Liberal Fundamentalism: why I am leaving the emerging church conversation

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To my liberal friends I am a conservative. To my conservative friends I am a liberal. Thus is the plight of one who finds himself in the proverbial middle. Why the middle? Because often it seems that what is true or real lies between the antithetical extremes.

The middle is hard to maintain. Both sides are always seducing you in their direction in a never ending war for your soul and mind. The middle is also a lonely place. You tend to make more enemies than friends.

Making matters more complicated are when you live in a socially polarizing time. The middle becomes stretched thin as people retreat to the edges. Instead of being viewed as a moderate you tend to be viewed as a traitor.

Emerging Church

About 15 years ago I found myself slowly drifting away from my conservative roots as I began to ask questions about certain ideas that seemed contradictory to what I read in scripture and how I experienced my faith. I quickly learned that my questions were looked at as doubts about God and Christianity when in fact they were doubts about the Church in general and Evangelicalism specifically. There is little room in American Evangelicalism for one who questions.

So there existed a period of time where I wandered. I struggled to find an identity and my life’s purpose became much more ambiguous. It was at this point where I discovered the “emerging church” – the real one, not the one evangelicals caricature. Even though the emerging church was in a very real sense a way of doing church, it was different for me. The emerging church was more about ideas. Authors claiming to be a part of this movement were asking all of the same questions I was. I found them to be a bold and courageous people who were tired of the politics and inauthenticity of the church.

Throughout the years the emerging church has taken various forms and their direction has become increasingly unclear. Much of emergent thought was conveyed through their official blog The Emergent Village, of which I had contributed several articles (one of which has been the highest shared article in the last three years with over 23K shares – as of the writing of this article. Update: over 50k as of 2018.)

Emerging Voices and Liberal Fundamentalism

The Emergent Village blog began to reflect the overall emergent movement’s culture which was slowly losing contributors and as a result its quality suffered. This last fall an attempt was made to revise the mission of the blog and was rebranded under “Emerging Voices”. Its mission is to pick up where the Emergent Village left off. As its new contributor lineup was established I ended up becoming one of the monthly writers. As someone who had invested a great deal of myself in Emergence I wanted to see its important ideals revived in hopes that we could re-engage in important cultural conversations that were taking place.

However little did I know what new leadership meant for these important ideals. I quickly learned that Emerging Voices was no longer “emergent”, but had just become another branch of liberalism.

Emergence used to boast about its ability to accept the disenfranchised, express tolerance, and be open to questioning and conversations. However, this is no longer the case. As perhaps the most conservative contributor on the panel I have not felt more disenfranchised than I have in the last six months working with this new leadership – not even by conservative fundamentalists.

Anyone who knows me can testify to my passion both for the pursuit of what is true and my love for Jesus. I ask myself the same hard questions I ask others. I strongly believe that there are important aspects of Christianity that we can learn both from liberals and conservatives. No one group possess the truth in its entirety.

Yesterday I was asked to step down from the writers group of emerging voices. I was cited for not adhering to the ideals of the group. By this what they meant was I did not blindly follow or accept their beliefs. My writing and my questioning was not liberal enough and thus they found it offensive. They censored me in internal conversations, they told me I was not to express my opinion on certain issues; and ultimately I was told that my questions offended them. Leadership was routinely dishonest with me and looked for any small excuse they could find to dismiss me.

Sound familiar? If it sounds very much like Christian fundamentalism, then I agree. Emerging Voices does NOT embody the values of emergent thinking, though it is what they claim. They have a liberal political agenda, which is much more important to them than seeking the truth.

Furthermore, from this point forward I am officially withdrawing myself from the emergent conversation. My goals have always been the same: to be a corrective for the misperceptions of Christianity within this culture and to offer encouragement for believers everywhere. I have never, nor will I ever, position myself as a political figure or be a part of politicizing Christianity, which does not build up, but tears down the gospel.

For those of you who have faithfully followed me on Patheos, you can continue to do so here on my personal blog.

What do you think?

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  • Rick Presley
    March 3, 2015

    You might be able to take the Emergent Christian out of Fundamentalism, but you aren’t going to take the Fundamentalist out of an EC. Compelling conformity is the mission of any in/out group. Marc Driscoll may have been the first to get the boot, but once that happened, the rest was inevitable.

    • charlesburchfield
      March 10, 2015

      yes! followed md/mars hill on warren throckmorton patheos blog for a year or so. Twas hidious! Lots of ppl got painfully awake to cult personality abuse inherrant in structural violence. What am i doing in christ? So far just trying to survive and transform into the next morph, the next glory.

  • Jeremiah Gibbs
    March 3, 2015

    Eric, before I say anymore I want to say that I’m sorry for what is obviously a bit of a painful or discouraging rejection by friends. I “get it” that this is a post primarily about being part of a community of discourse that you once found valuable. Losing that is worthy of grief regardless.

    But, there is an undercurrent to your post that I find very odd. But I have noticed it at multiple levels in the concentric circles of relationship to Emergent Village. I was in relationship with some similar leaders in Chicago that had a similar tone, just as some have seemed to do in emerging church conversations online. The most odd for me has been the rallying that has occurred related to Tony Jones’s very public problems recently. The most shining examples were related to a series of events that happened (I think) about two years ago that were by invitation to discuss “the future of the movement.”

    I think I would describe all of these undercurrent’s as relying on a false conception of what “emergent” is. It simply is not and never was a conversation that is controlled by a certain group of people. I’ve never been on any of those boards and I’ve never published a book under an emergent label. But I’ve been having conversations with people for years about authentic community, rooted engagement with the traditions, the concerns related to postmodern critique of hermeneutics, etc. I’ve challenged my denomination’s bias (via writing and in policy gatherings) against minorities and women and the odd hermeneutics that have buoyed those positions. I have taught and preached about the necessary connection of the Gospel’s story of justice and its connection to our communal witness. So have I been part of the emergent conversation or not?

    Similarly, I’m not sure that someone that has breathed this air and drank this water can just opt out. If this is your philosophical commitment, then you cannot shed that to be “not emergent” any more than you can shed your baptism or your confession of the Nicene Creed to be “not Christian.”

    So even though I can accept someone saying “I’m not participating in THAT conversation/community anymore,” I don’t think that conversation and community is the whole of emergent Christian stuff. It never was. It was their delusion to act as if it was.

    • Eric English
      March 3, 2015

      Jeremiah…Thank you so much for your thoughts. So you may find this strange, but I actually completely agree with you. Part of the issue with a post like mine is that it assumes a certain context. The primary reason for those assumptions are due to length restrictions. Although this is my blog the bottom line is people are only going to read so much.

      With that said it was my hope that my distinction between the two came across. In the second section I state that I was attracted to the idea of emergence. In the last section I tried to make a distinction with the “conversation” and allude to a distinction that exists between idea and a “way we do church”.

      So to be clear I may still think like many “emergents” (but really, on a larger level, I am thinking like a postmodern). However, I am not going to intentionally participate in the larger “emergent” conversation (as I have in the past).

      In no way am I trying to deny the ideals contained within emergent thinking. Just as I wouldn’t discount Christianity based on fundamentalists so too would it be irrational for me to do so with emergence.

      What I really want to do is protect others. There are many groups out there that put themselves under the banner of “emerging church”, but they are simply doing so to capitalize on the audience that accompanies it.

      Hopefully that makes more sense. 🙂

  • BillSamuel
    March 3, 2015

    It would be good to know what ideas they found unacceptable. It was at one time promoted as a conversation, one where there was great freedom to express questions and different ideas. I have seen a trend towards the big names in the movement moving more toward standard liberal theology, which at one time they were critical of rightly pairing it with some of the same problems as fundamentalist theology.

    I think one problem with the movement is that its leading figures have almost all been former fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals. This has tended to make it a reaction to that brand (or related brands) of Christendom. So they’ve moved into almost merger with liberal Christendom, which also is critical of the brands they came out of. But at its best, the emerging stream had a take that was not an existing brand and drew on earlier streams of Christianity. As someone who came into the emerging world from liberalism not fundamentalism/conservative evangelicalism, this appealed to me but the reactionary part which seems now dominant never appealed to me as much.

    • Eric English
      March 3, 2015

      Thanks Bill for the thoughts. I think some of what you are saying is true. What I think has happened is that at some point boundaries were blurred in relation to issues of social justice. For many it became difficult to maintain the right balance between religious conviction and secular liberalism. In fact, this is what I think they mean by “inclusiveness”. The whole idea of emergent began as a religious issue meant to counter the abuses of fundamentalism (and some of evangelicalism). For fundamentalists who are overly concerned about doctrine and authority it was natural to react antithetically, when instead we should have just gradually pulled back. Because the issue of scripture and authority was never really dealt with, many emergents lacked a basis for conviction. In other words, many failed to realize that it was not the bible’s fault that certain Christians abused it.

      I also agree with your statement about liberation theology. I view liberation theology as antiquated and I have been surprised to see many within the emergent tradition accept it as their chosen theological method. In my mind liberation theology makes the same mistakes systematic theology makes, but on the other side. This is a “some follow Paul, some follow Jesus” issue. But, I don’t see why the two can’t be harmonious. Perhaps think like Paul and act like Jesus.

  • Chris Lilley
    March 4, 2015

    Hi Eric, I’m in a conversation right now on facebook about your article, and it seems you’ve set yourself up to be charged with the informal fallacy of argumentum ad temperantiam (argument to moderation) with your statement “Because it is always between the antithetical extremes where one locates what’s real and true.” I’ve defended your claim by suggesting you probably didn’t mean it in such a way to generate a logical necessity about truth, which would indeed be rather fallacious. If I might suggest, simply changing the phrase to say “Because it is *often* between the antithetical extremes where one locates what’s real and true” would avoid this problem. Cheers!

    • Eric English
      March 4, 2015

      You are absolutely correct. I myself thought it might come across that way as well, but caved in to literary flow instead of logic. I shall change it. Thanks for the heads up.

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Liberal Fundamentalism: why I am leaving the emerging church conversation