Special Report: The Gospel Coalition

afterlife-1238609_1280TGC 2017 Report
Rev. Dan Greenfield
ACCC Executive Secretary

What is The Gospel Coalition?

The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is a fellowship of evangelical churches from various denominations committed to promoting “gospel-centered ministry.” It was established in 2005 to address various problems in evangelicalism. Some of these issues were doctrinal in nature, such as the growing acceptance of universalism and denial of inerrancy; other problems were oriented toward ministry philosophy, such as the seeker-sensitive movement and the denigration of expository preaching and the local church.

TGC believes that these problems will only be remedied by a “gospel-centered” theology and ministry philosophy. They maintain that such requires adherence to Reformed Protestantism, particularly what is called “New Calvinism.” They believe that there must be allowance for differing views on charismatic gifts and theories of origins. Christians and churches must be involved in social justice and mercy efforts. Culture must be viewed as essentially neutral; in order for the church to impact the culture it must engage it, not separate from it. TGC did not originate this theology and philosophy; it positively and consciously patterns itself after post-WW2 evangelicals.

Key individuals involved in TGC include co-founders D. A. Carson and Tim Keller, Thabiti Anyabwile, Alistair Begg, Bryan Chapell, Mark Dever, Kevin DeYoung, David Dockery, J. Ligon Duncan, R. Kent Hughes, Erwin Lutzer, Albert Mohler Jr., Russell Moore, John Piper, David Powlinson, Philip Ryken, and Sam Storms.

Denominations and fellowships represented in TGC’s advisory board include Acts 29, Converge (formerly known as the Baptist General Conference), Evangelical Free Church of America, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church of America, Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and Sovereign Grace Churches.

The primary objective of TGC is to promote “gospel-centered ministry,” providing “gospel-centered resources” to enable and guide the global church. They seek to accomplish this objective through a council of pastors, various forms of media and publications, regional chapters, and a biennial national conference.

The Historical Background of TGC

TGC states that they seek to renew contemporary evangelicalism by looking back to post-WW2 evangelicals as their model. This requires a brief historical survey to understand not only the individuals to whom TGC looks for inspiration and guidance, but the principles which they endeavor to promote and implement.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, theological liberalism (also called “modernism”) infected the various Protestant denominations. Individuals denied the essential, fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith yet insisted they were Christians. Orthodox Christians called “fundamentalists” fought against these modernists but largely were unable to remove them.

Consequently, many fundamentalists separated from the various denominations and formed their own churches, fellowships, denominations, schools, mission boards, and educational institutions. They continued to warn of false teaching in the denominations they left, maintaining that ecclesiastical separation was the necessary biblical action. Ecclesiastical separation involves ceasing and/or refusing to work in spiritual endeavors with those who deny, disobey, or dilute Scripture (Rom 16:17–18; 2 Cor 6:14–18; 2 Thess 3:6, 14; 1 Tim 5:22; 2 Tim 2:19; 2 John 10-11).

During and after WW2 men arose from within fundamentalism who repudiated the “negative” militancy and separatism of the fundamentalists. According to them, denominations rife with liberalism should be infiltrated, not separated from. They maintained that doctrinal issues relating to Pentecostalism, theories of the origin of life, and even inerrancy should not divide believers. The church needed to be involved in issues of social justice and mercy. “Worldliness” was downplayed and culture was viewed as neutral, as Christians needed to engage rather than separate from the culture. They wanted respectability in the religious world and the world at large. They wanted to impact their culture for Christ.

These post-WW2 evangelicals called themselves “new evangelicals.” Perhaps the two most prominent new evangelicals were theologian Carl Henry and evangelist Billy Graham. To promote and express these principles, new evangelicals formed the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and started a magazine, Christianity Today.

Fundamentalists rightly rejected new evangelicalism as disobedient to Scripture. While new evangelicals were viewed as brothers in Christ, their disobedience prevented mutual ministry fellowship (2 Thess 3:6, 14).

The Gospel Coalition clearly and consciously looks back to new evangelicals and their principles as worthy of emulation. Indeed, they view the reassertion of such principles (rebranded as “gospel-centered ministry”) as the key to fixing the various problems within contemporary evangelicalism.

TGC 2017 Conference

This April TGC held one of their biennial conferences in Indianapolis, Indiana with the theme “No Other Gospel: Reformation 500 and Beyond.” There were 8500 in attendance with over 100 exhibitors and a large conference bookstore. Each of the six main sessions focused on a chapter from Galatians and biographical studies of Martin Luther and John Calvin. In addition to these general sessions, three workshop sessions with dozens of topics were also available.

John Piper, retired pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church and Chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary spoke first from Galatians 1. Commenting on 1:8–9 he rightly observed that “people are being lured by false gospels every day, and you need to learn how Paul spoke.” One wonders how he can then cooperate with and defend a man like Rick Warren who speaks at official Roman Catholic venues and calls Roman Catholics brothers and sisters in Christ!

There were about a dozen workshops focused on aspects relating to the Protestant Reformation. In the workshop “Is the Reformation Over?” Dr. Gregg Allison (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) gave a clear answer, “NO,” and provided a good overview of the problems in Roman Catholicism. Despite his critical assessment, Allison noted that commonalities and agreements with Catholics should cause Protestants to be grateful that such common ground “continues to unite us.”

Several ministry-focused workshops dealt with social justice and mercy. Before the conference began there was a panel discussion titled “Urban Hope: Stimulating Urban Economy Through Non-Profit Partnership.” Panelists said that “The heart of the gospel requires ‘remembering the poor’…Scripture screams about God’s heart for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized…we’re called to do things that are dangerous; we’re called to make ourselves poorer so others can become richer like Jesus did…there’s not really a need to make a strong argument for this, it’s a matter of how we’re to do this.”

Boston pastor Stephen Um taught a workshop titled “Gospel Shaped Mercy” with this description: “The gospel is all about justice and mercy…this workshop explores how individual Christians and whole churches can and should be engaged in the relief of poverty, hunger, and injustice in a way that adorns the gospel of grace.” Um contended that “the Great Commandment does not need to be pitted against the Great Commission.” When Jesus said, “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” that includes the Great Commandment Jesus taught, namely, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is how “the Great Commandment” is worked into “the Great Commission”—it isn’t one or the other, it is both/and. He further observed that because of Christ’s work both souls and creation will be renewed and restored. We are thus called to engage culture and love our neighbor, for Jesus said, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” Um said that Christians and churches that are ambivalent or disobedient to “gospel shaped mercy” need to look at the community of goods in Acts 2:44–45 and Acts 4:34–35 and see that Christians did meet the social needs existing in their day.

Another workshop presenter was Karen Swallow Prior, Liberty University professor and contributing writer to Christianity Today. While an outspoken anti-abortion activist, her new passion is animal welfare as an evangelical concern and gospel issue (the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission recently issued a statement stating this).

Timothy George presented two workshops, “Early Reformers: Why Didn’t They Unite?” and “Reformation Before the Reformers.” George is noted for signing and promoting Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the Manhattan Declaration, where evangelical and Catholic signatories viewed one another as brothers in Christ for the sake of addressing contemporary social and cultural issues.

Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBC) gave a workshop titled “When To Stand Together, When To Stand Apart: Principles For Social Cooperation Without Compromise.” He surveyed the historical situation since the late 1800s to the present, agreeing with new evangelical theologian Carl Henry’s rejection of fundamentalism’s separatism. Mohler approvingly noted Billy Graham’s working with conservatives and liberals in Graham’s evangelistic crusades so that people could hear the gospel. Mohler contended that “co-belligerence” is necessary, and can be done with anyone, whether Roman Catholic, Mormon, or even atheist. Doing so in contemporary society requires switching from “the Bible says so” to “here are natural laws” and appealing to the “intrinsic value of human life.” He insisted that while evangelicals can acknowledge common arguments and work toward a solution, such efforts should not be called “ministries” but the defense of life, marriage, or whatever the issue may be. Mohler concluded by noting that the SBC Baptist Faith and Message best states the concept of co-belligerence: cooperate with men of good will in acts of social benevolence, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, but these efforts should not be called “ministries.”

TGC also announced an upcoming conference on Martin Luther King Jr., “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop.” This conference will be held April 4, 2018 in Memphis, TN, and is sponsored by TGC and the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. There was much admiration and promotion of King, yet not a word was said about King’s denial of essential doctrines of the Christian faith and adherence to religious liberalism.

Observations on TGC by This Reporter

Depending on the conference speaker there were good and forthright condemnations and instruction concerning the errors of Roman Catholic theology, but it should be remembered that many of the first “new evangelicals” did the same thing. Nowhere was ecclesiastical separation advocated, much less declared to be an essential, working principle for faithful gospel ministry. TGC has the same basic policy as the NAE—if you agree with TGC you are welcome to join, regardless of your ecclesiastical affiliation.

It is notable that no Scriptural basis for “co-belligerence” was given. Nowhere in the Bible are believers told that they must be involved in fixing the problems of society and culture apart from the gospel, the new birth, and the armor of God. In spite of Mohler’s plea not to call co-belligerence efforts “ministries,” such nearly always are.

TGC maintains that gospel-centered ministry must be open to the continuation of certain miraculous gifts of the Spirit. They believe that the debate over cessationism/non-cessationism should not separate believers from partnering and working together in gospel ministry. There are significant problems with this belief. Either the miraculous revelatory gifts are continuing or they are not. God either is continuing to give new revelation or he is not. This issue cannot be treated or viewed merely as a difference of denominational distinctives. Allowing for the continuance of revelation essentially surrenders Scripture’s authority to experience, and that will weaken the gospel. This observation does not say that TGC denies Scripture’s authority, but the potential is present by granting the continuation of revelation through charismaticism.

Similarly, allowing various theories of evolution to explain origins rather than adhering to the biblical account in Genesis 1–2 is fraught with problems. Scripture should never be interpreted in light of “science.”

TGC’s contention that gospel ministry requires social justice and mercy ministries is wrong. Jesus did not give the church a social mandate or agenda toward the world at-large. In Scripture, whenever God’s people were called to meet physical and economic needs it was always limited to “one another.” Appeals to the OT to “show justice and mercy” are fraught with problems; was Israel really called to meet the needs of down-and-out Canaanites? In the NT every time Christians met such needs it was always to other Christians (Matt 25:40; Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–35; 6:1–3; Rom 12:13; James 2:15–16; 1 John 3:17). TGC clearly states that social effort is essential to gospel-centered ministry, and that it is not a means to an end (providing the opportunity to preach the gospel) but is an end in itself.

Last, viewing culture as morally neutral (neither good nor evil) fails to recognize that culture is the expression of depraved humanity thoroughly corrupted by sin, under Satan’s dominion, and at enmity with God. This is a failure of gospel proportions (cf. Rom 12:1–2; Gal 1:4; Jas 1:27; Titus 2:12; 1 Pet 1:14–16; 4:1–2; 1 John 2:15–17). The testimony of the gospel and its transformative power are thus unwittingly corrupted.

Conclusion

TGC’s documents explicitly state conscious connection with new evangelicalism. Nearly half of TGC’s advisory council members belong to denominations or fellowships that are in the NAE (the SBC has also taken formal steps to consider joining). Ecclesiastical separation is nowhere stated as an essential, working principle of gospel ministry. “Reformed charismatics” are openly accepted to full cooperation. Theistic evolution and other unbiblical theories of origins are accepted by many in TGC (Tim Keller, particularly). They emphasize that worldly culture must be engaged in, not separated from. Social justice and mercy ministries are declared to be essential to gospel ministry.

There are some good things TGC accomplishes. This stratum of evangelicalism has a better biblical and theological orientation than many others. There is more emphasis on the Bible and theology. Expository preaching is rightly prized and promoted. The importance and centrality of the local church is thankfully emphasized. An abundance of books, articles, and media are made available addressing various current issues.

Despite these positives, however, the key problems espoused by new evangelicalism not only continue, they are advocated and strengthened. The “good” TGC accomplishes is from a perspective that omits essential elements of faithful gospel ministry (particularly ecclesiastical and personal separation) while adding unbiblical elements (such as social justice, theistic evolution, charismaticism, and cultural neutrality). Thus, these descendants of new evangelicalism are attempting to fix the problems of new evangelicalism using essentially the same principles of new evangelicalism.

Download this report here.

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Author: American Council of Christian Churches

Since 1941 the ACCC has sought to PROVIDE information, encouragement, and assistance to Bible-believing churches, fellowships and individuals; to PRESERVE our Christian heritage through exposure of, opposition to, and separation from doctrinal impurity and compromise in current religious trends and movements; to PROTECT churches from religious and political restrictions, subtle or obvious, that would hinder their ministries for God; to PROMOTE obedience to the inerrant Word of God.