Don Carson and a wrong-headed appeal to Matthew 18

I just read something Dr Don Carson wrote this year about the emerging church and a “wrong-headed” appeal to Matthew 18.

“Several years ago i wrote a fairly restrained critique of the emerging church movement as it then existed, before it morphed into its present diverse configurations.That little book earned me some of the angriest, bitterness-laced emails i have ever received—to say nothing, of course, of the blog posts. There were other responses, of course—some approving and grateful, some thoughtful and wanting to dialogue. But the ones that displayed the greatest intensity were those whose indignation was white hot because i had not first approached privately those whose positions i had criticized in the book. what a hypocrite i was—criticizing my brothers on ostensible biblical grounds when i myself was not following the Bible’s mandate to observe a certain procedure nicely laid out in Matt 18:15–17. Don Carson, Editorial on Abusing Matthew 18, Themelio

I am very grieved to hear that Dr Carson received bitter-laced emails. That’s not the way to do it!

I have looked for a reference to Matthew 18 in regards to the emerging church conversation on the blogs but I just cant seem to find it. The closest thing I found was Andrew Perriman at Open Source Theology who had listed Carson’s critiques of the emerging church in the context of a Matthew 18 conversation.


Does anyone know which blogger he is talking about? Please let me know.

On my blog, I do remember the subject of mutual accountability on an open blog post for Dr Carson, but no reference to Matthew 18. And for the record, although I did write a few blog posts on the subject of Carson’s book, I have never sent an email to Dr Don Carson. I don’t even know his email address.

This subject has been gone over before and this is old news, but, to make things clear, again . . .  the main problem emerging church people had with Carson’s book was that it was “inaccurate” and although it had a few helpful observations, those inaccuracies needed to be addressed before we would take it seriously.

The harshest response was from South Africa where Carson’s book is called “horrific” by Dr Graeme Codrington (futurechurch) and then slammed by none other than Graeme’s father, Dr Reg Codrington, in Thoughts on the Emerging Church. But generally, the problem was that emerging church people felt misrepresented by a book that they felt was “poorly researched” and lacked accuracy. This is not a Matthew 18 matter, and I agree with Don Carson here. But it still remains an issue.

A few quotes to show you what I mean.

Doug Gay:

“I have become increasingly disillusioned with the debates around the term “Emerging Church” with both their content and temper. This easy mobility has allowed critics to perform highly political operations which have focused on the aspects that most disturb them and used their analysis of these to discredit (almost) all things associated with it and to warn off the faithful from further exploration.”1

1 [Footnote] I have in mind here, among others, Don Carson’s disappointing treatment Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, Grand Rapids 2005, which I feel lacks breadth, nuance and awareness of its topic.” Doug Gay, Remixing the Church: Towards an Emerging Ecclesiology

Ryan Bolger:

. . . the methodological approach in Becoming Conversant falls short, if the goal is to understand the Emerging Church movement in its entirety. The book does not feature interviews with Emerging Church leaders nor were Emerging Churches observed in any systematic way. Focus groups were not created nor were case-studies performed. Indeed, a few of the books written by those within Emerging Church circles were read and discussed. However, with such a small sample of books reviewed, I think it would be impossible to come to understand the Emerging Church movement. . . Unfortunately, with Becoming Conversant, I do not believe he has given the church an accurate picture of this highly vital and important missional movement. Ryan Bolger, Fuller Seminary, thebolgblog, Co-author of Emerging Churches.

Scot McKnight:

“By narrowing “emerging” to postmodernity and narrowing postmodernity to denial of truth, Carson has foisted upon the evangelical world a stereotype that most evangelicals are already prepared to reject . . . In other words, if you define emerging as Brian McLaren, and then narrow Brian to his sometimes incautious – even if nearly always probing and suggestive – comments about postmodernity and epistemology, and then roll out the implications of what Brian would seem then to believe, and then close with two chapters about what the Bible says about truth, you will give the impression that emerging is about hard postmodernism and, if you got your guts about you, you should avoid these folks like the bubonic plague. Which is what some are doing… which is fine … unless you want to be accurate.”

“. . . I have probed and prodded emerging church leaders and ordinaries for about two years now, and I have almost never heard anything that resembles what Carson thinks is so typical of the emerging “church.” Scot McKnight, What is the Emerging Church? [PDF] Fall Contemporary Issues Conference Westminster Theological Seminary Oct 26-27, 2006

Interestingly, Wayne Grudem’s response to Don Carson’s critique of the Vineyard church movement is like a mirror image of what Scot McKnight has just said.

Wayne Grudem

– It is disappointing to me that a careful scholar can write such a critical evaluation of something about which he gives so little evidence of accurate knowledge.”

– Is Carson’s picture of the Vineyard accurate? I have spent hundreds of hours in Vineyard churches and talking with Vineyard pastors and other leaders. I do not recognize the great majority of his characterizations as accurate or truthful. I doubt that anyone within the Vineyard movement will think that Carson is describing it at all fairly(regardless of whether he agrees with it theologically). I hope that fact alone would give Carson some pause -for when we differ with other Christians (or, if he does not think Vineyard people are Christians, then when we differ with unbelievers as well), we should at least try to represent their position in a way that they would recognize as accurateWayne Grudem, [PDF] Power and Truth, A Response to the Critiques of Vineyard Teaching and Practise by D.A. Carson, James Montgomery Boice, and John H. Armstrong in Power Religion, page 8

Related, and a very long time ago . . .

1. Carson and My Sleepless Night (Sept 1, 2004)
2. The Skinny on Carson’s Emerging Church Tapes (Sept 2, 2004)
3. The Skinny on Emergent Criticism (Dec 13, 2004)
4. Are We A Threat to the Gospel? (March 26, 2005)
5. Open Blog Post for Don Carson 1.1 (April 15, 2005)
6. The Carson Chronicles: Where Now? (April 16, 2005)
7. The Book of Dr. D.A. Carson


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.


  • alison says:

    At one point it seemed like the emerging church was just about hating the rest of the church; all you had to do was read EC blogs and you really got that. I think the whole issue has calmed down considerably since then. But there was a time …. Of course, any “pastor/writer/teacher” who is criticized views it as hate male. Oops, there’s another generalization.

  • BTW-I’ve met pastor/writers/teachers who are receptive to constructive critiques. But they tend not to be connected as thought leaders behind a brand (organic, missional, emergent, new monastic) that feel they have to defend. So whenever new material comes along that advances or offers corrections to their work, they feel free to take the new data to see where the spirit may be taking them. You see this in the recent dialogues regarding spiritual atheism for example – my thinking has shifted considerably since I published my book on the topic in early 2008.
    But it sounds like Carson got those emails from some defenders of the “emergent” brand who weren’t exactly in the mood for “dialogue” – and as I learned the hard way, you can’t rationalize with those people who choose to engage in name calling, gaslighting and the like without getting so durn angry that I end up having to pen an “I’m sorry” piece like this …
    I don’t know Carson at all (and as my writings on Fresh Expressions has focused on the US and UK Anglican streams I don’t follow his stuff). But I would hope he tried to chat with those he knew. Mybe he tried to apply Matt. 18 and got the cold shoulder. That’s been my experience – it’s hard to meet someone in person (or at least chat on the phone) if they refuse to reconcile.

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