premature however, in your questioning of whether we are changing one container for another.  That won’t be revealed until culture shifts again (and it will) and God reveals that what we “thought” was worship of Him has become just another container.  Jesus says that this is our tendency ... we need to stand guard against it ... but we will not know success or failure in this area until the “testing” comes.

    I am very confident that a majority of younger believers, raised in churches where change is the only constant, will be more receptive to the next container than our parents generation was of our new container.

    Remember this: the battle is only raging because of the refusal of the older generation to not only let the new container get equal validity in worship but actually acknowledging that those who prefer (and are better reached by) the new container can actually be saved!

    Good dialog.

    BTW, I just remembered, did I ever send those I promised my seminary paper on Infant Salvation?

  • Posted by

    Great analysis.  I do not wish to be premature, rather to draw attention to the obvious, namely we must refuse to make the container too important.  I think however, we might need to examine our whole container model to see if we are truly facillitating in making Christ followers and not church folk.  Church folk, new and old alike, seem to always value the container above all. I for one like change- the outdoor showers of yesteryear hold no nostalgia!

    I never recieved the paper you can email at .  Or go through the contact part on my ministry site. fishformen.

  • Posted by

    Anne –

    First, JM is John MacArthur – the subject of this post.

    Reading back over my response to you, I think I did sound accusatory.  I apologize.  Really, I do not know how you came to the accusation you made about Panentheism because you haven’t told us.  You stated that McLaren affiliates with the questionable Len Sweet, but you didn’t say how this affiliation makes either men a panentheist (I’ve read both extensively and have read no panentheism in their work).  You gave us a link to an article written nearly 10 years ago by Australian Phillip Johnson on energy healing.  If I thought it was really relevant to this discussion I would take the time to read it and comment.  I don’t think it is because I don’t think Phillip Johnson is one of the “emergents” influencing our particular landscape.

    Anne, you say, [I am not accusing, just appealing].  Sorry, that is not the case.  An appeal would sound like “do any of you who have read so-and-so find panentheistic leanings?” You would then cite what you’ve read and explain how you find panentheism in a particular emergent leader.  We would respond with our opinion.

    But you said,

    [I wish to point to a much deeper issue of what is the base belief system of the Emerging Church Movement. I believe Panentheism is at its base & for this reason we need to sit up & pay attention. If all this was only about style of church then it would be a different matter. We could all to & fro & all be right. But folks this is about an assault on the Truth.]

    That is an accusation.  Again, please don’t simply send us to anti-emergent websites.  Instead tell us the books you’ve read (not excerpts from) and support your accusation, or please don’t make it.

    Chris – thanks for the discussion.  I think your last post clarifies your question.  It’s not whether we are swapping one container for another.  If that is the case I agree with Peter – who cares?  It’s are we swapping our WORSHIP of one container for WORSHIP of another, because old or young, our sin nature draws us to container worship.  Worship of the content forces me to look too intently at my own heart.  Whenever I do, I don’t like what I see.  The sooner I can get my focus back on the trappings, the processes, the systems and methods, I can quit gazing at my heart.  Whoa – worship of the container is much more comfortable. 

    I think Len Sweet’s point (and I agree) is that throughout the ages and until Jesus returns, we will always be prone to container worship.  Every generation is reached by pointing people to the content. 


  • Posted by

    To Wendi,

    I’ve heard this argument before - that one has to have read everything a person has put out in order to comment. Well, I’ve read enough believe me. When you say traditional do you mean all this Emerging Church stuff of stations of the cross, candles, labyrinths etc. Why would a new movement go back to that stuff? Sorry, but I can’t understand that at all. Doesn’t add up at all for me. I’ve gone to Emerging websites & not the critique sites in order to assess Emerging. But I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll pray like I always do about stuff that don’t sit right with my spirit. I pray in Jesus’ Name, if this be of God then let it thrive & remain Lord. If Emerging Church is not of God then let it come to nought & be shown for what it is if it is leading into error! Amen! As I said before, may God keep us in the Truth. Shalom

  • Posted by

    Anne – I’m sorry if I it seemed that I was suggesting you must read EVERYTHING on a particular topic in order to comment.  I do think however, you should have read SOMETHING from the people you are accusing.  Since you commented about McLarren and Sweet being panentheists, I think it is reasonable to hold you accountable to citing what you’ve read in their work which led you to this conclusion.  You’ve yet to do at least that.  You say you went to the “emerging” websites (not the anti-emerging sites) in order to assess the problem.  Which sites?  Where did you find panentheism? 

    You ask me (referring to candles, stations of the cross, labyrinths): “Why would a new movement go back to that stuff? Sorry, but I can’t understand that at all. Doesn’t add up at all for me.”

    That you or I can’t understand something doesn’t make it false doctrine, does it?  Again referring to Sweet from my earlier post, the things you reference are containers.  These things are not doctrine, and certainly not the content of the beautiful and mysterious gospel of grace . . . so who cares?

    Actually, I think your plan to pray and ask God to anoint or remove His hand is the best course of action for all of us.  After all, this is how Gamaliel advised his fellow Pharisees in Acts 5:

    “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

    Leaving God to handle it does not include, IMO, making unfounded and unsupported accusations, in cyberspace or anywhere else.  Again, an unsupported accusation is nothing more than gossip and amounts to being divisive within the church.


  • Posted by Jim

    All the way back in Genesis at the Tower of Babble God Himself said that man’s languages must be confused or they would accomplish anything they set their minds to doing.

    One of Our Lord’s last prayers was for His disciples to experience true oneness, the oneness that Jesus enjoyed with His Father.

    Over and over the Holy Spirit inspired the New Testament writers to emphasize unity, one mind, devotion to one another.

    When Jesus’ disciples tell him about how they rejected a man preaching in Jesus’ name because he didn’t join them, Jesus told them not to reject him, because if he was not against Him (Jesus) then he was for Him.

    Jesus told us how to resolve disagreements. He told us we are to go to the individual, alone, and do what we can to settle the problem.

    Why do we Christians act so childish? We act like little children who didn’t get their own way. When are we going to begin practicing what Jesus said?

    Now to myself: Am I fueling the fire by adding my two cents here? I believe this needed to be said, but having said it I think I’ll refrain from any future comments on this type of discussion.

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