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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Emerging Church and Evangelical History

The Emerging Church movement is the latest trendy movement in the Evangelical church. Aside from the conversations about it that appear in the blogosphere, this is noticeable in the number of books published by leaders of the Emerging movement that appear in the religion section of the mega-bookstores.

I have spent some time reading blogs and articles by those who consider themselves part of the movement. And I own a couple of books by Emerging writers, but have yet to read them. So I’m not in a place to offer a full critique. I do have a couple of thoughts, though, and would welcome any feedback.

One thing that I found out recently that is interesting had to do with the church background of the most well known Emerging leader, Brian McLaren. He was raised Plymouth Brethren. This, of course, stood out to me because that is my own background as well. But I also find this interesting because I think that considering this fact will give some insight into the theological presuppositions that are laced throughout McLaren’s work.

The Plymouth Brethren began as an evangelical and ecumenical movement of sorts, and to some degree continues that way until today. It also should be recognized as a Biblicistic movement. While it rightly emphasized Scripture as the foundation of Christian faith and practice, it held the history of the church mostly in contempt, and paid little respect for the teaching that had come before them. The individuals who met at Trinity College in Dublin in the 1820’s and who served as the founding members of the Plymouth Brethren movement saw themselves as meeting “in the simplicity of the New Testament pattern”, breaking bread together with little or no consideration of doctrinal differences. This was to them in contradistinction to the “denominational system” that had grown throughout the history of the church due to the sinfulness of man and which had no foundation in the New Testament. This denominational system kept Christians of various churches from communing (in terms of the Lord’s Supper) with one another, and it was this that the Brethren opposed. In these practices, the Brethren saw themselves as restoring what had been lost since the days of the Apostles.

I view the Plymouth Brethren as simply a continuation of an Evangelical movement that began during the war in the 17th century between Oliver Cromwell with his supporters and Charles I. Cromwell’s army was comprised of people from varied denominational backgrounds, all standing against the king’s violation of the rights of the people in the civil realms (taking the common land from the people and giving it to the aristocrats) and in the church (reintroducing what many believed to be Roman elements into the worship of the church). It is said by historians that Cromwell’s army discovered a unity of faith and purpose that ran deeper than their divisions (which, at this time, were chiefly divisions over liturgy and church government), and which unity contributed to their eventual victory over Charles I. Coincidental with this was the Assembly of the Divines of the Church at Westminster, which was itself comprised of men of a diversity of theological persuasions. Though it isn’t usually regarded this way nowadays, the documents drawn up by the Westminster Divines were documents of compromise. Parliament, who commanded the gathering of the Divines, wanted a set of documents that would unify the churches of Great Britain, and so the Divines set out to accomplish just that.

Through many years of success as well as persecution, this attempt at unity continued into the 18th century in the Evangelical and Revival movements in the United States as well as Britain with figures such as John Newton, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, and John and Charles Wesley. This Evangelical tendency is especially noticeable in Newton, whose Evangelical conventicles including a diversity of Christians, even at times including Quakers.

It was in this atmosphere that the Plymouth Brethren movement emerged, an atmosphere that had developed over two centuries. The early Brethren came from the already existing church bodies. It is generally known that John Nelson Darby came from the Church of Ireland in which he had been a clergyman. But while Darby is considered by many to be the key theologian in the early Brethren movement, he wasn’t the key figure when it comes to the development of Open Brethren principles. By the mid 19th century, the Brethren had already had their first major split. This split was primarily over the extent to which communion is open. Darby took a more closed view to communion, and is to be seen as the founder of the Closed and Exclusive branches of the Plymouth Brethren movement. The majority of the Brethren since have followed the path of George Muller and Henry Craik, ministers at Bristol who, while holding certain tenets as essential to right teaching and practice, broadened their approach when it came to communing with others at the Lord’s Table.

George Muller was raised in Prussia, and while it is said that he lived an ungodly life as a youth (coming to Christ as a young adult), he had studied for the ministry prior to his conversion, no doubt for what we would today call the Lutheran Church. Muller came to England and joined Craik in the ministry of a Congregational church, and here we find our first major connection among the Open Brethren with the churches of the Westminster Divines. Muller and Craik over time converted the Bethesda to Brethren principles.

Craik himself was a Scot who had attended St. Andrew’s University and studied under the Scottish Presbyterian minister Thomas Chalmers. He associated with a group known as “the St. Andrew’s Seven”, a group which included Thomas Chalmers and six students, who established a missionary society at St. Andrew’s of which Craik was a part. This group played a key part in what came to be known as the modern evangelical and missionary movement.

There are further connections with the Brethren in the life of another of the founders of the Brethren movement, Anthony Norris Groves. Both Craik and Robert Nesbit, who was a member of the Seven, tutored Groves’ children. Groves himself eventually went to India as a missionary.

These connections between the Plymouth Brethren and broader Protestantism continued in the other movements such as Keswick, Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and a host of other parachurch movements. And we now find it has at least one connection in the Emerging church.

Whereas the Emerging leaders seem to think they are doing this great new thing, I find very little that is actually new. Here are a couple of things that Emerging people emphasize that I find precedence for in the history of Evangelicalism, and not least among the Plymouth Brethren:

-Experience of God exalted over systems of doctrine and government

-An openness to the questioning of historic practices and doctrine, and placing the Bible over the historic teachings of the church

-Differences over doctrine not being allowed to divide Christians in any way

-Inclusivity rather than exclusivity

-Egalitarianism and a hatred of hierarchy

-A sense of a new movement of the Spirit of God – the idea that God is doing a “new thing” – which is, again, defined by experience



Another way I tend to view the Emerging movement is as a neo-hippie movement. The hippie movement found its most prominent Christian form in the Jesus People movement, and exemplified many of the same characteristics that I listed above. There was cross-pollination of the Jesus People with other movements in the late sixties and since, out of which emerged the Contemporary worship movement. The Emerging Church, I would say, is an inheritor of all these things.

Let me mentioned a couple of other things in closing. I recognize that the Emerging Church does not ignore Church history as a whole. Part of their reception of it is simply by the nature of things – they couldn’t be Christian in any sense if they entirely rejected the historic church. In other ways, some of them have sought to incorporate certain historic practices of the church, particularly in the area of aesthetics. As good as this is, there are certain things in the teaching of the church that can’t be rejected, and all the smells and bells in the world won’t take their place.

Let me also add that I could also be accused of being a Biblicist. There are reasons why I am neither a Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox, and that is because of the view of Church authority and Tradition that is held in these communions. Scripture is the supreme authority as God’s Word, and the individuals in authority over us have as their duty to interpret and apply Scripture in the lives of those under their care. Having said that, they don’t have the right to approach the Bible as if they were the first persons to read it, and neither do those who are laypersons. I think one of the most foolish things we can think about ourselves is that we can somehow come to truth as individuals interacting with God alone. The flipside to this is that we don’t get error by ourselves either, but we develop it as a result of the influence of others. Both of these things are true, no matter how creative or new our errors or truths appear to be. We can talk about “interpreting the Bible in community” all we want, but if we don’t interact with the communion of the saints throughout the ages, then our own practices contradict our principles. This is a major point in which I would separate myself from the Emerging Church.

There is probably more that could be said here, but inasmuch as I am writing a blog entry and not a book, I will leave it at that.

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