Some describe him as dangerous and heretical, while others credit his teaching with restoring their faith in Christ and the church. Brian McLaren reflects on criticism of him and the emerging church movement
If you’ve read one of Brian McLaren’s books or listened to him teach from a pulpit or podcast, you probably hold a strong opinion about him. Unsettling and revolutionary arguments in his books – most notably in The secret message of Jesus – that the Church has misunderstood or in some cases intentionally distorted Jesus’ core message, have won him brickbats and bouquets.
Critics attack him, claiming he emphasises a focus on this life rather than the afterlife – including hell. Supporters praise his holistic emphasis, that salvation and the rule of God’s kingdom should be applied to the whole of life now. Critics claim his books promote the idea that people are basically good at the expense of the doctrine of ‘original sin’.
Supporters claim McLaren’s emphasis on Christ’s unconditional love for the outcast and the poor is a scriptural theme that his opponents downplay. Critics claim McLaren emphasises ‘living like Jesus’ at the expense of ‘believing in Jesus’. Supporters claim that merely saying, ‘I believe in Jesus’ is an incomplete gospel as faith without works is not true faith. Critics claim the emerging church scene, of which McLaren is in the vanguard, is another attempt at a liberal distortion of the gospel. Supporters claim that McLaren and others, rejecting the religious culture wars between conservatives and liberals, want to explore a third, alternative theological movement that seeks to rediscover and express authentic Christianity in culturally relevant ways.
To his critics, McLaren’s books undermine traditional evangelical doctrines and teachings. To his supporters, his books such as The Church on the other side: doing ministry in the postmodern matrix (Zondervan) act as a blueprint for living as a radical disciple of Jesus in the 21st century.
And yet, despite the strong and often negative reaction which he provokes in people, in person McLaren comes across as more gentle than combative, even when talking about his harshest critics.
Some of your critics say your teachings about key issues like sin, salvation and hell are so different from what they regard as the mainstream evangelical position that they can’t regard you as a fellow believer, and call you a heretic.
This is kind of funny for me because I was a pastor for 24 years, I’ve been committed as a follower of Jesus Christ since I was a teenager, I affirm all the ancient creeds (The Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed), I love Jesus, I constantly read the Bible, I preach the Bible, I have a deep heritage as an evangelical in the charismatic movement, I was deeply trained and discipled by reformed Christians so it’s ironic that when I go on the Internet sometimes and see what people say about me. I think, “Who in the world are they talking about?”
I would want to say two things to people who throw around the ‘h-word’ [heretic]: First, I would hope that people would not make their judgements about me based on what they read on the Internet. The Internet gives anyone the right to say anything. I would hope that they would read my books and my sermons, which they can also get online. I would hope that they would give me a fair hearing. The other thing I would say is, my critics – although I think they misrepresent me – are right about one thing, I really am raising some questions about conventional articulations of certain beliefs, even while I am deeply committed to Jesus and the scriptures and to the core witness of Christians across church history.
What about your views on hell? You consider that traditional teaching about hell makes God seem vicious.
Hell is really a key issue. There’s no question that I’m raising questions about the conventional articulation of belief in hell. But I’m not doing that because I doubt what the Bible says, it’s because I doubt what we say the Bible says. A lot of our conventional understandings betray a lack of serious Bible study and an overdependence on literary works like Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Although I’m not the only one raising these questions, I certainly am among people raising these questions – about our assumptions about hell and about some other important issues as well.
Take for example a word like ‘salvation’, I would love us to have some very important conversations about what that term means. I’m not raising this because I disagree with the Bible, but when I look at the Bible I realise that salvation in the Bible isn’t just getting souls into heaven. The word’s meaning is much richer than that. I’m trying to be faithful to scripture by raising some of these questions. I hope that people would at least understand my motive.
Do the criticisms and accusations of being a heretic hurt you?
Fortunately I rarely go trawling through the Internet to see what people are saying about me. When I do, there are a couple of areas where it certainly hurts. Ironically there are a couple of areas where it really helps. On an emotional level, it hurts to feel that you’ve been misinterpreted or treated unfairly and some people are quite mocking and quite vicious in their language. I’m just like anyone else, I have pride and I can react pridefully to that, but on the flip side this can really help because when I see my pride acting defensively it forces me to go back and think, “How would Jesus respond to this?” Jesus had nothing to be ashamed of. I am a sinner, I have a lot to be ashamed of but even Jesus was vilified in terrible ways. So my harshest critics give me a gift: their criticisms in many ways provide an opportunity for me to become a more Christlike person.
Obviously, whenever anyone criticises you it’s an opportunity for self-examination. You have to listen to the critics to see if what they’re saying is legitimate and that helps you really test your ideas. I’m very glad I’m dealing with some of this criticism in my 50s rather than in my 20s or 30s – that would have just been crushing. Frankly, a lot of the ideas that I’ve been writing about over the last ten years are thoughts I had in my 20s and 30s but I was afraid to say them. When you raise questions religious people can be amazingly vicious, and experiencing their disdain helps me be more compassionate towards honest young people who raise sincere questions but are then just jumped on for asking a question.
The Bible calls for us to speak the truth in love. But Christians sometimes disagree in a really disagreeable way. How can we debate more healthily?
I’ve thought about that quite a lot because I grew up in a somewhat fundamentalist sect. They were ready to say that you weren’t a Christian if you disagreed on a very, very fine point of eschatology. There’s a history of intense schism in lots of sectors of the church and I’ve seen it at close range.
If we want to get better at this, the first suggestion I have would be to learn church history. When you look over centuries of the church’s life you realise that the church is constantly seeking to understand the scriptures, and people have been ready to kill each other over different interpretations. Somehow, getting the bigger historical perspective helps us stop taking ourselves so seriously. It’s humbling because you realise that some doctrines that people hold today don’t have much historical support. For example, a lot of Christians believe in something called ‘the rapture’, but nobody in church history ever even thought of that doctrine until 1835. Or you realise that people like Galileo were put under house arrest and threatened with torture and death for proclaiming something which was really true.
Second, it really helps when we can develop relationships with people who see things differently. When we can approach them with real curiosity and say, “I want to understand how you think. I don’t just want to convince you that I’m right, first, I want to understand how you think.” That, to me, is a fruit of the spirit. The Holy Spirit teaches us to love each other and to be one. Jesus said, “If you do good to people who do good to you, well, even the tax collectors do that. What really makes a difference is if you can show love to people who are different.”
Another thing that I would suggest is that we actually spend some time reading and meditating on 1 Corinthians 13. In the US that scripture is almost always read at weddings, but it’s not really a wedding scripture, it’s really a church scripture, a disagreement scripture. I’ve found, through my life, just meditating on that chapter helps me go back and check myself.
When I was a pastor I did a lot of marriage counselling and one of the really helpful communication technique I discovered was is to teach people to use ‘I’ language instead of ‘you’ language. For example, a husband doesn’t just say, “You make me mad.” He learns to say, “I feel angry.” Instead of saying, “You always frustrate me,” he learns to say, “I often get frustrated.” I think that simple turn in language could help us in our religious discussions. Instead of saying, “You’re wrong,” to say, “I have a problem fitting in what you’re saying with some of the things I believe.” Just a statement like that helps us not to be in attack and defence mode and the opportunity is there for mutual understanding.
That practical advice can be applied to many aspects of church life.
Yes. I’ve been reading the book of 1 Corinthians a lot lately. There’s a whole section that starts in chapter eight where Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” This idea of ‘I know, Iknow, I know’ can turn us into tyrants to other people. Paul says, “Our knowledge can destroy someone for whom Christ died.”
I’m all for knowledge, obviously. I’m writing because I’m seeking knowledge and truth, but knowledge without love is worse than nothing, it’s actually dangerous and harmful.
Two of the conservative evangelicals who are regarded as your critics are D A Carson and Mark Driscoll. Do you think that their style and approach to understanding and interpreting scripture is unnecessarily judgmental and negative?
It’s interesting, D A Carson wrote a book about me and some of my friends, which was remarkably inaccurate and unhelpful in my opinion, but he did a good job of showing how my work looks from his perspective. Meanwhile, I have heard that D A Carson is one of the best writers on biblical exegesis. So even though I have doubts about how well he reads and explains the views of people he disagrees with, I’m sure he’s very talented in reading and explaining the Bible – again from his perspective. Similarly, I’ve heard Mark Driscoll preach and although Mark and I have some pretty deep disagreements, I know that he loves the scriptures and he really is good at making a lot of the things in the scriptures very clear.
Sometimes I think that our problem is that we disconnect our way of reading the Bible from our way of treating other human beings. Being good at one doesn’t necessarily make you good at the other.
Your books and your teaching have been hugely influential – particularly among the emerging church community and those influenced by emergent theology. Of late, growing numbers who would have formerly described themselves as ‘emerging’ or ‘emergent’ don’t want to be described that way. Why?
Certain people have turned the word into the latest in a series of epithets. For example 20 years ago the demonised term was ‘secular humanism’, and then more recently ‘postmodernism’ was a really bad word. Now ‘emerging’ is the bad word. Radio preachers, authors and websites have turned this into one of the worst words in the world. In the US and Canada, a group of Christians have turned on another word – ‘contemplative’ – which I think is tragic and pathetic. For these folks, anyone who uses the word ‘contemplative’ is immediately branded as satanic.
If people use a word as an epithet other people just think, “My life is hard enough, my work is hard enough, I don’t want to have to defend this word too.” The rubber hits the road when people have been doing really good work, but if their funders hear that word they are frightened away from supporting it. I think politics is behind a lot of it. At the end of the day I don’t think that any of us feel that any word or term is that big a deal. We’re not out to protect a brand. We love Jesus and want to serve the Lord and love our neighbours and we don’t want to have to worry about too much other baggage.
So you don’t feel the word ‘emerging’ could be defended and redeemed by a campaign to win people back? Is it better to drop the word and perhaps be called something else?
I just want to do what’s right and let the chips fall where they may. At some point those of us who are advocating a different approach, who don’t want to continue this kind of combative us/them elitist approach, are all going to have to stop being intimidated by the most conservative and fractious person in the room. There’s a very important moral courage that has to stand up. I’m not advocating backing down or being cowards in the face of judgmental and divisive people, but I’m saying we’ve all got to choose our battles.
So it’s a pragmatic decision.
I think so. The irony is, the folks that are more of a fractious mindset are always making the list of ‘here are the people who are good’ and ‘here are the people who are bad’ and people are afraid of being on the bad list. Not only that, but then they also have to fear being associated with anybody on the bad list, then they have to fear being associated with anybody who’s associated with anybody who’s on the bad list and so on! This is what the Pharisees were about; Jesus was in trouble for associating with people on their bad list. I hope that soon more and more of us will get tired of that and that we’ll try to do what Jesus did. I just want to get rid of the list.
You recently stated that conversations over key issues that divide people in the United States, such as abortion, are changing, following years where nothing changed in the battle between pro-life and pro-choice.
I don’t want to be premature because some of these old arguments can have a remarkable staying power. When you get a group of people who line up on one side and say, “We’re pro-life,” and another group who say, “We’re pro-choice,” they can fight back and forth and they never communicate with each other. They call each other names, pro-life people call their opponents ‘pro-death’ and pro-choice people call their opponents ‘anti-woman’ and it degenerates into name-calling and a kind of cold war. It’s a little bit like so many situations that we have in the world, the war just goes on and on and things don’t get any better. All of us can think of today’s headlines and see examples of that.
What I’m very pleased about, that’s beginning to happen, iscertain people from a pro-life background and certain people from a pro-choice background are coming together and saying, “We don’t agree on whether life begins at conception or life begins in the second trimester. We have all kinds of arguments about that but we do agree that the world is a worse place if people are cavalier towards pregnancy and sex and the world is a worse place if we have more and more abortions. Instead of arguing about criminalising abortion let’s work together to reduce the number of abortions.”
For example, it’s been clearly proven in a number of statistical studies that if a woman is desperately poor, she’s more likely to have an abortion than if she has some basic degree of health care. When conservatives and liberals (if I can use those two terms on this issue) get together and they say, “How can we make sure that poor women have better medical care so that more of them will decide not to have an abortion?” that seems to me to be a wonderful win-win. It opens up new possibilities beyond the old polarisation.
Many Christians in the US and the UK consider that abortion trumps any other issue when it comes to politics and who to vote for. Barack Obama’s stance on this issue was one key reason why most American evangelicals didn’t vote for him. Where do you stand on this issue?
I have a lot of respect for very sincere people who feel that this issue is so important that all other issues are off the table. I don’t feel that way. Somewhere between 24,000 and 30,000 children died in the past 24 hours because of easily preventable diseases. I think that’s a very important moral issue. We have companies making billions of dollars that unintentionally are destroying the environment. They’re making a big profit but all of us are going to pay the cost and our children and grandchildren are going to pay the cost. That, to me, is a huge moral issue. It’s not going to go away, it’s going to get worse. We have people who in God’s name are advocating killing each other.
Life would be a lot easier if there was just one issue, but we’ve got a number of issues that we have to maturely try to integrate and deal with. Some of us will have a major calling towards the environment and not towards abortion and others towards abortion and not the environment. I can respect that the Holy Spirit inspires in us all different callings but just as Paul said in 1 Corinthians, “It’s one body and we have to respect each other.” What we need to do is say, “Thank God for the people who are trying to reduce the number of abortions and thank God for the people who are trying to get us to take better care of the planet and thank God for the people who are working for peace and thank God for the people who are fighting poverty.” It’s a both/and thing not an either/or.
In your book The secret message of Jesus you argue that by standing on the shoulders of previous generations we can continue to learn more about what Jesus really meant. Do you think the church of the west is closer or further away from authentic Christianity compared to previous times over the past 2,000 years?
I love that question because it really makes me think. One thing it brings to my mind is the question, how do we score how authentic and effective the church is? Taking this idea that the church was in its ideal form at some point in the past – different denominations will pick different points. Some will pick the mid 20th century, some will pick the 18th or the 16th or some will go all the way back and pick the 3rd or the 1st century – then in a sense we’re always looking back and trying to reclaim something. I wonder if we should look at it differently. For example, we don’t look at our children as they grow up and think, “Boy, they’re not authentic compared to what they were five years ago.” We understand that in a child’s life, he or she is moving towards maturity. This, to me, is a much better way to think about Christian faith. We’re continuing to grow; we’re continuing to mature. I’ve noticed in my children’s lives and in my own life that the better you get at something the bigger the challenges are that come your way. The thing I love about your question is that it forces us to think about how we keep a scorecard of how the church is doing.
I think back to the church during the age of the bubonic plagues in the late middle ages and I think it’s amazing that the church just helped people survive and get up for another day. Think about a priest in those days and how many people he had to bury. You can’t judge how well the church was doing at that moment by comparing it to how well it was doing in the 1970s. It was a completely different context.
When it comes to the people who are upset with me for raising questions and advocating that we rethink some things, I would say: The church supported slavery for 1,800 years so, when in England around 200 years ago, William Wilberforce and others were saying; “It’s time for a change,” they were arguing against 1,800 years of church history. I don’t see that as being a betrayal of the past, I see that as being a step towards a greater embrace of the gospel and its implications. We could say the same thing about the church supporting a second-class status for women. Hopefully that’s changing.
In my mind the church is constantly emerging, constantly changing. There are two mistakes we can make. One is, we can have amnesia about the past, we can forget about the past and lose touch with it. That’s tragic. The other is like driving while looking in your rear view mirror; we can think we’re living in the past.
I love what G K Chesterton said, “We need to have a democracy that doesn’t exclude people just because they’re no longer living.” He talks about the democracy of the dead and that’s what tradition is. However, the flip side is, we don’t want to give a veto power to the dead either. They would want us to keep thinking and keep following their example in our own day.
Extra online-exclusive questions:
Brian, you are speaking at Spring Harvest this Easter to an audience of mostly evangelical Christians. How do you feel about addressing this group of believers?
I'm really looking forward to it. I've never been to Spring Harvest before, but I've been hearing great things about it for many, many years. I love Steve Chalke, who I know is one of the main organisers. My background is evangelical. I love to be around evangelicals, because of their passion, their love of scripture and their deep commitment - there's nothing more important to you than your faith if you're an evangelical.
I'm especially enthusiastic because the theme for Spring Harvest this year centres on this idea of being apprentices of Jesus. This is one of the most important themes that we could explore.
I was a pastor for 24 years and over those years and since, I’ve continually struggled with one huge question: whether or not we're forming Christ-like people, whether we're actually helping people become more like Jesus. Too often we’re just signing people up for a religion and we're indoctrinating people into a belief system. Too seldom are we creating communities of people who want to be formed into apprentices of Jesus. This vision of apprenticeship to Jesus, to me, gets to the heart of what it's all about.
What do you hope guests at Spring Harvest who hear you speak will take away with them?
I hope people will carry away a sense of balance from whatever I bring to the table. I hope they'll feel that to be an apprentice of Jesus means inward formation and personal transformation on the one hand, and on the other hand, they’ll see how this inward spiritual formation will always be expressed in outward transformation. We become disciples of God’s kingdom so we serve as agents of God's Kingdom. I hope people get some sense of that inward-outward balance from whatever I'm able to contribute.
You have visited the UK on several occasions, at Christmas and earlier in 2008 to address a group of Anglican Bishops. Has that given you some impression of what you think might be the strengths and the weaknesses of the Anglican church and the wider family of churches in the UK?
It's very hard for me, as an American, to talk about weaknesses because I think our two contexts are so different. Church attendance in the United States is somewhere between four and ten times what it is in the UK (depending on the part of the US and the part of the UK we're talking about) so in some ways I have nothing but respect for the church in the UK because it is grappling with issues that the US church hasn't yet had to face as fully and as deeply. Folks in the UK, more so than in the US, live in what we might call a post-Christian, post-modern, post-colonial culture. That’s why I think we in the US have a lot to learn from the struggles and advances over there.
Another strength in the UK … I am a huge fan of the Archbishop of Canterbury. I think he's had a very tough leadership job and has shown himself to be the kind of Christian man whose character and spiritual vitality can stand up to the challenge. When I think of his strengths and the strengths of the Anglican church in general, I see so much to learn from at this difficult juncture in history.
As an American, I look at our religious landscape on our side of the Atlantic, and we are plagued by polarisation. We really still live in a kind of cold war mentality of liberals verses conservatives. I think the mainstream church in the UK has gone a good way beyond that kind of polarisation. And I'm very impressed with the ‘Fresh Expressions’ movement in the Church of England and Methodists churches in the UK. I think this is a beautiful example of working within existing structures and yet creating space for real innovation.
That’s very generous of you, coming from a nation where there are so many more churchgoers than us, to focus on some of our positives.
I don't think that our higher church attendance rates are due to greater virtue on our part. A lot of these things are accidents of history. A major reason for the differences in church attendance, in my view, is that Europe and the UK are further along than the US in the cultural process of moving from modernity to postmodernity; speaking figuratively, you’re on an earlier time zone than we are, and you’ve faced issues for a century that we are just beginning to face. Those new questions and challenges have eroded away a lot of the nominal Christianity that still thrives in our cultural time zone.
Another strength of the church in the UK comes to mind – the way the church has led the way regarding fair trade. I wrote a book called ‘Everything Must Change’ about the intersection of the gospel and contemporary global crises, and as I researched the book I became convinced that fair trade and ethical buying are essential ways for us to move from being part of the problem to part of the slution. The church in the UK has led the way globally in seeing fair trade as an ethical issue, to help people realise that every buying decision we make is a moral decision.
Do you consider that there are any particular opportunities right now for the church that we should seize?
Let me speak globally, because one of the honours of my life is that over the last 10 years I've been in about 40 countries and I've had the opportunity to see the church in so many different forms and settings. Globally I think we have four amazing opportunities which all correspond to what I think are our four greatest crises. The first one relates to the planet. We have an opportunity to take the lead and say, "We believe that this planet is not just a source of raw materials for business, and it's not just real estate; no, this planet is God's creation and it needs to be treated with respect.” If we move to the forefront of being concerned about this beautiful planet in the name of God, I think this is a moment for us.
Our second opportunity relates to peace. More and more people are turning away from religion as a whole because they always hear people using religion to divide, exclude and marginalise. What if - in the name of God, the creator of all people, and in the name of Jesus, who is called the Prince of Peace and who called for us to be peace makers - we really went out of our way, [and many Christians are doing this] to say, "I want to get to know my Muslim neighbour, I want to get to know my Hindu neighbour, I want to get to know my Jewish neighbour, my Atheist neighbour. I don't just want to fight with them and argue with them and vanquish them, I want to actually love them in the name of Christ." To actually be peacemakers in our conflict-ridden world – this is an amazing opportunity.
Third is the issue of poverty. We're in an economic crisis and nobody knows if we're at the beginning of it or near the end of it. (I think it's like a cricket match that could go on for a long time.) We're wondering how much worse it's going to get. There are going to be more and more poor people and unemployed people all around us, how can we take seriously what it means to be advocates of them and be concerned about them. I think this economic crisis presents us with an opportunity for our churches as never before. I'm going to Costa Rica next week and I'll be with a friend of mine who's a pastor in a very poor, little village that was the epicentre of an earthquake last week. I’ve got a bunch of pictures they took of the destruction there and of the church being involved in bringing people together, giving people a place to live, distributing resources, being a point of hope in the middle of an awful lot of anxiety and pain. I think we might be in the middle of an economic earthquake and all of us are going to be able to have opportunities in that same way.
So, first is the planet, then peace, then poverty, and finally, we've got a great opportunity in our own Christian community to go back and reread the scriptures and refocus on Jesus. I love the way John says it, "Whoever says he believes in Jesus should also walk as Jesus walked." The world is, in many places, pretty negative about the Christian religion or Evangelicalism or Televangelists. But if a Christlike person shows up, they're usually pretty happy. That, I think, is another great opportunity that we have.
When you die, what would you most like to be remembered for?
I should probably spend a week thinking about that and then get back to you! There was a Christian leader back in the 1800’s who was one of the early leaders of the Plymouth Brethren. Now the Brethren have a reputation of being quite fractious and argumentative at times but that's my heritage and there's a beautiful spirit in Brethren tradition. Anyway, this fellow's name was Chapman. He said once, "Many people teach Christ, not many people live Christ. My goal is to live Christ." I remember I read that some years ago and I just thought, “That's got to be my own calling.”
As a preacher you can work on getting a reputation as a preacher and now I have a reputation as a writer, but I really hope I will never lose the deeper desire – simply to be a Christ-like person. I love Jesus. I think Jesus is right about everything and I want to follow him. So, when I die, I guess I would hope that even my critics might say, "I disagreed with a lot of Brian's books but he really did want to follow Jesus." That would be a great thing.
BRIAN D MCLAREN is an author, speaker, pastor, and networker among Christian leaders, thinkers, and activists. He has established networks and mentored church planters and pastors since the mid 1980s. His public speaking covers a broad range of topics including postmodern thought and culture, biblical studies, Christian leadership, global mission, evangelism and spiritual formation, worship, inter-religious dialogue, and the relation of faith to ecology, public policy, social justice and global crises.
He was described by Time magazine as one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals. His books include A Generous Orthodoxy (Emergent/ YS/Zondervan) which has been called a manifesto of the emerging church conversation. He serves as a board chair for Sojourners/Call to Renewal (sojo.net), and is a founding member of Red Letter Christians, a group of communicators seeking to broaden and deepen the dialogue about faith and public life. Brian McLaren is a keynote speaker at Spring Harvest this month.