Brian McLaren is Not a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

kinnon —  February 17, 2010 — 9 Comments

I got up this morning and read a few RSS feeds while wondering if someone had wrapped a steel band around my chest overnight and tightened it while I fitfully slept. (A whingeful way to say I have a chest cold that has taken up residence.) In the reading of said feeds and comments on certain posts it became evident that there is a tendency to call Brian McLaren a wolf in sheep's clothing.

This is not fair.

Let me explain why.

(And note, I began writing this post in my head long before I knew about Brian's response to my previous posts – I don't subscribe to Brian's RSS feed. This is not a quid pro quo – and I fully intend on writing a response to Brian's response to my response and expecting your response. I trust you will see that I want to be responsive. I think I just channelled my FuturistGuy friend, Brad.)

In my unpublished, much-too-long response to Brian's book, I wrote what appears between the lines.


My wife, Imbi and I were introduced to Brian's writing shortly after his book, A New Kind of Christian came out. The book scratched us where we itched. Imbi had grown up in the church (an ethnic Baptist Church in Toronto) and I had come to (or perhaps come back to) faith as an adult in 1982. Imbi and I have engaged with the church as lay leaders (for want of a better term) from about a year after we were married (in 1983), until 2005.

Brian's first in the New Kind of Christian series, along with Leonard Sweet's Soul Tsunami, were like fresh cold water after what felt like years in a dry and thirsty land. Bruce Cockburn has a song that captured our angst with the church at that time.

There must be more… more…
More songs, more warmth
More love, more life
Not more fear, not more fame
Not more money, not more games

[More Not More – Bruce Cockburn ©1980]

We felt that the church had gotten sucked into the star making machine. Leaders seeking more fame, more money, playing more games. A church that had become one more big box store offering to meet your consumer-driven spiritual needs. Len Sweet's Soul Tsunami promised a reformation of transparency in the church and Brian's book promised a Christianity more rooted in Christ, more relational, more engaging, more real.

Imbi and I met Brian in the flesh for the first time in 2006 at an Allelon event in Boise, Idaho. It was the first time we had heard Brian live. He's a gifted public speaker; warm, gracious, fabulous voice, funny, serious and engaged. We interviewed him for a book written by a mutual friend. Brian does gives a good interview.

We next heard Brian when he was in Toronto in the Spring of '07 for an event @ Wycliffe College where Imbi was working on her Masters in Theological Studies (which she completed last year).

At that time, Brian also spoke at a Resonate event at the church where Darryl Dash pastors. We videotaped that event and Imbi later interviewed Brian in Darryl's office. Brian had been away from home for a while, was very tired, and yet he was gracious, as ever.

Imbi commented that her sense of Brian was that he was a real pastor. Even when strongly questioned – he listened to the questioner. He never shot back – but rather, attempted to honestly hear what the other person was saying and then responding appropriately. I felt Brian was unfairly attacked in a blog post the next day written by someone who had sat quietly at that event and I responded here. (As an INFP myself, one would think that I'd have a bit more grace for someone who didn't feel comfortable asking questions in a public space and though I still don't agree with the level of his original attack, I do now think that writer was on to something.)

My last time with Brian was in the fall of 2008. I shot an Allelon video about his book, Everything Must Change. In the conversation before the shoot, Brian was definitely ticked by some of the attacks he was getting from former friends who did not have the courtesy to talk to him directly. (He had every right to be ticked as he'd travelled extensively with the person who was now relentlessly attacking him – without speaking to him directly.)

Brian talked with me about my People Formerly Known as the Congregation post which had created its own blogstorm – and he was particularly taken with my son Liam's response.

Brian would tell you that his primary spiritual gift is as an evangelist. (As he tells the folk at the 2009 Episcopal Church General Conference here. Episcopal Life News Report here.) My understanding from friends is that Brian was used by the Spirit to help many people come to a place of knowing Christ as their savior in his years of active pastoral ministry and since. This is nothing to sneer at.

Brian grew up Plymouth Brethren, a rather strict expression of evangelical Christianity. As he tells us in ANKoChristianity (Pg 3) and in the above TEC General Conference sermon, he at one point considered going into the Episcopal priesthood. Instead, a bible study group ended up turning into a church – after Brian had received his BA and MA in English from the University of Maryland.

A writer at his core (I would suggest), Brian began to write about the church. Increasingly frustrated with an evangelical expression of church that ignored social justice, the environment and seemed most focused on getting people across the line to salvation and then teaching them how to live "Their Best Life Now," Brian began to ask important questions. A New Kind of Christian (again, the first in his NKC trilogy) put Brian on the map for a lot of us.

Now, I read the book through the lens of my then evangelical-charismatic perspective of the church. (I would simply identify as a Christian today.) To the best of my understanding, Brian was writing from within the broad swath of evangelicalism at the time. Sure it was a shot across the bow of the Institutional Evangelical Church – but, I dare say, the IEC needed it.


I will end the excerpt there or it will be much too long, again.

I have not properly given adequate time to reading Brian's response to my previous posts (which I will do and then respond in a later post) but I need to reaffirm my obvious response from my previous posts to Brian's book, A New Kind of Christianity:

[ Warning: Hyperbole Alert ] In this book, I don't think Brian has thrown the baby out with the bathwater, I think he's thrown the baby out after saying it was illegitimate to begin with and the water was really poison. [ End Hyperbole Alert ]

I think Darryl Dash most aptly critiques the book,

…this is not a minor tweak of Christianity. It is a repudiation of the church’s understanding of God and the gospel. It really is tearing up the contract and starting all over again. McLaren says we’ve got the whole Biblical storyline, as well as our ideas of God and Scripture, all wrong. He’d rather be an atheist, he says, than believe in the God that many of us think is found in the Bible. You don’t get any more basic.

That’s what makes this book so hard to critique. Supporters of the book will say that I’m critiquing it from a Greco-Roman mindset, using the Bible as a constitution text rather than as a community library. So my criticisms will be expected. McLaren’s proposals go all the way back to the level of presuppositions, and unless you share his presuppositions it will be like complaining that the color red isn’t blue enough. Fine, they will say, but it wasn’t meant to be blue. He’s not only giving us a new version of the Christian story, but he’s making it very difficult to critique his new version using the resources of the old one. But I’m simply not convinced that he’s made the case that he thinks he has.

Like McLaren, I believe we need to honestly examine our beliefs and practices, making corrections even when it’s costly and uncomfortable. I believe that every generation needs to rediscover the gospel. But unlike McLaren, I’m not ready to toss the creation-fall-redemption storyline, or think that I’ve moved on from the God of Genesis 4-6. I’m simply not ready to say our old understanding of the gospel is wrong. We may need to rediscover it and be changed by it, and grow in our understanding of it. But that’s different than tearing up the contract and starting all over again.

So, if you are still tracking with me, back to what I state in the title – even after everything below the line above – calling Brian McLaren a wolf in sheep's clothing is neither fair nor accurate.

Brian has not approached the church from the outside with a desire to kill it – the move of a wolf – he has grown and framed his thesis from within the church. He is one of the sheep, with a pastor's heart (I still believe mostly – though more on that at another time), who has seen how much we've botched up the "faith once delivered" and has become more and more frustrated. But in that frustration, with an honest desire for his brothers and sisters in Christ to wake up and smell the coffee, Brian has swallowed whole what N.T. Wright calls the 4th Myth of Christianity;

(That) Christianity as we know it is based on a mistake. Mainstream Christianity is sexist, especially anti-women and anti-sex itself. It has aimed at, and in some places achieved, considerable social power and prestige, enabling it to be politically quietist and conformist. This, I find, goes down especially well with those who are escaping from either fundamentalism or certain types of Roman Catholicism. [emphasis added]

So let me end this by saying, though I think Brian's theory of what ANKoChristianity should look like is heretical as Alister McGrath would define it in his new book, Heresy – I will not scream "Heretic!" at Brian from the ramparts. I will not call for his head to be removed from his shoulders. I will not even say that he is not still my brother in Christ.

I will say however, "I understand your anger and frustration brother, and share much of it. But you've lost the plot. Elvis has left the building. There is no there there. It's time to come home. It's time to sit down with evangelical theologians like Wright and McGrath and let them help you understand that what you propose is not new at all. In fact, it is not dramatically different than what the Council of Niceae was defending the church from, when they first sat in 325 to discuss Arius' understanding of the faith. The net result of which did not actually benefit Constantine. There is no doubt that you can get an audience with them. Please do it. And again, Brian, please come home. We still need you."



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

9 responses to Brian McLaren is Not a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

  1. If someone makes a statement that they would rather be an atheist than believe in the God that many of think we find in the Bible is having a crisis of faith I think. I’m tired of hearing about the emergent church, the organic church,and all the other church names that are popping up. I recently saw the late Adrian Rogers say that we the Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, etc need to get rid of their theology and take up the theology of the Bible–the church of Jesus Christ (not Latter Day Saints either) All these young guys are creating their own form of religion in a desire to sell books I think. Maybe Brian needs to go back to the beginning and start over with his faith.JMI

  2. Thank you for writing this, Bill. I think it captures your heart and motivation more than any other post on this topic so far. I look forward to reading the continuing conversation, especially if it’s of a tone like this.

  3. Bill – Thanks for this. There’s no shortage of noise in the blogosphere over this book right now, thanks for being a level-head and clear voice when so many are not.

  4. A great post, Bill. I think the “you” I know & love as best been expressed here. I hope to hear Brian’s response, but either way, it was well said.

  5. Bill, I think this is a useful post and well stated.

    I saw (and met) Brian here in Australia last year; he presented very, very well and had some useful things to say. In particular, he (and I’ll quote from what I blogged at the time) “…presented Colossians 1:15-20 in a way that highlighted the comparison/contrast with Roman ‘gospel’ proclamation concerning the emperor, as he was discussing the concept of a controlling story that would bring about the living out of God’s will on earth. I was a little disappointed that he passed very briefly over ‘firstborn from among the dead’ – I think the resurrection is perhaps the most powerful element in such a programmatic narrative…”.

    I’ve also recently been reading some of Marx and Engels original works, and I have observed:
    – They had some incredibly important issues to speak up about (e.g. 15-hour work days, child labour, etc).
    – Nothing less than full-tilt revolution was a good enough solution in their view.
    – Their knowledge of history was way above average and their writing eloquent, giving them an apparent authority.

    Perhaps it really was a “Shaping of Things to Come” when Frost and Hirsch wrote that “the old Marxist slogan ‘rub raw the sores of discontent’ is brilliant… Rub the discontent raw and then throw salt on it – our times are urgent; Christendom must be brought down…”

  6. Thanks for this Bill. This is a great reminder that these discussions are not about excluding or defending anyone or anything, but rather remaining true to God and his mission.

  7. Bill, you embodied a a generous voice here – you obviously engaged deeply with this book.

    I found your closing paragraph to be more about you than about Brian. In much of Brian’s books, he has framed βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ as our home – the Reign of God or the Kingdom of God as our home. Not heaven or earth, not some tradition like Catholic or Evangelical.

    This home, what we are made for, is a foundational concept in the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is our plot, Bill – not the canon that we fight over or the petty differences that consume our shallow attention.

    There is no Elvis, nor is there some expert like Wright or McLaren or Lewis or Keller or McFague (a woman, God forbid) to adjudicate what is and what is not. As Jesus beckoned to us: you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

  8. I agree with what Bob said. You have some very kind and generous things to say about Brian, but you completely lost me with your final paragraph. Maybe I’m just seeing different things in Brian’s book, but I thought he had a very compelling “plot” – one about the present and continually unfolding Kingdom of God. Granted, it’s different than the standard evangelical plot, but it’s still a plot, and a profoundly Christian one at that.

    As for your Niceae/Arian thing, all I can say is “huh?” I have no clue where you got the idea that Brian is denying the divinity of Christ (I just finished the book myself and saw nothing of the sort there – just the opposite in fact), but he clearly stated his position in his response to you and affirmed that he is a “wholehearted Trinitarian.” Not sure how much more explicit he can get.

  9. For nearly the first three hundred years the church was not ‘wholeheartedly Trinitarian’.

    Look, I’m preaching on Trinity Sunday. I just finished teaching the Nicene creed to my kids in our homeschool. But I don’t need Brian or anyone else to declare himself ‘wholeheartedly Trinitarian’ in order for me to accept them as a brother in Christ.

    What does ‘wholehearted Trinitarian’ even mean? The Church was struggling to put so many mysteries into words for centuries. Does any serious Christian think we’re done with that task?

    Bless you all, but geesh…


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