One of the most significant developments within Christianity in recent years is that of the Emergent Church. It is a controversial movement (some say it is not really a movement) that has spawned literature on both sides of the swelling debate. Roger Oakland has added to this literature with his anti-emergent book Faith Undone: the emerging church...a new reformation or an end-time deception.
Oakland comes down clearly on the end-time deception side. There is no doubt in his mind that the emergent church movement is a delusion and a threat to the Christian church. The reasons for his rejection of the movement are:
- It has embraced mystical experience as the way to know God.
- It is uncritically adopting Roman Catholic practices such as veneration of Mary, use of the rosary, and the so-called Eucharistic Christ (believing that Christ is physically embodied in the bread and wine).
- It favours "truth" that is discovered by experience rather than the propositional truth and authority of the Bible.
- It is syncretistic, incorporating religious practices from any religious tradition including pagan, believing that all roads lead to God.
- It has returned to a medieval form of Christianity rather than returning to biblical Christianity.
- It has opened itself to Eastern forms of mysticism.
- It has embraced various New Age practices.
- It has adopted the approach to spiritual disciplines as promoted by Richard Foster involving a contemplative spirituality based, once again, on mystical approaches to knowing God.
- It has rejected an apocalyptic eschatology (the doctrine that the world will come to an end with the return of Christ) replaced by a kingdom of God theology of the here and now.
- It has rejected the substitutionary model of the atonement arguing that it is offensive to modern sensitivities.
- It has adopted postmodernism relativism and pluralism.
Oakland provides a large array of quotations from various sources to support his criticism — many of which are legitimate. Emergent Christianity is a very loose-knit movement that is evolving. And it is most certainly a threat to orthodox, traditional, conservative, Christianity.
The unfortunate aspect of Oakland's book is that, on the whole, he avoids identifying any positive aspects of the movement. For example, its emphasis on social justice, the recognition of different individuals' needs to worship in unique styles that suit their personalities, a recognition of the way in which our understanding of God is mediated through language that is metaphorical and imperfect, and an understanding that spirituality is a conversation that takes place rather than a matter of conforming to an authoritative creed. Oakland's treatment of the emergent church would have been more balanced if he had acknowledged, in a more fair-minded way, some of these positive elements. And Oakland neglects the fact that his particular version of Christianity is not necessarily held by all Christians. For example, his own eschatology focused on literal Israel is only one of many theological options about the end times.
Faith Undone is worth reading because it provides an important perspective from an evangelical Christian's point of view. If you want to get a broader view of the emergent church movement, check out some of the Related Links below. Like all new movements, we need to listen with caution and discernment. Oakland raises important issues that help us do that.