Why I Won’t Be Attending Brian McLaren

December 1, 2008

Machen on McLaren: a New Kind of Liberal?“, an article presented at ETS by Michael Wittmer, highlights some of the theological reasons why I won’t be going to listen to Brian McLaren when he visits Scotland toward the end of this week. Wittmer summarizes the beliefs of McLaren which are most problematic:

1. Living like Jesus is more important than believing in him
2. People are basically good and free from original sin
3. Objection to penal substitution
4. Unite Christians and non-Christians and emphasize our common journey with God
5. Inclusivism: extends salvation to include those who have not believed in Christ
6. Focus on this life rather than the afterlife (and hell)

Whatever else might be good about what McLaren is presenting, these are such patently unbiblical ideas that I simply could not encourage Christian brothers and sisters (and especially those ‘younger in the faith’) to attend these meetings.



  1. I couldn’t agree more…I quoted him from the pulpit yesterday so this is fresh with me, this is perhaps the single worst quote I have ever had to read, it’s from Generous Orthodoxy,

    “Perhaps our ‘inward-turned, individual-salvation-oriented, un-adapted “Christianity’ is a colossal and tragic misunderstanding, and perhaps we need to listen again for the true song of salvation, which is ‘good news to all creation.’ So perhaps it’s best to suspend what, if anything, you ‘know’ about what it means to call Jesus ‘Savior’ and to give the matter of salvation some fresh attention. Let’s start simply. In the Bible, save means ‘rescue’ or ‘heal’. It emphatically does not mean ‘save from hell’ or ‘give eternal life after death,’ as many preachers seem to imply in sermon after sermon. Rather its meaning varies from passage to passage, but in general, in any context, save means ‘get out of trouble.’ The trouble could be sickness, war, political intrigue, oppression, poverty, imprisonment, or any kind of danger or evil.”

    If that is not a denial of the central message of the Gospel and the purpose of salvation I don’t know what is!

  2. Amen to that. Unfortunately, Colin, those ‘younger in the faith’ are eating McLaren up like candy. The whole emergent movement is the 500-pound gorilla of false teaching in today’s church.

  3. I’ve just got my hands on “Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church”, edited by Gary Johnson & Ronald Gleason, 2008, Crossway. Looks like an excellent resource for getting to grips with McLaren et al.

  4. Guy:

    Sorry, but I inadvertently deleted your comment on my blog, and now I can’t get it back. If you wish, feel free to try again.

  5. Thanks, as ever, for your stimulating post Colin. I was disturbed to discover that EA are sponsoring this visit and that such places as ICC are hosting him, thereby giving some spurious legitimacy to his views. I have written to them expressing my personal concern.

  6. Dear Colin

    Here you will find an address on the Emergent Church by Eric Ludy. Has has recently released a book here in the States called The Bravehearted Gospel, which is an excellent address to an emergent audience, calling them back to historic Christianity.


  7. I do understand why people have problesm with Brian Mclaren but I for one will be going to hear him speak so that I can listen and question for myself.I dont go in for the heretic viewpoint and think that if people are in error we should work it out together in love.

  8. It sounds as though you are basing your opinion of McLaren and everything he has ever said or written on one article, presented by someone who didn’t write it. Is that really the case? I’ll be going to hear what he has to say for myself… and making up my own mind. I think it’s great that EA and places like ICC are willing to engage in open and free debate. Isn’t that what theology is all about… a collective working out of what God’s word means for us today. Or is it easier just to be right?

  9. Dear Stewart,

    I’ve read several of McLaren’s books and listened to/watched some of his talks online, so I’m not basing things on one article. I know the kind of thing I would be going to.

    I’m all for free debate and discussion up to a point. However, I’m unconvinced that Christians should just sit and listen to everything put in front of them! Some teachers and their teaching are clearly unbiblical and thoroughly unproductive. In this, pastors have a particular responsibility to warn and guard their flocks against the danger of false teaching/teachers (Acts 20:28-31). Moreover, its the responsibility of every Christian to believe what is true and to reject false teaching which contradicts the gospel. Ask the Apostle Paul, someone who in much of his writing (cf Titus 1:9; Gal 1:6-10; 1 Tim 1:3-4) must seem terribly intolerant to many in the ‘conversation’ today.

    A question: is there anyone you would eventually refuse to listen to or warn others to ignore, or do you just refuse to draw lines?

  10. The short answer… no. Why? Because I see Christ spending time with people who everyone else sees as unclean, outcast, dangerous and wrong. If we are called to be like Christ, to take the Good News to the world then how can we pick and choose who we speak to and who we don’t? How can we judge who the Spirit will work though?

    Isn’t the purpose of conversation and dialogue to work out who might be right and about what? Throughout the history of the church people who held different views have met together to work out what God is really saying. Paul and Peter disagreed. A group of men gathered to decide on what was in and not in the collection of books we know as the Bible. I for one am glad that those people got together and had a conversation because that’s how discernment happens.

    Standing apart and throwing insults and claiming to be right doesn’t seem to get anything done, other than causing division and mistrust.

    It may be worth us all remembering that the priests of the church in Jesus day weren’t too keen on him either. The ‘established religion’ didn’t like the disciples much. It doesn’t seem we have learned much.

    I’m sure there are things we would disagree about but rather than ignore your thoughts I decided to engage in a discussion. You might convince me I’m wrong. I might convince you that McLaren has some interesting things to say. We might discuss who exactly is in danger from his thoughts. Or we can choose to ignore each other and get nowhere.

  11. Stewart,

    Three brief things:

    1) On the matter of Jesus being our example in dialogue, I think you need to be careful what you wish-for! True, Jesus did engage in conversion with the unclean, the outcast and the sinful. At the same time, he had an extreme distate for the religious leaders who taught false theology and lived hypocritically. The relatively scant dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees was often quite hostile in tone. On one ocassion, Jesus even launched into a diatribe against them, warning the people about their hypocritical practice! (Mat 23 – the 7 woes passage). Perhaps we could even accuse Jesus of “Standing apart and throwing insults …claiming to be right…causing division and mistrust.”?

    2) I’m still not sure how you would apply any of the passages I mentioned (Acts 20:28-31; Titus 1:9; Gal 1:6-10; 1 Tim 1:3-4) in 2008? Do these not have any contemporary relevance then?

    3) As far as I know, I haven’t “hurled” a single insult at McLaren, as I fear you imply. On a personal level McLaren seems like a nice enough guy. I haven’t suggested otherwise. That doesn’t mean to say that his teaching isn’t false in many core aspects, however, or that his views aren’t dangerous especially to less biblically aware Christians who will be swept along by his winsome approach and catchy illustrations. I do not deny either that McLaren may have insights to bring on certain things. However many of the points he makes about cultural relevance I can glean from parties elsewhere who are contextualising their methods of ministry without also compromising core elements of the gospel message. The gospel is not up for negotiation.

  12. Colin, I’m not suggesting for a moment that you’re insulting anyone, just that this kind of discussion tends to end up there. Perhaps we can agree to disagree? Thanks for taking the time to respond. I appreciate it although I don’t agree.

  13. Colin,

    I went to one of the McLaren “events” primarily because it was in my home church. I’ve also spoken to people that were at the other events. A key feature of all these gatherings is that it was not just about Brian giving his views but about an exchange of ideas. Questions were able to be asked and answers given, so it was not like Brian was the only voice or that some people did not question some of what he said.

    On your point number 3 above, if you had come to hear him then you would have heard him say that we need the penal substitution model of the atonement. His problem with this model of atonement is when it becomes our only word on atonement. He thus basically adopted a Kaleidoscopic view which is well within the bounds of orthodoxy.

    I have wondered on the few occasions that I’ve visited here where that gentle, humble and gracious guy I knew at college has gone. Where’s the guy who likes C.S. Lewis (who did not like penal substitution but preferred a ransom theory – is Lewis dangerous, should young Christians not read him)? Where’s the guy who loved the church Fathers, despite some of their whacky beliefs and practices? Where’s the guy that was appalled at how his fellow evangelicals hounded Pinnock and excluded him from their gatherings? Where’s the guy who was drawn to Lossky and his protology? Please bring that Colin back. That’s a Colin who may still not have gone to hear McLaren, who may still disagree with McLaren but would have been more generous and gracious in his approach.

  14. Colin, in my opinion you are simply doing what Jude encourages us to do (v3) and there’s not enough of that around today. There is a plce for generosity and graciousness but not in the face of error and falsehood. Keep up the good work

  15. Brodie,


    First, I’m surprised you’ve found my blog polemic because I’ve generally focused on positive material relating to preaching and rarely venture into territory like emerging church/charismatic issues etc etc. Now I remember why 🙂 (That said: some people simply find preaching offensive!)

    Second, I still appreciate certain insights from Lewis, the Fathers, Pinnock, Orthodox theology and yes, even MClaren. My theology has developed though since college mainly through my study and preaching of the New Testament (which we rarely referred to in theological lectures!). I’ve come to believe that there are profound problems with many of the core beliefs in the theology of the left and particularly their understanding of the gospel. Actually, its less arrogant for me to submit myself to what I believe Scripture teaches than for me to keep on asserting my speculative ideas that have little (or no) Scriptural warrant. Moreover, now as a pastor I’m seeing countless people who are ship wrecking their faith on new and attractive manifestations of old liberal ideas. What compounds this is that the average young Christian has a vacuum of theological knowledge and few critical skills to weigh what is being said against Scripture.

    The fact that you see the emerging conversation as a new dawn for evangelicals is an opinion you’re entitled to, but surely you can’t simply brand me arrogant, ungracious and harsh for seeing things differently! Can’t conservative Christians have their opinion too, without being branded big headed by the supposedly ‘generous’ side who disagree with them?

  16. Colin,

    Thanks for the reply.
    Firstly, my aim here is not to get into an argument or fall out. Blog posts and comment sections are not conducive to nuanced presentation and their brevity and lack of accompanying body language means that the ‘spirit’ in which something is said can easily be lost. So apologies if my comment can across as harsh and caused an ouch – that was not it’s intention.

    Is it preaching that some people find offensive or the message of the Cross? Anyway who are these ‘some people’ – I was not aware that your blog post was preaching so I’ve not taken any offence at your preaching (which I don’t think I’ve heard). In fact I know a couple of guys who like and appreciate your preaching.

    I’m not sure who “the left” are, but if there is a “left” and a “right” then my suspicion is that the basic methodology of both left and right is the same, i.e. left and right are, to mix metaphors two sides of the one coin. People like McLaren, like you, believe that they too are distancing themselves from speculative ideas and re-focusing their attention on Scripture and in particular the gospel narratives. What concerns me is that in all this there in a new entrenchment whereby left and right look to say how wrong the “other” is rather than in a spirit of brotherly co-operation, and correction where needed, work together. If we need to talk of left and right can we not do so using Paul’s image of a human Body which quite naturally has a left and a right that are distinct, different and yet co-operative?

    People on the left (to borrow your term), people who are seeking to reach their not-yet-christian friends, who look to make the world a better place, need you. But in order to be heard we need to use the right tone and be open to listen as well as speak. Likewise the people on the right need to hear and accept their brothers and sisters on the left.

    Me, hopefully I’m somewhere in the middle, appreciative of both the left and the right.

  17. Brodie,

    I appreciate your response. I think we’re probably on different wavelengths though.

    Hopefully we can meet up for a chat some time and discuss these things further.

    As you say, blogs aren’t the best format and I think we’re ‘talking past each other’ a little.

    ps. I should explain: the theme of my blog is “preaching” and all that that entails. I didn’t mean to say that I actually preach to people on the blog 🙂 ; I was making the (bad quip!) that some people don’t like the blog because its on the subject of preaching at all!

  18. You say: ‘My theology has developed though since college mainly through my study and preaching of the New Testament (which we rarely referred to in theological lectures!).’

    Ouch, was this intended to be a jab? The ‘!’ suggests that it might have been. I am sorry if you believe this to be so. I (and others?) obviously let you down then, as you see it.

    I would have expected your theology to continue to develop since college. That is what you were trained to do – to keep growing and developing – and you were good at it even then. Likewise, the direction that one goes after learning the critical skills (in good conscience, in one’s walk with God in Christian community and engaging both Scripture and tradition) is obviously not ‘known beforehand’. That is how God wants it I should think. He will take us on a journey. That our journeys diverge, depending upon our context, concerns, personal hurts, successes… is to be expected.

    However, if you were saying that what we did in theology at ICC was not build around centuries of reflections by the faithful on the biblical texts (including the Old and the New Testament) than I am afraid that have forgotten some things from your study. And the ‘speculation’ as it has been referred to in a somewhat deriding manner, is necessary to the craft and about learning how to think, and specifically how to think theologically, hermeneutically and ultimately biblically.

    The reason so many younger people (and I see it every day in my new teaching post – so I agree totally) and older people have no biblical or theological literacy is not that they haven’t been to church or been listening – even to sermons, they have. But rather that they have not been skilled in thinking in school or culture in general, and in thinking theologically with the biblical texts and whole theological tradition while in Church. They have been told ‘the answers’ (usually just the opinion of the speaker/preacher in evangelical churches), just absorbed what they have heard, and not thought about the ideas discerningly – whether conservative, liberal, premodern or otherwise. This is the faith that shipwrecks, and why so many walk away when they get to college or out to the workplace.

    I encourage you all to honestly keep up the conversation, especially you old friends – irenic rather than polemical tone is not a question about falsehood, orthodoxy or truth – it is about how you converse with each other. I guess Jesus used both depending upon who he was speaking to. Which will we use with each other, and why is the question.

  19. Hi Darrell,

    Its been a while…How are you enjoying things Stateside?

    My point about the bible in lectures wasn’t intended as a jab. By virtue of being exposed in class to a wide spectrum of theological positions (often pretty rapidly) there was naturally little time left to open up the bible and critically evaluate the positions we were considering. In any case, that kind of biblical reflection can’t be done in five minutes, but needs much more time and work. I understand that. As I always said in class feedback, I thought the lectures very engagingly represented each theological position/tradition and argued clearly its respective case – no doubt that’s what the class was intended to do.

    When I say I’ve developed my theology further through week by week preaching, I simply mean that doing regular detailed exposition on a range of biblical texts has helped me come to firmer theological conclusions which now lead me to see more problems with certain strands of theology than I did before. I think one of the fatal flaws with much of the ‘conversation’ today is that theologians and pastors seem to have forgotten that the primary conversation is with Scripture, and isn’t merely an exchange of ideas between what I and someone else happen to think (or even our various traditions). I’m not saying there’s no place to listen to other traditions and perspectives; I am saying that everything must be finally queried by Scripture.

    I trust Krissy and the kids are well.

  20. Amen! Have a great Christmas. We are doing well in the USofA. Kids are growing (Brenton almost 15, Kayleigh going on 13). Scary, Brenton will be driving on his permit a year from now.

  21. Oh this whole thing reminds me of this:

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