A Plea To The Gospel Coalition: living up to your name

Coalitions are best able to pursue their goal when widely based. When a group chooses to use the word coalition in its title, it conveys the sense that the group is choosing to join with a broad spectrum of other groups or individuals in order to pursue their common goal.

Coalition: n. An alliance or union between groups, factions or parties, esp. for some temporary and specific reason.
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Word origin and history for coalition: n. “the growing together of parts,” from French coalition (1540s), from Late Latin coalitus “fellowship,” originally past participle  of Latin coalescere (see coalesce). First used in a political sense 1715.
(Dictionary.com.)

That’s why a coalition for the gospel sounds like such a good idea. It suggests a coalition of groups or individuals all focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ: studying it, supporting it, and sharing the good news with the world.

What is this gospel? Here are some passages that describe the good news found in Jesus:

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners … . (1 timothy 1:15.)

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins … . But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus … . (Ephesians 2:1, 4-6.)

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. (Galatians 5:1.)

And as Jesus proclaimed this good news about himself:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19.)

A coalition formed to promote this gospel already exists, of course, but it’s not an organization. It’s an organism.

The Body of Christ

The church is the organism Jesus created to share the good news of who he is and what he has done. That is not to say that the church cannot have organizations within it. Denominations and parachurch groups have their place. But they should not confuse themselves for the Body of Christ itself.

And that’s what disturbed me when I read a recent posting from The Gospel Coalition regarding its latest directory of member churches.

1. Add your church. We invite you to add your church to our online church directory so that individuals in your area can find your church. The one requirement is that your church agrees in full with TGC’s Foundation Documents. If you affirm these documents, please feel free to add your church.

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4. Report a church that doesn’t align with TGC’s Foundation Documents. If you find a church that doesn’t seem to be in alignment with TGC, we ask that you’d let us know. You can do so by clicking the “Report” link next to each listing. (From 5 Ways You Can Use TGC’s New Church Directory.)

The “Foundation Documents” linked in the first point leads off with this opening line in the Preamble:

We are a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition … .

A congregation that pursues the gospel but is not both evangelical and in the Reformed tradition cannot be part of the coalition, since such a church would not agree “in full” with the Foundation Documents.

The Confessional Statement (the second of the three Foundation Documents) requires a complementarian doctrinal stance:

God ordains … the husband exercising headship in a way that displays the caring, sacrificial love of Christ, and the wife submitting to her husband in a way that models the love of the church for her Lord. In the ministry of the church, … [t]he distinctive leadership role within the church given to qualified men is grounded in creation, fall, and redemption and must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments.

A congregation that pursues the gospel but holds to egalitarian doctrine regarding the roles of men and women, wives and husbands, cannot be part of the coalition because it also does not agree “in full” with the Foundation Documents..

These distinctions found in the Preamble and Confessional Statement, as Dee Parsons pointed out, are better suited for a denomination than a coalition when they are made a measure of membership. In fact, a coalition that defines its membership too narrowly is not a coalition at all.

It’s a clique.

Yet there is hope for the group to truly be a coalition, and it is found in the third Foundation Document: the Theological Vision for Ministry. There is much wisdom in this document as a general outline of what effective gospel ministry can look like, and the statements that speak of the gospel are powerful and orthodox while not being narrow nor bringing in extraneous matter. It is written broadly enough to encompass congregations from Reformed and non-Reformed backgrounds, to allow for complementarian and egalitarian doctrine, and would even join together those who fall into the “King James Only” camp alongside those that have no particular translation in mind for their congregants.

This ministry vision is where the true coalition could be found. If those who pursue, promote and proclaim the gospel agree on the broadly stated TGC ministry vision without insisting on agreement on each and every position in the Preamble or Confessional Statement, they can join together in focusing on the gospel.

Of course, there are those who insist that Reformed doctrine and complementarianism are the gospel. Some of those people will even say that egalitarians or non-Reformed doctrine holders are not Christians. Happily, such people are not only wrong but they are in a minority, and I would hope The Gospel Coalition would want to separate itself from such schismatic talk.

That doesn’t mean that people who think you need to be Reformed (as I am) and complementarian (as I am not) in order to focus on the gospel can’t form an organization and then exclude those who don’t hold to their beliefs. It’s just that the organization wouldn’t be a coalition.

The gospel, as the passages quoted above and many more found in the Bible state, is about Jesus freeing people from sin and reconciling them to God and joining him in eternal fellowship.

Whether you are John Calvin, John Wesley or John the son of Zebedee, this is the gospel message proclaimed by the church from the beginning. Let us not be like the Corinthians who separated themselves into factions depending on which teacher they most identified with:

Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe — as the Lord has assigned to each his task. (1 Corinthians 3:3-5.)

Let us instead:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6.)

This is what a coalition for the gospel really looks like.

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[For those who like to know these things, this is my 1000th post. Let there be great rejoicing.]

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25 Responses to A Plea To The Gospel Coalition: living up to your name

  1. dpersson7 says:

    Great thoughts. It reminds me of James 3:17, “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” I think God is much more reasonable than he is given credit for and really give us all a lot of wiggle room to work out our salvation.

    • Tim says:

      That passage is a good guide for how we are to live together and reach out to one another in the family of God. I get that there are non-negotiables when it comes to the gospel (faith in Jesus, for example), but complementarian doctrine is not one of them.

  2. Congratulations on your 1000 post!

  3. Dee Parsons says:

    Tim
    I am so glad that your are out here. I can see why you studied the law. You have a thoughtful, logical approach to the issues facing us in the Christian church. One question: in the South, I sometimes hear lawyers identified as “he reads the law.” Do you know how that phrase originated?”

    I am not Reformed or, perhaps I should say, I am a one point Calvinist. (Guess which one.) Yet, on our blog, we have an EChurch each weeks for those who have struggled with their churches. We feature Wade Burleson’s sermons. He is Reformed in much of his thinking but is egalitarian in his perspective on the role of women. I could easily attend Wade’s church and feel loved and welcomed.

    An amusing aside: There are people who accuse me of being a closet Calvinist. Two blogs have written that as well.

    It irritates me that TGC has coopted the *gospel* in their name. There are many churches which serve the Lord who could not swear to their statement of faith. TGC is missing out on a whole lot.

    I grew up in Salem, Massachusetts in a non-Christian home. When I became a Christian, in a most unusual way, I made my way to Park Street Church in Boston. I made so many friends there. Because there were few declared Christians (at least from the evangelical persuasion) our group was made up of Christians of every stripe. And what time we had!

    During those days, we didn’t ask about whether you were Reformed, charismatic, premillenial, old earth…we asked if you were a Christian. If the answer was “Yes,” you were one of us. Restaurants hated us. We would have a group of 40 or more going out for lunch after church. During that time, we would often share what we believed in regards to the secondary issues. The common response was, “Wow, that’s cool.” No fights, just respectful questions. We were just so very, very glad to have one another.

    That is why I blog. We can be a coalition. I miss what I had in Boston. I hope to be able to share that camaraderie of the Fellowship of All Believers in the Gospel at TWW.

    1,000th post! Incredible! Love you, guy!

    • Tim says:

      Your fellowship of believers in Boston sounds like what the Body of Christ should be like, from what I’ve read in the Bible. It’s not about passing a doctrinal test. It’s about gathering with others who are in Jesus’ family.

      As for your question about reading the law, it could be one of two things. In English universities one reads mathematics or law or literature or whatever. It’s the same thing we would call majoring in the subject. (I figured this out when I studied at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.) Since we follow the English common law tradition here in the States, there may be some regions where the older version of labeling the study of law prevails.

      Another reason they might use the phrase is also historically based. Before law schools took the lead in legal study, the way to learn the law was to read it in chambers, that is, to have a type of legal apprenticeship/tutelage with a lawyer or judge. The you would be examined on your knowledge of law and if proficient you were then permitted to pass the bar and enter the area in front of the bench where the lawyers plead their cases.

  4. Kathi says:

    The gospel is simply the good news about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. To add anything else to that makes the good news less than inviting. I’m always amused how folks at TGC will add the word gospel randomly, as if the word has become an adjective. Gospel marriage. Gospel relationship. Gospel church. I think they have done a great disservice to the gospel by doing so.

    ***Great job on your 1,000th post!***

    • Tim says:

      That is simple and clear and extremely powerfully stated, Kathi. And when the gospel is stated clearly and completely like that, then the phrase “believe the gospel” carries much more import than any additions anyone tries to put on it could hope to achieve.

  5. So the Gospel Coalition is really just the Calvinist Coalition? Now I don’t mind churches laying claim to terms like gospel or bible in their titles, you can only preaching the gospel as you best understand it. But when you form an umbrella group to bring different churches and denomination together under the banner ‘Gospel’, but exclude ones who aren’t Reformed, isn’t that at best saying non Calvinists don’t preach the Gospel, or worse adding belief in Calvinism as a condition of the Good News?

    • Tim says:

      I think they are saying quite forcefully that a coalition for the gospel has to be Calvinist, Darrach. It’s a shame and a blight.

  6. Leah says:

    Thanks for posting! I agree with you Tim. Coalition is a very poor word choice. When declaring that if one doesn’t agree with us on complementarianism, then they can’t be part of our group, it sounds more like a camp or a clique. It’s unfortunate and sad.

    • Tim says:

      I was thinking about this more over the weekend Leah and came to the conclusion that it is a club rather than a coalition. Clubs can set as broad or narrow membership requirements as they like because that’s what clubs do. An clubs can be as cliquey as they like too. But in no instance is a narrow cliquey club a coalition.

  7. Carmen S. says:

    The Gospel Coalition is not the Calvinist Coalition. If you would read TGC’s Confessional Statement ( written by Don Carson) and the Theological View For Ministry ( written by Tim Keller) you would discover they believe truth is relative and defined by subjective experience. The Gospel Coalition is a “Christianized” version of postmodernism, and they hold to a low view of Scripture.

    Since God is the origin and source of all things, should not God be our starting point? But where do we get your information about God? Where and what is the source of reliable, accurate, full and true information about God? The authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith did not put the doctrine of God in their first chapter. They put it in the second chapter. Chapter one has to do with the source of knowledge– Scripture. This is what Martin Luther believed. This is what John Calvin believed. This is not what The Gospel Coalition believes.

    • Tim says:

      I tend to agree that they have a low view of Scripture, Carmen, as well as a low Christology. They like rules, and reject the full reach of grace. From what I’ve seen, for them grace is what saves them and then rules are what they try to follow in order to live up to that grace. Of course, that makes grace not really grace at all.

  8. Don Johnson says:

    When I first discovered TGC, I confronted them on their chosen title, for it is an oxymoron. They both add to the gospel, so it becomes something other than the gospel, and they are not a coalition as you point out. My comment was purged. Full speed ahead, ignore those rocks!

    • Tim says:

      Right on both counts, Don. I’m saddened that they purge comments and block people from reading their tweets, etc. But when legalists want to control the message that’s what happens.

  9. Adam Shields says:

    When I was reading Matt Chandler’s book the Explicit Gospel, I thought the real problem with his theology and I think broadly applies to the gospel coalition, is that they have no method of limiting what the ‘gospel’ means except by personal preference. Because their system is like children’s blocks removing one part of it makes the whole thing crumble. But from one person to another, the blocks are configured differently. Unless there is real work at understanding the gospel as something explicit and limited (similar to Scot McKnight’s project) and/or some sort of denominational understanding, then TGC will be temporary as all such organization must be. The understanding will never be strong enough to withstand the variety of complaints and internally the group will be eaten by people outdoing one another’s understanding of what is truly an essential of the gospel.

    • Tim says:

      Good point, Adam. From what I’ve seen there is a sense of one-upsmanship so that people are trying to prove themselves even more TGC than other people within TGC.

  10. Pastor Bob says:

    Opportunities to split hairs,*sigh—
    Reformed by the shed blood of Jesus Christ!
    Should a “coalition” define marriage?
    A “snitch” function? To what would be “snitched?”
    Who makes the final decisions and why?

    To the believer who wishes to pursue this, freedom in Christ does have some responsibilities…..

    • Tim says:

      “freedom in Christ does have some responsibilities” – Yes! We are to live in freedom, not use our freedom to bind up but to join with Jesus in the kingdom work of loosing the chains of those still held captive.

  11. Melody says:

    Beautifully put. Thank you.

  12. Bronwyn Lea says:

    Good words, Tim… For the THOUSANDTH TIME!

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