Contextual Theology – Falling from Truth through Emerging Church

By Roger Oakland

In order for the emerging church to succeed, the Bible has to be looked at through entirely different glasses, and Christianity needs to be open to a new type of faith. Brian McLaren calls this new faith a “generous orthodoxy.”1 While such an orthodoxy allows a smorgasbord of ideas to be proclaimed in the name of Christ, many of these ideas are actually forbidden and rejected by Scripture.

Doug Pagitt believes that he is part of a cutting-edge response to the new postmodern world. It’s a response he and others see as completely unique, never having been tried before in the history of man. Pagitt states:

It seems to me that our post-industrial times require us to ask new questions-questions that people 100 years ago would have never thought of asking. Could it be that our answers will move us to re-imagine the way of Christianity in our world? Perhaps we as Christians today are not only to consider what it means to be a 21st century church, but also and perhaps more importantly-what it means to have a 21st century faith.2

Many people I meet at conferences who come from a wide variety of church backgrounds tell me the church they have been attending for years has radically changed. Their pastor no longer teaches the Bible. Instead, the Sunday morning service is a skit or a series of stories. The Bible seems to have become the forbidden book. While there are pastors who do still teach the Bible, they are becoming the exception rather than the rule.

Emergent leaders often say the message remains the same, but our methods must change if we are going to be relevant to our generation. The measure of success for many pastors today is how many are coming, rather than how many are listening and obeying what God has said in His Word. Let’s consider how Doug Pagitt uses the Bible in his own church. He states:

At Solomon’s Porch, sermons are not primarily about my extracting truth from the Bible to apply to people’s lives. In many ways the sermon is less a lecture or motivational speech than it is an act of poetry-of putting words around people’s experiences to allow them to find deeper connection in their lives… So our sermons are not lessons that precisely define belief so much as they are stories that welcome our hopes and ideas and participation.3

What Pagitt is describing is a contextual theology; that is, don’t use the Bible as a means of theology or measuring rod of truth and standards by which to live; and rather than have the Bible mold the Christian’s life, let the Christian’s life mold the Bible. That’s what Pagitt calls “putting words around people’s experiences.” As this idea is developed, emerging proponents have to move away from Bible teachings and draw into a dialectic approach. That way, instead of just one person preaching truth or teaching biblical doctrine, everyone can have a say and thus come to a consensus of what the Bible might be saying. Pagitt explains:

To move beyond this passive approach to faith, we’ve tried to create a community that’s more like a potluck: people eat and they also bring something for others. Our belief is built when all of us engage our hopes, dreams, ideas and understandings with the story of God as it unfolds through history and through us.4

You may not have heard the term before, but contextual theology is a prominent message from the emerging church. In his book, Models of Contextual Theology (1992), Stephen B. Bevans defines contextual theology as:

… a way of doing theology in which one takes into account: the spirit and message of the gospel; the tradition of the Christian people; the culture in which one is theologizing; and social change in that culture, whether brought about by western technological process or the grass-roots struggle for equality, justice and liberation.5

In other words, the Bible in, and of itself, is not free-standing-other factors (culture, ethnicity, history) must be taken into consideration, and with those factors, the message of the Bible must be adjusted to fit. As one writer puts it, “Contextual theology aims at the humanization of theology.”6 But two questions need to be asked. First, will the contextualizing of Scripture cause such a twisting of its truth that it no longer is the Word of God, and secondly, is Scripture ineffective without this contextualization? To the first, I give a resounding yes! And to the second, an absolute no. The Word of God, which is an inspired work of the living Creator, is far more than any human-inspired book and has been written in such a way that every human being, rich or poor, man or woman, intelligent or challenged will understand the meaning of the Gospel message if it is presented in their native language; and thanks to the tireless work of missionaries for centuries, the Gospel in native languages is becoming a reality in most cultures today.

Dean Flemming is a New Testament teacher at European Nazarene College in Germany and the author of Contextualization in the New Testament. In his book, he defends contextual theology:

Every church in every particular place and time must learn to do theology in a way that makes sense to its audience while challenging it at the deepest level. In fact, some of the most promising conversations about contextualization today (whether they are recognized as such or not) are coming from churches in the West that are discovering new ways of embodying the gospel for an emerging postmodern culture.7

These “churches in the West” Flemming considers “most promising” are the emerging churches. He would agree with Bevans’ model of theology, but he has an answer to the emerging church’s dilemma. He states:

Many sincere Christians are still suspicious that attempts to contextualize theology and Christian behavior will lead to the compromising of biblical truth … we must look to the New Testament for mentoring in the task of doing theology in our various settings.8

There’s good reason some Christians are suspicious. But it can seem harmless at first because Flemming suggests the answer is in the New Testament, which he believes should be used as a prototype or pattern rather than something for doctrine or theology. New Testament theology is always open for change, he says, but we can learn how to develop this change by studying New Testament stories and characters. The premise Flemming presents of contextualizing Scripture is that since cultures and societies are always changing, the Word must change with it and be conformed to these changes. But I would challenge this. The Bible says the Word is living, active, and powerful:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

And if the Word is this powerful, then it is stable and eternal as well. God, in His magnificence, is the Author of Scripture, and He surpasses time, culture, and societies. Contextualizing says people and cultures change, and therefore God’s Word must change. But, on the contrary, it’s people who need to change to conform to Scripture. If we really believe that the Bible is God’s Word, this would be clear to see; but if we think to ourselves that the Word is not infallible, not inspired, then contextualization would be the obvious expectation.

While certain parts of the Bible may be read as poetry (as Pagitt suggests), for indeed the Bible is a beautifully written masterpiece, it is also a living mechanism that is not to be altered-rather it alters the reader’s heart and life. It is much more than putting words around people’s experiences as emergents suggest.

The Bible tells us God is always right; it is man who is so often wrong. When we rely upon human consensus, we will end up with man’s perspective and not God’s revelation. This is a dangerous way to develop one’s spiritual life-the results can lead to terrible deception.

Brian McLaren put it well when he admitted it isn’t just the way the message is presented that emerging church proponents want to change … it’s the message itself they are changing:

It has been fashionable among the innovative [emerging] pastors I know to say, “We’re not changing the message; we’re only changing the medium.” This claim is probably less than honest … in the new church we must realize how medium and message are intertwined. When we change the medium, the message that’s received is changed, however subtly, as well. We might as well get beyond our naivete or denial about this….9

While reaching today’s generation for the cause of Christ is something we as Christians should all desire, we must remember Jesus Christ challenged us to follow Him and be obedient to His Word. Scripture commands us to “be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). But the emergents are leading followers in the opposite direction, teaching that the Word of God needs to be conformed to people and cultures instead of allowing it to conform lives through Jesus Christ…. reimagining Christianity allows a dangerous kind of freedom; like cutting the suspension ropes on a hot air balloon, the free fall may be exhilarating but the results catastrophic.  (from Faith Undone, pp. 42-45).


1. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan,


2. Pagitt, Church Re-Imagined, op. cit., pp. 17, 19.

3. Ibid., p. 166.

4. Doug Pagitt, Church Re-Imagined, op. cit., p. 167.

5. Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis

Books, Seventh Printing, November 2000,

ctc/ctc94-02/1.Yuzon.html), p. 1.

6. Paul L. Lehmann, “Contextual Theology” (Theology Today, Princeton

Theological Seminary, 1972,


7. Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament (Downers

Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p. 14.

8. Ibid, pp. 14-15.

9. Brian McLaren, Church on the Other Side, op. cit., p. 68.

Article by Roger Oakland (Understand the Times)

Received from Lighthouse Trails Research

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A Call Back To Truth

An interview, conducted September 2007, with theologian John MacArthur, about the state of the church, heralding a call back to truth of the pure Word of God (Proverbs 30:5-6), of which is a timely reminder with regard to today’s Emergent Church “Emergence Christianity” …

A Call Back To Truth

While Martin Luther called the church back to the truth of Scripture and the simplicity of the gospel, modern movements like the Emerging Church uphold “mystery” and question the traditional understanding of the gospel.

“We want to embrace mystery rather than conquer it,” declare leaders within this movement. One prominent Emerging figure was quoted in Christianity Today: “I don’t think we’ve got the gospel right yet … . 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.”

Emerging churches are an informal network of worldwide Christian communities who believe God’s way for today’s generation is to focus more on relationships and emerging ideas than hard-and-fast truths and traditional statements of faith. They favor dialogue over doctrine and are filled with people who say traditional church no longer works for them. Inside their walls, you’ll typically find couches in place of pews, conversation instead of preaching, compromise in place of convictions, and questions in place of truth.

Dr. John MacArthur, a popular evangelical writer and pastor, expressed his deep concern about the Emerging Church during a recent visit to Answers in Genesis’ Creation Museum. While those leading the movement say that the gospel can’t be clearly known, they presume to know one thing for certain: “The Bible doesn’t mean what traditional people think it means.”

“They are saying, in effect, that God may have spoken, but He mumbled, and we’re not really sure what He said. Saying that Scripture is not clear is just another way to undermine biblical authority,” MacArthur explains.

MacArthur explores past and present assaults on truth in his new book  The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception. We caught up with him for a special interview a couple months ago.

Hear No Truth, Speak No Truth, Follow No Truth

“This is not an intellectual movement. This is not a movement that has discovered evidence that overturns inspiration, evidence that overturns inerrancy or authority. This is a movement born of people who do not want to accept the clarity of Scripture,” says MacArthur.

This kind of thinking is very convenient, he explains. If God’s Word is not clear, then we’re not responsible to follow it.

“It allows them not to take a position on homosexuality, premarital sex, or anything, besides ‘Let’s light some candles and incense, think good thoughts about Jesus, and give to the poor,’” he observes.

But as MacArthur reminds readers in his book’s introduction, “To claim that the Bible is not sufficiently clear is to assault God’s own wisdom and integrity.”

Sadly, some Christian bookstores now devote entire sections to books promoting the Emerging Church movement. MacArthur explains there are several reasons for the movement’s explosive growth:

If they don’t believe anything, they can’t offend anybody. They’re not under any mandate to say anything in particular. They play on the bad experiences and disappointments of people raised in the church. They basically can define themselves by experiences that are familiar to the culture.

Just Give Me Jesus —But Don’t Make Me Change My Ways

MacArthur brought up another quote from a different Christianity Today article. He considers it a metaphor for the whole movement. A young lady stated that she loves Donald Miller, the author of Blue like Jazz, because she wants to be religious but isn’t prepared to let religion alter her lifestyle.

“I’m a Jesus girl,” she said. “But I also like to go out and do tequila shots with my friends.”

Doubting God’s Word—from the Beginning?

Is this truth war unique to today’s postmodern culture? The image on the cover of MacArthur’s book—the serpent from the Garden of Eden—gives readers an idea about how long this battle has been going on.

“The assault has never stopped since the Garden,” MacArthur says. “It just escalates and escalates and escalates. It takes different forms and moves in whatever direction the mood of the mob—the spirit of the age—dictates.”

Not only have people questioned God’s Word from the beginning of time, but many Christians today doubt God from the beginning of His Word. MacArthur attributes that doubt to a very flawed view of Scripture. For example, he notes how few Christian colleges believe and promote the literal creation account.

MacArthur, who addressed the importance of origins in an earlier book The Battle for the Beginning, says he always asks the same question when he discusses the creation account with others, “At what point do you start believing the Bible? Do you kick in at Genesis 4, Exodus, Deuteronomy—when do you decide this is believable?”

History—It Says What?

MacArthur says the Emerging Church promotes a different version of church history than the one he gives readers in Truth War:

All the great heroes of the faith end up becoming fools. And the antiheroes—the fools who compromise and who don’t take a stand—become the heroes.

“It’s turning history on its head,” he says. “They undo the Reformation so they can go back to a quasi-Christian, medieval spirituality.”

The Church Today—How Did We Get Here?

Speaking on the church today, MacArthur writes, “It is quite possibly more susceptible to false teachers, doctrinal saboteurs, and spiritual terrorism than any other generation in church history. Biblical ignorance within the church may well be deeper and more widespread than any other time since the Protestant Reformation.”

MacArthur attributes much of this to the twenty years of the seeker-friendly movement, which he says stripped Bible teaching, especially expository teaching, out of the pulpit. “You end up with a very, very marginally knowledgeable church, largely made up of unconverted people,” he said.

“I hear pastors say to me, ‘Oh, I believe the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword,’ and I say, ‘It’s good that you say that, but when I hear you preach, you tell a bunch of stories and a bunch of cultural insights. You think your own inventions have more power than the Word of God?’”

MacArthur says that people frequently tell him that it’s easier for him to preach the truth than other people because he has greater courage, because he’s bolder.

“That’s not the answer,” he says. “The only reason I have courage and boldness is because of my belief about the Scripture—and because of my belief about being responsible and faithful to the Scripture, and to the God of the Scripture.”

The Church of Tomorrow—Will It Stand?

Is Dr. MacArthur worried about this latest attack on God’s Word? As someone who has defended truth, verse by verse, for over 30 years, he is confident that truth can never be shaken.

“No matter what deviations come up, we always have the truth,” MacArthur says about God’s Word.

However, Christians have the obligation to protect and defend that truth. As he states in Truth War, “It is our duty to guard, proclaim, and pass that truth on to the next generation [1 Timothy 6:20–21]. We who love Christ and believe the truth embodied in His teaching must awaken to the reality of the battle that is raging all around us. We must do our part in the ages-old truth war. We are under a sacred obligation to join the battle and contend for the faith.”

Source: Answers In Genesis

“No matter what deviations come up, we always have the truth,” MacArthur says about God’s Word.

However, Christians have the obligation to protect and defend that truth. As he states in Truth War, “It is our duty to guard, proclaim, and pass that truth on to the next generation [1 Timothy 6:20–21]. We who love Christ and believe the truth embodied in His teaching must awaken to the reality of the battle that is raging all around us. We must do our part in the ages-old truth war. We are under a sacred obligation to join the battle and contend for the faith.”

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