Official Response to Critics of Emergent

Response to Recent Criticisms

By Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Spencer Burke, Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, Andrew Jones, Chris Seay

We continue to be amazed by the enthusiastic interest in the work of emergent, a conversation and friendship of which we are a small part. This conversation is bringing together a wide range of committed Christians and those exploring the Christian faith in wonderful ways, and many of us sense that God is at work among us. As would be expected, there have also been criticisms. A number of people have asked us to respond to these criticisms. These ten brief responses will, we hope, serve to clarify our position and suggest ways for the conversation to continue constructively for participants and critics alike. It is our hope and prayer that even our disagreements can bring us together in respectful dialogue as Christians, resulting in growth for all concerned.

First, we wish to say thanks to our critics for their honest feedback on our books, articles, speeches, blogs, events, and churches. We readily acknowledge that like all human endeavors, our work, even at its best, is still flawed and partial, and at its worst, deserves critique. We are grateful to those who help us see things we may not have seen without the benefit of their perspective. We welcome their input.

Second, we have much to learn from every criticism – whether it is fair or unfair, kindly or unkindly articulated. We pray for the humility to receive all critique with thoughtful consideration. Where we think we have been unfairly treated, we hope not to react defensively or to respond in kind, and where we have been helpfully corrected, we will move forward with gratitude to our critics for their instruction and correction. We especially thank those who seek to help us through cordial, respectful, face-to-face, brotherly/sisterly dialogue. As we have always said, we hope to stimulate constructive conversation, which involves point and counterpoint, honest speaking and open-minded listening. As a sign of good faith in this regard, we have invited and included the voices of our critics in some of our books, and as far as we know, have always treated these conversation partners with respect. We have also attempted to make personal contact with our critics for Christian dialogue. Even though most of these invitations have not been accepted, we hope that the friendly gesture is appreciated.

Third, we regretfully acknowledge that in our thought, writing, and speech, we have at times been less charitable or wise than we wish we would have been. Whenever possible we will seek to correct past errors in future editions of our books; when that is impossible, we will make other forms of public correction.

Fourth, we respect the desire and responsibility of our critics to warn those under their care about ideas that they consider wrong or dangerous, and to keep clear boundaries to declare who is “in” and “out” of their circles. These boundary-keepers have an important role which we understand and respect. If one of your trusted spiritual leaders has criticized our work, we encourage you, in respect for their leadership, not to buy or read our work, but rather to ignore it and consider it unworthy of further consideration. We would only ask, if you accept our critics’ evaluation of our work, that in fairness you abstain from adding your critique to theirs unless you have actually read our books, heard us speak, and engaged with us in dialogue for yourself. Second-hand critique can easily become a kind of gossip that drifts from the truth and causes needless division.

Fifth, because most of us write as local church practitioners rather than professional scholars, and because the professional scholars who criticize our work may find it hard to be convinced by people outside their guild, we feel it wisest at this juncture to ask those in the academy to respond to their peers about our work. We hope to generate fruitful conversations at several levels, including both the academic and ecclesial realms. If few in the academy come to our defense in the coming years, then we will have more reason to believe we are mistaken in our thinking and that our critics are correct in their unchallenged analyses.

Sixth, we would like to clarify, contrary to statements and inferences made by some, that yes, we truly believe there is such a thing as truth and truth matters – if we did not believe this, we would have no good reason to write or speak; no, we are not moral or epistemological relativists any more than anyone or any community is who takes hermeneutical positions – we believe that radical relativism is absurd and dangerous, as is arrogant absolutism; yes, we affirm the historic Trinitarian Christian faith and the ancient creeds, and seek to learn from all of church history – and we honor the church’s great teachers and leaders from East and West, North and South; yes, we believe that Jesus is the crucified and risen Savior of the cosmos and no one comes to the Father except through Jesus; no, we do not pit reason against experience but seek to use all our God-given faculties to love and serve God and our neighbors; no, we do not endorse false dichotomies – and we regret any false dichotomies unintentionally made by or about us (even in this paragraph!); and yes, we affirm that we love, have confidence in, seek to obey, and strive accurately to teach the sacred Scriptures, because our greatest desire is to be followers and servants of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We regret that we have either been unclear or misinterpreted in these and other areas.

But we also acknowledge that we each find great joy and promise in dialogue and conversation, even about the items noted in the previous paragraph. Throughout the history of the church, followers of Jesus have come to know what they believe and how they believe it by being open to the honest critique and varied perspectives of others. We are radically open to the possibility that our hermeneutic stance will be greatly enriched in conversation with others. In other words, we value dialogue very highly, and we are convinced that open and generous dialogue – rather than chilling criticism and censorship – offers the greatest hope for the future of the church in the world.

We regret that some of our critics have made hasty generalizations and drawn erroneous conclusions based on limited and selective data. We would welcome future critics to converse with us directly and to visit our churches as part of their research. Of course, they would find weaknesses among us, as they would among any group of Christians, including their own. But we believe that they would also find much to celebrate and find many of their suspicions relieved when they see our high regard for the Scriptures, for truth, for worship, for evangelism, for spiritual formation, and for our fellow Christians – including our critics themselves.

Seventh, we have repeatedly affirmed, contrary to what some have said, that there is no single theologian or spokesperson for the emergent conversation. We each speak for ourselves and are not official representatives of anyone else, nor do we necessarily endorse everything said or written by one another. We have repeatedly defined emergent as a conversation and friendship, and neither implies unanimity – nor even necessarily consensus – of opinion. We ask our critics to remember that we cannot be held responsible for everything said and done by people using the terms “emergent” or “emerging church,” any more than our critics would like to be held responsible for everything said or done by those claiming to be “evangelical” or “born again.” Nobody who is a friend or acquaintance of ours, or who agrees with one of us in some points, should be assumed to agree with any of us on all points. Nobody should be held “guilty by association” for reading or conversing with us. Also, contrary to some uninformed reports, this conversation is increasingly global and cr
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s-cultural, and because North Americans are only a small part of it, we urge people to avoid underestimating the importance of Latin American, African, Asian, European, and First Nations voices among us.

Eighth, we are aware that there is some debate about whether we should be considered evangelical. This is a cherished part of our heritage, but we understand that some people define this term more narrowly than we and in such a way that it applies to them but not to us. We will not quarrel over this term, and we will continue to love and respect evangelical Christians whether or not we are accepted by them as evangelicals ourselves. However others include or exclude us, we will continue to affirm an evangelical spirit and faith by cultivating a wholehearted devotion to Christ and his gospel, by seeking to join in the mission of God in our time, by calling people to follow God in the way of Jesus, and by doing so in an irenic spirit of love for all our brothers and sisters.

(We hope that those who would like to disassociate us from the term evangelical will be aware of the tendency of some in their ranks toward narrowing and politicizing the term so that it only applies to strict Calvinists, conservative Republicans, people with specific views on U.S. domestic, foreign, military, or economic policy, single-issue voters, or some other subgroup. We pose no threat to these sincere people, nor do we wish to attack or discredit anyone, even though we do not wish to constrict our circle of fellowship to the parameters they propose.)
Ninth, we felt we should offer this encouragement to those who, like us, do not feel capable of living or explaining our faith in ways that would please all of our critics: if our work has been helpful to you, please join us in seeking to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace by not becoming quarrelsome or defensive or disrespectful to anyone – especially those who you feel have misrepresented or misunderstood you or us. As Paul said to Timothy, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, patient when wronged.” In addition he warned Timothy not to develop “an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions, and constant friction.” The apostle James also wrote, “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” We believe it is better to be wronged than to wrong someone else; the Lord we follow was gentle and meek, and when he was reviled, he didn’t respond in kind.

Instead of engaging in fruitless quarrels with our critics, we urge those who find our work helpful to pursue spiritual formation in the way of Christ, to worship God in spirit and truth, to seek to plant or serve in healthy and fruitful churches, to make disciples – especially among the irreligious and unchurched, to serve those in need, to be at peace with everyone as far as is possible, and to show a special concern for orphans and widows in their distress. We should keep careful control of our tongues (and pens or keyboards), and seek to be pure in heart and life, since this is “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless.”

With millions suffering from hunger, disease, and injustice around the world, we hope that all of us – including our critics – can renew our commitment to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10) rather than invest excessive energy in “controversies about words.” “They will know you are my disciples,” Jesus said, not by our excessive disputation, but by our love. Words and ideas are essential, for they often set the course for thought and action, and constructive dialogue is needed and worthwhile, but we cannot let less productive internal debates preoccupy us at the expense of caring for those in need.

Tenth, we should say that along with a few critiques, we are receiving many grateful and affirming responses to our work. Respected theologians and other leaders have told us, either in private or in public, that they are grateful for the emergent conversation and that they stand with us and support us. We are frequently told that people sense God graciously at work in the emergent community. We hope that those who see problems will not overlook the signs of God’s presence and activity among us, just as we do not overlook our many faults, including those pointed out by our critics. Only time will tell what the full outcome will be, but in the meantime, we welcome the prayers of both friends and critics.

We must once more thank both our critics and those who affirm our work, because we know that both are trying to help us in their respective ways, and both are trying to do the right thing before God – as we are. At the risk of redundancy, let us state once again that we welcome conversation with all who desire sincere and civil engagement over ideas that matter.

If you would like to be involved in the emergent conversation and friendship, we warmly invite you to visit emergentvillage.com. And feel free to pass this response on to others for whom it may be helpful.

  • Rick

    Just curious, why spend so much energy addressing the critics? It seems that it only validates their criticism when there is so much attention given to what most Christians in the North America (and possibly world) would consider ultra conservative and unorthodox. For example, these are the same people who think women are here to serve men and that women can not serve as pastors or that Roman Catholics are not really Christian. How can “emergent” have any real dialogue? And why waste one’s breath? The “critics” certainly do not appear to be from any major, repected academic institution. In other words the criticism is from such a small percentage of the church that it seems silly to engage in a defense. Perhaps those in emergent appreciate defending their turf and that is why they are willing to dialogue. It seems to legitimatize “emergent” by having a few ultra-conservatives with their thongs in a knot.

  • Brian

    Tony, I think there is tremendous value in responding like this. It comes across as genuinely and throughly Christian in fact. I think its better to respond and “bless those who persecute you” (Romans 12:14) than to simply ignore them. Rick is absolutely correct in his statements that there are those for whom no amount of response will ever chang their ideas. But, for those of us who don’t consider ourselves part of the “emergent movement” (yet?) these clarifications and responses are valuable, because it gives us a chance to learn more.

  • Mary

    A response such as this is appreciated by one who is not yet entirely familiar with the ideas of the Emergent conversation, i.e. myself. As Brian says, it is useful because it helps in learning; not only of the critiques on the emergent church, but also how these are addressed. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Tony, you guys have done a great job addressing some serious issues that have been raised against the Emergent movement. I must confess that after listening to you speak on a few occasions I have questioned where you draw the line on truth, and I believe that you have spelled that out for the world to see. I appreciate the humility that you have shown in apologizing for words that have been spoken and written that may reflect arrogance. As someone on the fringes, but in the trenches of the emerging church movement your words have all too often sounded as strong as those whose words you have put down. So, it is good to see you coming with a softer tone. Keep up the good work.

  • John

    A great responce. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    what is the unofficial response?

  • phil

    thank you guys for your gentle spirits, humility, and honesty. this is a refreshing conversation to be a part of. prayers…

  • Pam Hogeweide

    Good word Tony…I found your blog in the blogosphere via Gregg who I found through the Emerging Writers Forum at Barclay press…crazy days we live in to correspond with complete strangers we meet up with in cyberspace.I’ll bookmark your blog and pop in from time to time. I’ve been eavesdropping on EC conversations for the past few months. I appreciate your attempt to bring into focus some distortions that are floating around about the EC movement. I wrote an article a few months ago about EC and one woman I interviewed is up in arms because of the renewed interest and practice of “contemplative prayer” in the EC. Her concerns have taken on a crusade-like frenzied pitch. She considers it a mission in her life to “warn people” about the EC movement. If you want to have a peek at her perspective check out http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.comBless ya Tony!Pam (from Portland, OR)

  • Northern Born Southerner

    Tony,I really appreciate this explanation. Being one who is just dipping his toe into the conversation this has brought me a level of comfort. I appreciated you speaking to our Youth Leadership class in the fall of 2004 at Luther Seminary, though, I must admit you set me back because you can come off somewhat arrogant (but I believe that all of us can fall into this sin from time to time until God convicts us in our hearts). I am now considering entering more into the conversation within the Twin Cities. I know there are some that I will not agree, but I am hoping that, as your statement calls for, the conversation can be still held with respect. I know that I have strong opinions, but I liked to be challenged and can’t turn away from a good discussion. It may not change what I believe, but I almost always learn something valuable. Great lessons can be learned in criticism as long as it is constructive and I appreciate that in your statement your goal was to marginalize no one.Thanks Tony,Chris

  • Chad

    I feel like a schizofrenic whenever I read anything concerning the emergent church. One part of me wants to cry “Herecy!” while another wants to leave everything and dive head first into this new movement. I think the largest hurdle in genuine dialog between conservative evangelicals and post conservitive evangelicals is the hurdle of language. When I read that you don’t believe in mindless relativism I am encouraged, when I hear you ask a person to respect their spiritual leader, calling them a boundary keeper, and asking people not to read your works, it feels like relativism. It is as if you feel that as long as a person is genuine in their worship of their local church’s expression of who Jesus is, that is enough. Doesn’t God and the person of Jesus transcend our local churches and spiritual leaders? Isn’t the relational God we love also transcendant? Are their not aspects of the gospel which are worth defying our spiritual leaders over? I hope I can learn to speak your language, because until then I will just have to continue to feel like a schizo :)

  • John

    Friends, thank you for such an uber-gracious response. Judging from the tenor of some of the criticisms we Emergent folks have received, I imagine grace and humility weren’t the easiest virtues to exercise there. And while it’s a pain to answer the Inquisition-type questions, I’m glad you condescended to do so on some of the questions that are most pressing on those who don’t get what we’re trying to do. Keep up the good work! Peace…

  • Nathan Hart

    the “emergent conversation” has seemed to me for some to be a greased watermelon. impossible to grab ahold of and stubbornly so. these paragraphs help systemetize the movement (?) for me. in fact, i wonder if it is too systematic considering the nature of “conversation” (as opposed to denomination)? but most of all, i appreciate the positive tone. thanks for that. grace and peace.

  • Anonymous

    In this statement you claim to believe in the “creeds” of the church and that Jesus is the “only” way to God. But I have heard and read Brian Mclaren say otherwise.If there is no one representative figure in the Emergent movement, than this statement of bliefs can only represent your own. I am assuming those listed as co-writers consented to the publication of this blog. Nevertheless, Emergent members such as yourselves, are recognizing the need to clarify exactly what you are trying to say and do. And it seems to me and many others, that the Emergent members tend to shift and play both sides of the fence when it comes to the exclusivity of faith in Jesus Christ as the only way to heaven.

  • Anonymous

    who decides what issues matter? doesn’t that depend upon your belief system already? So one must assume your view of what is truly important in order to criticize your view of what is truly important? Another nice one by logical laymen who think they’re doing a service to God, but in reality are only destroying what is good.

  • Rose Austin
  • Reyes-Chow

    Tony . . . thanks for some good thoughts and langauge around the emergent critiques. While some would question giving so much energy to those who do not agree, i think it further models a posture or “conversation” that may or may not welcomed, but is offered with good intentions.


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