Friday, May 30, 2014

The Theology of the Emerging Church: Unorthodox Theology of the Revisionists Stream of the Emerging Church Developed from Culture

 The Theology of the Emerging Church: Unorthodox Theology of the Revisionists Stream of the Emerging Church Developed from Culture
 Submitted to Dr. Richard Elligson, in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the completion of the course
 THEO 510 D13
Survey of Theology
Ray Ruppert
May 7, 2014
Table of Contents
Introduction...................................................................................................................................... 1
Definition of Emerging.................................................................................................................... 2
Emerging from Modernism.................................................................................................... 2
Emerging from Culture.......................................................................................................... 3
Emerging Theology................................................................................................................ 4
Comparing Revisionists Theology with Orthodox Theology....................................................... 5
Identify with the Life of Jesus.............................................................................................. 6
Transform the Secular Realm................................................................................................. 8
Conclusion........................................................................................................................................ 9
Bibliography..................................................................................................................................... 12


The Emerging Church (EC) is a very recent development in the Christian Church’s history. While the term describes the movement that started nearly forty years ago, most Christians are not acquainted with it. The EC attempts to reach the postmodern world for the gospel by adapting the church’s practices to postmodern culture. Using their theologies, Ed Stetzer categorized the EC congregations into three streams: Relevants, Reconstructionists, and Revisionists when he talked with Mark Driscoll.[1] Because their practices are similar, the theology of each stream may not be readily apparent when observing them. However, it is apparent that Relevants and Reconstructionists have orthodox theologies and are not included in this paper. Mark Driscoll reports that Relevants are conservative evangelicals and Reconstructionists maintain a more traditional mainstream Christian doctrine. Revisionists are liberal and question evangelical doctrines.[2] Not all researchers labeled the different streams of the EC in the same way. Jason Wollschleger labels churches with a distinctive moral worldview “Emerging Congregations.”[3] According to Wollschleger, those with theologies of Relevants and Reconstructionists are not true ECs as their moral worldview is essentially the same as evangelicals and utilizes the term Emerging Congregations only to describe Revisionists.[4]
Most denominations adhere to specific statements of faith with published statements of doctrines and theology. Revisionists do not clearly state their theology as part of remaining culturally relevant. Neither do they use the same terms as orthodox Christianity. Without clearly stated theologies, this paper will look at the three sources of the EC and two of the three primary practices of the EC to identify their theology and compare them with orthodox theology. It will seek to show that the Revisionists stream of the Emerging Church is unorthodox because it develops its theology from culture rather than from Scripture.

Definition of Emerging

Emerging From Modernism

The beginnings of the EC appeared in Gen-X churches where they attempted to reach young adults of the 1980s who had postmodern views. These beginnings were church-within-the-church activities. They were primarily alternative services within large evangelical churches; Jason Wollschleger characterized them by loud music and crude preaching.[6] From these types of meetings, the Gen-X experiment developed into the EC movement when young leaders (youth pastors, college pastors, and church planters including Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Chris Seay, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, Andrew Jones, and Mark Driscoll) formed the Leadership Network in the 1990s.[7] This group formed to gather the next generation of evangelical leaders. However, their emphasis shifted from focusing on Gen-X to addressing the church transitioning from a modern to a postmodern world.[8] At one meeting of the group, Brad Cecil explained his concept that the church transitioned from mysticism in the middle ages to empiricism in the modern age. Now, the church is emerging into “an age of enlightened mysticism.”[9] From this standpoint, the emerging church is a new institution that has emerged out of modernism.

Emerging from Culture

One concept of the EC is that the church’s practices are where the church meets culture. The EC seeks to reach Western culture, which has changed in recent years. Since culture has changed, the EC feels that the church loses relevance within the culture if its practices do not change and reflect culture. The nature of the postmodern culture is to ask questions. As Tony Jones says, “We looked at the architecture of church buildings, at the structure of the leadership, at the form of the liturgy, at the denominational and seminary structures, and we asked, What does this say about what we believe about God?”[10] According to Driscoll, Revisionists look for ways to change the practices of the church in order to be more like their culture. In doing this, they recognize that they have to do more than change practices; they have to change their theology to match the practices.[11]

Emerging Theology

For the Revisionists, theology is of secondary importance to practices. Since they wish to engage current culture, they are changing their theology from the foundations of previous church ages to define a theology that is relevant to postmodern churchgoers. Fernando Canale quotes Gary Gilley, “Revisionists, . . . deconstruct and reconstruct both the church and the gospel,”[12] to demonstrate that their theology affects the gospel. Edward Mackenzie shares the same opinion about the Revisionists when he remarks that they are willing “to revise theological convictions in order to reach out to the postmodern world.”[13]
Theologies of the EC are changing as they emerge from their Gen-X beginnings. Rather than what they believe causing them to act in certain ways, they believe that their actions develop their theology. Their theology emerges from the community as each member has different thoughts on what they want and what Scripture says.[14] In this way, theology is dynamic and continually changing as their situations in life change and they reflect on God’s dealing with people. Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger state, “Theologies given birth within modernity will not transfer to postmodern cultures.”[15] Tony Jones[16] and Kester Brewin[17] made specific statements that their theology is not static. Gibbs and Bolger summarized interviews with several pastors and concluded, “Theology becomes a dynamic, unfolding reflection on God’s dealings with people in the changing circumstances of life.”[18] Doug Pagitt, an acknowledged leader in the Revisionists stream states:
Every theology is grounded in a culture and a set of culturally based assumptions and concerns. To hold to these theologies in the fifth century was to be faithful, for they were created as explanations for the understanding of the world at that time. But to hold to those same conclusions today, when the worldview that demanded them has expired, is simply foolish.[19]
Comparing EC theology today may not be accurate in the future as it changes along with culture.

Comparing Revisionists Theology with Orthodox Theology

ECs claim that their practices change their theologies. However, from an orthodox viewpoint, practices flow from theology. Therefore, examining the Revisionists’ activities should be a way to discern their theology. Some may argue that this is not possible because people often say they believe one thing but their actions do not agree. Therefore, a person’s actions may not reveal his theology. This is a possibility, but statements from the Revisionists add insight to observed activities and deduced theologies.
Gibbs and Bolger do not differentiate between the three streams of the EC. However, they formulated their conclusions based on interviews and observations of Revisionists.[20] Gibbs and Bolger have identified three primary practices as defining the EC: “(1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives.”[21] An examination of the first two of these practices will identify enough of their theology to compare with orthodox theology.

Identify with the Life of Jesus

Rather than viewing Jesus from the epistles, the EC seeks to understand and identify with Him from the gospels. They look at Jesus as a model for the Christian of today but they interpret that model in view of the current culture. They believe that the traditional church has placed too much emphasis on the epistles and not enough on the kingdom of God because Jesus initiated the kingdom on earth.  Pagitt states, “The dogmas and doctrines of God, of humanity, of Jesus, of sin, of salvation that many of us were taught are so firmly embedded in the cultural context of another time that they have become almost meaningless in ours.”[22] Gibbs and Bolger expressed this change of emphasis in this way:
It is strange how the church for so long missed the kingdom emphasis in the witness of the authors of the gospels. The gospel, as proclaimed by Jesus Christ and as understood by the early church, was always more than simply a message of personal salvation and, even more narrowly, the way to get to heaven when one dies.”[23]
Since they recognize that Jesus lived in a completely different culture than today, they do not expect Christians to emulate all of His cultural behavior but they do believe that being a Christian requires people to identify with Him and try to understand how they should participate in activities that will be expressions of the kingdom.[24] This concept of trying to separate the cultural life of Jesus from the kingdom life of Jesus brings them to a place where there is a significant emphasis on doing as He did. Gibbs and Bolger summarize these concepts, “Jesus served and forgave others, and the early church was encouraged to do likewise. In doing so, they participated fully in God’s redemptive activities.”[25]
R.C. Sproul provides a detailed explanation for the Reformer’s theology that salvation is by faith alone.[26] While the Revisionists do not deny this, they do not affirm it either. Their practice and statements imply a theology that salvation is identifying with Jesus rather than having faith in Jesus.
Revisionists emphasize what the church does to reach the culture rather than on Jesus’ death on the cross. The EC’s practice of identifying with Jesus in taking care of the disadvantaged is more important than defining theology. They deemphasize what Jesus did on the cross for the payment of sin. Gibbs and Bolger state, “The good news was not that Jesus was to die on the cross to forgive sins but that God had returned and all were invited to participate with him in this new way of life, in this redemption of the world. It is this gospel that the emerging church seeks to recover.”[27] Tony Jones also says, “The crucifixion, when seen as an act of divine solidarity with the suffering and broken world, becomes the event of reconciliation.”[28]
While they still claim that the cross provides for reconciliation and becoming a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17), their emphasis is on doing this in community. A quote from Gibbs and Bolger about Joel McClure, the pastor of Water’s Edge in Hudsonville, Michigan, exemplifies this:
As McClure talks with these former churchgoers, he asks them what they believe is wrong with the world. After hearing their response, McClure says that God agrees with them. “The gospel is that God wants you to help solve that problem, to participate with God through redeeming acts.” McClure reflects on his experience. “The gospel is not that we agree with some abstract propositions in order to qualify to go to heaven when we die but an invitation to live in a new way of life. Sharing the good news is not only about conversion. It is about inviting someone to walk with you relationally, and it takes a while to demonstrate this gospel!”[29]
This new life is what they describe as identifying with Jesus.
EC theology of the atonement is in conflict with orthodoxy as it places little if any emphasis on Christ’s death on the cross to satisfy God’s justice. Instead, the atonement is about a vague reconciliation that enables people to live like Jesus here and now. One could argue that even in the Revisionists’ theology the atonement is required for reconciliation. While this is true, Pagitt sums up the crux of their belief as he discusses the atonement, “Jesus is suggesting another way for us to live in relationship with God, one that has nothing to do with the legal model.”[30] Sproul discusses the Reformed doctrine of justification being a legal model and says, “On the cross Christ paid the debt required for our sins.[31]

Transform the Secular Realm

A significant point with the EC is that they reject what they consider the traditional church’s separation of secular and sacred. It is doubtful that evangelicals would agree the church caused this separation. However, society in the United States demonstrates this separation. Not allowing prayer in school in the United States is but one example. While the EC does speak of transforming all life into the sacred, they focus more on bringing the secular into the church. In context of worship services, Gibbs and Bolger state, “. . . the clarion call of the emerging church is Psalm 24:1: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (NIV). For emerging churches, there are no longer any bad places, bad people, or bad times. All can be made holy. All can be given to God in worship. All modern dualisms can be overcome.”[32] Gibbs and Bolger interviewed Ben Edson of Sanctus1 in Manchester, United Kingdom. Edson stated, “We use secular music in worship as well as film and literature.”[33]
Their worship services become the telling of many stories. A story is reading from literature, a song, or a person presenting whatever truth he or she discovered. They want truth, but they want to get it by discerning it from the various stories and storytellers. Because of their assumption that God is in everything, they are looking for the evidence of God in all things that people produce. Jones says, “. . . they will find traces of God in the many articulations of scientists and artists and philosophers and politicians.”[34]
This exposes another difference between Revisionists and orthodox churches. Sproul identifies Reformed theology as believing that the Bible is the authoritative or the unique Word of God affirming the view of sola Scriptura.[35] Revisionists base their theology on various stories. This is a clear indication that the current postmodern culture influences the theology of the Revisionists stream of the EC. Gibbs and Bolger’s quote of Pete Rollins of the ikon church in Belfast, U.K. demonstrates their low view of the Bible, “I was worried about the evangelical churches’ way of reading the Bible as a singular book with one voice rather than as a book with many voices and many ways of interpreting.”[36]


The ECs incorporate postmodern culture into the church in a desire to reach people who are part of the postmodern culture. This results in unorthodox theology within the Revisionists stream of the EC. Three points of unorthodox theology involve the meaning of salvation, the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross, and the value of the Bible. Two practices of the EC (identifying with the life of Jesus and transforming the secular realm) and statements from Revisionists leaders demonstrate this unorthodoxy.
The practice of identifying with the life of Jesus is an outward expression of a theology that equates identifying with Jesus as salvation rather than having faith in Jesus for salvation. It also changes the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross to reconciliation with the world from orthodox theology that Jesus’ death on the cross was the propitiation for the sins of mankind. The Revisionists view Jesus’ death as a reconciliation of God, mankind, and the world. God did not need to have His judgment satisfied; rather, as Jones says about the crucifixion, “. . .  an act of divine solidarity with the suffering and broken world.”[37]
ECs want to transform the secular realm. This means incorporating secular art (music, films, and literature) into their worship. They label different forms of art stories. In their theology, everything belongs to God, including all of these stories. Therefore, each story contains a truth and these different truths help them determine their view of God. For the Revisionists, the Bible is only one source of truth, which is subject to interpretation by the individual. In this respect, the Revisionists stream of the EC derives its theology from culture as well as the Bible. This is in contrast to the orthodox view that the Bible is the authoritative word of God and that the Bible defines theology.
Defining the sources of the EC showed that it is emerging from modernism, past church theology, and the current postmodern culture. The postmodern culture is the catalyst for the changes that the EC exhibits. Observation of two Revisionists’ practices showed the possibility of unorthodox theology. However, these observations did not reveal the unorthodox theology without considering the writing and comments of Revisionists. This serves as a warning to Christians that outward appearances of the EC can be deceptive.
It is difficult to find specific statements of theology written by Revisionists because they emphasize developing theology from culture. The Revisionists use stories to understand and speak of their theology. This is evident in Pagitt’s A Christianity Worth Believing. Throughout the book, he tells stories as he discusses theology. Similarly, Jones in The New Christians, uses stories which often criticize evangelical theology and obscure clear alternatives.[38] A more detailed study of these two books and other writings by these authors along with other Revisionists will add to the understanding of their theology. Periodic reviews of their theology are required since they state that their theology is always changing as culture changes.

[1] Ed Stetzer  in Mark Driscoll, “A Pastoral Perspective on the Emergent Church,” Criswell Theological Review 3, no. 2, (Spring 2006): 89-90, accessed April 4, 2014,,2%20APastoralPerspectiveontheEmergentChurch%5BDriscoll%5D.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jason Wollschleger, “Off the Map? Locating the Emerging Church: A Comparative Case Study of Congregations in the Pacific Northwest,” Review of Religious Research 54, no. 1 (March 2012): 76.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Fernando Luis Canale, “The Emerging Church. Part 2, Epistemology, Theology, and Ministry,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 22, no. 2 (2011): 103.
[6] Jason Wollschleger, “Off the Map? Locating the Emerging Church: A Comparative Case Study of Congregations in the Pacific Northwest,” Review of Religious Research 54, no. 1 (March 2012): 72.
[7] Driscoll (Driscoll. 89).
[8] Driscoll, 88.
[9] Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 43.
[10] Ibid., 47.
[11] Driscoll, 88-89.
[12] Gary Gilley, “The Emergent Church,” in Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, ed. Gary L. W. Johnson, and Ronald L. Gleason (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 274, quoted in Canale, 94.
[13] Edward Mackenzie “Mission and the Emerging Church: Pauline Reflections on a New Kind of Missiology,” Missiology 40, no. 3 (July 2012): 316.
[14] Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 122.
[15] Ibid., 34.
[16] Jones, 114.
[17] Gibbs and Bolger, 95.
[18] Ibid., 164.
[19] Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-Filled, Open-Armed, Alive-and-well Faith for the Left Out, Left Behind, and Let Down in Us All (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 48.
[20] Gibbs and Bolger did not identify their interviewees as Revisionists but their study list (Gibbs and Bolger, “Appendix I”, 239-328) and their research methods (Gibbs and Bolger, “Appendix II”, 329-335) reveals the same people and attributes identified by others (Driscoll, 89-90; Wollschleger, 76), as Revisionists.
[21] Gibbs and Bolger, 45.
[22] Pagitt, 35.
[23] Gibbs and Bolger, 48.
[24] Ibid.,49.
[25] Ibid., 50.
[26] R. C. Sproul, What Is Reformed Theology? Understanding the Basics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 69-72.
[27] Gibbs and Bolger, 54.
[28] Jones, 78.
[29] Gibbs and Bolger, 56.
[30] Pagitt, 153.
[31] Sproul, 61-62.
[32] Gibbs and Bolger, 67.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Jones, 76.
[35] Sproul, 42.
[36] Gibbs and Bolger, 70.
[37] Jones, 78.
[38] Ibid., 96.


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—. “The Emerging Church Part 2: Epistemology, Theology, and Ministry.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 22, no. 2 (2011): 67-105.

—. “The Emerging Church Part 3: Evangelical Evaluations.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 23, no. 1 (2012): 46-75.

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Gilley, Gary. “The Emergent Church.” In Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church. Ed. Gary L. W. Johnson, and Ronald L. Gleason. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008. Quoted in Fernando Canale. “The Emerging Church Part 2: Epistemology, Theology, and Ministry.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 22, no. 2 (2011): 67-105..

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Morrison, John D. “Teaching Them to Obey All Things in a Pluralist Society: The 'Open Secret' of the Gospel in the Thought and 'Emergent' Influence of Lesslie Newbigin.” Evangelical Quarterly 84, no. 3 (July 2012): 253-71.

Pagitt, Doug. A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-Filled, Open-Armed, Alive-and-well Faith for the Left Out, Left Behind, and Let Down in Us All. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

Richardson, Rick. “Emerging Missional Movements: An Overview and Assessment of Some Implications for Mission(s).” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 37, no. 3 (July 2013): 131-36.

Rose, Lucy Atkinson. Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 5. Quoted in Adam J. Copeland,“Open-Minded Preaching: Sharing a Word with the 'Spiritual, but Not Religious',” Journal for Preachers35, no 2, (Lent 2012): 16.Smith, Kathy. “Training Wheels.” Congregations39, no. 3 (2012): 18-20.

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Watts-Hammond, Maggie. “Post-Modern, Not Post-Theist–The Church as a Christ-Centred Locus of Creative Emergence.” Touchstone 30, no. 1 (January 2012): 66-72.

Wollschleger, Jason. “Off the Map? Locating the Emerging Church: A Comparative Case Study of Congregations in the Pacific Northwest.” Review of Religious Research 54, no. 1 (March 2012): 69-91.

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