Dissecting the Color Grey: A Critique of the Emergent Church

Dissecting the Color Grey: A Critique of the Emergent Church


A Paper

Presented to

Dr. Lee Williams

The College at Southwestern


In Partial Fulfillment

of the Requirements for IDE 4203-B



Tim Hare

April 8, 2010






If what’s true for you is true for you and what’s true for me is true for me, what if my truth says yours is a lie?  Is it still true?  Come on man! – Lecrae, Christian rap artist[1]

The color gray is a very interesting color.  It is a combination of two other “colors:” black, the absence of any color, and white, a combination of all the colors.  Oftentimes people use these colors as metaphors for a way in which an individual thinks about ideas and concepts in life; a person may be referred to as a black-and-white thinker.  When someone thinks in such a fashion, he or she believes that an idea or concept is either right or it is wrong – there is no in-between.  Thus if someone claims to be a gray thinker, then that person is blurring the lines between what is right and what is wrong.  This is exactly what the Emergent Church does in regards to their theology and philosophy.  For them, it is not important what one believes.  All that matters is how one lives. 

The argument presented in Lecrae’s rap is a very simple yet effective argument against the philosophy known as postmodernism.  What it is arguing for is that there must be some objective, never changing, absolute truth.  If everyone’s own truth is true then chaos ensues.  Living in such a manner is absolutely impossible.  One can claim to believe such a philosophy, but to actually live it out is unattainable.       

Since the beginning of time, mankind has battled the dangerous philosophy of postmodernism.  What postmodernism essentially says is this:  there is no absolute truth, and thus anyone can do what seems right to himself.  Morality becomes relative to the circumstances in which every individual finds himself.  J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig write about how the postmodern philosophy reinterprets truth altogether.  It supports an idea known as relativism.[2]  Relativism is the view that each individual has the ability to hold one’s own truth; something is true because an individual believes it to be true.[3]  This is the philosophy of relativism and this is clearly the idea that is demonstrated in Lecrae’s song.

The philosophy of postmodernism can be seen in the Bible.  When the serpent tempted Eve in the garden in Genesis 3, he was appealing to this philosophy.  The serpent said that what God had commanded wasn’t actually true, but that Adam and Eve, in a sense, should seek their own truth and not follow what God established as true.  Satan was attempting to deconstruct how God had previously commanded Adam and Eve to live.  God laid down a clear truth, and Satan blurred the truth so that Adam and Eve would not even recognize it as a truth. 

Another example of postmodern philosophy that can be seen in the Bible is in Judges.  It says in Judges 21:25:  “In those days there was no king in Israel.  Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”[4]  This was not a time of peace among the Israelites.  To the contrary, it was a time of internal division; tribes were fighting against tribes.  Why?  Because “everyone did what was right in his own eyes;” there was no absolute authority that was giving the people of Israel a foundation by which to live.  Some people said Israel should act in one way, and others felt that Israel should act differently.  It was impossible for peace to be maintained, thus strife and conflicts were the result.  Though people may refer to postmodernism as a newer philosophy, in reality, there is nothing new about it.  It has been around since the dawn of mankind, and has continued to make its mark throughout history.

So the question arises: could this philosophy that has brought so much destruction be infiltrating the church?  The answer is a definitive “yes.”  Postmodernism has not only infiltrated the church, but is actually a driving force within it.  A movement has begun known as the Emergent Church.  It is believed that the Emergent Church is both philosophically inconsistent with what we know of philosophy, and theologically inconsistent in accordance with what the Scripture teaches.  These inconsistencies can be seen in both Emergent literature as well as critiques of this movement and their literature by others.

Introducing the Emergent Church

To understand exactly what the Emergent Church is, further clarification must be made.  Oftentimes the terms emerging and Emergent are used interchangeably.  For instance, in D.A. Carson’s book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, Carson critiques Brian McLaren as a member of the Emerging Church.  However, though McLaren would be considered to be within the category of the Emerging Church, he is more notably a member of the Emergent Church.  Scot McKnight writes: “Emerging is the wider, informal, global, ecclesial (church-centered) focus of the movement, while Emergent is an official organization in the U.S. and the U.K.”[5]  In the U.S. most Emergent Churches are tied to what is called the Emergent Village, which is an organization that is directed by Tony Jones.  Other names that are associated with the Emergent Village would include: Doug Pagitt, Chris Seay, Tim Keel, and Brian McLaren.  “While Emergent is the intellectual and philosophical network of the emerging movement, it is a mistake to narrow all of emerging to the Emergent Village.”[6]

What is the Emergent Church?

Giving a definition for the Emergent Church is quite difficult because people within the movement do not even know how to define it themselves.  It is more difficult for those who address the Emergent Church.  But it seems that this uncertainty of identity within the church is in fact part of its definition.  Tony Jones, in writing about the Emergent Church, says: “We were more than a ‘network,’ and we surely weren’t a ‘denomination.’  We didn’t want to be a ‘club’ or a ‘society.’  Some people have called us a ‘think tank,’ but that doesn’t quite fit either.”[7]  In an article for the magazine Tikkun, Jones writes:

Emergent Christianity is hard to pin down because it’s fluid, and because it has not developed along the bureaucratic lines of denominationalism but within the open source structures of the Internet. There is no ideology, except maybe an ideology that gives no quarter to ideologies. In other words, you won’t find a doctrinal statement of the emergent church, nor will you find a headquarters.[8]

Thus it seems that the only way in which one can identify the Emergent Church is by the fact that it is unidentifiable.  But this is not something that discourages them, in fact they greatly enjoy the fact that they cannot be identified with any particular movement (except their own).  There is no doctrinal statement that groups them together.  There is no association that unites them.  They are who they are because they cannot be identified with anything else. 

Jones goes on to write about how the only word that really fits with what this group was attempting to accomplish was the word friend.  They desired to give a whole new “theological meaning” to a word that they viewed as severely overused.[9]  Thus people within the Emergent Church are not sure exactly what they are, but they do know what they are trying to accomplish, and that is to become closer friends with each other and closer friends with people in society.  The Emergent Church wants to be very relational with everyone with whom they come into contact, and accept everyone where they are in their own personal life.[10] 

Beginnings of the Emergent Church

Tony Jones, in his book The New Christians, writes:

In the mid- 1990s, Jack Caputo hosted a conference at Villanova University on postmodern philosophy featuring the inimitable Jacques Derrida, as well as others.  Caputo heard that an evangelical pastor from Texas was in the crowd, along with some of his young charges. “If Brad Cecil is here, I’d like to meet him.  Please come and see me,” Caputo said from the stage.  Brad, a volunteer pastor of young adults at the conservative megachurch Pantego Bible, had been reading Derrida and Richard Rorty and other postmodern philosophers for a couple years, and hearing of the conference, he knew he couldn’t miss it.  Caputo, for his part, couldn’t understand what a Texas evangelical was doing at an academic conference featuring Derrida, who could, in Derrida’s own words, “rightly pass for an atheist.”[11]

The question that this story raises is: why would an evangelical Christian be present at such a meeting?  Was he there to speak out against them?  Or, was he there to learn from them?  Once one learns the philosophy behind the Emergent Church, the answer to this question will be clear.

Cecil, however, was not the only one that was interested in postmodern philosophy and who had an interest in seeing changes within the church.  Men and women from all over the U.S. were attempting to do things within their own churches to reach the postmodern generation.  Youth ministers such as Tim Conder, Doug Pagitt and Dan Kimball; church planters like Andrew Jones, Mark Driscoll, and Chris Seay; and theologians including Stan Grenz and John Franke; all of these men had the desire to see the younger, postmodern generation reached in a new way.[12]

In 1997 Doug Pagitt left his church in Minnesota to accept a position in Dallas as part of a Leadership Network team.  The reason Pagitt was asked to take this position was, as Tony Jones says, to “…find the next Bill Hybels, the next Rick Warren.”[13]  These men desired to find the next group of men who would be the most relevant to the next generation. 

Debate over the Bible as “Propaganda”

In 1998 a group of men came together in Arlington, Texas to discuss the direction they each saw Christianity heading in the future.  This group included Chris Seay, Mark Driscoll, Brad Cecil, Andrew Jones, and Tony Jones.  These men, along with many others who were all under the age of thirty, discussed their own experiences in their churches, their own experiences in youth ministry, and their own experiences within the Christian faith in an attempt to decide the future direction  of the church and how best to confront the younger generation.[14]  During one of the dinner breaks, Brad Cecil and Tony Jones began a conversation.  In this conversation Tony Jones blurted out a very controversial statement.  He said, “The Bible is propaganda!”  To defend this statement against very bewildered looks and remarks, Jones continued: “Propaganda has a point and a purpose…It doesn’t claim to be objective.  It’s trying to convince someone of something.  It’s trying to get people to join a cause, to join a movement.  Isn’t that exactly what the Bible is?”[15]  With these remarks, an intense discussion ensued, led primarily by Driscoll, “the fireplug” who greatly desired to keep the texts of Scripture sacred.[16]  Since Driscoll refused to give up his conservative Reformed theology, he would later distance himself from these men, and the Emergent Church in general.[17]  In fact, in recent years Driscoll has harshly critiqued many of those affiliated with the Emergent Church.

The next morning, Cecil approached Jones to discuss Jones’s comments from the previous night.  Cecil began to agree with Jones that the Bible should not be seen as a textbook that held absolute objective truth, but that it should be viewed as a book which had a purpose or an agenda; and that purpose was still very much alive and active in this world.  To quote Jones: “It’s [the Bible’s] like the pamphlets surreptitiously printed by Paul Revere and his compatriots in 1776 – propaganda in that sense.  It’s God’s manifesto, Jesus’ Little Red Book.”[18]  It was these types of thoughts and statements that laid the foundation for the Emergent Church.  The direction this group was headed was very different from fundamentalist Christianity, and in many ways directly opposed to it.  Jones writes in regard to these early organizers of the Emergent Church:

We were, in some sense, a group of church misfits and castoffs.  Surely this was a group of competent people, convinced of their strong opinions, but many of them felt they were working without a net.  They’d opted out of the systems that had nurtured them, and the relationships that would become “emergent” were the beginning of a new way of being Christian and a new way of leading churches.[19]


Becoming the Emergent Church

In 2001, Doug Pagitt, who had continued to work with Leader Networks, met with a man named Brian McLaren.  This meeting was to discuss the future of Young Leader Networks, a branch of the Leader Networks that was becoming a separate entity.[20]  Also at this meeting one of them, though they can’t remember who, came up with the term “emergent,”[21] as McLaren writes: “One of us – I can’t remember which… – came up with a new name for the group: emergent…  We had no idea how fitting the name was and how helpful it would be in our ongoing work.”[22]    

The Philosophy behind the Emergent Church

To understand the driving philosophy behind the Emergent Church movement, one must understand the philosophy of postmodernism because they are one and the same.  Postmodernism is the direct result of modernism.  The modern philosophy came from what is known as naturalism.  According to Moreland and Craig, philosophical naturalism teaches that the natural world, which merely consists of physical material, is all that exists.  Within such a system there can be no room for belief in a deity or angels or anything to do with the supernatural.[23]  James W. Sire has written how the philosophy of naturalism stresses that all that really exists in the universe is matter, and that belief in any form of deity is not possible because deities cannot be proven through empirical science.[24]  Naturalists believe in a system that is a completely closed system.  That means they deny the existence of anything supernatural.  Everything in the world must be able to be described through natural means alone.[25]  For the modern naturalist, God is dead, that is, He never existed.[26] 

Sire continues to write about how Postmodernity took what Modernity had taught to its logical conclusion.  If God does not exist, that is, if He is dead, then morality has died with Him.  Any objective morality that exists within this world must rest upon an absolute being or some absolute standard that has established right from wrong.  Without such a being, the concept of right and wrong dies and the postmodern movement begins.[27]  Nietzsche, the philosopher who coined the phrase, God is dead, believed that because of this missing god, man is the one who interprets morality for himself.  He speaks of how people need to be looking after their own virtues, virtues that they see as right for themselves.[28]  Thus when dependence upon an absolute for the basis of morality is forsaken, the only thing that remains is individual opinion.  This leads directly into postmodernism.  

Moreland and Craig define postmodernism in this way: “As a philosophical standpoint, postmodernism is primarily a reinterpretation of what knowledge is and what counts as knowledge.  More broadly, it represents a form of cultural relativism about such things as reality, truth, reason, value, linguistic meaning, the self and other notions.”[29]  The postmodern movement was derived from men such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Francois Lyotard.[30] 

So what have these men taught?  These men have attempted to gray the lines between what should be considered as true and what should be seen as untrue.  They have attempted to deconstruct what men had formerly believed to be true.  This idea of deconstructionism says that what was right or wrong at one point of time does not have to be right or wrong at another point in time.  There is no absolute meaning in anything describing the past. [31]  Even historical documents do not contain any meaning or impact upon the lives of individuals living in the present.  One author writes: “Postmodernity’s attitude toward language gives it neither transparency – words are like a window through which we see the world – nor universality – people, if they are rational and realistic, make the same connections between word and world.”[32]  There is no absolute meaning that exists within language.  Everything depends upon how the individual that lives in the present wants to interpret the past.  Thus, the past does not interpret the present, but the present interprets the past.  Moreland and Craig write about how the author of anything written in the past is in no privileged position when someone is reading what he or she has written.[33]  For the postmodern Deconstructionist, authorial intent is useless and pointless.  True meaning resides in the way an individual or a group of individuals decide to interpret any given text.[34]

Jacques Derrida, one of the founders of Deconstructionism, says this: “There is nothing outside the text.”[35]  What Derrida is attempting to say is that what has been written about in the past is not something tangible that people can experience.  Because of this, he believes that people living in the present should come up with their own meaning for historical texts. [36]  Derrida and those who followed him denied the idea of any factual knowledge.  Anything that is written by an expert in a particular field can be denied.  The reader and the thinker have the liberty to do what they want with the facts and ideas they observe.[37]  As previously stated, these have been the philosophers who have had such a great influence upon the leaders of the Emergent Church.      

In speaking of an Emergent congregation named Ikon, formed by Peter Rollins in Belfast, Ireland, Caputo writes: “Ikon is not a parish but a decidedly postmodern paraliturgical undertaking, an attempt to produce an avant-garde liturgy.  No one is ordained, there is no ethical or theological consensus, only a concerted effort to be inclusive, both liberal and conservative, Catholic and Protestant, theist and atheist.”[38]  This statement gives the primary goal of both the Emergent Church and postmodernism in general – inclusiveness.  Postmodernism does not want to say that anyone is wrong in what they believe.  If one person believes that something is true and another person believes that that same thing is false, they see no dilemma – both can be true for each individual.  This idea within Postmodernism is breaking one of the fundamental laws of logic: the law of non-contradiction; which states that P cannot be true and false at the same time.[39]  This, however, is fundamental principle within Postmodernism.

The Emergent Church has seen the traditional church turn away so many people that they have gone to the opposite extreme and have allowed anyone, saved or unsaved, to be a part of their “congregations.”  In fact many of the leaders have felt that it is a good thing to dialogue with other religions to see if they can learn something that might help them in their own personal faith.[40]  Leaders in the Emergent Church fear stepping on the toes of other world religions.  They see no reason to try and share with them how Christ is the only way to eternal salvation, but instead want to encourage them and try to learn from them.  Michael Wittmer writes:

One leader comments on his interaction with other religions: “Evangelism or missions for me is no longer about persuading people to believe what I believe…It is more about shared experiences and encounters.  It is about walking the journey of life and faith together, each distinct to his or her own tradition and culture but with the possibility of encountering God and truth from one another.” [41]

Thus for the Emergent Church, it really doesn’t matter what one believes about Christ, the Bible, the Church, or the Christian faith.  What matters is that one can experience God through his or her own personal journey, whatever that journey may be.

What’s Good about the Emergent Church?

In the book Christ and Culture, Richard Niebuhr gives five different ways that a Christian can relate to culture: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture.[42]  It seems that it is possible for all of these ways to be useful in different situations.  The Emergent Church mostly relates to the culture in the second way: Christ of culture.  They believe that the Christian faith is not just a bunch of doctrines that one believes to be true, but that it is a way to live out one’s life; and this is a good thing.  People within the Emergent Church look at many Fundamentalists and seem them as not living the Christian life, but merely going through the motions.

A Diagnostic Problem with the Fundamentalists’ Fundamentalism

The Emergent church has done several things which are good for the church and Christianity in general.  One thing that the Emergent Church has done has been to give a right diagnosis for some of the problems with what has been called Fundamentalism.  Many within the Emergent Church do not believe that Fundamentalism as it was traditionally intended was wrong; in fact it was very good.  Dan Kimball, a leader within the Emergent Church, writes of how traditional Fundamentalism was centered on five doctrines: the verbal inspiration of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and the bodily resurrection and future return of Christ.[43]  Kimball, who himself claims to hold these essential doctrines (though many within the Emergent Church do not hold all these to be true, as will be shown later), has no problem calling himself a Fundamentalist if this is all it is referring to; however, many Fundamentalists have adopted other, oftentimes, extra-biblical “doctrines.”  Kimball writes:

Through time the term fundamentalist ceased to be associated with only five fundamental core beliefs and instead became associated with a much more extended list including a specific end-times view and a specific timetable for the creation story.  Fundamentalists added dress codes, views on music, movies, and all types of things that are very subjective, not based on the Bible.[44]

As will be shown later, it is crucial that Conservative Christianity hold to certain truths that are unshakable and that stand as pillars for the Christian faith.  However, in recent years, many Christian conservatives have begun to be dogmatic and almost legalistic in areas upon which the Bible is silent.  It would be good if the church as a whole would accept the critique offered by the Emergent Church, and seek to recover a position of holding forth the essentials of the Christian faith. 

Love for One Another

The Emergent Church has an intense desire to help and serve the need within the world.  They have created an intense awareness of the social needs of society.  For instance, in James 1:27 it says: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  The church in general has failed in this command.  Orphans and widows are rarely cared for by the church.  Instead, this command and responsibility that is given to the church is being fulfilled by the government.  The Emergent church, however, has identified this need, and is seeking to use its resources to meet it.  D.A. Carson writes this in regard to the Emerging Church: “The emerging church movement honestly tries to read the culture in which we find ourselves and to think through the implications of such a reading for our witness, our grasp of theology, our churchmanship, even our self-understanding.”[45]

The leaders of the Emergent Church are fed up with the way the church in general has dealt with (or not dealt with) these issues – and rightly so.  Tony Campolo writes that when Christ came to the earth, He helped people spiritually as well as physically and socially.[46]  Oftentimes it seems that the church merely focuses on getting people into the church, but does not become an active participant in an individual’s life once that person has come to salvation.[47]  Many churches are so focused upon getting a bigger and better building that they neglect the real needs of a congregation.  Churches desire to build bigger buildings, skate parks, gymnasiums, and other seeming attractions, and have woefully neglected the person within the congregation struggling to pay rent or put food on the table for his or her family.  These are the needs the church is required to meet.  Brian McLaren writes about this in speaking of the traditional Christian religion:

It [the Christian religion] has specialized in people’s destination in the afterlife but has failed to address significant social injustices in this life.  It has focused on “me” and “my soul” and “my spiritual life” and “my eternal destiny,” but it has failed to address the dominant societal and global realities of their lifetime: systemic injustice, systemic poverty, systemic ecological crisis, systemic dysfunctions of many kinds.[48]

McLaren is right.  The people of a local church are called to live the Christian life together in a community.  They are to help bear each others burdens as it speaks of in Acts 4 where the people of the church in Jerusalem were told to come together and bring money and possession that could be distributed by the church to those who needed it.  In the recent past, the church seems to have forgotten about the needs of the congregation, let alone the needs of the rest of society.  Children are left orphaned, widows are left with no means to support themselves, and the elderly are left with no one to take care of them, and since the church has failed in its obligation to care for these needs, people have turned their dependency away from the church and have placed it on a political party or a government agency.   

In his book Don’t Stop Believing, Michael Wittmer tells a story that shows how so many “Conservative Christians” often view people within the world.  He writes:

Recently I exited an interstate behind a Buick that sported a bumper sticker with a cross and the words “Truth, not tolerance.”  As we turned onto the East Beltline, we passed a young man dressed in Goth attire with spiked hair, kneeling on the sidewalk to light his cigarette against the wind.  I watched as the plump driver looked in her rearview mirror and made what appeared to be a sarcastic comment to her fellow passengers, who turned and laughed at the poor “degenerate” outside.  In that moment I caught a glimpse of the ugly underbelly of conservative Christianity, the air of intolerant superiority that makes me wonder if Jesus feels closer to the fellow outside than to his supposed followers inside the car.[49]   

How often does such a thing take place?  Has the church forgotten the people to which Christ Himself ministered?  Christ went out of His way to speak to the “degenerates” of that society: the Samaritan woman, Zacchaeus the tax collector, as well as beggars and lepers.  All of these people were despised by the Jewish culture.  When Christ came He brought with Him a very counter-cultural message – a message that says “love your enemies,” a message that invites people off the main road to the wedding feast, a message that says that the prayer of the tax collector rather than that of the Pharisee is justified.  Donald Miller says that Christ was against the “lifeboat theory” which says that one must choose whom they are to save.  Christ did not look at an individual as superior to another individual.  Christ saw everyone as equal.[50]  Christ sought those who were neglected by society rather than those who were thought to have been righteous because of their own deeds. 

As was seen in Wittmer’s story, all too often people within conservative Christianity view themselves as godly people because of the way in which they live their lives, but they ignore the needs of society.  They do not care for the homeless, the drug addicts, the prostitutes, and the drunkards.  And yet it is these people who are in dire need of the Gospel of Christ.  The Emergent Church, however, sees the physical needs of society and has a desire to help and meet those needs.  In The Secret Message of Jesus, McLaren writes: “The kingdom of God, then, is a revolutionary, counter-cultural movement – proclaiming a ceaseless rebellion against the tyrannical trinity of money, sex, and power.  Its citizens resist the occupation of this invisible Caesar…”[51]  This desire to help the needy regardless of their race, their dress, their behavior, or their speech is one of the essential tenets of the Emergent Church, and is also a tenet that is essential for one living the Christian life.  Matthew 9:10-13 says:

And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.  And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

It seems that oftentimes within the church, the people who are sought after the most are people who have good jobs, good salaries, and a good family life.  But this is not the gospel.  The gospel does not discriminate; it is open to whoever believes, as is made clear in James where it speaks of how there should be no partiality within the church.  The poor, the homeless, the sick, and the outcasts of society are the ones who should be sought after the most.

Praise from Southern Baptists

In a panel discussion, called the Grindstone, at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Paige Patterson, the president of the seminary, echoed many of these sentiments when he gave areas in which the Emergent Church does some good things.  First, the Emergent Church, says Patterson, “does not have a concern for the barnacles of tradition.”[52][53]  This means that the Emergent Church has been willing to rid itself of pointless traditions, things like, how people must dress for church, or the style of music that must be used.  These are things that have often plagued conservative Christianity.[54]

The second thing that Patterson said the Emergent Church does well is that it “has a genuine concern for the common man.”[55]  Many of the leaders of the Emergent Church have a great desire to help with the needs of the human race, and they write books imploring Christians to get out and help.  One author writes:

The explosion of global short-term missions is challenging the conscience of the American church.  More and more of us are beginning to understand that the lifestyle we enjoy in the USA is far from universal.  We are the richest of the rich – our complaints about a mall’s holiday traffic jams are deeply offensive to our poor brothers and sisters around the world.  Hand in hand with this realization is the radical conviction that we need to act.  Our faith must change how we live and how we respond to the needs of others – or it will be a faith that James insists is “dead.”[56]

This is exactly what Patterson is talking about when he says that the Emergent Church has a greater concern for the lives of individuals. 

Thirdly, Patterson says that the Emergent Church has a “concern to jettison offensive ecclesiastical culture that insults the lost.”[57]  Oftentimes Conservatives or Fundamentalists will structure their churches so that someone who is lost would never even want to step into the church.  And finally (and this has already been addressed), Patterson spoke of how the Emergent Church has a greater desire to perform social justice.[58]  It is the church’s responsibility to take care of the social needs of the world; and when it comes to this, the Emergent Church is stepping up to the plate, while many conservative churches are still in the batter’s box. 

Another professor at the Grindstone, Dr. David Bertch, indirectly applauded the Emergent Church.  He said that what the Emergent Church has done, has driven the church as a whole back towards orthodoxy; both Augustine and Aquinas said that the good thing about heresy is that it forces Christians to search the Scriptures to find out what is truly true.  This is exactly what the Emergent Church has done, said Bertch.[59]

It is clear that the Emergent Church has brought about some good things that Conservatives within the church must address.  With that said, however, there are several things that are wrong with the Emergent Church that has led to a dangerous philosophy, and a theology that may be seen by many as heretical.

What is wrong with the Emergent Church?

Though the Emergent Church has correctly diagnosed various problems with the church, there are several areas in which the Emergent Church is in great error. 

Deconstruction of the Christian Faith

In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell compares the history of Christianity to art and says that every generation throughout history has painted a new painting, and every present and future generation must realize that they are not the last painting. [60]   For Bell, Christianity is an on-going, never-ending process, which continues to change within each generation.  He writes: “Times change.  God doesn’t, but times do.  We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be.”[61]

Now there is some truth to what Bell is saying.  After all, each generation of Christians is confronted with new and different issues with which they must deal.  For instance, Christians in the second century did not have to deal with such things in society as drug addictions.  However, Bell is not merely saying that Christians must change how they approach the culture.  He is saying that the faith itself undergoes changes.  Bell writes this in regard to the need to keep “painting”:  “By this I do not mean cosmetic, superficial changes like better lights and music, sharper graphics, and new methods with easy-to-follow steps.  I mean theology:  the beliefs about God, Jesus, the Bible, salvation, the future.  We must keep reforming the way the Christian faith is defined, lived, and explained.”[62]  This is a similar approach to how Friedrich Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher who many have considered to be one of the fathers of postmodernism, viewed history.[63]  He said:

…that anything in existence, having somehow come about, is continually interpreted anew, requisitioned anew, transformed and redirected to a new purpose by a power superior to it; that everything that occurs in the organic world consists of overpowering, dominating, and in their turn, overpowering and dominating consist of re-interpretation, adjustment, in the process of which their former ‘meaning’ [Sinn] and ‘purpose’ must necessarily be obscured or completely obliterated.[64]

Nietzsche is saying that over time, history is reinterpreted to mean something else that is more relevant to the current culture.  This is known as Deconstructionism.  What was true at one point of time may not be true today.  This seems to be the same line of reasoning that Bell is taking in comparing Christians at some point in history with the Christians of today.  Bell writes this in speaking of how each generation of Christians must seek after what it means to be a Christian in their own generation:

For others, the painting works for their parents, or it provided meaning when they were growing up, but it is no longer relevant.  It doesn’t fit.  It’s outdated.  It doesn’t have anything to say to the world they live in every day.  It’s not that there isn’t any truth in it or that all people before them were misguided or missed the point.  It’s just that every generation has to ask the difficult question of what it means to be a Christian here and now, in this place, at this time.[65] 

This statement reveals how Bell views the Christian faith.  Each generation of Christians is saved through a different means than previous generations.  There is no absolute. 

The question is, if Bell is right and everything has been and is changing within the Christian faith, how can one be sure that he is believing the right doctrine for that point in time?  That is, how can a Christian in the twenty-first century be confident that he is holding forth the Christian truths of his generation?  And if he is holding forth the truths of another generation, is he still considered a Christian?  For example, if at one time it was acceptable for a generation to believe that Christ was born of a virgin, but now however, it is acceptable to believe that Christ was born of completely natural circumstances, then can one who believes in the virgin birth even be considered a Christian?  Brian McLaren writes this in one of his earlier books, The Church on the Other Side, explaining the necessity of the church holding firm to foundational truths:

True, the church on the other side will have its share of doctrinal squabbles to keep it from growing bored.  After all, we humans seldom indulge in too much uninterrupted harmony for very long!  But with so many peripheral issues changing at the fringes, we will need to affirm the core beliefs that hold us together as never before.[66]

To further illustrate this point Francis Schaeffer wrote: “…there are certain unchangeable facts which are true.  These have no relationship to the shifting tides.  They make the Christian system what it is, and if they are altered, Christianity becomes something else.”[67]  In other words, if something like the virgin birth is removed from the Christian faith, it is no longer appropriate to even call the faith “Christian.”  Another problem that can be seen with what Bell believes is the fact that Bell has said that he believes God does not change.  The problem is that if God does not change, why would He want what people believe about Him to change?  He does not.  The belief that God is the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the universe has never changed.  The belief that Christ is the Son of God who came in human flesh to save His people from their sins has never changed.  The way in which someone receives salvation has never changed.  The Christian belief that the Bible is the authoritative word of God has never changed.  The belief that Christ will return and that He will be victorious has never changed.  These doctrines are foundational to the Christian faith.  There is no option of removing one of them – they are essential.

The idea of things not changing is also true within social morality.  If someone’s life is in accordance with the Scripture, then what was true when Scripture was written is also true in present times.  C.S. Lewis writes:

The first thing to get clear about Christian morality between man and man is that in this department Christ did not come to preach any brand new morality.  The Golden Rule of the New Testament (Do as you would be done by) is a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, had always known to be right.  Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities: it is quacks and cranks who do that.[68]

The Inclusiveness of the Emergent Church

Though it is a good thing for the church to seek to help those who are desperately in need, the Emergent church has taken this too far.  They believe that what a person believes about God is not important.[69]  In A New Kind of Christian, a book that introduced Postmodernity into the Christian life,[70] McLaren writes: “Look, my understanding of the gospel tells me that religion is always a mixed bag, whether it’s Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism.  Some of it reflects people’s sincere attempts to find the truth, and some of it represents people’s attempts to evade the truth through hypocrisy.”[71]  McLaren also writes: “I believe with my whole heart that God is not willing for even one person to miss out on the joys and glories of heaven.  I believe with all my heart that if there is any way for individuals to be rescued from their wrong choices in this life, I believe they will be rescued and redeemed.”[72]  Through these statements it is clear that the Emergent church stresses the inclusivity of all people.  In the name of love they refuse to tell anyone that they are wrong in what they believe about God.  All people have to do is to merely be sincere in what they believe and God will accept them into His kingdom.  Wittmer, in speaking to this issue, says:

While I appreciate this concern for charitable conversation and our need to embrace others – and the last thing I want is to unnecessarily and arrogantly divide people into in- and out- groups – the idea that we should include others regardless of what they believe raises several questions.  Must love always include?  Love means to care for, be committed to, and seek the best for the other, and while this usually involves accepting rather than judging, sometimes love must be tough.[73]

Yes, God is the God of love, but He is also the God of truth and holiness.  It is impossible for God to allow something or someone who does not follow His truth into His kingdom.  The well known passage in John 14:6 makes this absolutely clear: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Christ is making the claim that He alone is able to save. He alone holds the truth and He alone holds access to the Father.  Christianity is exclusive to those who put their faith in Christ.  But it is inclusive in that anyone is able to come to Christ.  Christianity doesn’t discriminate.  Whether, one is black, white, male, female, rich, poor, it doesn’t matter.  Anyone can come to Christ.

How the Emergent Church Views Scripture

As was demonstrated earlier, the Emergent Church views Scripture as some sort of propaganda document, and its sole purpose is to convince people of a new way of thinking.  It is not that men within the Church don’t have a high regard for Scripture.  They do.  But as Kevin Deyoung says: “Emergent leaders want to move away from seeing Scripture as a battleground.  They don’t want to use the traditional terms – authority, infallibility, inerrancy, revelation, objective, absolute, literal – terms they believe are unbiblical.  They would rather use phrases like ‘deep love of’ and ‘respect for.’”[74]  For the Emergent Church, the Bible is an extremely important and good book, but it is just a book.  This line of thinking is very similar to the thinking of the great German theologian, Karl Barth.  Barth believed that the Bible, of itself, is not the Word of God, but that it is merely “…the word of man.”[75]  Though Barth was attempting to protect the Christian faith against German Higher Criticism, he left the door open for people such as those in the Emergent Church to doubt the complete authority and inerrancy of the Bible.  Thus many people affiliated with the Emergent Church believe that the Bible was never written with the intention of giving absolute truth; and because this is the case, doctrines such as the virgin birth of Christ and the Trinity are able to be challenged.  The only thing that matters is what the Bible does to change one’s actions toward society.  It doesn’t matter what one believes about God; it only matters what one does with his or her life to help make society a better place in which to live.

The problem with this view is that if the Bible doesn’t consist of absolute truth, then one can believe anything.  Man does not need to be saved by grace; he can save himself.  Man is not in need of a perfect sacrifice; therefore, Christ did not necessarily have to be fully divine or even divine at all.  It wasn’t absolutely necessary that Christ rose from the grave.  Thus, Paul must have been disillusioned when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14-17:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

An example of this can be seen in an internet blog that Tony Jones wrote.  In the blog Jones attempts to defend a literal resurrection of Christ; a resurrection that he claims must have been “…a real resurrection in the space-time continuum by a physical being known as Jesus of Nazareth.”[76]  This is a noble feat by Jones to attempt to defend the resurrection, but his blog falls way short in defending Orthodox Christianity.  Jones writes this in regards to people who question the historical resurrection of Christ:

And I understand where they’re coming from, because I don’t feel the same way about the historic facticity of Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, Jonah living in the belly of a fish, or Job’s family and cattle being wiped out by God.  So it might seem rather arbitrary that I draw the line between some accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures, which I consider mythological (but nonetheless “true”), and the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ miracles, death, and resurrection.[77]



The evidence is insurmountable:  the Emergent Church is a result of Postmodernity’s influence upon the church.  A philosophy that attempts to do away with the idea of objective truth has impacted the church in such a way so as to deny the importance and necessity of foundational beliefs within the Christian faith.  Though the Emergent Church has done a good job in recognizing and attempting to meet the social needs within society (something conservative fundamentalists often fail in doing), it has changed how the Bible says one is to be saved.  Within the Emergent Church, the lifestyle that one lives is not important; no lifestyle change is necessary.  As long as one cares for the needs of society, that is all that matters.  However, true Christianity says that a lifestyle change is indeed necessary.  When one is truly saved, God turns that person’s heart of stone to a heart of flesh.  The way in which one lives his life will necessarily change.  Schaeffer speaks of how the outward actions of an individual will change once the “inward areas” change.[78]  It seems that the Emergent Church has done the exact opposite, and that is to start with outward actions, believing these outward actions will change the inward areas.  Clearly, the Emergent Church is inconsistent with what the Bible teaches, and should therefore be confronted with the truth.  The question that a Christian needs to ask himself today is this:  have I prepared myself to engage such a movement as the Emergent Church?  It seems that Christians are not ready.  They have become enthralled by the eloquence and the humor of exceptional communicators, but have failed in understanding the theology and philosophy that is behind many of the Emergent leaders.  Thus it becomes absolutely necessary that the challenges presented by the Emergent Church are met by Biblical Christianity that speaks the truth in love.        


Barth, Karl. The Word of God and the Word of Man. Translated by Douglas Horton. Gloucester: Peter Smith Publisher, 1978.

Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Caputo, John D. What Would Jesus Deconstruct: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Carson, D.A. Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Chaves, Jonathan. “Soul and Reason in Literary Criticism: Deconstructing the Deconstructionists.” American Oriental Society 122, no. 4 (Oct.-Dec 2002): 828-835.

Deyoung, Kevin, Ted Kluck. Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be). Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008.

Emergent Village. An Emergent Manifesto of Hope. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007.

Gibbs, Eddie, Ryan K. Bolger. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Greer, Peter, Phil Smith. The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Jones, Tony. The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

________. “The Emergent Church: Christianity in America is Changing.” Tikkun, May/June, 2008, 10-11.

________. “Why It Matters That Jesus Really Rose.” , May 4, 2009. http://feedproxy.google.com/-r/tonyj/IWxO/-3/F2Z8MmRjhzU/http://ow.ly/16YvUQ/ (accessed April 5, 2010).

Kimball, Dan. They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

Lecrae. Lyricsmania. http://www.lyricsmania.com/lyrics/lecrae_lyrics_9863/rebel_lyrics_93741/truth_lyrics_906853.html. (accessed November 11, 2009).

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1952.

McKnight, Scot. “Five Streams of the Emerging Church: Key Elements of the Most Controversial and Misunderstood Movement in the Church Today.” Christianity Today, February, 2007, 35-39.

McLaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.

________. A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

________. Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007.

________. The Church on the Otherside. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.

________. The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything. Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2006.

________, Tony Campolo. Adventures in Missing the Point. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.

Miller, Donald. Searching for God Knows What. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2004.

Moreland, J.P., William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Natoli, Joseph. A Primer to Postmodernity. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Niebuhr, Richard. “The Enduring Problem.” In Christ and Culture. New York: HarperOne, 2001.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Translated by R.J Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

________. On the Genealogy of Morality. Translated by Carol Diethe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Patterson, Paige, David Bertch, Mark Yeats, Stephen Smith. “Grindstone.” A panel discussion at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, March 26, 2010.  Fort Worth, TX.

Schaeffer, Francis A. The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview. Edited by . A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture. Westchester: Crossway Books, 1982.

Schaeffer, Francis A. True Spirituality. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.

Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997.

Smith, James K. A. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Westphal, Merold. “Appropriating Postmodernism.” In Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought, ed. Merold Westphal, 1-10. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Wittmer, Michael E. Don’t Stop Believing. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

[1] Lecrae, Lyricsmania, http://www.lyricsmania.com/lyrics/lecrae_lyrics_9863/rebel_lyrics_93741/truth_lyrics_906853.html. (accessed November 11, 2009).

[2]J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 145.

[3]Ibid., 132.

[4]All Scripture passages will be quoted from the ESV.

[5]Scot McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church: Key Elements of the Most Controversial and Misunderstood Movement in the Church Today,” Christianity Today, February, 2007, 36.


[7]Emergent Village, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 11.

[8]Tony Jones, “The Emergent Church: Christianity in America is Changing,” Tikkun, May/June, 2008, .

[9]Emergent Village, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, 12.

[10]Ibid., 12.

[11]Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 41.

[12]Ibid., 41-42

[13]Ibid., 42.

[14]Ibid., 44.

[15]Ibid., 45.

[16]Ibid., 45.

[17]Ibid., 48.

[18]Ibid., 45.

[19]Ibid., 46.

[20]Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 275.

[21]Ibid., 275.

[22]Ibid., 275.

[23]Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 358.

[24]James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 54.

[25]Ibid., 55.

[26]Ibid., 173.

[27]Ibid., 173.

[28]Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. R.J Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 147.

[29]Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 145.

[30]Ibid., 145.

[31]James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 34..

[32]Joseph Natoli, A Primer to Postmodernity (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 71.

[33]Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 147.

[34]Ibid., 147.

[35]Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, 34

[36]Ibid., 34-45.

[37]Jonathan Chaves, “Soul and Reason in Literary Criticism: Deconstructing the Deconstructionists,” American Oriental Society 122, no. 4 (Oct.-Dec 2002): 829.

[38]John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 130.

[39]Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 132.

[40]Michael E. Wittmer, Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus is Not Enough, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 49.

[41]Ibid., 49-50.

[42]Richard Niebuhr, “The Enduring Problem,” in Christ and Culture, (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 40-44.

[43]Dan Kimball, They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 189.

[44]Ibid., 191.

[45]D.A Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 45.

[46]Brian D. McLaren, Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 103.

[47]Ibid., 103-104.

[48]Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 33.

[49]Wittmer, Don’t Stop Believing, 30.

[50]Donald Miller, Searching for God Knows What (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2004), 123.

[51]Brian D. McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2006), 134.

[52]Paige Patterson, “The Grindstone,” a panel discussion at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, March 26, 2010, Fort Worth, TX.

[53] Paige Patterson, David Bertch, Mark Yeats, Stephen Smith, “Grindstone,” a panel discussion at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, March 26, 2010, Fort Worth, TX.



[56]Peter Greer, Phil Smith, The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 15.

[57]Patterson, Bertch, Yeats, Smith, “The Grindstone.”



[60]Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 11.

[61]Ibid., 10.

[62]Ibid., 12.

[63]Merold Westphal, “Appropriating Postmodernism,” in Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought, ed. Merold Westphal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 2.

[64]Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 51.

[65]Bell, Velvet Elvis, 13.

[66]Brian D. McLaren, The Church on the Otherside (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 56.

[67]Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1982), 269.

[68]C.S Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1952), 78.

[69]Wittmer, Don’t Stop Believing, 31.

[70]Eddie Gibbs, Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 33.

[71]Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 66.

[72]Ibid., 91.

[73]Wittmer, Don’t Stop Believing, 48-49.

[74]Kevin Deyoung, Ted Kluck, Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 70.

[75]Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (Gloucester: Peter Smith Publisher, 1978), 241.

[76]Tony Jones, “Why It Matters That Jesus Really Rose,” , May 4, 2009, http://feedproxy.google.com/-r/tonyj/IWxO/-3/F2Z8MmRjhzU/http://ow.ly/16YvUQ/ (accessed April 5, 2010).


[78]Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 12.


About Tim Hare

Pastor, husband, father, and most importantly a follower of Christ. I desire to see lives changed by the transforming power of the gospel. Sola Deo Gloria!
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