In every age the Church has to contend for the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The enemy is subtle and sly. He sometimes launches a frontal attack in the form of persecution. At other times, he creeps behind the lines to lay ambushes. In the first his goal is intimidation. In the second his objective is confusion. I suspect that the first strategy is not the preferred tactic. All it does is remove the weeds and invigorate the wheat. But, the second can cause lasting damage right at the heart of the Church.

I speak of aberrant teachings and perspectives that challenge the confession and conduct of historic, orthodox Christianity. Someone writes a book. She writes with passion, winsomeness and humility. She speaks of helping the church and growing into a more godlike form of Christianity. She writes as a sincere form of protest, claiming that the traditional church is not keeping up with the changing culture. To be the Church God intended, the Church must conform to her new and improved way of doing His work. Before long, you will see several other books being written with the same story line and then national conferences and websites spring up everywhere like weeds after a spring shower.

One of the dangers of such a movement is that the foundations that lie under the edifice often is too often  not seen by the rank and file of the Church. The language of love and honoring God in a more effective way is the stated goal. What believer who claims to love Jesus and the world would not want that?

I observed this scenario played out just the other day. I was involved in a rather candid and testy exchange with the proprietor of a religious website. As part of his site’s offerings, he interviews authors of the latest books on the market. The author he was interviewing was from his denominational headquarters and had written a book that was intended to help the church assimilate unbelievers into the church. The innovative idea that this author was promoting was a change in what he saw as a wrong attitude within the church toward the unbelievers. Instead of looking at them and treating them as outsiders, he counseled the church to win them by welcoming and loving them. According to this author, the church too often isolates itself from sinners, preferring to operate like the Pharisees, believing their legalistic righteousness sets them above the pagans.

His key text seemed to be Luke 7:33-37. It is the story of Jesus at the house of Simon, the Pharisee. A woman “who had lived a sinful life,” came in and made a big fuss over Jesus. Simon was ticked. How could this supposed prophet, he reasoned, receive her exorbitant attention without knowing what a terrible sinner she was? Jesus responded by pointing out the significant difference between the two. Simon withheld even the most common of courtesies because of his pride in himself. The woman gave all that she had because she found what she really needed by putting her faith in Jesus. The proud Simon saw no need and remained a sinner. The broken sinner was desperate and left a saint.

From this passage, it was argued that we should be like Jesus, welcoming the sinners, not like Simon, who out of religious pride separated himself from sinners. Although I seriously doubt that the context of the passage was ever intended to teach or correct our way of assimilating unbelievers, the principle that we should extend love toward all sinners like Jesus did is a solid principle that every church should practice. To the extent that this author made this point he was right on.

Unfortunately, the author employed language that has become catch words for a new and dangerous movement within the church. The author stated that “belonging” should precede “believing” and “becoming.” His sincere intent was, I believe, to prioritize loving and welcoming the unbelievers as a first step in assimilating them into the life of faith in Christ. He went on to assert his belief that without love no one becomes a believer. But, what he did not know or did not express, was that the terms which he used and the order in which he placed them is a mantra of the emerging church movement.  In the writings of the leaders of this innovation, I and many other concerned evangelicals, detect an ambush, aimed, whether deliberately or unconsciously, at the crucial position Biblical truth holds in the life of the Church.        

Trying to get a clear understanding of this movement is like trying to put your finger on mercury. That is because it has no clearly defined set of beliefs. It is an experience and “conversation” that is “emerging” out of the postmodern culture in which we now live. It is a protest against a church that they claim was shaped by another culture, the culture of modernism. That church, they contend, is responsible for an emphasis on the pursuit of truth, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty and the cerebral, which all too often denigrates into arrogance, inflexibility, lust to be right, the desire to control.      

Postmodernism, on the other hand, affirms that what we know is shaped by the culture in which we have lived and is only finally understood in the tradition in which it resides. So, to know with certainty is denied and hard and fast declarations about absolute truth are believed to be impossible. Applied to the church, it means that what is truly important is not the absolute but the authentic; not truths but relationships; not sermons but stories; not preaching but dialogue; not separation but inclusion; not belief but belonging. In short, the emerging church claims to be a gentler and truer form of the church than the one that has dominated the Christianity since the days of the Reformation.

What do I see are the casualties of this ambush? Truth and Doctrine. The emerging theologians ask: How can we state unequivocally we have found the truth when we are only interpreting in the light of our place in time and culture? How can we declare to somebody that because they are a sinner they are excluded from God’s family? That is hurtful and not loving. How can we decree that homosexuality is wrong? History shows that the Church has been wrong before doesn’t it? What about slavery?  Who is to say that the only way we know God is by accepting truth claims and confessing doctrines? What about experience and feelings?

If you think those issues are minor, in the words of Vizzini in Prince’s Bride, “Wait till I get started!” Once we dismiss the possibility that we can know doctrinal truth truly, there is no limit to the changes we can bring about in the Church. Which Jesus is the right Jesus? Is your interpretation more valid than mine? What about hell? How could a loving God send anyone to an eternal hell? What about the atonement? How can punishing an innocent man make things any better? How could a loving Father pour out wrath upon an innocent son? It sounds like “cosmic child abuse.” The dam is breached and there is no end to the heresy that is gushing forth.

If these proponents of the emerging church would approach the texts of Scripture in a way that allows for it to speak for itself rather than as proof texts to justify their protest, they would find ample examples of “truth” that answers their questions and destroys their conclusion. Jesus made this “modernist” claim: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [John 8:31-32] He had no reservations about speaking of separation [Matt. 25:32-33] or of a literal hell [Matthew 5:29-30] or confronting a person with their sin [John 4:18] or declaring that he was the only way to the Father [John 14:6]. Paul had no problem with making belief in a set of propositional truths the condition for being saved [Romans 10:9]. And, in spite of all the love and caring evidence in the life of the first church, “No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.” [Acts 5:13]

Believing in Jesus Christ is the door to belonging to Jesus Christ. To belong means to be a “part of” and no one belongs to Christ who has not repented of their sins and turned to him in faith, trusting in what he has accomplished on the cross and the promises he has clearly stated in His Word, the Bible. If words mean anything, and they do, then we must be careful that the words we use conform to the unchanging truth of Scripture. This is not “nit-picking.” This is contending for the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” [Jude 3]

So, if your pastor is suddenly reluctant to proclaim what the scriptures are clearly saying; if communion is suddenly declared open to all with no reference to a confession of faith; if during prayer time you are directed to a table in the corner lit with many candles; if you hear much about dialogue and little about declaring; if you see a reluctance to take open stands in regarding moral issues such as homosexuality, adultery, divorce and abortion; if you hear much about acceptance and nothing about separation; if you hear much about love and nothing about truth; you may be participating unknowingly in an emerging church. You need to pray. You need to become a Berean. [Acts 17:11] Test what is being taught or not by words and works. Only your devotion to God’s Word will keep your faith and your witness from being ambushed by modern innovations. That is the nature of the world we now live in. Our only hope is to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” [2 Cor 10:5]