In a 2004 Christianity Today cover story that helped introduce “emergent Christianity” to the Evangelical mainstream, CT editor Andy Crouch expressed hope that Brian McLaren’s project would not prove to be a revival of liberal Christianity:
It’s not that McLaren is interested in joining the liberal side of modern Protestantism. “I don’t think the liberals have it right. But I don’t think we have it right either. None of us has arrived at orthodoxy.” [ . . . ]
There are real differences between emerging-church leaders like McLaren and those who led the charge for liberal Christianity. Liberalism flourished in a time of Christian cultural dominance, and was championed by leaders eager to keep pace with modern culture. McLaren and his companions tend to be children of notably conservative churches—in McLaren’s case, the Plymouth Brethren—who have never enjoyed, nor aspired to, cultural power. They are also evangelists who care passionately about reaching the unchurched.
Time has not been kind to these hopes—repeated elsewhere in Christianity Today by Scot McKnight only to be later discarded—that the emergent church offered a third way. The most recent douse of cold water comes from a New York Times report that last weekened McLaren led a “commitment ceremony with traditional Christian elements” for his son and another man after the two were joined in a wedding led by a minister of the Universal Life church, an organization primarily known for offering free online ordinations to anyone who fills out a nine-blank web form (no credit card required) as well as other enviable services like online confession.
If Crouch’s initial assessment was too hopeful about emergent Christianity, it also was unfair to the liberal Christianity that preceded it. Many if not most liberal Christian leaders came from bodies we might call conservative; Walter Rauschenbusch himself was raised in the belief of biblical inerrancy. Nor did he and his fellows feel less than passionately about “reaching the unchurched.”
Liberal Christianity has long been tempted to make the Christian life about struggles political rather than spiritual. On matters of sexuality, it transfers the Christian demand that we impose right order in our rebellious hearts in pursuit of chastity to the demand that we reform society in pursuit of equality. The internal struggle is made external, and the gospel is lost in the process. For while the Christian call to chastity—meaning abstinence for the unmarried and non-concupiscent marriage (necessarily male-female) for others—is hardly central to the gospel, it is undoubtedly a part of it—one that can no more be discarded than Christ’s command to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
Brian McLaren started out wanting to reach the unchurched but ended up performing a commitment ceremony that stood outside the church not only physically (at the Woodend Sanctuary of the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, Md) but also doctrinally—in contravention of clearly delineated Christian teaching on the nature of sex and marriage. His desire for a more authentic and less abstracted faith took him away from the concrete body of Christ. It’s a story that should dismay but not surprise us.