The Push to Reinvent Christianity
A small dinghy, a sandy beach, brilliant sunshine, and lapping waves all make for a perfect day of vacation. That is, unless you and your rubber raft are being dragged out to the open sea by a rip current. I listened with horror as several people who survived a riptide talked about it. The moral of their story was clear: Keeping the shore in sight and knowing what to do can make the difference between life and death.
The same can be said for Christians facing strong undercurrents today within the professing church. Unfortunately, a rip-current-like phenomenon is pulling the evangelical community away from the foundational principles of God’s Word and carrying it off toward influential voices pushing to reinvent, “reimagine,” and reformulate Christianity.
More and more pastors have tuned into a “new” way of “doing church,” convincing their congregations this approach “will open the way for an exciting spiritual adventure into new territory and new ways of believing, belonging, and becoming”—according to the inside cover of one of emergent church leader Brian McLaren’s books.1
The changes are advocated as a way to communicate Christianity’s message more effectively to the next generation. “If we have a new world,” wrote McLaren, “we will need a new church…a new framework for our theology…a new spirituality.”2 This coming from the man whom National Public Radio’s Morning Edition calls “one of the country’s most influential evangelicals.”3
Relativism Instead of Absolutes
Brushing off the impact of what is happening to Christianity, noted author Phyllis Tickle—founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly—believes that every 500 years Christianity holds a giant “rummage sale” where it “takes a look at its old stuff and decides to sell what it no longer needs. We are going through this kind of giant sale today.”4
According to her, the last “rummage sale” was the Great Reformation. The consensus among those driving change today is that Christianity desperately needs another. “This new style of western Christianity,” she said, “is not hierarchal or based on a certain doctrinal system. It’s more about community and conversation, not about a set of beliefs and creeds.”5
Interestingly, McLaren, a leader of this alleged reformation, is being compared to 16th-century reformer Martin Luther.6 McLaren’s book A New Christianity is actually promoted as one that “takes aim at some core doctrinal beliefs.”7 In his book Finding Faith, he contended that chapter two “considers, and rejects, the religious claim that the Bible or some other document can provide certainty.”8
Alan Jones, another prominent figure in the movement to “reimagine” Christianity, agreed: “A monk who greatly influenced me used to say, ‘The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It’s certainly. Keeping the big questions alive is as important as answering them.’”9
At the core is the question of whether the Bible should be understood literally. Jones doesn’t think so and quoted Robert Wilken, a professor at the University of Virginia: “There is no original Christian faith, no native language, no definitive statement of the meaning of Christ for all times.”10 Said Jones, “There is no objective authority—only authority as interpreted by individuals. When people say, ‘Back to the Bible!’ they think there’s some objective truth to be found in its pages. In reality, we read the Bible through the filter of our presuppositions and prejudices.”11
A former dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Jones believes the Bible should be read “as allegory and metaphor, not as literal truth….We can get to the truth only through inference—through myth and poetry, through metaphor and storytelling. There is no such thing as ‘what really happened.’”12
Not surprisingly, McLaren stated much the same thing: “No articulation of the gospel today can presume to be exactly identical to the original meaning proclaimed by Christ and the apostles.”13 In a telling comment on the New Testament, he implied Scripture is true only if it seems true to the one reading it:
These stories are so improbable, so unexpected, so challenging to the status quo, so idiosyncratic, so earthy and rough and unedited and unrehearsed, that they simply seem to have the ring of truth to them, and so I believe them. And more, the truths that these stories yield are so inspiring that if they are fiction, whoever made them up would appear to deserve the honor we Christians give to Christ himself!14
The Bible, however, does not allow for subjectively cherry-picking the truth. It declares categorically, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
Reworking the Gospel
The attempt to reinvent Christianity necessarily involves reinterpreting the unique, biblical message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone and undermines the gospel’s distinctive nature. Often it involves syncretism: combining Christianity with something else.
Rob Bell, founding pastor and pastor emeritus of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, does that very thing. “Jesus,” he said, “is bigger than any one religion….He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity.’”15
In Bell’s controversial book Love Wins, which denies the existence of eternal punishment, he twisted the interpretation of one of the most well-known New Testament verses until it was barely recognizable, suggesting good people “from across the cultural spectrum” (religions of the world) ultimately will enjoy the benefits of salvation without even knowing “that they are coming exclusively through him [Jesus].”16
But Jesus’ words are straightforward: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (Jn. 14:6). Furthermore, the Bible teaches that salvation is experienced by individuals who, by decisive acts of the will, have placed their faith in Jesus Christ and in His sacrifice at Calvary (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 10: 9–11).
After deriding an exclusive view of salvation where “you’re either in, or you’re going to hell,” Bell presented the inclusive alternative: “As long as your heart is fine or your actions measure up, you’ll be ok.”17
A comment from Michael Dowd best encapsulates how such attitudes play out on a practical level:
The final element in my transformation was a budding friendship with a Roman Catholic hospital chaplain and former Trappist monk, Tobias Meeker. Before I discovered that Toby considered himself a “Buddhist-Christian,” and that he embraced a process theology understanding of evolution, I had already assessed that he was the most “Christ-like” man I had ever met.18
In his book Reimagining Christianity, Alan Jones recounted a eucharist celebration in an Australian cathedral on Commonwealth Day. A Buddhist priest gave the message, and the service functioned as follows:
Aboriginal dancers led the procession into the cathedral and later led the offertory procession to the altar. During communion, representatives of the Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Baha’i faiths read passages from their sacred writings, and after communion, an Aboriginal reader offered a dream-time reflection.19
Jones asks, “Was this Christian?” and emphatically affirms, “The answer, as far as I’m concerned, is ‘Of course.’”20
Dowd has a similar point of view:
Ultimately, we are “saved by grace through faith.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and Taoists and Confucians are wrong. Each religious tradition on the planet, and every philosophical belief system, has unique gifts and limitations. Different religions are like different flowers. Each one has its own special fragrance and beauty.21
The apostle Paul, of course, would not have agreed. When Paul preached in the pluralistic city of Athens, his message to the diverse group gathered around him was that God “commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).
Salvation is through Jesus and His sacrifice alone. Peter declared, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Welcome to Universalism
When you distort salvation, it naturally follows that you minimize or altogether discount the consequences of rejecting that salvation. Bell ridicules the notion of hell and relegates the subject to a public relations problem:
If your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.22
Expanding on his position, he clarified:
Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about “hell and torment and all that.” Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will “go to heaven” when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it. One place or the other, no looking back, no chance for a change of heart, make your bed now and lie in it…forever. Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian.23
McLaren, who has defended Bell’s book, sympathizes: “It’s very hard to square the idea of eternal conscious torment with a just or holy God.”24
Never mind that the Bible states, “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). God’s Word clearly correlates the consequence of sin with the purpose for Christ’s substitutionary death as a sacrifice for sin. It also leaves no room for debate: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7).
Like a sign at the beach cautioning swimmers about rip currents, Paul’s warning to Timothy is a powerful reminder to the church that “in the last days perilous times will come” (2 Tim. 3:1). He said people “will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears…will heap up for themselves teachers; and…will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (4:3–4).
The key to surviving the present push to reinvent Christianity is to heed Paul’s admonition to “be watchful in all things” (v. 5) and to move out of the flow that degrades the Bible to the level of myth and fable.
- Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, Nook for PC ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2001), inside cover.
- Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), back flap.
- John Longhurst, “The times they are a-changing” <christianweek.org/features.php?id=59>.
- Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, Kindle ed. 2009 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004).
- McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, back flap.
- Brian D. McLaren, Finding Faith—A Search for What Makes Sense, Kindle ed. 2009 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007).
- Alan Jones, Reimagining Christianity, Kindle ed. 2004 (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005).
- Brian D. McLaren, “Will ‘Love Wins’ Win? We’re early in the first inning” <brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/challenging-three-cherished-evan.html>.
- McLaren, Finding Faith, 177–178.
- Rob Bell, Love Wins, Kindle ed. 2011 (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), 150.
- Ibid., 154–155.
- Michael Dowd, Thank God for Evolution, Kindle ed. 2008 (New York, NY: Viking, 2007), 2.
- Jones, 88.
- Dowd, 61–62.
- Bell, 175.
- Ibid., 110.
- McLaren, “Will ‘Love Wins’ Win? We’re early in the first inning.”