18 June 2007

Boundaries bad; diversity good? Who says?

by Phil Johnson

oundaries. The term has acquired sinister connotations in these postmodern times. As a matter of fact, one of the main reasons clear definitions are so despised (and so hard to come by) nowadays is because they establish boundaries, and boundaries mean someone is being "marginalized." In postmodern parlance, marginalizing someone—anyone, regardless of the reason—carries roughly the same moral connotation as a lynching.

Diversity, on the other hand, while unaccountably missing from every biblical list of virtues, has been canonized by postmodern minds (including most participants in the Emerging Conversation) as one of the last few remaining uncontestable moral values. It is probably fair to say that "diversity" is prized in the Emerging community even more highly than unity. The many clear New Testament pleas to "be of one mind" (e.g., 2 Corinthians 13:11; cf. Romans 15:5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 1:27; 2:2; 3:16; 4:2; 1 Peter 3:8) are effectively set aside in favor of the more postmodern and politically-correct ideal of a liberal-minded doctrinal tolerance.

How did it come to this?

Well, for one thing, a gnawing doctrinal indifference has been spreading like leaven through the evangelical movement for several decades. The trend seems to have begun in the mid-twentieth century as a radical overreaction to unbridled militancy in the fundamentalist movement.

But the accrued apathy of at least four-plus decades of neo-evangelical influence has left evangelicals virtually defenseless against doctrinal error—especially the subtle varieties. The Emerging movement has aggressively exploited that weakness, challenging (on one front or another) practically every historic evangelical doctrinal distinctive. The Emerging Church has therefore become practically the mirror opposite of what fundamentalism was supposed to be.

Ironically, diversity is also every Emerging apologist's favorite answer to critics who complain about the free-wheeling nature of doctrinal discourse within the Emerging conversation. Individuals within the movement are essentially free to deny or assert anything they like while the larger movement remains effectively impervious to doctrinal criticism—because "Not everyone in the movement believes like that" works well as an easy, all-purpose reply. Heresies and false doctrines of all types can and do percolate freely within the movement (often coming from some of the movement's best-known figures), but Emerging devotees nearly always dismiss legitimate concerns about the erosion of doctrine in their midst with a shrug and a wave of the hand at the ECM's broad diversity.

It's a trend that augurs serious disaster for the movement's inevitable drift.

Phil's signature


Impacted Wisdom Truth said...

The Emerging Church, like all edifices built upon the sand, will collapse under its own weight.

Our duty is to be the rock for the refugees when that time comes.

étrangère said...

There is surely a Biblical diversity in the church which should be celebrated more - a diversity of gifts (practised for the common good), a diversity of cultures and peoples (but one in Christ Jesus) and (to be lovingly tolerated in true sense) a diversity of opinions on things of lesser importance (Rom 14). Perhaps some of the EC celebration of doctrinal diversity is a reaction against a monoculturalism, and heavy-handedness regarding the cultural and Rom14-type diversity. We need to be careful that we don't go less tolerant than ever before in those diversities, as a reaction against the heterodox-type diversities celebrated elsewhere.

Dr. Mac said...

"Who says?" Ah, there's the rub: the foundation underlying this whole question is the issue of authority. Each and every person on the planet orders his/her life by one of two authorities: revelation or speculation. And because so many churches have abandoned biblical revelation, 'spiritual' speculation is rife.

david rudd said...

perhaps there is a nuance between "diversity" and "relativism" that could be explored here. i think "diversity" has a bigger and more important meaning that could potentially be lost if it is used as a label for the subjectivity of many in the postmodern church.

isn't the trinity the perfect model of unity with diversity?

donsands said...

Leaven is always difficult to deal with.
A lot of wisdom in this clear statement of how this leaven is spreading throughout the Body of Christ.

Makes my heart heavy.

centuri0n said...

David Rudd:

No, the Trinity is not unity with diversity.

But before we explode that pineapple, let's think about something first: when someone today says "diversity" they mean one of two things --

[1] Racial or ethnic heterogeneity -- that is, a diversity of ethnic types. In this, they mean that there is more than one culture represented -- which is supposed to be good, even if the cultures represented are Chinese communism, Russian Marxism, German Nazism and South American Juntaism. It's not about what is actually represented but that there is tension between points of view.

A real irony is that a class which rates notice in a survey of diversity is sex -- which they call "gender". Not only is it important to have representatives from several cultures, but making sure that the sexes are also diversely represented also produces the proper amount of disagreement.

What they may or may not tell you (they may not even understand this themselves) is that this is a sort of bastardization of Hegelian dialect. This idea that a pluralized conversation -- without regard to what is actually true, and without regard to whether a matter is actually settled as fact -- will lead to a synthesis which resolves the conflict is high romantic Rationalism, and is hardly a Christian view of things at all.

More on that in a moment.

[2] They mean that there are no actually-true things. For example, I have this friend named Phil Johnson, and he's married to a woman far too good for him named Darlene. These are facts; they are true. But to say, for example, that Phil and Darlene are married limits the scope of their emotional and sexual choices. Some man who thinks that Darlene is too good for Phil and wants to take her away from all that would rather say that these people are instead "in a long-term relationship", but he's going to do something about that.

For the advocate of diveristy, this is not home-wrecking: this is seeking the highest personal good for those involved -- including Phil, who should know for certain that he's a cad who by no means is worthy of a wife as devoted and talented as Darlene. Phil's fundamentalism, after all, has kept Darlene as a home-maker for the last sumpty-sumting years. We can't have that.

The truth about what marriage is, or ought to be, doesn't enter into the discussion. Diversity demands that all things be renegotiated based on what is true right now.


OK -- so why is there not "unity and diversity" in the Godhead? I have a short list:

{a} There is no diversity of opinion in the Godhead. Among the ways they are unified is in purpose -- there are no disagreements among the persons of the Trinity. (cf. John 14:20,31; 15:26)

{b} There is no diversity in the Godhead because they are the same nature. When Jesus said he was the Father's son, the Jews wanted to stone Him for saying it -- because that statement made him like God rather than like man.

{c} There is no diversity in the Godhead because there is only one Truth among them, and it is manifest in Jesus Christ. (cf. John 1:17-18)

What you mean by your statement, I guess, is that they are distinct persons -- but this is not what the advocate for diversity means. Even in their bizarre world of wholly-atomized individuals who are wholly autonomous, being a distinct person is not enough to qualify for diversity. You must hold to a wholly-different perspective on the world to be considered "diverse".

And that said, this is not the Christian worldview. Historically, biblically, and philosophically, the view of the world for the Christian is that Truth proceeds from God and men must receive that truth or be in error. The truth is not negotiated or synthesized: it exists apart from man, and man as a created being is subject to it.


Be careful what you allow yourself to believe. It's easy to find yourself adopting a wholly-atheist philosophy unless you can recognize the foundations of the various pop philosophies that are running around our culture today.

david rudd said...


i pretty much agree with everything you are saying...

...if you are saying that those who bang the drum of diversity are in actuality banging the drum of pluralism.

i'm right with you on that.

i'm just not sure "diversity" was the best word for this post...

if the goal is precise, nuanced language.

jsb said...

Did you see the story of the female Episcopal priest who declares she is a Christian AND a Muslim?

Kim said...


But before we explode that pineapple

Do I ever like that phrase. Can I borrow it sometime?

I really liked the rest of your comment, too.

M.W. Brewer said...

2 Timothy 4:2-4 has a lot to say in regards to movements such as the ECM. It is as if they want to believe God only far enough for the "Fire insurance," but not so far as to submit themselves wholly to Him(Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).

And with these strange doctrines that they attempt to further(Ecclesiastes 1:9) introduce/inject/intrude into sound Biblical doctrine, how do they answer Paul's words:

"...let God be true but every man a liar..."-Romans 3:4

God did indeed create an abundance of diversity for us to celebrate. Simply look at creation, but He is quite clear with regards to the One, True, Way to and of Himself.

Either way this finishes off a long weekend in dealing with false doctorine for me.



(P.S. Phil, thank you for your Darwin Fish FAQ site, it helped with some discussion and research I did this weekend.)

Phil Johnson said...

David Rudd: "I'm just not sure "diversity" was the best word for this post... if the goal is precise, nuanced language."

Perhaps some of your Emerging friends could benefit from your deconstruction of the term, then. Why don't you try it out on them?

Because (as I explained in the post) "diversity" is the defense regularly hauled out by Friends of Emergent and other postmodern types whenever the Emerging movement is faced with criticism about its tolerance for just about every novel or unorthodox opinion. It's their word, not mine. I'd call it pandemonium or heterodoxy, but Emerging types usually want to portray the doctrinal chaos within their movement in a positive light, so they call it "diversity."

Incidentally, this has been a repeated theme in comments posted by Emerging aficionados in the comment-threads and trackbacks right here on our blog. Point out the apostasy of Spencer Burke; cite the latest crazy pronouncement from McLaren; or complain about some heretical teaching from Rob Bell's podcast—and within hours, someone in the emerging blogosphere will write a piece about how you have failed to appreciate the movement's broad "diversity" and are therefore guilty of painting with too broad a brush.

Oddly, although D. A. Carson began his book by noting the movement's vast "diversity," his critique has met with dismissal from the Emerging community, and one of the main complaints about the book is that Carson supposedly focused too much on McLaren and didn't fully appreciate that the movement is more "diverse" than that.

Diversity is the standard term employed in the Emerging Conversation to signify the movement's doctrinal pluralism. I didn't make it up.

Check, for example, the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on "Emerging Church": "Their acceptance of diversity and reliance on open dialogue rather than the dogmatic proclamation found in historic Christianity leads emerging church Christians to diverse beliefs and morality."

Or see this series on "Emerging Diversity" from a popular Emerging blog.

Jason Vaughn said...

When I hear "emergents" spout "diversity" it always seems to be a cover for "I am who I am." In your research, do you think one of the fundamental issues that plagues the emergent church is a poor acurate theology of man?

Phil Johnson said...

Re: my previous comment--

Start here at the end of Jamie Arpin-Ricci's series on "Diversity," and you'll find it easier to locate all four parts of the series.

Jason Vaughn: "do you think one of the fundamental issues that plagues the emergent church is a poor acurate theology of man?"

Sure. As you correctly suggest, however, it's one of several "fundamental" doctrinal problems that plague the movement--and all of these go back to the lack of any consensus within the movement—"diversity" in postmodern parlance.

Here's what I mean: Name any vital doctrine you can think of and it's likely that some influential voice or another within the Emerging community has challenged orthodoxy on that truth in some way or another. The broad movement's whole approach to doctrine is so seriously askew that there may be no heresy (except, perhaps, political incorrectness) that couldn't comfortably pitch a tent within the Emerging camp.

Martin Downes said...

When doctrine after doctrine is altered, repositioned, questioned, up for debate etc, etc. it points to a more fundamental shift in the relationship between verbal revelation and reason. Something has shifted in the very way "the faith" is being thought of.

I'm prepared to stand by this comment (and intend it to be descriptive), but is it not the case that emerging thought appeals most of all to those who are Arminian and charismatic?

centuri0n said...

David Rudd:

I agree (big surprise here) with Phil -- this is their word, and when they use it, we have to use it for what they mean to use it for. They do not mean, "disagreement over the mode and meaning of baptism": they mean, "pluralistic views of what Christ means to men, with all points open to re-evaluation".

But here's the kicker: if they do not mean that, what do they mean? Will they say? When will they say? Who can speak for them?

jsb said...

Well, Martin, I can't speak for charismatics, but no traditional Arminian would be attracted by this denigrating of authority. I am apalled by it, and uphold inerrancy. I will suggest that Calvinists have historically been stronger in emphasizing doctrine, Arminians stronger in emphasizing evangelism. So when these doctrinal issues arise, the Calvinists are ready to do magnificent battle on behalf of the Truth, and I for one am glad to be on their side.

Martin Downes said...

Thanks jsb

It strikes me that the dividing issue is not over particular doctrines but over how people think from the very start about doctrine, dogma, and confessing the faith.

david rudd said...


i had crafted a great response to phil but good ol' blogger lost it. so i'll try again here...

i agree, the word has been hijacked.

it should be a word we can use to appropriately speak of the unity that should be enjoyed by a church that is ONE made up of many parts.

the idea that "all beliefs are welcome" is not diversity (no matter what someone might claim), it is pluralism/relativism/subjectivism...

so, i agree with both you and Phil.


i don't think we have to give away the word. i think the proper approach is to talk about what diversity really is. what Biblical diversity should look like. Build a strong argument in the positive without taking any shots at those who have misused it.

i just feel like you guys can do a lot of good by making positive theological statements (your series on the Bible was great without firing across the aisle!). i don't mean this in a bad way, but i just feel like whenever this blog talks about emerging stuff it loses its credibility with a lot of people who agree most of the time. that's why i'm much more in favor of making strong positive statements...

i'd love to see you guys discuss "TRUE DIVERSITY".

david rudd said...


my experience is that most people i know who accept the label "emerging" tend toward calvinism.

those who tend toward arminianism reject the label (even if it might apply).

i haven't really thought about why that might be.

Caleb Kolstad said...

Thanks for this post!

Phil Johnson said...

David Rudd: "Build a strong argument in the positive without taking any shots at those who have misused it. i just feel like you guys can do a lot of good by making positive theological statements (your series on the Bible was great without firing across the aisle!). i don't mean this in a bad way, but i just feel like whenever this blog talks about emerging stuff it loses its credibility with a lot of people who agree most of the time. that's why i'm much more in favor of making strong positive statements.."


See the final paragraph of this post for J. Gresham Machen's answer to that type of thinking. I agree with him: Your position is irrational and counterproductive. (Note: I stated that as positively as possible.)

Besides, if the point is to bring clarity to something that has been deliberately muddied, what in the world do you think you accomplish by declaring negative statements out of bounds? And how in the world does such an approach enhance anyone's "credibility"? Is it not rather a capitulation to one of the main errors of postmodern "dialog"?

And is your negative response to my negative assessment of postmodernity morally superior to my criticism? If so, why? Because you preceded it with "i don't mean this in a bad way, but. . ."?

I don't mean this in a bad way, but you really ought to rethink your worldview.

centuri0n said...

Can I say "booyah" now, or do I have to wait until nobody's looking?

david rudd said...

thanks for your reasoned response to my clearly negative post.

you guys are the best!

frank, feel free to say booyah whenever you like.

Sewing said...

Wow, Phil takes a break of a couple of weeks (save for a post or two), and comes back with this humdinger.

All I know is, liberal Christian belief is the fast track to false religion and atheism, and the emerging church is just the latest express train going down that track. As a way to God, it's a dead-end street (to mix metaphors). I know, because I've been there.

Without affirmation that Scripture is God's revealed, inerrant Word, one cannot affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ as the consummation of God's promises to the faithful elect from Abel on down. Without affirmation of the validity of his promises, one cannot place full trust in God. Without placing full trust in God, one has mere belief in God—a fanciful, manmade belief, a personal choice that one can adopt, modify, or drop at will—in which case my belief is as good as your belief.

It's too bad that the emergents have co-opted the term "diversity"—that they have taken a word that describes something divinely ordained and used it to sanction something that is not of God.

I praise God his kind of diversity: the wonderful diversity of nations whose elect have come to Christ. I thank God for the diversity of "people groups" in my own church and around the world, especially in Africa and Asia, who bear more honest witness to the Gospel than so many of our own fellow North Americans and Europeans do. I thank God that He who gave his promise of salvation to my Abrahamic ancestors in the flesh, gives it to my Abrahamic cousins in the spirit today. This is the kind of wonderful, divinely ordained diversity that should be celebrated!

Sewing said...

Sorry, there might appear to have been a veiled swipe at Arminianism in my use of the term "personal choice," but out of respect for JSB, that was not my intention.

wordsmith said...

"And I can't look at hobbles and I can't stand fences...Don't fence me in."

...from my nomination for the ECM anthem:


(Sorry, Blogger complains about broken tags when I try to code the link in.)

Jason Vaughn said...

I would expect that if the emergent church really wanted to spout "diversity" then I would expect to read books on Ephesians 4:7-16 from them...

However, I do not think this is the case.

Jonathan Moorhead said...

I can't help but quote Machen here:

“What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires.”

“The Church is perishing today through the lack of thinking, not through an excess of it.”

jsb said...

Thanks for the kind nod, sewing. No swipe taken!

What irks me no end with many ECMs is that they are not certain about anything EXCEPT that any critique from our end is a misunderstanding of their "position." They are ALL certain of that. No debate there. Words have meaning on that score. Yeesh.

Jay said...

2Th 2:9-12 The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

Dave on the Prairie said...

There is another misused word: "progressive"

If you want to see what I mean, go here: http://liberalpastor.blogspot.com

The early church had to face some of these same problems. They did not choose to compromise or agree to disagree.

Matt said...

Martin said:

It strikes me that the dividing issue is not over particular doctrines but over how people think from the very start about doctrine, dogma, and confessing the faith.

You're absolutely right on this, Martin. The difference between Emerging types and orthodox types is NOT over what the Bible says, but rather, over what Scripture is.

Even though they may reject the idea that there is such a thing as truth in the abstract, they all certainly must act on the basis that truth does exist. However, the "truth" postmoderns must live by is mediated by the all-powerful ME. They almost invariably act as though personal ideas and opinions are more certain and reliable than God's self-revelation. Kind of ironic for people who, on the surface, want to stress man's limited understanding of things! In practice, they rely much more on the infallibility and inerrancy of man (pardon me - persons) than the conservative evangelicals they love to slam.

Matt said...

BTW, just a question.

If postmodernism is an accurate description of how things really are, how did anybody find that out?

Sewing said...

Heh. You're subtle, dude. It took me 10 minutes to get it.

Brad Leber said...


14:12 There is a way that seems right to a man,
but its end is the way to death. [1]

1:22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?

2 Timothy 3
1 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. …5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. …7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.

Also, for those who are tired of having their hard work wiped out by a keystroke in blogger, try putting your post together in a word processing program and then cutting and pasting to the comment box...

Daniel said...

I know this is slightly off topic, but when I read the title I misread boundaries as "bonfires"... I had a "huh?" moment - it made me laugh. ;-)

Sewing said...

Brad: At first I thought Matt was serious, but I think he was making a joke—too subtle a joke by far: I don't think he should go into late night comedy writing any time soon.

To expound, how can postmodernists be so assured of the rightness of postmodernism? If truth is relative, is it not legitimate to argue that postmodernism is only one way of looking at truth?

Or something like that....

Matt said...

That's right on what I was trying to say, sewing.

I always find a certain amount of irony in postmoderns insisting that we're so caught up in our cultural and linguistic barriers, that we cannot make objectively true observations about reality.

Of course, they are immune from their observations and in fact do step out of their cultural and linguistic barriers in order to tell all of us how things really are!

Postmoderns are utterly dependent upon the very thing that they seek to deny - truth must be that which corresponds to reality.

All jeering aside, has anyone in the ECM taken a serious stab at resolving this dilemma? I have not yet read any satisfactory defense of how postmodernism can escape its own basic, foundational (?!) assumptions. I would enjoy reading an explanation from a professed Christian postmodern.

The original comment was intended to be subtle, fun, and harmless, however.

Matt said...

Brad Leber, you have impeccable taste in music!

Anonymous said...

in response to matt's comments about "postmoderns" and objective truth observations and reality - i have found that if you are trusted and people feel you respect them, that there is wide openness to discussion about truth, Scripture, exclusivity of Jesus etc. i have found there is much interest in these types of conversations. but it means we must be more prayerful, sensitive, and truly listen to the beliefs and persepctives of the other person.

donsands said...

"i have found that if you are trusted and people feel you respect them, that there is wide openness to discussion about truth,"

That can happen for sure. And I would love that to happen every time.
But, sometimes I have been mocked and made fun of, as a religious nut.
Some will even hate us, as they hated the Lord of love, and Prince of peace, when we sghare the Gospel. It's what our Lord told us would happen. You can take that to the bank.

Brad Leber said...


Oh yeah, I got Matt's joke, it was a good one too...

Matt, the comments were pointed toward the pomo's not you... and thanks about the music ;-)