My first observation is that clearly identifying and defining the emerging church is something like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. There seems to be no clear-cut statement of doctrine and no real definition of what the emerging church is. The movement appears to be quite fluid and changeable. The best definition that can be given is that there is no real definition. It is difficult to define that which allows God to be anything we feel like making Him. This non-definable characteristic is symptomatic of the “post-modern” era in which we live and the efforts to create a “post-modern” church to “engage the culture.” Some even contend that the emerging church is fading away and will no longer exist by the time it can be defined. See the article, “Farewell Emerging Church, 1989-2010.”
It appears there are a number of common threads that run through the different variations of the emerging church. A short review cannot even begin to scratch the surface, but I have put into writing a brief summary of a few of these. Some of them almost seem contradictory, but even that fits with the elusive definition.
It looks as if there is a desire to reverse the Reformation and to go back into the mysticism, traditions, and doctrines that ultimately caused the Reformation. Not the least of these is a revival of the "Eucharist" and the doctrine of “transubstantiation,” which would have us believe that the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ was really insufficient to save us, and it therefore must be replaced by a continual offering of the actual body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. This is clearly refuted by the teaching of Scripture. “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:10-12, NASB). Although this passage was obviously written concerning the Old Testament priests and sacrifices, it has a very valid application to that which was yet future at the time – the mass. The Reformation took place for many reasons, not the least of which was the doctrine of justification by faith alone, apart from good works, on the basis of the finished work of Christ, as presented so clearly in the Scriptures. See the video “Emerging Church: The Road to Rome” by Roger Oakland.
The emerging church is a response to our "post-modern" culture. There is nothing wrong with recognizing the nature of the culture, but there is a huge difference between that and conforming to the culture. Culture should not be allowed to dictate doctrine and practice to the church. The website gotquestions.org offers the following: “Post-modernism can be thought of as a dissolution of ‘cold, hard fact’ in favor of ‘warm, fuzzy subjectivity.’ The emerging / emergent church movement can be thought of the same way. The emerging / emergent church movement falls into line with basic post-modernist thinking — it is about experience over reason, subjectivity over objectivity, spirituality over religion, images over words, outward over inward, feelings over truth. These are reactions to modernism and are thought to be necessary in order to actively engage contemporary culture … the emerging church rejects any standard methodology for doing anything. Therefore, there is a huge range of how far groups take a post-modernist approach to Christianity. Some groups go only a little way in order to impact their community for Christ, and remain biblically sound. Most groups, however, embrace post-modernist thinking, which eventually leads to a very liberal, loose translation of the Bible. This, in turn, lends to liberal doctrine and theology.”
Because experience is valued more highly than reason, truth becomes relative. Once truth is considered to be relative rather than absolute, there can be no sound doctrine, because everything is interpreted according to individual feelings and opinions rather that according to God's holy, unchangeable Word. Some have variously described the doctrine of the emerging church as “absence of the cross,” “no real reference to sin or the need of redemption,” “a move away from theology to a ‘fix the world’ philosophy,” “less theological and more relational emphasis,” etc. (Taken from personal interviews).
After doing some reading on the emerging church, I realized that I had already read and reviewed a book that could serve as a manifesto or a “Bible” for the emergent movement, The Shack, by William Paul Young. As I looked further, I quickly discovered that the connection between the emerging church and The Shack had already been made by many writers.
“The emerging church loves to tamper with traditional Bible doctrine and there is no fear of God for doing so!”
“The Shack is about redefining God. Young has said that the book is for those with ‘a longing that God is as kind and loving as we wish he was’ … What he is referring to is the desire on the part of the natural man for a God who loves ‘unconditionally’ and does not require obedience, does not require repentance, does not judge sin, and does not make men feel guilty for what they do.”
“Young’s god is the god of the emerging church. He is cool, loves rock & roll, is non-judgmental, does not exercise wrath toward sin, does not send unbelievers to an eternal fiery hell, does not require repentance and the new birth, puts no obligations on people, doesn’t like traditional Bible churches, does not accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God, and does not mind if the early chapters of the Bible are interpreted as ‘myth.’”
“...The Shack’s god is suspiciously similar to the one described in the books of the more liberal branch of the emerging church …”
“…To believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God and the sole authority for faith and practice is not to ‘put God in a box.’ It is to honor God by receiving the Scripture for what it claims to be and what it has proven itself to be … To reject the Bible as the infallible Word of God is to launch out upon the stormy waters of subjective mysticism. It allows man to be his own authority and to live as he pleases, which is an objective of both the New Age movement and the emerging church.”
“What is happening is that people who don’t like Bible Christianity, don’t want to obey the Bible, don’t want to feel guilty for their sin, and have rejected the ‘angry’ God of Scripture, are responding enthusiastically to the man-made idol presented in The Shack.”
“Miracles do not prove that something is of God. There is one that the Bible calls ‘the god of this world’ (2 Corinthians 4:4), and he can do miracles and answer prayers … Miracles are not the proof of the truth; the Bible alone is the proof.”
Roger Oakland, author of Faith Undone, said, “For nearly two thousand years, most professing Christians have seen the Bible as the foundation for the Christian faith. The overall view at the Rethink Conference, however, is that Christianity, as we have known it, has run its course and must be replaced…Speakers insisted that Christianity must be re-thought and re-invented if the name of Jesus Christ is going to survive here on planet earth.” (“My Trip to the Rethink Conference,” by Roger Oakland.)
I could write more, but suffice it to say that there have been many good articles and a number of books written concerning the emerging church, and I really have little to add to those. Roger Oakland's website, "Understand the Times," has a number of helpful articles on the emerging church. In addition to the many resources on his website, he has written an excellent book on the subject entitled Faith Undone. Interviews with John MacArthur about the emerging church are found here and here.
The Scriptures are full of warnings and instructions relative to the importance of avoiding false doctrine while preaching and teaching sound doctrine. The standard by which we should measure any church is the standard of truth, based on the Word of God.
“If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:3-5, NASB).
“…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:2-4, NASB).
“…holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9, NASB).
“But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).