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McLaren, Rauschenbusch, and the Kingdom of God: By Austin Britton (Part 1)

7 July, 2008

C or C’s friend Austin on the compelling — and worrying — similarity between the new theology of Brian McLaren and the old ‘social gospel’ of Protestant Liberalism.


Although William Gladden (1836-1918 ) is considered by many to be the father of the social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918 ) is most often credited with its popularization in early 20th-century America.[1] Accepting gladly the theological conclusions of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rauschenbusch sought to make the gospel not only a transforming individual experience, but a force that could remake society at large.[2] However, as Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson point out, the liberal theology of Rauschenbusch quickly sank under the weight of World War I, and was replaced by a new form of Protestant theology going by the name of neo-orthodoxy.[3]

Upon reading Brian McLaren’s most recent book Everything Must Change[4], I was struck by the similarity between McLaren’s theology and Rauschenbusch’s theology. Although McLaren and the new Emergent Theology claims to be a conversation always in progress, this short essay will explore McLaren’s more dogmatic and conclusive teachings regarding social transformation, and the similarities it has with Rauschenbusch’s teachings in hopes of providing some reflection on Emergent Theology in our day and the connections it has with the past.


The third book in a trilogy about being “a new kind of Christian,” EMC finds McLaren trying to culminate his ideas in previous works and pave a way forward for all those seeking an alternative to what he calls the “traditional” framing story of Christianity.[5] A framing story, which is essential vocabulary for understanding McLaren’s theology, is defined by McLaren as, “a story that gives people direction, values, vision, and inspiration by providing a framework for their lives.”[6] His book is grounded then on the question of what it means to be a new kind of Christian who doesn’t accept the old framing story of Christianity as being complete.

McLaren says that the main focus for this new framing story of Christianity is “rediscovering what the essential message of Jesus is about.”[7] As the book develops, McLaren posits that the essential core to Jesus’ message, which in his mind has been lost in many theological circles, is the kingdom of God. McLaren says that this “essential message of Jesus, the message of the kingdom of God [is] not just a message about Jesus that focuses on the afterlife, but rather the core message of Jesus that focuses on personal, social, and global transformation in this life.”[8] So for McLaren, the essential message of Jesus is the kingdom of God, which in his view has nothing to do with eternity or a life to come, but rather about achieving what he calls a eu-topia (a new place) rather than a utopia (a no place) in this life right now.[9] Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God and his demonstration of it on the cross, was meant to overturn old destructive framing stories, and give us a new one to live by.

Thus, as will be discussed more later, it should be seen that McLaren’s view of the kingdom of God is an immanent one, and it is very concerned with viewing the kingdom as operating within the socio-political arena of humanity. My concerns with many of McLaren’s statements aren’t necessarily for what he affirms but what he denies or omits from his construction of the kingdom. McLaren is not clear on whether he believes Christ will return a second time to consummate the kingdom.[10] It seems to me that McLaren views the kingdom more as something we build now rather than something we receive now through word and sacrament, and which will be consummated in the future….


[1] For a good study of this popularization see Claude Welch, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Centuy, Volume 2, 1870-1914 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985).

[2] For some of Rauschenbusch’s appropriations of Schleiermacher see Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1918 ), 20, 21, 27, 92, 124, 125.

[3] Stanley Grenz & Roger E. Olson, 20th Cenutry Theology: God & The World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 62.

[4] Heretofore known as EMC.

[5] As will be discussed later in this paper, McLaren’s view of the “traditional” framing story isn’t really fair to many of the denominations that he lumps in this category. From reading much of his material, it is apparent that the Reformed view of many doctrines he critiques, is definitely not accurately represented.

[6] Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2007), 4.

[7] McLaren, Everything Must Change, 4.

[8] McLaren, Everything Must Change, 22. Italics are mine.

[9] See Ibid., 296 for McLaren’s unfavorable stance towards anything resembling eternity, and see Ibid., 297 for his understanding of a eu-topia.

[10] See EMC, 144.

  1. 7 July, 2008 10:38 am

    Nicely written A.B. The emergent church is not so cutting edge after all. Like Qoheleth says, “nothing new under the sun.”

    I’m glad you list S.M. Baugh’s writings for further reading. I was blessed to hear his beautiful presentation of the Kingdom of God from a Ref’d perspective to a largely Pre-mil audience at an Evangelical Theological Society event a few years ago. He was clear and challenging yet skillfully ecumenical. Rumor has it that he’s working on a book titled “The Kingdom of God.” Hope the whispers are true. You know that will be a good read.

  2. Darren permalink
    7 July, 2008 4:43 pm

    The pendulum seems to have made a full swing back towards a social gospel, even in those who are critical of McLaren. Social justice and transformation is all the rage in Christian campus groups at the top universities. Being heaven-oriented can be pretty lonely in Christian circles these days….

  3. Jeff permalink
    8 July, 2008 1:22 pm

    Emergent theology grows out of its leaders’ (narrow) experience of theologically conservative churches and the latter’s failure to combine faith with works. This is especially the case with McLaren. As these guys react against their fundy backgrounds, I think we miss an opportunity if we don’t learn from their critiques and find ways to glorify God by loving our neighbor. This is a good post, and I look forward to a further discussion of McLaren’s misunderstanding of what Jesus meant when he announced the kingdom of God is at hand. I think we’d all be wise to hear emergent criticism of “traditional framings” and seek to let others see our good works (rooted always in the gospel of grace) and glorify our Father in heaven. Who knows, we may even be more readily heard as a result.

  4. 8 July, 2008 2:06 pm


    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think McLaren has many valid critiques of what he terms the “traditional framing story.” However, I think what he has in mind by “traditional framing stories” is a very narrow and marginal hyper-fundy group (perhaps this is understandable given his plymouth bretheren background). I believe he is somewhat in error to impute his idea of “traditional framing stories” to even broad evangelicalism. This thought has only arisen from my reading of EMC. McLaren seems to strawman much of evangelicalism in the name of a conversation. In my view, it seems like he is losing interlocutors by his failure to represent views he is questioning fairly.

  5. Jeff permalink
    8 July, 2008 2:32 pm


    I think you’re right on. As I’ve read emergent literature, I continually wonder if they are truly ignorant of what broad evangelicals believe (let alone of Reformed doctrine), or if they willingly misrepresent what others believe to make their own departure from historic Christian orthodoxy look better. I want to read their writings with a spirit of charity, but I fear that many of the emergents do not do the same, at least in the sense that they aren’t really trying to understand what the objects of their criticism are really saying. McLaren, I think, gets away with this because he really is enjoyable to read (except for the re-(mis)interpretations of Christianity). It often comes back to their strawman critique of “foundationalism” (and whatever meaning they’re pouring into that word at the time). If evangelical and Reformed Christians are “foundationalists” (modernists), and we now live in a post-foundationalist (post-modern) world, then they seem to believe that they don’t actually need to engage what these say. All is brushed aside with the wave of a deconstructionist wand.

  6. K Tyrrell permalink
    25 March, 2009 2:11 pm

    In Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In how do you see him ) summarize what Neo means with each of the “C” words he uses to outline the story;how would you summarize his views of human origins, fall, election, Christ, conversion, and salvation and eschatology?


  7. creedorchaos permalink*
    25 March, 2009 3:35 pm


    A great resource for getting into description and critique of McLaren and others is a recent collection of essays edited by Gary Johnson, Reforming or Conforming?: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church (IVP, 2008). The article on McLaren is by Scott Clark (

    And here’s a shorter version of the article by Martin Downes. He talks about Doug Pagitt rather than McLaren, but it’s worthwhile nonetheless:

    Hope this is helpful,


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