Theological Drifters: Redux


I posted some thoughts about the “drift” of various theologies when Keith did his original post concerning Brian McLaren, but since he updated his assessment of certain emergent-y authors, I thought I’d do an update of my own. My original point was that we can’t know from the apparent direction of a theology where its followers might end up. The example I used that when a preacher preaches too much hellfire: instead of wanting to be safe in the arms of the church that says it will protect them from such hellfire, folks just give up and go towards some kind of humanism or some other system of belief. Let’s see where that stands today:

Now I get that Keith has put together some valid reasons why he’d reckon that, yes, Brian McLaren and/or Rob Bell has drifted away from anything like mainstream evangelical/conservative Protestantism, but what about his counter example:

“If a guy can sit down and stomach something like a John Piper sermon, at the very least I know his temptation isn’t going to drift in that way.”

So what way is this John Piper-stomaching fellow going to drift? Most likely Keith is thinking that he’d end up in a good, Reformed congregation full of people who nod approvingly at the words of folks involved with all the “young, restless, Reformed” websites/conferences/YouTube channels. You know the ones: The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, Acts 29 and so on. These people are going to be, from an evangelical-conservative standpoint, safe, right? We are told this is especially the case now because of the renewed interest in church discipline in Reformed circles, whereas people like Rob Bell or Brian McLaren are completely untethered, no longer pastors, (and this last bit is from an Anabaptist!) no one can call them to account now. (Never mind that Mark Driscoll is functionally unaccountable to anyone now.) Tony Jones made the point in response that Bell is accountable to the book-buying public (for many conservative Christians the free market is usually sufficient accountability in other areas – don’t know if it flies for troublesome post-evangelical speakers).

I’m digressing now, what about these folks in Reformed churches with solid church discipline? They aren’t drifting towards wherever Rob Bell or Brian McLaren (or Tony Jones or Peter Rollins) are going, but where do they end up? In the case of Sovereign Grace Ministries they seem to have fallen under the scourge of both spiritual and sexual abuse and some nasty attendant cover-ups (if you keep digging around this story it now appears to be just about as ugly as the Roman Catholic abuse scandals, only lacking in scale since SGM is minuscule compared to Rome). James MacDonald may or may not have set up his church’s finances like a Ponzi scheme. And both MacDonald and Driscoll seem to have something of a pecuniary interest in cozying up to T. D. Jakes. These are not outliers, but some of the very central figures to Reformed ecclesiology, people whose churches are models for all of North American (or even global) Protestantism.

Now I hasten to add that this is not the case for every Reformed congregation, certainly there are very good people and very good pastors in this tradition, many of whom I’m blessed to know personally. But what if our Reformed theological drifter ends up in a congregation that abuses ideas like authority or church discipline? Hopefully they get out, but often it sours them on not just that church, but church in general. I don’t know how to speak to a survivor of those kinds of experiences who has given up on churches or Christianity entirely without sounding like, “Other than that, what did you think of the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” There is an aspect to this sort of discussion that seems to assume “no enemies to the right” as it were (except perhaps for the Phelps family, who everyone thinks is completely crazy). Drifting to more Reformed/conservative/evangelical expressions of Christianity cannot and does not save you, nor does it ensure that you will not leave the church – just like those who drift into reading Rob Bell.