Emerging/emergent spirituality continues making serious inroads into Christianity. Churches and Christian colleges, unaware of the subtle undermining of such spirituality, are embracing teachers and leaders of this movement and pointing others to them. Often they are unaware of what these teachers really believe and teach. Mike Erre (pastor of the First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton – Chuck Swindoll’s former church) wrote a book titled Death by Church: Rescuing Jesus from His Followers, Recapturing God’s Hope for His People. This book is a perfect example of how the “new” spirituality has an outer wrapping of Christianity but an inner core that exudes an entirely different spirituality. The concepts in this book are the basic concepts of the mass deception that is happening within the walls of Christianity today. In this book review, we hope to show the “big” picture of this deception.
In the pages of Death by Church (Harvest House), Mike Erre acknowledges that Jesus is Lord. He also references a number of Scriptures and talks about several different Bible stories. But for the discerning Christian who knows his Bible, it doesn’t take too long into Erre’s book to realize something is amiss, and such a reader soon begins to have a sense that he is theologically being tossed to and fro between the pages of this book and soon feeling like he is in a battle zone for the truth. Sandwiched between the Scripture references and the mention of “Jesus” is a theology that does not at all represent the Gospel.
Death by Church has a point to make–that God is saving “all of creation” (eg. p. 100) and that the “church” is not the substance of the kingdom of God (i.e., the whole of creation and all of humanity is). In fact, Erre says, the church is not the kingdom of God at all – it only points to the kingdom of God, which incorporates all of creation and, if the church does all the right things it can have the privilege of being part of that kingdom too. Erre seeks to prove his point but not just by turning to Scripture – he turns to prominent figures in the emerging/emergent church (e.g., Brian McLaren and Dan Kimball), the contemplative mystical prayer movement (e.g., Dallas Willard and panentheist Richard Rohr-a favorite of Erre’s), and New Age sympathizers (such as Marcus Borg, who believes Jesus did not see himself as the Son of God (see FMSN, p. 124), and Gregory Boyd, emerging author of Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty). Couple Erre’s frequent use of emerging/contemplative/New Age sympathizing authors with his kingdom-now theology wrapped in universalist/panentheistic overtones, and Death by Church actually takes on a pseudo-name, Death by Deception. But let’s take a closer look:
Erre states in the beginning of the book that as Christians, “We have become famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for” (p. 22). Relying heavily on statistics and studies in this first section of the book, Erre wants the reader to know that for the most part over the “majority of the last 2000 years” Christians have “been the sponsor and center of most of Western culture and civilization”(p. 20). But this has not been a good thing, according to Erre, who says that something has “gone very wrong,” particularly with “American culture,” which has been guilty of simplifying “complicated things.” He gives an example: salvation. “We have reduced salvation into four steps that allow me entrance into heaven when I die. But in so doing, we have bypassed the gospel that Jesus preached–the gospel of the kingdom of God. This gospel deals much more with the ‘here and now’ that the ‘then’ [‘then’ meaning when Jesus died on the Cross] and there’ [there meaning heaven, our eternal home]” (p. 26). And this is Erre’s set up for the remainder of the book.
The kingdom of God theology that Erre presents is broad–in fact, very broad. That is why he turns to Brian McLaren, Alan Hirsch, and a number of other broad-minded thinkers to make his case. Erre is not merely quoting these figures in a benign manner–he clearly resonates with them and admits many of them have been “highly influential” in his life.1 He fondly and favorably tells his readers what they think and what they believe. Quoting Alan Hirsch, Erre says that “the major threat to the viability of our faith is that of consumerism” (p. 31). He eventually defines “consumerism” as individualism, saying that there has been too much emphasis within Christianity on individual salvation and nothing on corporate salvation (ie., all of the world and creation being saved).
As with most emerging authors, Erre exalts uncertainty and doubt (always searching, never finding). He states: “Jesus brings mystery, paradox, and tension–rarely did someone get a straight answer out of Him” (p. 36), which is not true about Jesus at all. To help build Erre’s case, he turns a number of times to two Fuller Seminary professors, Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger. Interestingly, in Faith Undone, Roger Oakland discusses Gibbs and Bolger. Oakland states: “They found that emerging church leaders are not impressed with Christians who defend the faith by offering definitive answers to those who doubt the faith (p. 182).” Doubt and uncertainty are vital to the emerging church thinking–and to their mission–and without this foundation, the emerging church cannot reach its goal of an all-inclusive kingdom (that Erre seeks to present in Death by Church). This resonates with Thomas Merton who told people of other religious traditions that we are already in unity, but we just don’t realize it yet. (see ATOD, p. 159). Again from Faith Undone, Oakland quotes Gibbs and Bolger:
Evangelism or mission for me is no longer persuading people to believe what I believe, no matter how edgy or creative I get. 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.2
Oakland shows how Gibbs and Bolger are presenting an “inclusive gospel,” certainly the overall message of Erre’s book.
Ironically, Gibbs and Bolger look to emerging church figure, Spencer Burke (of The Ooze), who, according to Burke’s publisher’s website (Zondervan), has had significant connections to Erre’s former church RockHarbor Church.3 Roger Oakland reveals some disturbing things about Burke’s spirituality that sound very inline with Erre’s. Quoting Gibbs and Bolger again:
Burke’s community is prepared to learn from faith traditions outside the Christian fold. There is a Buddhist family in their church. As a community, the church visited a Buddhist temple. They participated in a guided meditation with this family. Burke celebrates the many ways God is revealed. He recognizes that the Spirit has been with these people all along. The community celebrates other traditions. They reach out to other traditions, and see them as beloved children of God. With a focus on kingdom rather than on church, people find that their relationship with other faiths changes.
Back to Death by Church. Erre says that “Central to the kingdom is God’s desire to renew, restore, and reconcile all things” (p. 41). Calling this a “deep theology” (p. 42), Erre says he would like to “lay a theological groundwork” (p. 45). First, he explains that a gospel that focuses on “going to heaven after you die, and praying the prayer of salvation” is “only a narrow slice of what the Scriptures teach about salvation” (p. 46). Erre adds: “His great purpose is to restore His fallen creation and renew it beyond the original” (p. 48). Numerous times throughout the book, he says that the “central theme” of the Bible is “the kingdom of God” (p. 54). But as the discerning reader pours through the pages of Death by Church, a clear and disturbing picture of what Erre means by “kingdom of God” begins to take shape–when Erre talks about the kingdom of God, he means that “the church” is “not the kingdom.” The kingdom is “something bigger.” “If the kingdom is inclusive,” Erre says, “the church should be also” (p. 78).
Erre sounds very much like New Age Episcopalian priest, Matthew Fox, who calls the “deep theology” that Erre talks about a “deep ecumenism” (“deep” meaning all-inclusive). Fox expresses this clearly:
I foresee a renaissance, “a rebirth based on a spiritual initiative” … This new birth will cut through all cultures and all religions and indeed will draw forth the wisdom common to all vital mystical traditions in a global religious awakening I call “deep ecumenism.”4
While Erre himself does not speak of the “mystical traditions” in Death by Church, many of those he incorporates into his book (Willard, McLaren, Rohr, Borg, Bell, Kimball, etc.) abundantly do in their own writings.
Erre is not shy about sharing his replacement theology views either. Speaking of a “coming restoration” (p. 88) and a “new order,” he says that the “people of God” are “the new and renewed Israel” (p. 95). Reading through the book, one realizes that Erre sees no prophetic value or plan (for the future) in Israel:
“Jesus … creates a new order–a new community, a new Israel” (p. 104).
“Jesus of Nazareth reconstructs a true Israel by choosing 12 disciples (one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel)” (p. 110).
“Central to understanding this call of Jesus is the idea that it concerned itself less with the salvation of individual souls and more with the formation of a renewed Israel, a community of disciples that would collectively embody the kingdom” (p. 111).
“The early Christians saw themselves as continuing Israel’s story … as messianic Israel” (p. 116).
Echoing his fellow emergent leaders, Erre minimizes “the question of what happens to me after I die” and talks about a “cosmic” Jesus who “sends His “new community, the church” into the world (p. 98). He states: “The New Testament … regularly insists that the major, central, framing question is that of God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for human beings and the whole world” (p. 98). He calls it the “here and now” theology (p. 99). (“Our worn-out theology of escaping from this world does not do justice to the here-and-now work” (p. 99).
Erre’s theme, that all of creation is being restored and saved, is redundant through the book. On one page alone, he drives the point several times:
1. “God wants to redeem the whole person and all of creation.”
2. “The good news … is about the rule of God being applied to all of creation–every part of human beings and the world.”
3. “Our traditional conceptions of salvation are blatantly more individualist, focusing on one’s individual reconciliation with God through a personal relationship with Jesus … It is more concerned with getting souls to heaven than with bringing heaven to earth. [This resonates with Marcus Borg, who calls this old paradigm Christianity.] This narrow gospel focuses only on the salvation of the human soul, but the gospel of the kingdom s includes salvation of human beings within the context of the larger story of God restoring all of creation.
4. “[T]he consummation of the kingdom includes an entirely new creation.
5. This new and cosmic salvation is spoken of as the renewal, restoration, or reconciliation of all things.”
6. (p. 125): “One of the ways that the kingdom is larger than the church is that the focus on the kingdom is the redemption of all creation. The message of the kingdom of God is cosmic in its proportions … it [the kingdom] is ultimately aimed at redeeming and restoring all that God has made” (more on pp. 128-129; 210-211; 217).
Please understand that the view Erre is expressing in these statements is classic universalism – all are saved (which negates the Gospel message of Jesus Christ because now faith in Christ is not a requirement for salvation, and regardless of one’s acceptance or rejection of the Gospel, he or she is saved. This would mean, as New Ager Neale Donald Walsch teaches, that even Hitler would be saved).
It is important to note here that when Erre talks about God restoring and renewing all things, he is not talking about the new heaven and the earth that will take place after the events that are foretold in the Book of Revelation. He is espousing a view about a renewal and restoration that will occur prior to these events (this is called kingdom-now theology).
Erre says that this newly defined “Kingdom citizenship” incorporates those of other kingdoms as well, not just our own kingdom of God, which helps us to see “our place in the cosmic [meaning universal] story” (p. 112). This new “Kingdom” “has decreed that independence has no place in His kingdom. Instead collective interdependence is demanded,” Erre states. One term that Erre uses frequently is a term that resembles New Age leader Barbara Marx Hubbard who also speaks of a “new humanity.” When Marx Hubbard uses this term, she means man has been enlightened to understand his own divinity and now realizes all of humanity is being saved, along with all of creation. The stipulation for this “new humanity” is not whether someone has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through being born-again and regeneration through Christ–no, it is about a new humanity that has joined together and understands her cosmic divinity (see False Christ Coming).
Erre’s kingdom-now theology is expressed throughout the book. For instance on page 132, he states that the Gospel is “something bigger” than the “story of Jesus’ dying for the private sins of individuals…. it is the story of God’s kingdom being launched, on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs. Atonement, redemption, and salvation are what happen on the way.” This is typical emerging spirituality that does not see atonement, redemption, and salvation as a moment in history when Jesus Christ died on the Cross but rather an ongoing process that is continually growing, expanding, changing (see our review of An Emergent Manifesto of Hope). Erre states that “the end of the age does not result in the destruction of the earth but rather in its renewal.” He says: “[R]ather that waiting for the last days, we have been living in them since the coming of Jesus. Rather than waiting for the end to come, we are already living in the end times that will be consummated when Jesus returns” (p. 198). And, “[T]he end of the age does not result in the destruction of the earth but rather in its renewal”(p. 212).
Erre believes that the church “neither initiates nor sustains [God’s] work” on the earth but must seek out where the work of God is already taking place and participate in that work. He says when we take on this view, we can then understand that the “whole of creation is now included in the scope of redemption.” “The church is not the primary location of God in the world; the world is,” he says (p. 133).
Death by Church also lays out a perfect example of what Lighthouse Trails calls “the new missiology.” In essence, Erre tells believers that “we don’t take Christ to a region or people group, but we instead show up and pay attention to the work that Jesus is already doing. We have to move away from the current mind-set about church, ministry, and mission.” (p. 136). In other words, we don’t have to tell people about Jesus because Jesus is already there among them (before they hear the Gospel and believe; i.e, they can keep their same religion and still be connected to God). This is what William Young, author of the best-seller The Shack, echoes when The Shack’s “Jesus” says he has no desire to make anyone Christian. Erre states: “We don’t do God’s work in the world; we simply participate in God’s work in the world that is already underway. … He’s always at work everywhere” (p. 162).
As if the kingdom-now theology, replacement theology, universalistic message, and new missiology were not enough, Erre presents to the reader a case for panentheism (God in all things). Given the fact that he includes Richard Rohr in his list of those he resonates with, this is no surprise. Rohr is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. His spirituality would be in the same camp as someone like Matthew Fox (author of The Coming of the Cosmic Christ) who believes in pantheism (God is all) and panentheism (God in all). Rohr wrote the foreword to a 2007 book called How Big is Your God? by Jesuit priest (from India) Paul Coutinho. In Coutinho’s book, he describes an interspiritual community where people of all religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity) worship the same God.
In Death by Church, in Erre’s presentation of panentheism, Erre quotes Madeleine L’Engle: “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation” (p. 159). What she is saying here is that God (the sacred) can be found in everything (the secular). In that line of thinking, Erre himself says that his new kingdom “dismantles the sacred/secular distinction” and “all things are given over to God–including those things formerly thought to be secular or unspiritual” He adds: “Confessional worship … seeks to see everything as having been made to reflect the glory of God. … we reawaken to the possibilities of redemption in all areas of life” (pp. 158). This is the same theology as Sue Monk Kidd (see ATOD, p. 134). This concept reflects classic panentheism–God is in all things. Keep in mind, that there is a continuity of the theme that God is in everything with many of the figures that Erre turns to in his book. Richard Rohr, Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, and John Dominic Crossan are four who hold to this view and are referenced in Death by Church. Borg is one of the leading champions of panentheisism of mainline Christianity, as is Brian McLaren through the emerging church. Rob Bell, who resonates with Marcus Borg, is also referenced in Death by Church. We want to reiterate here, Erre is not just referencing these figures–he has absorbed their theology!
We close with this. It’s vital to understand that spiritual deception can sound very Christian. That is how deception works. Ray Yungen has given a solemn warning to this effect when he comments on occultist Alice Bailey’s prediction of what her movement (the New Age) would do and how it would accomplish “world illumination”:
In light of the many who will be coming in Christ’s name, I believe the Alice Bailey prophecies can provide further insight into what the apostle Paul called in II Thessalonians the falling away. Bailey eagerly foretold of what she termed “the regeneration of the churches.” Her rationale for this was obvious:
The Christian church in its many branches can serve as a St. John the Baptist, as a voice crying in the wilderness, and as a nucleus through which world illumination may be accomplished.
In other words, instead of opposing Christianity, the occult would capture and blend itself with Christianity and then use it as its primary vehicle for spreading and instilling New Age consciousness! The various churches would still have their outer trappings of Christianity and still use much of the same lingo. If asked certain questions about traditional Christian doctrine, the same answers would be given. But it would all be on the outside; on the inside a contemplative [emerging] spirituality would be drawing in those open to it.5
1. From Disclaimer in Death by Church at beginning of book.
2. Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic of Baker Publishing Group, 2005), p. 132. (This book cites Brian McLaren on back cover).
3. One source told us that Burke may no longer be on staff at RockHarbor.
4. Roger Oakland in Faith Undone (chapter 2), quoting Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, 1988, p. 5.
5. Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing (Silverton, OR: Lighthouse Trails Publishing, LLC, 2nd ed., 2006), p. 123.