The ongoing influence of ‘new Gnosticism’ among C of E evangelicals

Apr 25, 2017 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Perhaps two decades ago, new postmodern teachings and ways of doing church began to gain a following among many evangelicals in the English speaking world. They were characterized by calls for “generous orthodoxy”, and their questioning of traditional understandings of the atonement and mission. They appealed to many genuine believers concerned about some aspects of (as they saw it) the culture of conservative churches, for example rigid adherence to doctrinal formulae without nuance or contextualization, an apparent lack of concern for the poor and minorities, a blandness in worship and lack of acknowledgement of the realities of life. The ‘emerging church’ set out a vision for Christian faith based on conversation and journey, messiness and inclusion, downplaying or even rejecting concern for biblical doctrine and disciplined discipleship; developing a spirituality celebrating uncertainty and the validity of different theological viewpoints, incorporating insights from other religious traditions; a focus on community not institution.

In the UK Baptist pastor Steve Chalke, having set up his (largely government funded) ‘Oasis’ organization, in 2003 published “The Lost Message of Jesus” (see review here) in which he denied original sin, labelled the doctrine of penal substitution as ‘cosmic child abuse’, and redefined mission as ‘inclusion’. American Brian Maclaren has gained a large following around the world, and was invited by Rowan Williams to address the Lambeth Conference in 2008 (see here for a review of his book ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’). Rob Bell’s redefinition of heaven, hell, and several other core Christian doctrines in “Love Wins” (2011 – see review here), continued to mirror increasing divisions in evangelicalism between ‘conservatives’ and those moving towards liberal Protestantism. Bell’s communication skills and uber-coolness led to an increased following among non Christians, and he eventually abandoned Christian ministry to become a self-help guru.

Like other ‘emergent’ leaders and thinkers, Bell, Chalke and Maclaren’s sometimes valid criticisms of a particular type of conservative and/or charismatic church culture has led to their abandoning orthodox Christian doctrine, or at least its church package which they see as ‘left brain’, rational, linear, harsh, narrow, oppressive and uncreative. Their own version of Christianity, they claim, is closer to Jesus’ original intention: liberating, gentle, wise, progressive and inclusive. Don Carson’s (2005) careful evaluation of the movement (summarized here) expresses this well.


As more and more evangelical churches in the UK were influenced by ‘emergent’ thinking, I had an unusual vantage point. During the 90’s and early 2000’s I was working in South Africa, focussing on the discipleship formation and bible-based theological education of pastors in the economically deprived townships, while my wife was involved with empowering and enabling church-based community organizations to address poverty and in particular the HIV/AIDS crisis. For us there was no ‘conflict’ between mission as evangelism and mission as social action. Churches full of selfless, compassionate people transformed by the authentic Jesus of Scripture whom they follow and worship, pastored by godly leaders who teach the whole counsel of God, should be the best agents of God’s transformation in addressing the desperate material and spiritual needs of the people around them. To choose either “love” or “truth”, by for example saying that “people don’t need the Bible – they just need anti-retroviral drugs”,  or “the church should only preach the Gospel and not waste time in practical help for someone dying of AIDS in poverty” would be ridiculous and unbiblical.  As Don Carson says in his book on the Emerging Church:

So which shall we choose? Experience or truth? The left wing of the airplane, or the right? Love or integrity?… Damn all false antithesis to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ.

But every time I came back to England to visit local churches who were supporting our work, I noticed that a number of them were being influenced by this ‘false antithesis’ thinking. Some had been clearly evangelical and committed to supporting my Bible teaching ministry in the mid 90’s, but ten years later they were just wanting to hear about the poverty and AIDS work, believing that this was the kind of ‘mission’ they wanted to align with. They had taken on the ‘postmodern’ view that uncertainty about spiritual truth, and liberalism in sexual ethics, was more mature and loving, and less arrogant (although tragically my wife and I had seen firsthand the devastation that liberal sexual ethics can cause in poor communities). Sadly I also noticed that these post-evangelical English congregations gradually declined in number during this period. The same people who admired broad-mindedness were unable to hold together the broad biblical vision of God’s truth contrasted with the enemy’s falsehood, while at the same time being actively involved in compassionate care for the most vulnerable, motivated by biblical faith.


Today Franciscan priest and prolific author Richard Rohr appears to be the current modish teacher for the ‘itching ears’ (2 Timothy 4:3). I first became alarmed when a recently retired well respected evangelical clergyman commended Rohr’s popular book on the second half of life “Falling Upward” to me, and I found what was clearly a version of Eastern and universalist spirituality alongside some very insightful and helpful passages. An Anglican Mainstream reader struggling with the overt promotion of heterodox teaching and dismissal of orthodoxy on a Diocesan Lay Training Course (one of the inspirations for this story) wrote to me a few months ago complaining that Rohr’s books and blogs were being promoted enthusiastically on the programme. Just in the past two weeks I have seen a draft of a major study on Richard Rohr’s teaching by a longstanding member of a large charismatic church in England, who says that his influence is growing in these circles. Jane Krammer’s paper, now published here on Anglican Mainstream, concludes that Rohr often uses “biblical terminology and Christian-sounding language”, which cloaks “a mixed diet of mysticism, self-help spirituality, social justice, biblical inaccuracies and false doctrine.  In this way the biblical faith of his followers is progressively and systematically undermined.” 

It is significant that this critique of Rohr comes from not from a conservative evangelical clergyman but a charismatic Anglican lay woman, with a strong conviction about the importance of experiencing God’s love and power through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and also deeply rooted in an orthodox understanding of the Scriptures and Christian doctrine. She tells me she has written the critique because of a deep concern about how some dear friends from the same background have moved away from the firm foundations of faith in Jesus as unique Saviour and Lord, and the Bible as the trustworthy Word of God, as they have been influenced by Rohr and his Center for Action and Contemplation.

The leadership of the Church of England are attempting to hold together those who follow the historic teachings of the Christian Church, and those who see in the views of Rohr, the ’emergents’ and other revisionists a new, culturally acceptable  way of being spiritual and Jesus-centred. This can only be done by downgrading arguments about doctrine and ethics to ‘second order’, while making relational unity primary. For the new gnostics, this concept of ‘good disagreement’  fits in well to the idea of generosity and inclusion, where conservatives are tolerated as beloved but immature and needing to ‘grow up’. Biblically faithful Anglicans may soon be faced with having to accept this status as a condition of remaining in the Church of England with its advantages and privileges.

See also: Richard Rohr – is his teaching biblical? By Jane Krammer, Anglican Mainstream

More on Rohr: A review of “The Divine Dance”

A review of “Falling Upward”

See also Bill Muehelberg’s warnings about the new book by another key figure in ’emergent’ neo-gnostic evangelicalism“The Shack” author William Paul Young here and here.




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