Is Emergent the New Christian Left? Tony Jones responds to the critics

In December, Brian McLaren was arrested along with 115 other activists while peacefully protesting the federal budget that he believes unfairly treats the poor. As one of the most visible participants in Emergent Village, McLaren's increasingly outspoken political views has some wondering - is Emergent a new camp for Christian liberalism? In this post Tony Jones, the national coordinator for Emergent, responds to critics by championing Emergent's conversational purpose and celebrating the group's diversity.

I read a lot of blogs, my wife and friends say too many. And some of those blogs are deeply critical of Emergent Village, a decade-old friendship that has, after my family, become home to my most important relationships. My Emergent friends, old and new, love Jesus and are robustly grappling their way into God's future. It seems to me that the two most important commitments that we in Emergent share are 1) we are ultimately hopeful about God's future, and 2) we are committed to moving forward together, as friends.

What continues to surprise me is how dangerous some people consider this friendship I'm in to be. If you take some of these blogs (and books) seriously, those of us who make up the Emergent Village are a great threat to the Christian church - we have undermined doctrine, truth, and church life. The fact that we're discussing theological items that have been previously deemed "undiscussable" is considered grounds for labels like "heretic" and "apostate."

Honestly, I care little about these critiques. They come from those who either have no idea what Emergent is all about and/or could not possibly be persuaded from their position anyway.

On the other hand, I'm currently hearing and reading that Emergent is part of the "New Christian Left." Mark Driscoll, for instance, has recently drawn a line in the sand between "emerging evangelicals" and "emergent liberals." He places himself in the former camp, and I assume he'd assign me to the latter. Others, like Ed Stetzer, have similarly attempted to divvy up the emerging church. Stetzer gives three labels: relevants, reconstructionists, and revisionists. Again, I can assume that I'm among the lattermost, whose "prescriptions fail to take into account the full teaching of the Word of God," according to Stetzer. Yet another Christian leader has recently accused us of becoming one with Jim Wallis, Sojourners, and the Christian Left.

The problem with all of these critiques is that they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of Emergent Village. We are a group of friends - about 20 in 1997, and now in the thousands - who are committed to doing God's Kingdom work together, regardless of our theological, ideological, and political differences. Are we friends with Jim Wallis? Yes! And are there Bush-loving neocons among us? Yes! Emergent is a loose collection of folks who feel that true, robust conversation about issues that matter has been chilled out of modern Christian institutions (seminaries, mega-churches, denominations, and para-church groups, to name a few). We're trying to make a place to bring conversation back.

May 23, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 63 comments


June 26, 2006  9:15am

Why are conservative Christians afraid of liberals? Let me give you an example. I live in New Zealand. For the past several years we have had a left wing-liberal government, a virulently anti-Christian one at that. One of the members of that government sponsored a bill legalising prostitution. The mainline liberal Christian churches praised this as forward thinking and a blow for justice. The bill was passed into law. The result? We now have a growing problem of underage girls, some as young as 10 selling themselves to men on the streets and in brothels. And, because the bill allowed new brothels to be set up in people's homes in suburban family neighbourhoods and next to schools, we also now have a growing problem of crimes, such as human trafficking, asian girls being held as sex slaves, and drug sellers in suburbia, where such crimes were rare to non-existent. And all this was done in the name of social justice. That's why I fear, not liberals themselves, but the policies they advocate. This particular policy has not helped the poor and oppressed, it has helped to oppress the poor, the weak and the powerless and spread crime to formaly safe family areas. The response of the liberal churches who preen themselves on their advocacy of social justice? Silence. And all in the name of liberal-left social justice. So I think there is valid reason to be concerned about those in Emergent pushing the church to adopt uncritically the ideology of the liberal left. On the point that Tony was making I am not convinced. There may well be Bush loving neocons in Emergent but I have never met one nor heard one speak and their are none who are the spokespeople for Emergent in any way. I challenge anyone here to go to an emergent or emerging web forum and advocate less government, less tax, a moral social order and Just War principles and see how far you get without being called hateful names and attacked. Emergent tilts WAY to the hardcore Left and so do most of those writing books advocating this "conversation" and that is something to be concerned about. I spent many years in a mainline liberal church that advocated the "social gospel" and seen firsthand what it does to the real Gospel. It destroys it and replaces it was a rigid and legalistic political correctness. I left the church the day the minister gave a sermon calling the the destruction of the family in favour of unlimited sexual freedom. Should we be concerned with poverty? Absolutely. Should we condemn the prosperity gospel? Absolutely. Should we be concerned with justice? Absolutely. Should we try to think beyond left and right to find new answers to problems and jutice issues? Absolutely. But I see no evidence that Emergent is doing anything more than uncritically buying into the agenda of the liberal-left. And Mclaren is perfectly happy to condemn in the most hateful and bigoted language anyone who does not.

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June 22, 2006  9:41am

Tony; your article is refreshing. I've been in the "main" line church my whole life (57) and I'm frustrated with how "the" church "our" church is so bigoted, paranoid, sexist you name it, all in the name of "JESUS"??? I'm ready to dialogue and enter into a refreshing conversation with folks of all faiths, beliefs, core values and ideas. I welcome the breath of honest fresh air, keep it coming.

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Bob Hunter

June 12, 2006  6:47pm

Tony, It seems the most overlooked aspect of the emergent Church is the idea of 'agenda harmony' There is such power in agreement; shared values and vision, etc. In the name of 'conversation' the emergent Church culture will lose the most precious asset the Church has: its unity. I personally don't find a whole lot of satisfaction in rubbing shoulders with lesbians and others that are so bent on their own way, they refused to change. Yeah the conversation can be O.K. but in the end change doesn't typically happen. Oftentimes change isn't an option for them, for the simple reason: religious people don't change much! They get set in their ways and that's it. Our time is better spent amoung the lost & broken. So much more can be accomplished there.

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Andrew Park

June 10, 2006  7:39pm

A key thrust of emergent church missiology is that it preaches `inclusion' of the poor. "Incarnational" mission, especially with the poor is also a highly important focus, as is suggested frequently by key emergent church writers such as Brian McLaren and Jim Wallis. However, I have been studying numerous emergent styled websites over the past year and found very few which seem to record messages from the poor. Is that all about them not being able to afford computers or is it about something else more to do about such websites not actively practising "inclusion" of the poor through encouraging them to engage in the so called "conversation"? Mostly it appears to me that only the theologically educated and those with the gift of `contemporary Christian missions-speak' need apply for their messages to be recorded on emergent websites. The emergent church movement seems to naturally appeal to the well-educated, radically minded and `trendy' youthful-minded Christian type of person. You have had a recent article posted on your site complaining about the fact that this movement is far too patriarchal in its approach toward inclusion of women, especially in terms of leadership roles. My complaint is about the fact that although Emergent Church advocates often preach very strongly about inclusion of the poor (eg. Jim Wallis's Micah Vision; Brian McLaren's books), it seems usually only the `gentry' of `contemporary' Christianity – the theologically trained and missiologically "articulate" at university level who speak the right religious-cultural `missions-speak' need apply for their articles to be posted. Most likely, if you are poor you won't be heard or posted because you are not up-to-date with the language and will be discriminated against because you aren't regarded as intelligent or astute enough to be included in this highly exclusive "inclusive conversation". Apparently there is a high degree of `selectivity' about who is allowed to enter the "conversation." Instead of setting yourselves up as the aristocracy of modern Christian thought, how about taking a humbler approach. If your movement is genuine about working with the poor and marginalised, then you need to encourage the poor and marginalised in person to participate and become engaged in this "conversation." Then maybe they will let you enter into theirs - for most whom I know (ie through working for years with the homeless) are already more openly, honestly and freely "conversational" with God who comforts and empowers them as they journey through life's struggles on a day-to-day basis.

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June 02, 2006  10:15am

Tony wrote: "I suppose it's easy for those who stand outside of Emergent Village looking in to credit the politics or theology of a few to the whole group, but that's inaccurate. " I am proud to attend an Emerging church in NC and Mr. Jones definitely does NOT speak for me. Our congregation is proud to have several moderate realists on the staff, who ascribe to the correspondence theory of truth. It's a shame that Jones, McLaren, Grenz, and a few other far-out-in-left-field voices get all the attention for the Emerging church.

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David Drake

June 02, 2006  12:01am

I find this it quotes Mark Driscoll and goes on to talk aobut Politics...Driscoll's comment as well as Setzer's for that matter had nothing to do with politics, to bring politic into the conversation is completely beside the point that both Ed and Mark were making. T. Jones is correct that he would be placed in the latter group by both Ed and Mark but not for his politics for his theology. I for one despise the association of Christianity with any political party and I think Jim Wallace is very cool, however these are opinions informed by my "conservitive" theology. Jones article is a bait and switch argument, he is defending himself from charges not made to distract from actual concerns.

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May 30, 2006  10:04am

To Colin from Jeff Well Colin, I know that this is not the primary focus of the thread but I do need to respond. Some reflections: 1) You know nothing about my compassion or the ways that I express that. You would be surprized if you did. 2) I do believe that to practice homosexuality is a sin. I don't mean to say that the orientation itself is a sin. I know that people struggle with this and I'm far from ready to say that it's simply a choice everyone makes. I know good people who have chosen to be celibate as homosexuals and I honor their commitment. So, to clarify - just as sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful so is homosexual activity. Unless you're going to change the definition of marrriage then homosexual behavior will always remain sinful and celibacy is the only choice. 3) I understand the comments seemed inflamatory. I said so in the post. But you simply prove my point. It's more easy to criticise me for having a serious concern about the moving of the lines than talk about the line itself. Here's a simple question Colin. Do you believe that homosexual sex is not permitted by scripture? If no, then I understand more clearly what your position is. If yes, then let me ask how you have a conversation about the lines? What's the right way to ask the question. Let's change it to the question of faith orientation... What if Tony says, there is a buddhist who is part of the conversation? Okay, great! No problem... if it's not the emerging church we're talking about. If it is... then my question about the lines. What next? A Muslim? A Zoroastrian? A Wiccan? etc... Apples to apples you know? When talking about sexuality how do you compare apples to apples? My mistake was adding the racist to the group. 4) To any who were offended, including Colin, my apologies. Not my intent. I just don't know how to ask about the moving of the lines without asking what the next line would be to fall. I am NOT (sigh) equating a homosexual with a pedophile. I am asking about the lines of what is appropiate. 5) This is a rabbit trail from the conversation. If anyone else wants to take me to the woodshed just do it directly via my blog.

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May 30, 2006  7:24am

Just an observation: Much of the social-work emphasis I hear coming out of emergent sounds like Kuyper and the Dutch-Reformed tradition with all the conservatism (which, by the way, is not merely a political word) sucked out. I'm thinking postmillenialism without the Calvinistic flavor. That's why it bugs me so much. Whether they want to admit it or not, those who are more 'conservative' yet emerging don't want much to do with the likes of Jones/McClaren/Pagit/etc. Look, I'm no Driscoll apologist and I hated Ed Stetzer's book on planting churches, but those guys are able to be concerned about all the social stuff and not end up out in left field. Do me a favor: everyone go read some Abraham Kuyper and/or listen to the Stone lectures, and then go read about John Newton, William Carey, and William Wilberforce. Be like them- not Harry Emerson Fosdick. History matters and teaches us a lot- let's use it to our advantage.

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Yom Beasley +

May 30, 2006  6:09am

Tony, I think your post is accurately stated and a much needed read. Unfortunately, those who most need to read "Out of Ur" will probally never get to read it. Your blogsite has been added as a link on my blogsite.Blessings to you and your readers. -Tom+

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chad mcdaniel

May 27, 2006  7:35pm

I had the pleasure of sitting in on a weekend class two years ago taught by Tony Jones at North Park University entitled, Postmodern Youth Ministry. This weekend opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about and discussing theology; it helped me put my faith into words. However, I am not totally on board as of yet! I think this article is great in the way it emphasizes the importance of dialogue and ecumenism, but I wonder what you will take a stand on? I belong to a denomination without a formal doctrinal statement, so I appreciate Emergent's reliance on Scripture and creeds as its source of doctrine, but I still have doubts. In the end, isn't Emergent just another new denomination? Another new group trying to make sure we all get along? It's seems as though this discussion Emergent claims to have started has been going on for centuries, so what's new about Emergent's dialogue? How can Emergent have Baptists who don't allow women to preach if it truly believes in a fight against injustice? That's a lot of questions and negativity to say, "thank you for at least CONTINUING the conversation!"

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