Thinking about Begbie’s critique on emerging church

What a delightful talk. I blogged a few days ago on Dr. Jeremy Begbie's talk at Wheaton regarding N.T. Wright and the emerging church. Deeply respectful and honoring. In fact, I have given some thought to the three Wrightian themes that Begbie believes emerging church leaders would do well to pay attention to:


Begbie: EC should take the ascension more seriously because they tend to collapse it into the resurrection, losing the sense of Christ apart from his church, standing OVER his church as Lord and High Priest, leading to either "strident triumphalism on the one hand or painful disillusionment on the other."

TSK Response: OK, touche! This is most likely just as Begbie observes, and if so, it is not because the emerging church has put forward a new, closer, more localised Jesus but rather because so many of us have come through the charismatic movement, or the seeker movement, or have a background in Anabaptist or radical reformed thinking. The criticism could just as easily be made to all of us.


Begbie: In the EC is a huge Christological stress amidst much "trinitarian enthusiasm" but lacking in OT, history of Israel, etc.

TSK Response. Well said. I often put forward a trinitarian emphasis with a focus on Christ but this is the default position of my evangelical background. However, over the past few years, my teaching has been increasingly based on OT themes, in particular my ecclesiology. I am growing in this, as many of us are. And Tom Wright might be partially responsible, as I said in my previous post on this topic.


Begbie: More catholicity is needed, both QUALITATIVE [rising above affinity groups, or culture specific groupings] and EXTENSIVE [spatial catholicity] in which the EC should follow Tom Wright's example of pursuing greater connection with boring traditional streams of Christianity. [my paraphrase]

TSK Quick Response: Here I find some tension. If you see the emerging church movement as primarily a missiological movement with a theological backing and not the other way around, as I do, the critique loses some steam. From my observations, I think that:

1. Emerging churches are MORE involved in their respective communities [part of Begbie's criticism] than traditional churches that provide a smorgasbord of weekly activities and programs. Not less. Some emerging churches do not even have their own building, choosing instead to find a suitable third space to gather together. Some dont even gather on a Sunday but are totally absorbed into their communities – reason for a different kind of critique

2. The emerging church movement is primarily a missiological movement that is informed by theology, and not the other way around. I noticed the all the books mentioned by Begbie were theological books. Yes, there are a few groups that focus solely on theology but they are the exception. Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary in India. Tom Wright puts forward a missional thrust embedded in the Abrahamic covenant while at the same time avoiding the missional term and getting stuck in the controversies. Gotta love him for doing that. And if you want to really understand the global EC movement, then a shift from the theological section of the library to the missiological section will take the ball out of the scrum and "put it into touch".

3. Because the EC is primarily a missiological movement, many of its distinctives are quite pragmatic and strategic, located on the edge of where the church is going next. The EC movement respects Newbigin but it also draws from that other white missionary in India, Donald McGavran. Yes, I am aware of Newbigin's distaste for McGavran's pragmatism, and of how the movement ran amok amidst American positivism and spawned the church growth movement with its numerical infatuation. Nevertheless, there is much to learn from McGavran's observations on people movements and the multiplication of the church, as presented in The Bridges of God and mirrored in the Scriptures.

There can be an appreciation of the organic unity of the one church, and the breaking down of barriers through Christ, and at the same time an acknowledgement that some soils are better places to plant seeds than others at given times, that not everyone will be a "person of peace", that new churches will most likely be birthed amidst cultural groupings that are unique to that group and their worship will reflect this. Yes, cultural enclaves are challenged to break out and not forsake the wider ecumenical gatherings with each other but they will continue to preserve a particular cultural heritage. If we dont allow the church to exist in every tribe, every tongue, every culture, then we will be tempted to insist on our own culture as the norm. We call this colonialism.

There is a place for cultural uniqueness. People who decide follow Jesus tell their homies and their homies sometimes join the party. Thus, we have what I call "The Homies Unit Principle". But the homies need to break out and join the larger Kingdom party.

4. If McGavran is too much of an acquired taste for Anglicans, I join with Newbigin in recommending Roland Allen, another reflective practitioner whose teachings on the "way of Christ and his apostles" introduced a more organic, strategic and sustainable way of doing missions while staying connected to the inherited church structures. Actually, my first introduction to Newbigin was through his forward to Allen's book "Missionary Methods: St Paul's or Ours?".

5. Because the EC is primarliy a missiological movement, opportunities for highlighting and strengthening the CATHOLIC nature of the church will often be found in missiological gatherings and to a lesser extent, meetings of a purely theological or ecclesiological nature. That's not to say that we are uninvolved in such meetings. Find a group of crusty Lutherans in the USA and you might find Karen Ward tapping on her computer in the back row. Search for the most staid and fossilized Anglicans in a musty English church basement and Jonny Baker has probably sat through their boring meeting, or even addressed the participants. God bless'em!

Although most of my time is spent with young people around the world starting new churches in exciting places, I have also made the trip to Italy to converse with Roman Catholics [quite clumsily I might add], I have been to Geneva to talk with the WCC, and later this year I will be in both Greece and Turkey to chat with the Eastern Orthodox. When the 100th anniversary of the modern ecumenical movement takes place in Edinburgh this summer, I will be there. When 4000 mission leaders convene in Capetown, South Africa in October as part of Lausanne 3, I will be there. And so will many others like me.

To say that we do not make an adequate effort in ecumenical affairs is a little unfair, esp. since much of the criticism from fundamentalists is related to the ease at which we relate with others who disagree. In fact, I would be inclined to say that the EC has in many cases formed partnerships without preserving their own voice or even their own home base. That leads to fuzzy thinking and voice-loss.

Having said all that, I wish to thank Jeremy Begbie for his thoughtful and thorough critique, which I found honoring and at times exhilarating. Hope to hear more from him in the future.

Previously on TSK: Tom Wright on Justification, Tom Wright and the Emerging church, Tom Wright's 'Surprised By Hope' is my Top Book of 2008


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • “Yes, cultural enclaves are challenged to break out and not forsake the wider ecumenical gatherings with each other but they will continue to preserve a particular cultural heritage. If we dont allow the church to exist in every tribe, every tongue, every culture, then we will be tempted to insist on our own culture as the norm. We call this colonialism.”
    I found this statement so liberating. Thanks. A great response as a whole as well.

  • chad says:

    Sweet-this was a great lecture and these are great notes. I wonder if Begbie is still confusing emerging/emergent/missional or whatever things are being called these days?
    The places where I see “it’s” aims actually working are so far off the academic radar that it would be hard for Begbie to see (noting what you said about all of the books he mentioned being theological). From what I notice, those who care about the Church are active in a greater sense and can be found at more traditional meetings attempting to hum the tune.

  • Andy Rowell says:

    Andrew, this is a very fine defense and clarification of the global church planting movement or “the Tall-Skinny-Kiwi / Ryan Bolger-understanding-of-the-Emerging-Church movement.” (As you know, despite your protests from the beginning ten years ago, “emerging” over here in the USA is mostly associated with the defunct Emergent Village strongly associated with Brian McLaren, Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt). Well written and researched–your use of Newbigin, McGavran, and Allen is very well done. I think Jeremy Begbie would readily acknowledge that knowing the sociological scope of the movement is not his strength and was not really his purpose at all. You capably defend the best practitioners as he gently probes some of its more theologically-deficient popular manifestations. To put his talk in context, Begbie was far more knowledgeable about and sympathetic toward the intentions of the global church planting movement than anyone else on the conference program and almost anyone else I have seen who is known as a “theologian.” To sketch the theological ideals of the movement was the most positive thing to happen to the movement in theological circles in the USA in a long time. There are some “evangelism” and “missiology” professors who are open to the movement but most of them are even quicker to raise the movement’s perceived theological deficiencies. Keep up the good work, Andrew. I’m thankful to God for your presence at these various ecumenical gatherings and your encouragement to local church-starters.

  • tsk says:

    “There are some “evangelism” and “missiology” professors who are open to the movement but most of them are even quicker to raise the movement’s perceived theological deficiencies.”
    thanks Andy. I have the highest respect for Jeremy and hope the other mission professors learn something.
    its weird for me to hear that mission professors might not be “open” to the EC movement because it is already becoming the new mainstream. I am writing this from a north african country where the majority of churches are tiny organic house churches among young people and are quite different from the more organized hierarchical western style churches started by an older breed of missionaries. if mission professors dont get what is happening globally then its time for them to take a trip overseas and see how things are different (and in many cases, healthier) than the previous century.

  • Phil Wood says:

    Andrew, I’ve a couple of unrelated thoughts in response to your post. Firstly, I’m delighted to hear you underline the missiological focus of the EC movement. In the UK context I’m aware of David Male’s criticism of Fresh Expressions along the lines of whether FE was really reaching unchurched people. I’m less cynical than that but I can see all kinds of innovation under the FE/EC banner that seems to stray off the missiological point.
    Secondly, I’m interested to hear you describe routes to EC: charismatic, seeker, Anabaptist, Radical Reformed. In the UK the Anabaptist Tradition was surgically removed in the 16th Century. As a fully corporate expression of church it didn’t really return until the mid-20th Century. In other words we don’t have the institutional baggage. There’s a sense in which Anabaptism isn’t only a stage on the way to EC here, but an emerging movement in its own right. I think though, that we have the same tensions over missiology.

  • With the name of God, Peace be unto you.
    I am wondering if anyone here has any more information on a debate between James White and Gary Demar on Federal Vision :Biblical doctrine or Heresy.
    And if you wouldn’t mind doing any blog post in the future on dominionism and federal vision and what are people’s thoughts about these.
    Thank you and God bless!

  • tsk says:

    thanks phil. in the uk we have supported both Anglican (FE) and Anabaptist (Urban Expression) emerging church planting.
    i have not seen david male’s criticism but will take a look. thanks.

  • Andy Dodwell says:

    really good posting, very timely as we’re in the process of reshaping the way we ‘are’ as Church…with a renewed emphasis on the dispersed and small missional groups but keeping an eye to how catholic we are- i’ve been looking at George Lings work on this: he really emphasises the ‘Of’ aspect in his work…

  • Paul Hoffman says:

    Great post, but I think that the emerging church movement has more to do with methodology than theology. That being said I think our Theology ultimately has to inform our methodology, but so long as we are a “missional incarnational” community, I dont know that it matters as much what we look like on the outside.

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